11/5/08 - brando and method acting

In today's excerpt - in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the American theater continued its sharp turn toward realism, portraying universal themes through the everyday lives of everyday people. This direction required an equal turn toward realism in acting - the paradox of real emotions produced on cue:

"In the midst of Broadway's 'victory season,' in March 1946, an outraged ad denouncing the critics appeared in the Times. Sign by the production team of Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman ,the ad failed to save their drama about returning vets, 'Truckline Cafe,' from closing after a mere thirteen performances. But the play has gone down in history, thanks to a five-minute speech made by a little-known actor in a secondary role: Marlon Brando, at twenty-one, played an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; in his final scene, he entered exhausted and wringing wet, and confessed that he had killed her and carried her body out to sea. ...

"Karl Malden, who played another minor role, reported that the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando's exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. The performance was as remarkable for what Brando didn't do as for what he did. Pauline Kael, very young herself and years away from a critical career, happened to come late to the play one evening and recalled that she averted her eyes, in embarrassment, from what appeared to be a man having a seizure onstage: it wasn't until her companion 'grabbed my arm and said 'Watch this guy!' that I realized he was acting.'

"The dismal fate of 'Truckline Cafe' inspired Kazan to form the Actors Studio. Of the entire cast, only Brando and Malden had given the kind of performances that he and Clurman wanted: natural and psychologically acute, as contemporary American plays required. Their ideal of acting derived from their days in the Group Theater, which had flourished in the thirties with brashly vernacular and politically conscious plays—Clifford Odet's 'Waiting for Lefty' was its first big hit—in which ordinary people were portrayed in a startlingly realistic style. ... This revolution in acting grew from Stanislavsky's accounts of his performances with the Moscow Art Theater—an approach eventually known simply as the Method—and, in its quest for onstage honesty, replaced traditional theatrical training with exercises designed to stir up personal memories, refine powers of observation, and free the imagination through improvisation. ... For the actors, the goal was a paradox: real emotion, produced on cue.

"Although the Group had disbanded by the time Brando arrived in New York, in 1943,, he soon began taking classes with a charter member, Stella Adler, who had actually studied with Stanislavsky, and whom he credited as his teacher to the end of his life. [But] as his fellow [Actors Studio] student Elaine Stritch later remarked, 'Marlon's going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.' "


Claudia Roth Pierpont


A Critic at Large: 'Method Man'


The New Yorker


October 27, 2008


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