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The madness in ‘The Method’

February 8, 2022
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Everyone has a sense of what a good performance looks like. Sure, there’s some room for individual interpretation there, but whether we’re watching a movie or a play or a TV show, we have a certain baseline understanding of what “good” is.

But how does the performer get there?

Isaac Butler’s new book “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” (Bloomsbury, $30) is the story of one celebrated, well … method … of doing just that. From its origins in the Russian theatre scene in the early part of the 1900s to its gradual-then-rapid ascent to the apex of American acting, the Method spent decades as one of the preeminent schools of thought regarding performance.

This book treats the Method almost biographically, walking the reader through its embryonic stages with Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre through the acolytes crossing the Atlantic and delivering it to America to the splintering and development of assorted variations on the theme, all of them falling under the umbrella of “the Method.” It is, for intents and purposes, a biography of the Method. Not of those who created it or those who learned it, but of the Method itself.

Some of the greatest actors in American history – stage and screen alike – were students of the Method, though not all learned precisely the same method from the prominent and iconoclastic instructors that brought it to life in the middle of the century. Still, there’s no disputing the impact that the philosophy (however you choose to define it) had – and continues to have – on the acting world.

It all started over a century ago in Russia. A gifted actor named Konstantin Stanislavski sought a way to replicate his own ideas and philosophies of performance. He devoted years to developing what he called “the system,” refining it and sharing it with his partners and peers as he breathed life into the Moscow Art Theatre, an institution that would for a time be recognized as one of the preeminent theatres in the world, presenting groundbreaking revivals and original works that defied the performative conventions of the time.

Great acting was something that was entirely external. Young performers studied assorted gestures and poses that were understood to indicate certain feelings and ideas. If you held your hand one way, it meant this. Another, it meant that. The way you stood, the way you moved – all of it dictated and codified.

Stanislavski introduced interiority to the stage. Instead of utilizing universal gestures and the like, he and his students sought inner characterization. They sought to feel rather than present an exaggerated physical representation of feeling. Their performances were driven by internal choices and actions rather than strictly by scripts and conventions. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen.

However, what we came to know as “the Method” was born when Stanislavski’s system made its way across the ocean. During a U.S. tour by the Moscow Art Theatre, a number of American artists were captivated by the possibilities presented. That captivation would lead to a theatrical revolution in America.

Starting with the experimental and paradigm-shattering work of the Group Theatre, the system would change and evolve into something else … although no one seemed to agree on just what that something else was.

Three teachers would come to embody the Method and its place in American acting – Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. All three came to the Method from different directions, with each bringing their own ideas and experiences into play. Their students would redefine what it meant to be an American actor.

Perhaps the best-known Method proponent was Marlon Brando, though even his connection to the philosophy was complicated. The truth is that just about every prominent actor from WWII up through the 1970s was at least tangentially attached to Method acting, whether they studied with a specific teacher or simply internalized some of the ideas. The proliferation of academic theatre programs only expanded the Method’s reach.

While the Method has fallen out of favor in recent years, there’s no disputing the significance of its impact on American acting. Stage, screen, doesn’t matter – there is Method in that madness.

As someone who spent time in two different academic theatre programs a decade apart, I am familiar with the fundamentals of the Method – particularly since my stints straddled the shift in attitude regarding the philosophy. Early on, I was skeptical of the Method’s broad acceptance; later, I was equally skeptical of its general dismissal. As is so often the case, reality lay somewhere in between.

Even with that level of familiarity, “The Method” proved fascinating. The story of the philosophy’s growth and evolution plays out in the same manner as any good biography, with each high point explored with scholarship and thoughtfulness. A book like this could have easily read as dry and/or academic, but instead, Butler has woven his thorough research into a compelling narrative, one with heroes and villains and misunderstood figures from the nebulous middle space. All this while also producing a work of theatre history exploring arguably the most significant development in the history of American acting.

The early history, with Stanislavski and the MAT and his other, more experimental endeavors, is interesting, to be sure, but to my mind, things really start to soar when we see just how explosively the Method landed on American shores. Over the course of just a few years, the entire face of the discipline completely and fundamentally changed; within those changes, some of our greatest performers were forged.

“The Method” will be of great interest to fans of history and the theatre, of course, but the truth is that anyone can read this book and engage with it. Butler has crafted an impressive and engaging work of nonfiction, a book that will prove fascinating to anyone who picks it up.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” – Polonius, “Hamlet,” Act II, scene ii

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 February 2022 15:35

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