Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Stella Adler,
critic & interpreter


Stella Adler in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).
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The Group Theater, founded in Manhattan in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and lesbian producer Cheryl Crawford, lasted a little more than a decade, but had an enormous influence on acting and dramatists. Actress and teacher Stella Adler (1901-92), a member of a prominent New York Yiddish theatre family, joined shortly after the Group was established. Other well-known members included Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw, and Franchot Tone.

The Group was heavily influenced by Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, whose approach to acting was revolutionary. In 1934, Adler and Clurman traveled to Paris, and she spent five weeks there studying directly with Stanislavski, who had revised his basic approach to characterization. He no longer stressed personal memory, but instead emphasized imagination. This conflicted with Strasberg's beliefs, and Adler broke away from the Group. (Strasberg went on to found the Actors Studio, which popularized the "Method," as Stanislavski's technique was called.)

Adler appeared in a few Hollywood movies and acted in and directed plays in New York and London. In 1949, she founded the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, teaching her interpretation of Stanislavski's Method. Her most famous pupil was Marlon Brando. Others whom she taught included Judy Garland, Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, and Warren Beatty. Part of her teaching technique incorporated in-depth assessments of authors. Barry Paris has compiled and edited her insights in Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights (Knopf, $27.95).

Paris presents Adler's overviews of Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee. Each section has a detailed analysis of specific plays and precise instructions to actors on how to interpret the characters.

He wisely balances masterpieces with minor works: O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra , and the rarely staged Beyond the Blue Horizon are discussed. For Williams, it's A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, and The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. Wilder's most famous play, Our Town, isn't covered, but By the Skin of Our Teeth is. Odets, Adler's friend, is represented by Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy, and The Country Girl. Who today has heard of Saroyan's Hello Out There!? The one entry for Inge is Come Back, Little Sheba. Miller's Death of a Salesman and After the Fall are contrasted, while Albee's seminal one-act plays The Zoo Story and The Death of Bessie Smith represent him. Paris provides a helpful summary of each work and its production history.

For Adler, the three giants of American theatre are O'Neill, Wilder, and Williams. She shows O'Neill's impact on those who followed him, while he himself was heavily influenced by Strindberg. "Is it possible to play a man and a symbol at the same time? That is what O'Neill made actors do." According to Adler, he replaced classical Greek tragedy's focus on man struggling against the gods with man struggling "with all aspects of life on an epic plane. It is not lyrical. It is melodramatic."

Why does she rate the deceptively avant-garde Wilder so highly? "Nobody else has his style. It is the poetry of life. He left you alone onstage, without scenery or props, and left you to make great theater."

She compares Miller and Williams. "In Miller, people are destroyed by their values and then destroy each other. [They] rebel against society." Not so with Williams. "He's very different. His characters don't really want to find out who they are. They cannot face the reality. They run away from it. That is why he so captivates us – because of the romantic way in which he escapes the filth, the dirt, the frustration." She extols Williams' unequaled gift for beautiful language, even if it isn't realistic. His genius was for poetic dialogue that sounded natural.

Inge, says Adler, wrote about a period (the 1950s and 60s) and a place (the Midwest) that no one had described before. Saroyan was the poet of the underdog, and Odets a product of the turbulent 1930s and the Great Depression. Albee scathingly depicted American racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.

Adler insisted that actors must understand the era in which the plays were written and the personal issues each author wrestled with if they are to effectively interpret their characters. Interestingly, while she often discusses the effect that an author's socio-economic background had on his work (O'Neill's first generation Irish-American heritage; Williams' Southern roots, his loathing of middle-class values, and his messy personal life; Wilder's wealthy upbringing), she is silent (or Paris omits) anything about their respective sexual orientations. While Wilder was intensely closeted, Williams was openly gay. Inge never came out, but his orientation was known. Albee rarely discussed his homosexuality, but it was no secret. Yet it is impossible not to wonder how being gay influenced their views of the human condition and their art. Whatever devils O'Neill, Odets, Miller, and Saroyan faced, they were spared the rampant homophobia of their eras.

Despite that glaring omission, Paris has performed a great service by presenting Adler's astute perspectives about these writers, whom she knew and admired. Her views are valuable not only for actors, but for anyone interested in the American theatre and its extraordinary achievements. Although the book lacks an index, it is well illustrated with scenes from the original productions.


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