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STELLA ADLER ON IBSEN, STRINDBERG AND CHEKHOV;\o7 Edited by Barry Paris; (Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $27.50)\f7

May 16, 1999|GAVIN LAMBERT | Gavin Lambert is a novelist, screenwriter and film historian whose most recent book is "Nazimova."

In his tribute to Elia Kazan at the 70th annual Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese remarked that Kazan introduced a new style of acting into American movies. Clips from "A Streetcar Named Desire," "East of Eden," "On the Waterfront," "Wild River" and "Splendor in the Grass" showed this style in action, and it doesn't lessen Kazan's brilliance as a director to point out that the style couldn't have existed without Stella Adler.

Marlon Brando, in fact, acknowledged her "astounding legacy" as an acting teacher in his 1994 autobiography. "Virtually all acting in motion pictures stems from her," he wrote, "and she had an extraordinary effect on the culture of her time. Because of Adler, acting changed completely during the '50s and '60s." If you doubt this, compare Brando's performance in "Streetcar," Montgomery Clift's in "A Place in the Sun" and Robert De Niro's in "Taxi Driver" with Paul Muni as Zola or Louis Pasteur and Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Trained in an earlier theatrical tradition, notably accomplished and honored with Oscars in their day, the latter two seem exterior and closed in contrast to the actors who followed the Adler line: "It is good for you to be able to give away the inside, to be able to say, 'Look at me, I'm naked.' "

"Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov" is edited with great skill by Barry Paris, who extracted the essence of Adler from 3,000 pages of transcripts of her lectures to young actors at the drama school she founded in 1949. The book is not for actors only but for anyone interested in theater. No critic has written or talked about theater, as well as these playwrights, with more insight and passion.

Adler's talent was partly inherited and partly inherent. Born in 1901 to Jacob and Sara Adler, leading lights of the Yiddish Theater, she first appeared onstage at the age of 4. As well as playing major roles in her father's company until the mid-1920s, she performed minor ones in English on Broadway, where opportunities for a Jewish actress were limited.

"Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger--and better--do not act," Jacob Adler once told Adler; after he died in 1926, the search for something bigger and better led her to the off-Broadway American Laboratory Theater. Founded by two defectors from the Moscow Art Theater Richard Boleslawski and Maria Ouspenskaya, the Laboratory was the first company to apply Konstantin Stanislavsky's acting techniques in America. The Stanislavsky System made a profound impression on Adler as well as on another member of the company, future director and critic Harold Clurman. They also made a profound impression on each other. A tumultuous off-again, on-again affair lasted until 1941, when it became a tumultuous off-again, on-again marriage, ending in divorce 20 years later.

In retrospect, Adler described Clurman as the man who "opened up my mind," and Clurman described Adler as "spiritually vibrant" and "eager to add knowledge to instinct." When he co-founded the Group Theatre with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, she joined the company and gave some highly admired performances. In Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing," directed by Clurman, she aged 20 years to play John Garfield's mother. In John Howard Lawson's "Success Story," her acting in the final scene was so powerful that several actors, among them John Barrymore and Noel Coward, came back to watch it more than once.

The group, like the Moscow Art Theater, combined an acting company with a drama school, and Adler also attended Strasberg's classes. As her mind opened up and knowledge added to instinct, she began to suspect he was distorting the Stanislavsky technique by his excessive reliance on "affective memory" exercises, the use of a personal emotion from the past as the key to playing a scene. Strasberg was directing her in a play at the time, and after she discovered that she wasn't the only actor to be blocked instead of unlocked by the exercises, she went to visit Stanislavsky in Paris, as soon as the play closed.

At their first talk, Stanislavsky confirmed her suspicions. "Affective memory," he told Adler, was only one element among many in his system, and if it didn't work for her, she shouldn't use it. Then, over the next four weeks, he explained all the other elements in detail. On her return to America, Adler delivered a report to the group that infuriated Strasberg; but as in her own case, it proved a revelation for many of his actors. And later, as a teacher, she passed it on to her students: "Don't go to you instead of going to the playwright."

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