No more make-believe

Editorial Notebook

July 10, 2004|By Will Englund

MARLON BRANDO'S death put "The Method" back in the spotlight. His obituaries reminded us how it had changed the face of postwar American theater, and how his own electrifying presence as a young actor had demonstrated the seriousness, the power and the lack of artifice that came with this new approach to stagecraft.

Today, the idea of "The Method" brings to mind a lost world of Beat poets and earnest drama. But it was, in fact, conceived as a living, and evolving, way of thinking about the actor's job, and its precepts are still very much in harness. Just a few days before Mr. Brando died, a lifetime achievement award for dedication to the (small-m) method was given in Moscow to Meryl Streep. Why Moscow? That's where Konstantin Stanislavsky had the idea in the first place.

If you stroll down a narrow lane called Leontyevsky Pereulok, not far from where Maxim Gorky lived, or from the park where Mikhail Bulgakov set the opening of his Satanic novel, The Master and Margarita, you'll come upon the two-story house that was Mr. Stanislavsky's residence, studio and private theater from 1921 until his death in 1938. The door to the street is locked, but if you knock and wait long enough, someone will come. The house is a museum now, lovingly tended by the guides who usher the rare visitor from room to room: Here's the stage he built in the mansion's old ballroom, here's the bedroom where his actress wife held court, here are the medieval bookcases he loved, here is the dining room (where the family tablecloth is washed by hand once a year), here is the office where the furniture is still arranged as if for rehearsal.

The Method - Mr. Stanislavsky called it The System - gets bad press from people who think that it calls upon the actor to impose his own emotions on the character, but this has it just about backward. Mr. Stanislavsky argued that the character should inhabit the actor, that the actor, using his intelligence and intuition and, yes, emotional experience, should open himself to the embrace of the character. The personality of the actor is submerged; that's why the prize in Mr. Stanislavsky's name was given this year to the star of such different films as Out of Africa, Sophie's Choice and Adaptation. Mr. Stanislavsky was driving toward emotional truth, and away from make-believe.

He was the grandson of a French actress, born Konstantin Alekseyev; he borrowed the stage name Stanislavsky from his favorite ballerina at the Bolshoi. His well-to-do family was crazy about the theater. They put on amateur theatricals constantly, and if there is one show that might be said to be the progenitor of The Method, it is - as unlikely as it might seem - The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan. Froth? Yes. But young Konstantin and his siblings took to wearing Japanese clothes around the house to prepare themselves for the performance; he befriended a Japanese acrobat who was appearing in Moscow, and who taught him how to dress properly, how to gesture, how to walk in wooden clogs. Konstantin became Japanese, and the operetta was such a success that it was to be his last amateur production. Thereafter, his life was on the professional stage.

Mr. Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, and it was there that he began to develop his ideas. The company did Shakespeare and Chekhov, Moliere and Bulgakov. Photos at the museum show the troupe on an American tour in the 1920s. There's the patrician Stanislavsky, with his admirers on a train platform in Chicago. (Fans of Twentieth Century, recently revived on Broadway, might wonder if wisecracking playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur are lurking in the shadows, taking notes.)

It's a long way from The Seagull, by Chekhov, to Last Tango in Paris. But Mr. Stanislavsky was adamant that his System must change and adapt or become ritualized and meaningless. That's why it thrives today - in Moscow and Hollywood and wherever actors care about their trade.

- Will Englund

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