Beginnings: Marilyn and the Method

Marilyn reads Michael Chekhov’s To The Actor (photo by Ed Feingersh, 1955)

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler is a new history of method acting, from its beginnings in pre-revolutionary Russia to post-millennial exponents like Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. Here, I consider the book’s insight into why the Actors Studio came to be, and how Lee Strasberg developed the Method. In my second post, I will look more closely at Marilyn’s studies in New York, and how that impacted her work in Hollywood.

It all began at the turn of the 20th century, when Konstantin Stanislavski formed the Moscow Art Theatre in response to the stagnancy and artifice of Russian drama. When directing actors, he emphasised ‘the art of experiencing’ over ‘the art of representation.’ It was often an unwieldy process, but his evolving ‘system’ complemented the psychological realism of playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen.

In a 1955 photo by Ed Feingersh, Marilyn was seen reading Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor (1953.) She is also said to have read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1936) and Nikolai Gorchakov’s 1954 book, How Stanislavski Directs. However, neither of these books were part of her estate library, as catalogued by Christie’s in 1999 (see here.) Stanislavski died in 1938, but Marilyn had a direct connection to him through her teacher Michael Chekhov, nephew of Anton, who had emerged as a rising star of Stanislavski’s First Studio in 1913. However, Chekhov later rebelled against the ‘system.’

In an acting exercise, Stanislavski asked him to recreate an emotional state using ‘affective memory’ (ie by digging into his own past experience.) The class watched in awe as Chekhov summoned the complex feelings of watching his father’s funeral. Stanislavski was so moved that he embraced Chekhov, only to learn that his father was alive and well. “He had relied on imagination,” Butler writes, “and his own unwillingness to be limited by anyone’s rules, be they a teacher, a director, or a text.”

In a 1919 magazine article, Chekhov expanded on his criticisms of ‘the system.’ “Chekhov’s major contribution to acting instruction was the psychological gesture,” Butler explains, “whose ‘aim is to influence, stir, mould, and attune your whole inner life to to its artistic aims and purposes’ in one simple movement.'”

Chekhov left Russia in 1927 and moved to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He is perhaps best-known to filmgoers for his Oscar-nominated performance in Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound (1945), but his pupils included numerous Hollywood stars, as well as director Elia Kazan, and Marilyn’s future acting coach, Paula Strasberg. After Chekhov’s death in 1955, Marilyn remained close to his widow, Xenia, whom she would remember in her will.

Michael Chekhov with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchock’s psychological thriller, Spellbound (1945)

Born into a poor, working-class family in what is now a part of Ukraine, Lee Strasberg moved to New York as a child. He was an obsessive reader until the shock of his brother’s death during the Spanish flu epidemic compelled him to leave school. When the Moscow Art Theatre toured the U.S. in 1923, he attended every performance and although the sets and make-up were woefully dated, he was wowed by the acting. He then spent several months studying with Stanislavski’s disciples, Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard ‘Boley’ Boleslavski, at the American Laboratory Theatre.

During his short-lived acting career, Lee met another hopeful, Harold Clurman, and the two men discussed their theories of acting. By the late 1920s, they were planning to form a company that incorporated the best ideas of Europe into the American theatre. “A company could accomplish this only if they trained together and shared a technique of acting,” Butler writes. “That technique would be based on the ‘system,’ but by then, they found that word too grand. They wanted a name for their technique that was in a lower key, more descriptive, and simpler. They called it their method.”

As America entered the Great Depression, Lee and Harold enlisted casting director Cheryl Crawford to their cause, and in 1931, the Group Theatre was born. Early members included actors Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky, playwright Clifford Odets, and Harold’s partner, Stella Adler. Strasberg taught acting classes, while Clurman tutored actors privately. At the same time, Lee became involved with a young actress, Paula Miller, whom he married in 1935.

Lee and Paula Strasberg, 1930s

“When it came to affective memory, Strasberg and Clurman pushed the practice [of affective memory] further than Boley and Ouspenskaya ever did,” Butler writes. “Clurman would later say that Strasberg was ‘a fanatic on the subject’ of true emotion, and that to the actors, ‘it was revelation in the theatre; and Strasberg was its prophet.'” “Relaxation, to Strasberg, was key,” Butler continues. “But Lee was a difficult man to relax around. He was quiet, imperious, withdrawn … He was also prone to rages, screaming at actors when they didn’t do what he wanted.”

Directed by Strasberg, the Group Theatre’s first production was a modest success, but the next two flopped. In 1932, Elia Kazan joined as a stage manager. In an awkward interview, Strasberg asked him what he wanted. “I want your job,” Kazan blurted out. “I mean, I want to be a director.” Meanwhile, other members were also rebelling against Strasberg’s authority. In 1933, as the Group Theatre faced financial ruin, Lee refused a life-saving donation from a wealthy patron of the arts.

Fortunately, their fortunes were soon to improve. Strasberg’s next production was a hit, and he made a celebrating pilgrimage to Russia, but found the Moscow Art Theatre in terminal decline. For Stella Adler, however, the trip was a revelation, and a catalyst for others to break away from Strasberg for good. Then in 1935, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty changed the face of American theatre, and Hollywood came calling.

Collaborators: Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller

Arguably a victim of its own success, the Group Theatre disbanded in 1941. Over the next decade, Elia Kazan would assert himself as a director of ground-breaking plays like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and make his way in Hollywood. In 1947, he founded the Actors Studio with Cheryl Crawford, and director Robert Lewis as teacher. Then in 1951, he visited Los Angeles with Arthur Miller, who met Marilyn there for the first time as she began a year-long affair with Kazan.

After the Group Theatre folded, Lee Strasberg spent a decade in the wilderness. “The Strasberg family survived thanks to Paula’s drive,” Butler writes, “and her faith in Lee’s genius and importance.” In 1951, Kazan appointed him artistic director of the Actors Studio (replacing Robert Lewis, who had resigned after a row with Kazan.) Although Lee’s directing career had fizzled, he found his niche in teaching. Nonetheless, many students were uneasy with his autocratic demands.

At the same time, a ‘red scare’ was spreading in Hollywood, and in 1952, Kazan ‘named names’ of colleagues with communist affiliations to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – including Paula, plus Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand, who had formed the Actors Lab in Los Angeles (where Marilyn studied in the late 1940s.) Many of Kazan’s former colleagues, including Arthur Miller, were appalled, although some – like actor Eli Wallach – felt they could not abandon Kazan because of his power and artistry.

“According to Kazan, Paula had urged him to testify,” Butler writes, “although Lee would later say that ‘Gadge did not check [with] me as to whether he could speak.’ (How Lee made peace with Kazan’s testimony, along with whatever role Paula may have played in it, remains a mystery.)” Ultimately, the Actors Studio would take a neutral position.

You can read the second part of my review here.