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

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.

 

Stella Adler scholar explores acting master's interpretation of great American playwrights

Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris
Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris

“Mommy, is that God?” a little girl once whispered to her mother as Stella Adler swept into a party in New York City. The girl’s mistake was understandable: Adler was known as a presence of divine proportions, a tall, glamorous woman whose grand gestures and dramatic one-liners captivated audiences both large and small. Adler began acting at age four in the “Independent Yiddish Art Company,” run by her parents, and continued her acting career until 1961. In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theatre, where she worked closely with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

In 1934, she went with Clurman to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, an acting great famous for developing the Stanislavski System, a set of acting techniques that was tweaked by Strasberg and is known today as Method acting. Adler believed strongly that actors should use their imagination to synthesize characters, whereas Strasberg relied on emotional memory exercises, and the two eventually split over their differences. Adler left the Group Theatre and later opened her own acting school, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949 in New York City, where she taught famous actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. She opened another school, The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, in Los Angeles in 1985 with her friend and protégé Joanne Linville, who continues to run the school today.

The Ransom Center hold Adler’s papers, which were used extensively by Barry Paris in his book Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights (Knopf). The volume peeks into Adler’s classroom and explores the acting master’s take on American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, and others.

The book was put together using transcripts from Adler’s script analysis classes, where lively discussions of American culture, socioeconomics, and history fleshed out the context of the plays—a practice on which Adler placed the utmost importance. Adler once said of the great artists featured in the book: “these playwrights all saw what was wrong.” She believed it was imperative for the actor not only to bring personal experience to the role, but to truly understand the beliefs, prejudices, and lives of the playwrights who crafted the plays she taught. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Adler’s former students, praised the book for “bring[ing] back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision.”

Paris, the book’s editor, did extensive research in the Ransom Center’s holdings on Stella Adler and Harold Clurman.

Fellows Find: Irish Schlemiels

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Stephen Watt is a Professor of English and Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spent the month of June reading both manuscripts and published works in the Ransom Center’s Irish literature and Judaica collections. The result of this and further research, he hopes, will be a scholarly monograph that examines cultural interactions between Irish and Jewish immigrants in later nineteenth-century America, particularly theatrical ones, and the ways in which Irish-Jewish relations of the early twentieth century help define our sense of modern and modernist writing. His research was funded by a fellowship from the Dorot Foundation.

Occasionally at the end of the evening, I find myself “channel surfing” on the television seeking a momentary diversion or, even better, an effective sedative. Over the years, The Late Show with David Letterman has reliably provided both, and I have often enjoyed a skit on the show entitled “Is it Something or Is t Nothing?”  Typically, the “it” in question is some kind of bizarre performance or an unlikely combination of objects, and it occurs to me that the scholarly book might be described in just these terms: a bizarre performance and/or an assemblage of facts or ideas that, at least at first glance, don’t necessarily appear related. Perhaps more relevant, the gestation of a scholarly book—the emotional highs produced by a surprising discovery and discouraging lows caused by doubt or lack of confidence—often reminds me of the Letterman show’s question: Is the project “something,” an intellectual intervention or creative achievement of some consequence, or is it “nothing?”

The fortunate recipient of a one-month fellowship at the Ransom Center generously provided by the Dorot Foundation, I came to Austin with an idea for a monograph, the working title of which is Irish Schlemiels: The Irish-Jewish Unconscious and American Modernism. I hoped it was “something” or would become such, but I wasn’t certain. The genealogy of the project includes the phrase “Irish schlemiels” in a wonderful poem by Northern Irish writer Paul Muldoon; a problematic analogy in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1997 novel Grace Notes between the horrors of World War II and those of the “Troubles” in Belfast and Derry; and my ongoing interest in the representation of Irishmen and Jews on the later nineteenth-century popular stage, both in New York and in the Dublin of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey’s adolescence in the 1890s. How, for example, did post-Famine Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s affect representations of the Irish in America?  How did the later diaspora of largely Eastern European Jews arriving in America in the 1880s and 90s inflect the cultural work done by theater at the fin de siècle?  How does the popularity in both America and Ireland of such plays as Paul Potter’s Trilby and widely-seen revivals of The Merchant of Venice relate to the emergent populations of immigrants in America? Most important, how does this cultural interface affect American drama and fiction of the modernist period?

To be a little more candid, I actually arrived in Austin with rough drafts of the chapters dealing with later nineteenth-century immigrant drama and theater. But I was uncertain if I could outline and structure effectively the chapters on modernist writing. The Ransom Center’s collections of the manuscripts of such figures as Elmer Rice, Edward Dahlberg, and, in a more theatrical vein, Stella Adler helped enormously in clarifying this matter. In fact, the center’s holdings of Jewish American and Irish writing are enormous; a scholar could spend a blissful summer reading materials on any one of these artists—or on George Bernard Shaw, Kay Boyle, or Samuel Beckett, all of whose works I read while in residence. Dahlberg and Rice in particular, both under-studied and underappreciated, grew to assume great importance in my plans, which now include a chapter on Joyce, Dahlberg, and Henry Roth; and another on Synge and Shaw, Rice and Adler.

But this scarcely describes the unique items—now exceptionally important to Irish Schlemiels—that I uncovered in the Ransom Center. These include Rice’s Shavian one-act play A Diadem of Snow, sandwiched in a 1918 issue of The Liberator between radical editorials concerning lynchings in the American South and Jack Reed’s reports from the revolution in Russia; Leslie Daiker’s remarkable “The Circular Road,” a radio play concerning a young Jewish Dubliner grieving over the shooting of his father during the civil war of the 20s; Stella Adler’s incisive and exhaustive workbook for actors of one of Synge’s masterpieces, Riders to the Sea; and an exchange of letters between Dahlberg and Kay Boyle that adds great clarity to the former’s complicated view of James Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. All of these materials will contribute significantly to my book, as will countless passages I found in these and other writers’ works

Of course, no scholarship ever evolves in a vacuum. When I wrote my fellowship application, several essays in what might be called the “New Jewish-Irish Studies” had appeared, and today the list of works in this area has been graced by two recent and very considerable achievements: Mick Moloney’s album of Tin Pan Alley songs, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, and George Bornstein’s study The Colors of Zion (Harvard, 2011). My Irish Schlemiels doesn’t look—or shouldn’t be mistaken for—either of these. But it is my hope that it will be “something,” not “nothing,” and that this emergent field will both grow in importance and promote greater understanding of the cultures of two immigrant groups that contributed so substantially to this country. In either case or in both, the Ransom Center collections and truly outstanding staff will have played and will continue to play a major, much appreciated role.

Photo of Stephen Watt by Pete Smith.
Photo of Stephen Watt by Pete Smith.

In the galleries: Stella Adler's notes on Tennessee Williams's 'The Glass Menagerie'

Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler was considered one of this country’s most important teachers of the principles of acting, character analysis, and script analysis. Adler began acting when she was just four years old, alongside her parents, Jacob and Sara Adler, in a production of the Yiddish play Broken Hearts by Z. Libin. Adler performed throughout her youth and young adult years in the New York Yiddish Theater, in which her parents were active. She later became associated with the Group Theatre through Harold Clurman, whom she married in 1943.

In 1934 Adler studied with Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, who would remain an important influence on her throughout her life. Three years later, she moved to Hollywood and acted in films for six years before returning to New York. Her career as a teacher began in the 1940s at the Erwin Piscator Workshop at the New School for Social Research. She left the faculty in 1949 to establish the Stella Adler Theatre Studio, which was later renamed the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Adler continued to teach acting for more than 40 years and counted Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, and many other prominent actors among her students. Adler’s archive, filled with materials related to her teaching career, was acquired with the papers of Harold Clurman in 2004.

The Stella Adler Studio of Acting continues to flourish today as one of the most prominent centers in this country for the study of acting. Adler’s archive is filled with notes from her 40-year career as a teacher, including her analysis of the character of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie.

In her character dissection, Adler notes the pressure of being a lady that Amanda Wingfield feels in The Glass Menagerie. Adler explains Amanda’s bad behavior as her desperate attempt to clutch onto a sentimental world of charm and poetry, instead of living within the realistic world. Adler’s teaching notes can be viewed in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.