In Mikhail Bulgakov’s unfinished satire Black Snow, translated into English by Michael Glenny in 2005, a harried writer has the misfortune of having one of his novels picked up by the Independent Theatre, a legendary and mysterious Moscow institution run by two choleric impresarios, including the haughty Ivan Vasilievich, who demands total control over the writer’s work and spends weeks leading self-obsessed actors in meaningless “études,” all to prepare for one scene. The writer is appalled at his treatment, and at being forced to prostrate himself before this navel-gazing altar to acting, and yet, as he concludes his chronicle, “consumed with love for the Independent Theatre, pinned to it like a beetle to a piece of cork, nothing could keep me from seeing every performance.”
The Independent Theatre is Bulgakov’s version of the Moscow Art Theatre, which he unhappily encountered in a tale similar to his protagonist’s, and Ivan Vasilievich is Constantin Stanislavski, the founder of a “system” of actor preparation that would, by many twists and turns, become the American “Method.” Bulgakov’s rueful irony at the Theatre’s self-promotion and hermeticism (a rare public voice of dissent from a worshipful official national culture) would haunt even the most appreciative understandings of his “revolution”: even believers in the Method will sometimes admit that it can be a bit flakey and pretentious, that the acting teachers and gurus who are the most effective can also be the most galling and authoritarian, that all those exercises may or may not actually help you on camera or stage. But the apparent magic of truly spontaneous-seeming, realistic-feeling, authentically emotional acting associated with it continued (and, arguably, continues) to work—along with the mythology of the high priests of acting for which Stanislavski set the template.
Bulgakov’s novella doesn’t appear in Isaac Butler’s award-winning cultural history The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, but Butler’s book does present in pixelated detail the cast of characters at the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), particularly Stanislavski and his co-founder Vladimir Nemirovich-Danshenko, their intensity and self-seriousness, vanity and idealism. It also describes, in equal parts explanation and exclamation, the halting way the “system” came about and spread its sails beyond Russia, battered by political discord, clashes of personality, and commercial necessity, its path profoundly contingent, more due to the individual needs and desires of a motley group of artists rather than any pragmatic effort to disseminate a mode of acting. These richly wrought pages set the tone for Butler’s exciting and excitable book, but his real subject is how the Stanislavski system was adopted and adapted by Americans, from the “system” to the “method” to “the Method.”
Butler gives us the whole big, baggy story: how Stanislavski’s company, for financial reasons after the Bolshevik revolution, decided to tour the U.S., and landed in a theatrical culture clamoring for a new, realist style; how a couple of MAT actors landed in New York soon after and inspired two young theater lovers, Lee Strasberg (who had attended every one of the MAT performances) and Harold Clurman, to start the Group Theatre with producer Cheryl Crawford, an ensemble company where Strasberg developed his version of the “system”; how the Group, despite a few strong successes, dissolved due to bankruptcy, infighting, and disillusionment; how a few of their number kept the flame alive in Hollywood, Elia Kazan with his film directing and a group including Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand with the Actor’s Lab; how Kazan and his former Group compatriot Bobby Lewis later started the Actors Studio, later to bring on Lee Strasberg for seemingly faute de mieux; how other members, notably Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, who strongly disagreed with Strasberg’s approach (particularly the use of “emotional memory,” which mines the actor’s personal history), set up their own studios to teach their versions of the system, now known as the Method; how its ethos, style, and characterological obsessions took over Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s and fell from favor in the 1980s. In bright and swift-moving prose, we also hear about the insecurity and self-righteousness, the cowardice, pride, and “fetid interpersonal miasma” that plagued these organizations, as well as the commitment, timely ideas, and frank talent that paved the way for their successes.
Butler (with whom I enjoy a friendly professional acquaintance) writes with a clear eye but as a partisan: as he enjoins us in his afterword, the Method’s belief in a stable inner core of truth “can help us to construct some terra firma amid a sea of uncertainty.” But firm earth is a curious metaphor, given that the Method’s substance is, throughout his book, an open question. The word that Butler reaches for to describe the core of the Method, and its central inheritance from Stanislavski, is one he leaves untranslated in Russian: perezhivanie, or, loosely, “lived experience” or “experiencing”—that’s it. And though he includes brisk descriptions of the core exercises and techniques of the three major “Method” teachers (Strasberg, Adler, and Meisner), he often uses the term in a much more general way, to describe a style, tone, genre, ethos, narrative, or characteristic: we hear about “a textbook Method script of middle-class pieties outliving their usefulness,” that John Garfield’s “energy is fueled by self-loathing, which would swiftly become a hallmark of American male Method acting on camera,” and even that “there was something of the Method style to John F. Kennedy” (picking up Norman Mailer’s comparison of JFK to Marlon Brando). By the time we arrive in Hollywood of the 1960s, we hear that the story of the Method had become “the story of Hollywood itself,” and that even Robert Altman, though he rarely cast Method actors, “strove for similar results”: the “hyperreal,” “more internal” performances, developed using improvisation.
There are longer and broader histories—of realism and modernism, of media politics—at play here, outside the purview of Butler’s book. Realist acting (with its focus on quotidian life, its subtle internality, and its goal for actors to appear on stage as Denis Diderot enjoined, “as if the curtain never rose”) predates Stanislavski, as Strasberg himself was fond of pointing out. The goal of seeming alive on stage, acting with apparent spontaneity and without self-consciousness or cliché, was not the Method’s invention. There were even other strains of realist acting circulating in the U.S. before the MAT arrived: for instance, in the Yiddish theater, where Stella Adler (the daughter of Yiddish star Jacob Adler) was raised. The goal of spontaneity could also be found in the 1915 book by an American actor named William Gillette, with a title that could be ripped from a Strasberg lecture, and that in fact, Strasberg would often cite: The Illusion of the First Time in Acting. The effort to break through conventional pieties to find truth was a key imperative of modernism in general, and realist drama in particular. The glamorization of the outsider, of individual alienation? These themes rise to the fore in nineteenth-century literature along with urban and industrial modernity.
It’s not that Butler is so enamored of the Method that he can’t see its faultlines, but he does assume the largest interpretation of its influence, the widest effects of its ideas. His central argument is, simply, that the Method is central: central to American theater and film, central to the Twentieth Century. His case is both convincing and somewhat tautological. The book happily avoids hagiography, debunking the more galling claims of its protagonists (the main culprit is Strasberg, who claimed credit for Marlon Brando despite never teaching him, and took ownership of the acting of Marilyn Monroe). But Butler can’t help but repeat one of those self-mythologizing narratives, the appropriative habit on view when Ellen Burstyn says to herself, after watching Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, “That’s Studio. Meaning, that’s Actors Studio.” Calling actors, plays, films “Method” when their connection to its avowed substance—the exercises, techniques, and ideas—is, at the very least, questionable, echoes its own perennial self-promotion.
And yet, paradoxically, Butler’s capacious view of the Method also well represents its outsized effect as a cultural idea, if not a coherent body of knowledge. This isn’t to say there is no knowledge: the basic architecture of Stanislavskian script analysis—his understanding of dramatic structure as composed of “bits,” each of which have different “tasks” or “actions” (sometimes translated as “problems”) that the character is seeking to accomplish in any given moment of the play, the “given circumstances” as the foundation of character—is foundational to much American theater training. This is where we get the cliché of the Method actor insisting that he be given “a motivation” before doing anything on stage (an oft-repeated way to mock the Method and the vanity of actors in general; when I was a kid, an actor asking “what’s my motivation?” was the punchline of a Sprite commercial). What actions, objectives, and bits have to do with, say, the self-loathing of the outsider, however, is a question that must have extrinsic answers.
What might those answers be? Butler’s account is character driven, and offers social context in general terms. I think the most revealing context is hiding in plain sight—to use a cliché that itself evokes both the substance of this open secret and its metonymic relation to the Method. Most of the important Method figures were Jewish (the three key teachers: Strasberg, Adler, and Meisner; the leader of the Group, Harold Clurman; not to mention Arthur Miller, Jerome Robbins, and John Garfield, among many others). How could their passionate belief in the power of acting to transform the world, and their grand, universalist proclamations—which studiously avoided their ethnic backgrounds—be wholly unrelated to the agenda of Jewish assimilation? For Strasberg, the important thing is what you feel inside, not how you appear; for Adler, with your imagination you can transform yourself beyond your ostensible boundaries (for her in Hollywood, this also meant a nose job and name change).
A broader cultural history might also shed light on that vexing issue of substance. Part of the problem, as Butler acknowledges, in pinning down what exactly these teachings were about, is that the Method teachers could be both vague and confusing. Strasberg’s classes included instructions at once so digressive and so impenetrable that even Studio members like Maureen Stapleton thought he was “convoluted,” and June Havoc called him “often inexact and self-repetitive, and matters which are clear become obfuscated by his explanations.” The inexact appellation mirrors an inexact science.
But what if this inexactitude was the point? Mark Greif has described the American intellectual era of the thirties, forties, and fifties as “the age of the crisis of Man,” an age in which everyone, from the highest philosophers to the lowest newspapermen, seemed to pose, in blatantly general terms, the problem of “Man.” His account in The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (2015) of reading this universalist philosophy from a contemporary standpoint strongly evokes my own experience of reading not just Strasberg but all the Method teachers:
One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable. I don’t believe that it’s only because the context, or our assumptions, have changed. . . . Rather, the discourse of man was somewhat empty in its own time, even where it was at its best; empty for a reason, or, one could say, meaningful because it was empty.
Greif calls this kind of discourse “maieutic” (using a Greek term that evokes midwifery), in its aims to bring something into being in the reader or listener. The discourse neither describes nor itself enacts, but rather aims to create some sort of concurrent thinking or doing in others. This strikes me as the most generous, yet serious, explanation for the emptiness of Method teaching that I have come across. The historical scope of Greif’s “discourse of man”—his narrative starts in 1933 with the rise of fascism; the peak of the discourse comes immediately after the second world war; Greif follows it until 1973—tracks almost exactly with its dominant years. Method teachers spoke this way in context.
What holds together Bulgakov’s preening impresarios and these American Jewish humanists? The rejection of falseness and the exaltation of truth, a few strikingly charismatic leaders, and an atmosphere of intense, quasi-religious commitment. Commitment to what? Well, it doesn’t really matter.
The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. By Isaac Butler. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022. 512 pp. $27.00.