Year 2022: 30 Books

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

By Anita Felicelli

Isaac Butler’s The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act (Bloomsbury) is an astounding intellectual and social history that unfolds in three acts. It begins with the Russian seeds of a movement that radically broke with past stylistic dramatic conventions that favored conventional presentations of emotion, and instead gave primacy to perezhivanie in acting. Perezhivanie, translated as “experiencing,” happens when an actor steps so completely into a character’s imaginary reality that they can feel what the character feels and live the part. 

The Method begins with a vibrant joint portrait of two men, decidedly different, who joined to create the Moscow Art Theater in the 1890s. Stanislavski: relentless and perfectionistic yet naïve, nicknamed the “Big Infant.” Nemirovich-Danchenko: a playwright and teacher, sharply dissatisfied with the state of acting. The company’s collaborators sketched with similar color: Chekhov, the signature dramatist for the theater, once responded to a humiliating performance of his work by announcing, “The author has flopped!’ before fleeing into the night.

Stanislavski’s “system” rested on a few tenets: the primacy of life experience, the mining of an ordinary life to set a foundation for performance, and the importance of accessing affective memories. Perhaps “the magic if,” the condition of radical imaginative empathy Stanislavski introduced as a means of achieving perezhivanie, seems obvious today, but Butler argues it was not intuitive at the time of conception, but instead the result of Stanislavski’s repeated refinements. 

The system was imported to the American consciousness during the Russian Revolution. Butler recounts Lee Strasberg’s and Stella Adler’s divergent approaches and adaptations to reveal that the definition of Method Acting is deeply contested. Yet the drama of personalities in conversation about the dramatic arts remains. Like Stanislavski, actors who took to the Method—actresses like Marilyn Monroe—were seeking rigor. Later, Robert DeNiro would call Strasberg’s Actors Studio a “cult of personality,” but his embodied performance in Raging Bull came to be regarded by the public as canonical Method acting, even as it signaled the demise of the system’s hold on the field. 

Butler’s erudite account leaves room for other intriguing lines of inquiry—how, for instance, identity politics called into question the Method’s racialized and gendered assumptions. At its heart, however, the book studies how we make meaning out of “the poetry of the real” and dramatizes the sparkling contradictions between character, self-perception, and public perceptions that enabled a stunning transformation—before the era of the super-blockbuster, before people asked, What if there’s no such thing as perezhivanie?  

More writing about The Method:

Natalie Walker, Bookforum

Sheana Ochoa, the Los Angeles Times

Stephanie Zacharek, Time

Alexandra Schwartz, the New Yorker

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