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Strut AND Fret : METHOD ACTORS Three Generations of an American Acting Style By Steve Vineberg (Schirmer/Macmillan: $24.95; 349 pp.)

July 07, 1991|Charles Marowitz | Marowitz is a free-lance director, playwright and critic; his latest books, "Directing the Action" and "Recycling Shakespeare," will be published by Applause Books this fall.

One of the great fables of the American stage is the rise and fall of the Group Theatre, that reverberating '30s acting ensemble spearheaded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg; its Leitmotif is the discovery and dissemination of the Stanislavsky System, which under Strasberg's alchemy became the American Method.

We all have heard and read how Stanislavsky's disciple Richard Boleslavsky passed the torch to Strasberg in the late '20s, and how Strasberg proceeded to turn the Russian's earliest theories into a magical formula for two generations of actors who included legends such as Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page.

"Method Actors," Steve Vineberg's encomium to these and other disciples, makes us aware that we are now in the midst of a third generation, and that what in the '30s seemed a pretentious foreign import, and in the '50s a mystical form of self-therapy, now has become the acceptable stage-grammar of acting programs in colleges, universities and theater schools all over America. Originally a series of techniques and precepts devised by Stanislavsky to help coax the inspiration which, though the gift of great actors, came only infrequently to average actors, the System became, in Strasberg's hands, mainly a "method" for engendering true feeling.

It was based largely on the use of emotional memory exercises and other self-inducing psychological stimuli. Today, of course, The Method is something of a generic title that doesn't begin to describe the variations, extensions and even reversals of the original doctrines that, were Stanislavsky to return today, probably would make him disown those stalwarts who palpitate most fulsomely in his name.

Vineberg believes there was a natural affinity between the thrust of this acting theory and the American temperament, that its preoccupation with Freudian psychology and adolescent rebellion made it the perfect medium to express the duality of American life and the repressiveness of American youth.

John Garfield, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Vineberg argues, all are united by a certain renegade stance that a conformist society secretly admires. Playwrights such as Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and even Tennessee Williams (all popularized by Method actors and directors) have perpetuated this strain of rebellion and the Method is the aesthetic by which it was effectively conveyed to the public.

So immersed is Vineberg in the minutiae of the Method that he finds parallels everywhere. John Garfield's "sunken look" at the end of "Body and Soul" is seen as prefiguring "Brando's in a similar moment at the end of 'On the Waterfront.' " Sylvester Stallone's performance in "Rocky" is a "composite" formed out of the work of Brando, Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine. Even Tennessee Williams' preoccupation with animal imagery in "A Streetcar Named Desire" is attributed to the animal exercises that Strasberg inherited from Maria Ouspenskaya in the '30s and incorporated into the work of the Actors' Studio.

This is not persuasive cross-referencing; it is merely delusion, and stems from Vineberg's larger delusion that every advance in contemporary acting owes something to the permutations of the Method as it evolved from the early Strasberg days to the present. It blithely bypasses the fact that creative new performers with distinctive personalities find original ways of expressing themselves whatever their orientation. It isn't the Method that produces staggering "moments" on the screen and stage; it is the sensibility of forceful new actors who embellish whatever their basic training may have been, with nuances derived from their own unique character.

When an actor's performance slips, as Paul Newman's did in Tad Mosel's television play "Guilty Is the Stranger," Vineberg concludes that it is because the Method has failed him. In Newman's case, he writes, "You can sense the Yale Drama School (which he attended before taking classes at the Studio) and Broadway (where he played the rich fraternity boy in 'Picnic' in 1953) lurking uncomfortably beneath every line."

So staunch is Vineberg for his subject that even his put-downs have a way of doubling back on themselves. To write of Dustin Hoffman playing Shylock ("surrounded by classically trained English actors" in Sir Peter Hall's Broadway production of "Merchant of Venice") that "his limitations were infinitely more interesting than their range" is to turn special pleading into sophistry.

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