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Against Likability

Stella Adler on Ibsen

StellaAdlerIbsenIf you care about good theater and in particular wonder what separates good actors from the rest, you really only need the books by William Esper teaching the Meisner technique, which I wrote about here, and the books by Stella Adler, whether on craft or on playwrights. Most recently I got Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and I was stunned by the quality of her insights into Ibsen and Chekhov (I'm sure she gives an outstanding an analysis of Strindberg too, but I skipped over that part, having little interest in Miss Julie since I saw a widely overhyped production of it in Paris a few years ago with Juliette Binoche in the title role.) Her key argument is that an actor needs to know the context of the play in order to act his role convincingly, and for Doll's House in particular, Adler made a very convincing argument that Nora faces a bleak future after leaving her husband - she even suggests suicide - and her behavior, which makes the play's ending, had the effect of a bombshell in the nineteenth century. (She also has piercing insights into the supporting characters, but you'll have to read her essay to learn about that.)

I saw Doll's House at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) a few years ago and I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the rotating set that allowed the house to turn and show the audience different rooms where characters are presented behind closed doors, which reminded me of the Metropolitan Opera and was well-suited to the play. It was a good production. The revolutionary aspect of the play in its time, though, was lost in that Young Vic production, in the sense that the production was competently done but far from earth-shattering, and I say that as someone who did enjoy it. I suppose we have to put the blame on the way Hattie Morahan played the leading role, which seems so different from the way Adler tells us Nora would have behaved in that time period, in that small Norwegian village some distance from Oslo. I tend to side with Adler in everything.

My first introduction to Adler's teachings was through Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights. She has such depth of insights that one wishes she had been a theater professor at a university so that generations of students had benefited from her knowledge, but in the end she had just as big of an impact on aspiring actors through her acting schools in New York City and Los Angeles, and now on theater lovers through her books, although she died in 1992. 

Anyway, if you ever have to prepare for a role she covers in one of her books, start by reading what she has to say.

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