Book Notes #18: “The Method” By Isaac Butler

by | Nov 28, 2023

I read this book because I know almost nothing about acting. Sometimes you just want read about something completely new. This book is about its namesake, the method, a form or philosophy of acting. After reading this book, I still can’t tell you what exactly “The Method” is. But that’s not the fault of the author. There has been a long, vertiginous debate about the very nature of The Method since its inception over a century ago.

While reading this book, there were times when I thought, “This is how it must feel to read about jazz when you don’t know anything about jazz.” Because I felt lost during certain passages about acting technique and paragraphs on the history of American theater.

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act
By Isaac Butler

Here are my takeaways.

What exactly is good acting? (Or frankly any type of “good” art)

“We know good acting when we see it.” Butler cites Justice Potter Stewart’s maxim.

The audience wants authenticity, “psychological and emotional truth.”

In the introduction, Butler gives the example of Francis McDormand who crawls under a table in between acting scenes, as a way of self-preservation. She said, “That’s when I started realizing I had to have a system that did not require me staying in an altered state under a table somewhere.”

In a nutshell…

“The Method” was conceived and established in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavski (a portfolio careerist who ran his family’s business while also acting/producing/directing), who collaborated with Vladimir Nemirovich. They founded the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in 1898.

It grew and flourished in the United Stats in the 1950s because of acting teachers who shared this philosophy.

The kernel of The Method is the concept of perezhavnie.

loosely translated, means something like “experiencing” or perhaps “re-experiencing.” Perezhivanie occurs when an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels, perhaps even think what the character thinks…To Stanislavski, perezhivanie, which he also called “living the part,” was the highest ideal, the artistic mountaintop that all acting strove to reach.

To the practitioners of stage acting, The Method refers to the concepts and techniques of Lee Strasberg, who adapted and promoted Stanislavski’s philosophy in the US.

Before the Method…

Playwrights, actors weren’t always after authenticity. Diderot believed that acting should be symbolic and not realistic in nature. You had to speak/talk in a certain way to convey a particular emotion or feeling. Acting was more farcical even caricatured. Plenty of critics dismissed this symbolic attempt of acting.

That’s what made Stanislavski’s approach all the more novel.

So he tried a kind of research that, a century later, would become standard practice in the long line of actors who claimed to follow in his footsteps: He tried to live as his character lived.

The principles that Nemirivoch and Stanislavski agreed upon:

1. One must love art, and not one’s self in art.
2. Today Hamlet, tomorrow a supernumerary, but even as a supernumerary you must become an artist
3. The poet, the actor, the artist, the tailor, the stagehand serve one goal, which is placed by the poet in the very basis of his play.
4. All disobedience to the creative life of the theater is a crime
5. Lateness, laziness, caprice, hysterics, bad character, ignorance of the role, the necessity of repeating anything twice are all equally harmful to our enterprise and must be rooted out
6. There are no small parts, there are only small actors.

When founding the MAT, they didn’t establish an operating agreement but did have veto power to check each other’s decisions.

A couple plays to check out
I learned about a few plays that the MAT staged, and that I’d like to see:

Tsar Fyodor (helped establish MAT’s artistic reputation)
The Seagull (very well received)

An example of how MAT used realistic staging:

Given the political context, it was either a directorial masterstroke or a grave error on Stanislavski’s part to stage the peasants rushing in from all sides of the stage and down the aisles of the audience. When Protassov “died” during the play’s premiere on October 24, the audience thought their worst fears had come true. Someone in the house shouted “They have killed Kachalov!” and pandemonium broke out in the auditorium. People began drawing revolvers and screaming. Kachalov himself had to spring up and walk to the lip of the stage, smiling like a maniac, to reassure everyone that he hadn’t been murdered.

The techniques

Affective emotion was the controversial practice which calls for provoking one’s emotion through sensory triggers. It’s a way for an actor to summon happiness, sadness, even tears. But as you can imagine the psychological baggage that comes with this practice. There were other techniques, of course: The Magic If, the supertask, even improvisation. Stanislavski kept tinkering with his system, to a point where others thought he was going crazy and mad.

The “system” had become the true love of his life. He was willing to subordinate everything — including the theater company he had built through force of will at Pushkino — to his search for perezhivanie.

World Events

World War I, the Russian Revolution, and other world events impacted the development of the system. That is, the cultural overlords would regulate what plays could be staged, which affected what ideas Stanislavksi could tinker with and implement. Some of the MAT’s great actors left Russia altogether in search of a better life in Europe and in the United States. They brought with them the precepts of what would become known as The Method.

Advances in technology, like the rise of the “talkie” movies, made acting ever more challenging and important.

The rise of Communism and the Red Scare which gripped Hollywood and the entertainment community.

The educators and diaspora

There are a bevy of people who played a role in spreading and practicing The Method. Some of these include:

Harold Clurman (who roomed with Aaron Copeland at the Sorbonne) – theater director and critic
Lee Strasberg – actor/director/teacher who became director of Actors Studio.
Richard Boleslawski
Maria Ouspenskaya – acting teacher who used “one minute plays” as a technique
Stella Adler – acting teacher (she and Strasberg had principal disagreements about Stanislavksi’s ideas, like being against the affective memory exercises)
Al Pacino – actor who studied with Strasberg
Bobby Lewis
Sanford Mesiner
Morris Carnovsky
Elia Kazan – a co founder of the Actor Studio
Clifford Odets
Arthur Miller – playwright
Marlon Brando – actor who grew up wanting to be a jazz drummer (he improvised while he acted). His acting in “Streetcar Named Desire” was a seminal role in theater history.
Tennessee Williams – playwright
James Dean
Marilyn Monroe
James Baldwin
Robert DeNiro
Dustin Hoffman

The mythic status

It took time for The Method to gather steam as a coherent acting philosophy.

As the method became the Method, its meaning began to shift. Instead of a catchall term for American adaptations of Stanislavksi’s “system,” it came to mean the mysterious going-on of Lee Strasberg and the actors who studied with him at the Studio and elsewhere. No one quite knew the Method’s substance, but it had something to do with psychology, and eccentricity, and remembering past experiences, and the self. Like stream-of-consciousness writing in fiction, improvisation in bebop, or paint dripping in abstract expressionism, the Method sough external means for conveying the interior reality of the self.