Stella Adler was a grande dame of the American theater. Born into a renowned Yiddish acting dynasty, she made her stage debut at age 4, cofounded the Group Theatre, and starred on both screen and stage. But she is best remembered as the founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where she coached such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Elaine Stritch. An aristocratic figure with an affected voice, she was equally capable of heaping praise on her pet students and eviscerating others with a dismissive “Don’t be static, darling.” She was imperious and opinionated, commanding and demanding. In a word, she wasn’t shy.
Her master classes were performances unto themselves, where she practiced what she preached: “An actor has to be big, enormous — a giant.” Now, biographer Barry Paris has collected her lectures in “Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights,” the companion piece to “Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov” (1999). Adler’s voice pops to life on the pages of this heavy volume, which is a valuable guidebook for actors interested in plays of a particular period.
But it has its ups and downs. The lectures are repetitive and rambling and seem to take place in a vacuum. Paris includes a handful of footnotes and synopses of the plays, but apart from a few political and historical references in the lectures, it’s hard to know when and where Adler, who died in 1992, is speaking. Her interpretations of the playwrights rarely go beyond conventional wisdom. Eugene O’Neill was trapped; Clifford Odets called for revolt; Tennessee Williams wanted to escape, and so on.
But her line-by-line readings are illuminating for actors and lay readers alike, and it is fascinating to see her work with actors on scenes, commenting on everything from their carriage to their costumes, right down to the fingernails.
Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et al.
And then there’s that passion thing. Adler was a missionary of the American theater, who bemoaned the commercialism of Hollywood and Broadway as well as the cult of celebrity. On page after page, she laments the sorry state of the artist, and not once, but twice, she rages about the fact that her dear friend Tennessee (never Williams) did not receive a state funeral. She is on a one-woman revivalist tour, determined to preach the importance of theater, if not to the masses, then at least to the converted. Theater is epic. It speaks truth. It matters.
She intones the same sense of do-or-die importance when she addresses acting technique. She implores students to educate themselves about the play, the playwright, and the period. She instructs them to draw from life, but not to rely solely on personal experience. (She broke with her contemporary, Lee Strasberg on this; he encouraged a psychological approach to acting known as the “Method,” which she ultimately rejected.) She also demands big performances: “Don’t say it as if you just need more sugar for your tea. It’s epic!”
Adler was quick with the one-liners, and her lectures are often hilarious. They are also sprinkled with a fair bit of dish: She tells a story about a certain playwright showing up naked at her door (“I wasn’t that kind of a woman”) and remembers asking her maid to throw Arthur Miller out of a party because he looked “like Death walking in.” Of Thornton Wilder, she says, “Envy me because I knew him.”
Indeed, she was closely affiliated with many of the playwrights included in the volume, which makes for intimate but narrow reading. Save one snide reference to Lillian Hellman, there is not a woman writer in the mix. (Admittedly, there weren’t many prominent female playwrights during the period covered here, but one thinks of, say, Lorraine Hansberry.)
That said, Adler knows these plays the way a master violist knows her instrument. She gets to the heart of O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and even a little bit of Edward Albee. These playwrights transformed theater in the United States, which was largely light entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. They wrote about the serious issues of their day: the restructuring of society after World War II, the beginning of the dissolution of institutions like family and church, the ever illusive pursuit of the American dream.
Adler is a product of her time, ever loyal to a small bunch of writers. She dismisses Pinter and Beckett with a rhetorical wave of the hand and even tells actors they don’t have to be intelligent to play Shakespeare; they just have to “speak ever so precisely and have lots of good teeth.” Still, her lectures are an important artifact, memorable for her sharp commentary and, more important, for her advice to the actors.
Yes, the lectures seem to end with all too easy kickers (“I’d rather act than go to the bank” and “[W]hen you really get it, it’s better than sex!”), but they capture Adler’s passion not only to preserve and protect her beloved theater but also to ensure its health and vitality. This volume is a testament to her heartfelt belief that theater isn’t just better than sex: It’s better than life itself. “Life is boring,” she told her students. “We’re too little in life. That’s why we come to the theater — because it’s not boring here.”