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'The Life of Our Times'

May 6, 2010 By:
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Those interested in American theater must at some point have a reckoning with Lee Strasberg, the "father" of Method acting and, as a founder of the Actors Studio, one of the outsized figures in the history of performing arts in the 20th century. No matter where you fall when it comes to his achievement -- whether you see him as a truly revolutionary theorist and teacher who freed acting from its 19th-century shackles or a pernicious influence on the tradition that continues unabated to this day -- he is an individual, and a force, difficult to avoid.

These thoughts have been stirred up again by the appearance of The Lee Strasberg Notes, published by Routledge. Compiled and edited by Lola Cohen, an acting teacher at Manhattan's Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, as well as his former student, the book is made up of unpublished transcripts from Strasberg's classes, and covers subjects like training and exercises, characters and scenes, directing and Method acting, and Shakespeare and Stanislavsky, to mention but a few.

These transcripts don't shy away from Strasberg's most controversial notions when it comes to the Method, such as sense memory and emotional memory, though there isn't much in the way of explanation for those who might be coming to the subject for the first time. But for those who do know the terrain and wish to refresh their memories of how bold and controversial Strasberg's ideas once were, the book is packed with lots of theories, as well as certain hard-and-fast rules about creating a character, whether on stage or on film.

History of a Style

For those who don't recognize the name right off the bat, the best way to jog your memory is to point out that Strasberg played Jewish gangster Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II (said to be based on real-life mobster Meyer Lansky), and that in some sense none of the Godfather movies would have been possible -- on an artistic level -- without Method acting and the influence of Marlon Brando, considered the premiere exponent of the style.

The Godfather comprised a mini-lesson in the Method, starting with Brando in the central role, who passed down the legacy of that style to the likes of Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and nearly every other actor in the first two films, almost all of whom studied at the Actors Studio. Strasberg's appearance seemed not only logical, but downright necessary to round out, at the very least, the pedagogical picture.

That Strasberg influenced many actors is beyond dispute. Whether that influence was for the good is what has been in question. But influence the man surely had, and it began back in the 1930s when he, along with director and critic Harold Clurman and producer Cheryl Crawford, first founded the Group Theater.

This acting company was itself something revolutionary, announcing a new phase in the history of the American stage. It was the brainchild of two theater-mad young men, Clurman, a native New Yorker, and Strasberg, who had been brought to America from Eastern Europe at the age of 7. The Group was their attempt to create a national repertory theater on Broadway -- one that would, in Clurman's words, reflect "the life of our times" and so be a force in society.

Clurman was to be the Group's theorist and guiding light, while Strasberg would train the actors. His ideas on the subject were drawn from the Moscow Art Theater of Russia, where Constantin Stanislavsky first tested his famous theory of acting that he called the System, and which soon became associated with performances of the plays of Anton Chekhov.

Strasberg and Clurman were joined by Crawford, who was born in Akron, Ohio, of quintessentially American Protestant stock. She was determined and not particularly talkative. Many thought her an anomaly when compared to the non-stop Jewish talkers, Strasberg and Clurman. But all of the histories of the Group Theater speak of Crawford's organizational skills, and how she kept the monetarily precarious organization afloat on a day-to-day basis throughout its decade-long existence.

The Group's ideals were notoriously high-minded. There would be no stars in this gathering. Playwrights, actors and directors would be cultivated and developed; in turn, the Group would strive to create a special audience. Clurman, Strasberg and Crawford were bent on making theater a collective art, on staging plays that would, in Clurman's words, "actually mean something in the lives of the participants."

It took the Group nearly half its life -- not until the mid-1930s -- to come into its own with the presentation of the works of native Philadelphian Clifford Odets, especially his Awake and Sing, the company's biggest "hit." (One of the ironies in the Group's history was that Strasberg disliked Odets' play, and Clurman wound up directing this intense, almost claustrophobic drama about a family of New York Jewish dreamers caught in the economic trap of the Depression.)

Odets' style of gritty urban realism would have far-reaching consequences in American acting, writing and directing, in New York and Hollywood. The despairing, street-smart manner of Odets' dialogue became a prevalent mode in many plays and films of the 1940s and '50s.

That John Garfield -- then Julius Garfinkle, before Hollywood beckoned -- was in Awake and Sing is also relevant. Garfield struck the first note in the battle over the Method; he was the harbinger for all the actors that Strasberg would train in the post-World War II era. He was the first Method actor in films, well before Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando or James Dean.

Garfield, with his New York accent, brought something new to movies. He didn't sound as if he'd ever seen a vocal coach; his urban rawness, added to his intensely sexual persona, made him seem both highly attractive and dangerous.

Strasberg, like his mentor Stanislavsky, had always wanted to rid performance of artifice, to get at what was most real in the text. The famous Russian had devised a series of exercises to help the actor reach the goal of being perfectly natural; one of these exercises, called affective memory (or the memory of the emotions), Strasberg first used in Group rehearsal sessions. It later became one of the central tenets at the Actors Studio. During such an exercise, the actor was to recall an event from the past that would help generate feelings relevant to what was happening in a particular scene.

Controversy has always raged over Strasberg's theories, and it accelerated once he became artistic director of the Actors Studio. Because he forced his students to delve into their pasts, into formerly shadowy areas of their psyches in order to release the necessary emotional response, some said that Strasberg was encouraging neuroticism, not creativity.

Robert Lewis, an original Group member who had his entanglements with Strasberg over the years, has written that the Method became "a style of American acting recognizable by a distinctive slouch while standing still, a curious lope while walking, and a callous disregard of the playwright's lines, often paraphrased and sometimes thrown away altogether. All this in the name of truth. Truth, my ass. Personal comfort for the self-indulgent actor, that's all it is."

Such criticism is not without a measure of truth. In the name of the Method, there has been much indulgent, narcissistic acting. And yet Strasberg's theories, which get another brisk workout in this new book, had a powerful effect upon several generations of theater and film practitioners, as many historians point out.

Just think of it: Beginning with Garfield, Clift, Brando and Dean, you can trace a line to Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson; on the female side, it moves from Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters, Anne Brancroft and Kim Stanley to Ellen Burstyn, Estelle Parsons, Sandy Dennis and Shirley Knight.

That sort of legacy is nothing to sneeze at.

 

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