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Fellows Find: Stella Adler and Harold Clurman papers shed light on evolution of Method acting

By Justin Rawlins

Justin Owen Rawlins is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture and the Department of American Studies at Indiana University. He visited the Ransom Center in May and June 2013 on a dissertation fellowship to conduct research for his dissertation, “Method Men: Masculinity, Race and Performance Style in U.S. Culture.”

 

Through a generous fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I was recently afforded the opportunity to conduct extended research for my dissertation on the historical reception of Method acting. My interest in the terms and conditions under which Method acting—and actors—accumulate meaning in U.S. popular culture led me to the Center’s Stella Adler and Harold Clurman papers. As founding members of the Group Theatre (1931–1940), Adler and Clurman were part of an ostensibly communal organization offering socially-engaged theatrical alternatives to the commercial New York stage. More importantly, the Group functioned as a crucial transitionary device, adapting the work of Constantin Stanislavsky and others to suit its own purposes and cultivating a community of performative philosophers—including, but not limited to, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and Phoebe Brand—whose teaching, writing, directing, and producing continue to permeate U.S. culture in ways we may never fully understand. Though it lacks the name recognition of some of its alums (especially Adler, Meisner, Strasberg, and Kazan), the Group has long been ensconced in the mythology of the Method.

 

As the Adler and Clurman papers make clear, however, the lore surrounding the Group belies a more complicated organism. The April 1931 “Plans for a First Studio,” attributed to Clurman, provides us several examples in service of this reality. Although the “Group” did not yet formally exist, the case put forth in these “Plans” to the Board of The Theatre Guild (1918–) gives us a sense of the terms—and the tone—undergirding the proposed “First Studio” in this document and the eventual Group Theatre in reality. “Plans” also displays the careful negotiation of organizational philosophy and identity at work. The proposed First Studio is inextricably linked to The Theatre Guild, with Clurman’s historical narrative explicitly identifying the Guild as the medium through which this eventual group coalesced. At the same time, however, the mere proposal for a separate Studio carries with it this community’s desire to extend to forms of artistic expression beyond the ascribed capacity of the Guild.

 

The document also unintentionally highlights the difficulties in bridging acting language and practice. Clurman seeks to put the question to rest immediately, declaring in the first paragraph “[l]et there be no misapprehension on this point; we can translate every one of our generalizations [regarding theoretical practice] into its practical equivalent.” In fact, the remainder of the “Plans” presentation struggles to uphold this pronouncement. The ensuing existence of the Group is defined by many such debates revolving around the same gap between language and performance. As Clurman later admits in the very same “Plans,” “[i]f such a reply seems evasive it is not because we are vague as to what we want but because words are so inadequate for the definition of essences and because a lack of a common vocabulary creates so many harmful barriers in the minds of those that hear them.”

 

Exploring the factors that widen this gap and its cultural repercussions enable us to further demystify the Group Theatre and other Method-aligned organizations and figures. The Clurman and Adler papers are integral to that project.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014–2015 fellowship program.

 Image:  First page of “Plans for a First Studio” from the Stella Adler and Harold Clurman papes.

 

In the galleries: The productive, but complicated, relationship between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan

By Courtney Reed

Undated photo of Tennessee Williams. Unidentified photographer.
Undated photo of Tennessee Williams. Unidentified photographer.
Among the material in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, is a picture of Tennessee Williams holding a photograph of Elia Kazan. Kazan was an American film and theater director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of the influential Actors Studio. In his theatrical career, Kazan became one of the most visible members of the New York elite, directing highly acclaimed plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder, among others. As a film director, he won two Academy Awards for best director and elicited award-winning performances from such actors as Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, and James Dean.

Kazan is infamous for the testimony he gave to the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. In his testimony he identified colleagues from the theater and film industries as members of the Communist party and was ostracized by many in the theater community as a result. Tennessee Williams continued to work closely with Kazan throughout the 1950s in spite of the controversy.

In response to the Cold War and HUAC hearings, Williams was alternately enervated and energized. In a letter to his mother, Williams writes in reference to Baby Doll, “Kazan and Audrey [Wood] continually pressing me, like a pair of Furies, to get a movie script done. I did it. Then Kazan gets exposed as an ex-Commie and the whole thing is put off. Now he seems to have cleared himself—with everybody except the American Legion—and they now want to go ahead with the picture. . . All quite boring and fatiguing.”

As collaborators, Tennessee Williams and Kazan had a complex working relationship. Williams sent early drafts of his plays to Kazan who would suggest adding or deleting scenes, emphasizing thematic elements, or changing aspects of characterization to improve the dramatic impact of the story. Throughout the rehearsal process Williams often changed or added dialogue as the play evolved under their shared creative vision. Kazan’s influence is most clearly seen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1956), during which he and Williams had clashed repeatedly over the story’s structure; Kazan demanded the re-write in which Big Daddy serves as the catalyst for what seems like a reconciliation between Maggie and Brick. Although Williams wrote every word in the published scripts, the plays on which he worked with Kazan were clearly a collaborative effort.

In an exchange of letters between Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams about the script for Baby Doll, the strain between Williams and Kazan is clearly visible. In Kazan’s undated letter, he suggests a new “early O’Neill” ending in which Silva Vacarro and Archie Lee bond when Vacarro saves Archie Lee’s life by sucking the poison out of a snake bite, to which Williams blisteringly balks, “I . . . suspect you are disappointed with what I have done so far and are telling me to start over from scratch. This I can’t do.”

When Kazan suggests Williams portray Baby Doll as an ultimately fulfilled woman, Williams counters, “Baby Doll is as deep as cat’s pee. Fulfillment means only one thing, self-knowledge, integration, and how could this comically witless creature, as I’ve created her, achieve such a thing?”

After its release in 1956, Baby Doll met with heated controversy. Although the Motion Picture Authority of America and the New York State Board of censors had approved the film, Cardinal Francis Spellman, speaking for the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, attacked it as “evil in concept,” charging that it would exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who would see it. Catholics were expected to boycott the film “under pain of sin.” Spellman’s condemnation of the film also hinted that it was unpatriotic, drawing on the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s to call the film one of the “dangers which confront us at home.” Though Williams and Kazan frequently butted heads during their collaborations, when faced with this controversy, both attempted to defend the film as “the personal story of four small pitiable people.”