“My dear boy, why don’t you try to act?”

Laurence Olivier’s tongue-in-cheek response to Dustin Hoffman’s story of how he stayed up three nights to fully experience his character’s insomnia in the 1976 thriller marathon runner may be the most often cited example of the absurd ends the method game has come to in America. But this anecdote, according to Hoffman, is misunderstood, if not apocryphal. Apparently Hoffman was partying all night to recover from a breakup and Olivier’s advice was given out of sympathy rather than criticism. It’s just one of many myths and legends debunked, contextualized, or outright refuted in Isaac Butler’s scrupulously researched yet eminently readable biography of an acting philosophy that dominated the 20th century and continues to exert a influence on stages and screens of all sizes and shapes. nowadays.

As with so many things considered uniquely American, the method originated elsewhere. Konstantin Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theater (MAT) in 1898 with his partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, in response to a hidden acting style codified throughout Europe. Exaggerated declamatory speech was preferred to realism. Sets were hardly an afterthought and repetition and sophistication of craftsmanship were unheard of. The theater was not a place to explore everyday happenings, and an actor’s own life was not a source of inspiration.

The method: how the 20th century learned to act by Isaac Butler
Bloomsbury, hardcover, 501 pages, hardback $27, paperback $16.20, bloomsbury.com

Stanislavski sought to change that. His greatest ambition, defined and redefined constantly over the decades, was for an actor to inhabit his role from within. The Russian word for this idea is perejivanye, which is often translated as “live the part, but more like some kind of special empathy, or maybe life through. Either way, the path to get there would be fought ruthlessly by every practitioner and acolyte who came into contact with him.

Much like a cult, followers of Stanislavski’s “system” began to debate and reinterpret it in its early years. Vsevolod Meyerhold starred in MAT’s production of Chekhov The Seagull, the successful first cut of a play – now an undisputed classic – considered the most notorious flop of its day. But Meyerhold left and soon after established his own style of experimental and highly symbolist theater. Other early students like Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Richard Boleslavsky would do the same. The door Stanislavski opened by exploring everyday behavior and psychology seemed to lead to different rooms for each individual who opened it.

It was Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, another Stanislavsky veteran, who created the first outlet for his gospel in the United States in 1922 with the American Laboratory Theatre, following a well-received MAT tour that featured revivals of The Seagull and other mainstays of the company’s repertoire. At the time, the American theatrical scene was in its infancy and desperately beholden to the same 18th and 19th century conventions that prevailed in Russia decades earlier. Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner – perhaps the most recognized representatives of the different styles of the method – have all spent time at the Lab School. And much like Stanislavski’s early disciples, each founded their own church dedicated to worshiping the master’s teaching in seemingly contradictory ways.

Butler is able to explain the different techniques, drills, and approaches to acting from the inside out because he experienced it as a budding actor in his youth. He describes having to step away from the practice after feeling chewed up by the intense inner exploration required by some of the method-related systems his teachers adopted. Indeed, often these acting exercises feel like experimental psychotherapy rather than preparation for any type of public performance. Each teacher casts himself as a charismatic cult leader, and many of the actors’ and directors’ decisions to leave one group and join another read like a personal and emotional betrayal.

Somehow, this collection of intense and often troubled individuals, through heartbreaking, sometimes downright ridiculous strategies, established a way of moving that has become the norm in the United States, at both on stage and on screen. It is the films, of course, which have contributed the most to integrating the Method in the person of Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, et al. But the Pandora’s box that Stanislavski forged at the turn of the 20th century continued to release personalized angels and demons for anyone who unlocked it. While one actor might insist that personal trauma is crucial to unleashing authentic emotion in performance, another favors obsessive research into a character’s profession or physical gestures. It is no coincidence that even the man who started this revolution insisted on putting quotation marks around his “system“, because it was an ever-evolving process, never to be really codified or finished.

The most tenacious criticism of the method, one that dates back to its beginnings in Russia, is that it favors the actor over the play (or film). By working on their own outside of the text or their colleagues, they become the whole show and detract from any overall view. This is clear in movies where the costars come from different schools. Watch Tilda Swinton in the 2007s Michael Clayton, for example, is shocking because everything she does is in an entirely different universe to everything and everyone around her. To me, she’s the only reason to watch this film, but that only highlights the failure of this production rather than Swinton’s incredible talent.

In his introduction, Butler calls his book a biography rather than a story, even though his subject is an acting school rather than a person. I think he’s right to make that distinction, though his subject is really a many-headed hydra-like creature, spawning new appendages faster than anyone could hack old ones. He ends with the thought that while the Method has inspired many questionable personal behaviors and often led to excesses, it will always remain in the actor’s quiver. There’s just no way to put this self-absorbed genius back in his bottle.

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