New York Times Book Review: ‘Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights’ by Peter Bogdanovich

Published: November 30, 2012

"Life is boring. The weather is boring," Stella Adler used to say. "Actors must not be boring. Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one." When I first started taking classes with the already legendary Adler in 1955, I was only 16, having lied by two years to get accepted. I studied with her for four years, and took every class she offered: from Beginnings, through Scene Class, finally to Script Analysis, which was both the most daunting and the most electrifying. The excitement came because of Stella's delivery, which was very theatrical but real, because Stella was nothing if not theatrical and real. Theater was in her blood, her parents having been major stars in New York's Yiddish theater.

The difficulty lay in following her explosive, sometimes stream-of-consciousness manner of speaking, all of it extemporaneous; I don't recall her ever looking at notes. Her allusions to other plays and playwrights came one on top of the other. She was not just teaching how to act these plays — how to interpret them, as Stella preferred to put it — she was also teaching direction, and literature, and history. As a teenager, even an avidly attentive one, I could not possibly follow everything she was saying. But it was all so wonderfully expounded that I was never less than riveted. I wished I could have had tapes, but she didn't even like her students to take notes: "Stop with those notes!" she would cry out. "You're going to get me arrested!"

Well, eventually audio and video tapes were made of Stella's classes long before her death in 1992 at the age of 91. And a few months before she passed away, her stepdaughter, the Knopf editor Victoria Wilson (who is also my editor), and the biographer Barry Paris had discussed with Stella two books to be put together largely from her script analysis classes. The provocative first volume, "Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov," also edited by Paris, appeared in 1999 and is happily still available in paperback. The second volume, "Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights," is even more intoxicating than the first.

Paris has done a magnificent job of condensing and editing a number of different talks into coherent and resonant chapters on various plays and playwrights. Most exhilarating, for her many former students at least, is that the book brings back the sound of Stella's unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision. And now, of course, I not only understand it all, but also find that every sentence is a treasure. For actors and actresses, this rich material is essential. For those interested in the American theater, it is a must. For cultured people everywhere, this book belongs in their personal canon. It's about so much more than simply bringing to life the work of major artists; it is really the expression of a way of life, and of looking at art as something larger than life.

Of the eight playwrights represented, her three absolute giants are Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams. She spends a great deal of time on three full-length-plus O'Neill plays ("Beyond the Horizon," "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night") and even more on four plays by Williams, whom she counted as a close friend and clearly loved very much ("The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Summer and Smoke" and the one-act "Lady of Larkspur Lotion"). Though she reserves probably her highest praise for the plays of Thornton Wilder (like the epochal "Our Town"), she breaks down only one of his classics ("The Skin of Our Teeth"), but quite superbly.

Of the other playwrights, she seems fondest of Clifford Odets, whose first plays were presented in the 1930s by the storied Group Theater, of which Stella was a founding member. She is brilliant on the incendiary one-act sensation "Waiting for Lefty," which established Odets as a major force in the American theater, and on "The Country Girl." The book includes not only a discussion of "Golden Boy" (which is currently being revived on Broadway), but also an amazing line-by-line analysis of one of the scenes from the play. She beautifully dissects William Saroyan's famous one-act play "Hello Out There!" Finally, William Inge ("Come Back, Little Sheba"), Arthur Miller ("Death of a Salesman," "After the Fall") and Edward Albee ("The Zoo Story" and "The Death of Bessie Smith") are examined with both dexterity and imagination.

To sum up her viewpoint, Stella says, "Williams, Wilder, Miller, Odets, Inge — these playwrights all saw what was wrong." Earlier in the book, she takes a similarly synoptic view, explaining that what affected these playwrights' lives was America's "enormous energy, strength, vitality, desire to grow, enormous everything, but not much tradition, not too much hanging on to fixed things. The world became unfixed.

"This is the key to American plays, which expounded what we were: nothing is fixed. No religion is fixed, no family is fixed, no property is fixed — nothing gets rooted long enough for it to hold on."

Stella had a marvelous way of mixing erudition with down-to-earth realities, show business know-how with a few Yiddishisms, all combined with a vivid sense of what she called a theater of "heightened reality." In the comments at the start of this book, Stella says: "There aren't two actors in the entire Western world who can really play King Lear. I'll tell you something, there weren't two actors in America they could find to play Willy in ‘Death of a Salesman,' because of the size of the character."

Later she states her basic position on plays and players: "A play has two ­aspects/essences: it is divided into the literary side (the playwright's) and the histrionic side (the actor's). The histrionic side belongs to the actor and to what he puts into it, how he thinks, what he says and understands through it in his mind, his soul, his background, his culture, his personality, his whole being.

"That histrionic side of the actor is what he is and what he adds to the play. The play is dead. It lies there. The other side is the side that people fool around with. That's what makes a man say ‘I want to be an actor.' He's no shmegegge; he wants to play King Lear. He wants to play Hamlet."

Paris helpfully supplies a footnote for shmegegge: "Yiddish showbiz term for ‘fool' or ‘second-rater.'" In fact, he has produced a marvelously informative book, with elegantly written comments and footnotes, and a crucial synopsis for each of the plays discussed. He also does a fine job of describing the Stella all her students got to know: "It is The Big Picture she gives us. She was a Buckminster Fuller type, a universalist among the specialists, not college-taught but theater-taught — a tougher matriculation. The case can be made that she was the most compelling acting teacher of 20th-century theater, as well as its greatest voice."

"Literally," Paris insists. "Her unpredictable bursts of trenchant, dagger-sharp, Yiddish-based humor reached withering heights when directed at students. . . . She was like her voice itself: grand, commanding, intimidating, pontifical and majestic — in service to the redemptive glory of theater. Now and always, it is a mesmerizing voice to hear."

Yes, and this book brings her voice back quite viscerally. It's Stella talking, taking you on her own particular roller-coaster ride through the playwrights and their characters, with an occasional anecdote or comment about her most famous student, Marlon Brando. (When she asked her class to behave like chickens who know a bomb is about to drop on them, all ran around wildly clucking, except Brando, who sat quiet and calm. Stella asked him what he was doing and he replied, "I'm laying an egg.")

And here are some asides about other performers: Laurence Olivier "can hold the curtain up. He knows how the play is built. He's thought about it. You could say he knows how to act. He knows how to handle the part. If you talk about Ralph Richardson, you'd say he knows how to handle the part and you don't have to worry about him. Sometimes you have to worry about Mr. Olivier, because his craft is bigger than his talent, greater. But once in a while he will give a great ­performance."

I feel very privileged to have known this wonderful woman for 37 years, and to have learned so much from her during that time. She was always concerned about the question of integrity, and would bring it up whenever we saw each other. It was, she pointed out, the central theme of "Golden Boy": Odets "wrote it after he got back to New York from a scriptwriting job in Hollywood, when a lot of his friends on the left were criticizing him for ‘selling out.' I think he was torn between the Hollywood movie scene and the New York theater scene in the same way Joe" — the lead in "Golden Boy" — "is torn between boxing for big money and becoming a great violinist."

Stella always grilled me to make sure I hadn't lost my integrity; she considered this a major problem for the American artist. I wonder what she would have said about the almost total materialism of our current era?

Stella Adler was a grande dame of the theater. I never met anyone remotely like her. With her mid-Atlantic accent, she was once mistaken by a London shopkeeper for English. "No," she replied, "just affected." And at a New York cocktail party, she once made a sweeping entrance that brought a hush to the room. A little girl turned to her mother and asked in an awed whisper, "Mommy, is that God?" I understand how the little girl felt. All Stella's students would.

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