On the bookshelf

The method: how the 20th century learned to act

By Isaac Butler
Bloomsbury: 512 pages, $30

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Since the first commercial projection in Paris in 1895, spectators have been fascinated by the screen. Yet audiences and actors struggle to define what makes a good performance. We just know it when we see it. Like a good book or a good song, solid acting resonates with what we recognize as universal truths about our own shortcomings and successes, our flaws and our fortunes. That wasn’t always the case with acting.

Isaac Butler’s engaging and meticulously researched story, “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act”, recounts how presentation acting – in which the viewer is aware that the actor is performing – has moved to perezhivanie, or an actor do the experience her role so sincerely that the audience forgets she is playing.

Butler calls this transformation a “revolution” which began in 1898, when Konstantin Stanislavsky, largely influenced by his contemporaries – Tolstoy, Chekhov and the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky – began a decade-long plunge that produced the Stanislavsky system, in which an actor could reliably employ perezhivanie whenever he is called upon to play. If the father of the modern game revisited his System throughout his life, Butler distills his first version into two “principles”: the use of an actor’s life experiences and the breaking down of a role into pieces, in the goal “to complete each of these pieces”. as sincerely as possible. »

Like a good all-knowing 19th-century novelist, Butler seamlessly jumps between his characters’ points of view while recounting their lives and times. It dramatizes Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812, likening it to “Elizabethan England or the United States after World War II”, balancing gracefully on the right side of that fine line between contextualization and condescension to the reader. . With rising literacy rates, it was time to rebel against star-based theater and put the actor on an equal footing with the director and the play, especially since playwrights caught up with naturalism and began to explore topical themes.

The stakes rise as the system travels America. A newly formed group, wanting an alternative to the melodramatic fare popular on Broadway, adopted the system to guide new theater that reflected the struggles of Depression-era America. The people who created what became known as Group Theater agreed that their goal was truthful, realistic acting. However, they soon disagreed over how to adapt Stanislavski’s system.

These arguments persist today: does an actor use his personal memories to move people? In this case, what role does the imagination play in the construction of a character? Do we rely solely on the research of his character and the study of the setting and the historical context, or on what Stanislavski called the “given circumstances” of the play (or the scenario)? Is it possible to go too far in this direction, so that the actor begins to behave like his character even off stage or screen?

The most contentious disagreement came between Group Theater manager Lee Strasberg and future rival Stella Adler. Strasberg emphasized Stanislavski’s path of affective memory — a type of emotional recall that draws on his own experiences rather than the character’s — and that abhorred Stella. After studying with Stanislavski herself in 1934, she returned to the Group with the news that he had disavowed affective memory. Adler began teaching the band’s actors, and Harold Clurman, not Strasberg, conducted their next play, Clifford Odets’ masterpiece “Awake and Sing!” Strasbourg defensively claimed that it was his “method”, not Stanislavski’s system, that the band followed. What will later become popular as the Method will henceforth be linked to Strasberg.

This makes Butler’s main title, “The Method”, problematic against the cover photograph of Strasberg’s book giving notes to actor Morris Carnovsky. It presents Strasberg as the ancestor of the modern acting profession and tells the story of modern acting through the prism of the Method. Butler even references “Awake and Sing!” – with which Strasberg was not involved – as “the first complete piece of the method”.

Describing how the method came to Hollywood, Butler writes that when the Group Theater finally “gave in and went to Hollywood, they would take their method with them”, with actor John Garfield leading the way. “Having learned the band method at Strasberg,” he continues, “…Garfield is often credited as the actor who paved the way for Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and the method revolution.” Like any actor worth their salt in the 1950s, Clift and Brando attended the Actors Studio in Strasberg. But in fact neither has learned to act since Strasberg.

To his credit, Butler devotes much of his narrative to the Group’s schism, calling it “an insoluble dispute”. And yet it capitalizes on how “the method” has captured the popular imagination as the revolutionary style – and has therefore become the term that comes most easily to the mind of the lay reader. In doing so, he confuses the method with Stanislavski’s system, which is akin to writing a history of rock ‘n’ roll featuring Elvis Presley on the cover, crediting him as the creator of the genre, and referencing rock in a way interchangeable with its ancestors, gospel and blues.

Structuring his book as a biography, Butler traces a straight line from the birth of the Method – which was in fact the birth of the System – until its demise in the 1980s. Throughout, his running theme iterates the once radical concept of Stanislavski consisting in transmitting the truth by the action. Butler writes: “The history of The Method no longer belongs to a few individuals. … It was rather Hollywood history itself. Whether an actor was trained by Strasberg, or Meisner, or Adler…the stylistic goal was the same. … Running through them all was that there was a truth about American life, a protean mud that had previously been buried deep underground.

Butler lands on Watergate as a disillusioned American moment, in which “The method could bring the public closer than ever to the internal conflicts and pains of life in Nixon’s America.” In suggesting that America’s moral turpitude could be addressed through acting, Butler taps into the system’s greatest contribution: that the actor creates “an empathetic connection between viewer and character,” amplifying the transformative power of acting. ‘story. Despite its confusion of terms, Butler’s story is a much-needed account of a revolution in acting that has extended beyond theater, even as he vacillates over whether the method is really “dead”.

There is in fact an answer: what is not dead is the System. In his afterword, Butler recalls the central objective of the System: authenticity is the duty of the actor towards his audience. He writes that in today’s rehearsals, Stanislavski’s original precepts remain the basic elements for the actors. The director and actor will “talk about rhythms and structure a scene through their actions, trying to create a direction informed by the characters and their needs. … You will hear them say the words “under given circumstances”. These tools equip the actor to convey the human condition, which can only be done by telling the truth. Butler’s book delivers this honest gospel. Truth in art transcends any master or methodology. Truth directly meets the human spirit.

Ochoa is a cultural critic and author of Stella Adler’s first biography, “Stella! Mother of modern acting.


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