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Kazan on Directing

Kazan on Directing

by Elia Kazan

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Elia Kazan was the twentieth century’s most celebrated director of both stage and screen, and this monumental, revelatory book shows us the master at work.  Kazan’s list of Broadway and Hollywood successes—A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, On the Waterfront, to name a few—is a testament to his profound impact on the art


Elia Kazan was the twentieth century’s most celebrated director of both stage and screen, and this monumental, revelatory book shows us the master at work.  Kazan’s list of Broadway and Hollywood successes—A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, On the Waterfront, to name a few—is a testament to his profound impact on the art of directing. This remarkable book, drawn from his notebooks, letters, interviews, and autobiography, reveals Kazan’s method: how he uncovered the “spine,” or core, of each script; how he analyzed each piece in terms of his own experience; and how he determined the specifics of his production.  And in the final section, “The Pleasures of Directing”—written during Kazan’s final years—he becomes a wise old pro offering advice and insight for budding artists, writers, actors, and directors.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“To read this book is to sit with Kazan as he talks about his work. You feel his energy, devotion, and openness. You are given rare and fascinating access to the insights and techniques of a great director.” —Sidney Lumet

“Kazan stands alone in his work both on stage and screen. This book provides an excellent opportunity to deepen our understanding of Kazan’s achievements.” —Alec Baldwin

“A fascinating account of how a master director works. . . .  It is also, quite simply, a good read.” —The New Criterion
“A wonderfully conflicted yet curiously confident self-portrait of a great director.” — Los Angeles Times
“Unusually entertaining . . . It’s not just his insights, it’s the incisive way he expresses them.” —New York Observer

“This is Kazan the professional speaking, a giant of the Method spilling his secrets. . . . An indispensable resource for anyone hoping to understand the direction of actors and the differences between stage and screen. . . . Revelatory and instructive.” —Directors Guild of America Quarterly
Kazan on Directing displays Kazan’s interpretive genius at work, analyzing each major play and movie, working with writers on scripts and actors on interpretations. . . . Invaluable.” —The Providence Journal
“[Kazan] may be the most influential director of his time after Hitchcock. . . . If only every living American director would read this..” —The Buffalo News
“Remarkable. . . . A portrait of the artist in his own words. . . . A marvelous dissection and explanation of how Kazan brought to life some of America’s greatest pieces of drama, and at what personal price.” —Eric Lax, truthdig.com
“Elia Kazan possessed a treasure trove of knowledge about acting and storytelling. What a gift it is to have his ideas between covers in Kazan on Directing—a wonderful compilation of Kazan’s shrewd insights and vast experience.” —George Stevens, Jr.
“Kazan has been called the greatest actor’s director. In this illuminating book he details his methods. A must-read for everyone in show business.” —Carroll Baker
“[This] riveting book is Kazan talking to us—pushing us, lifting us, motivating us. Every student of stage and film should read it.” —Karl Malden
“[Kazan’s] experience as an actor in the Group Theatre helped train him to become one of the greatest directors of actors in the twentieth century. This amazing book demonstrates his rich understanding of the actor as an artist.”  —Ellen Adler, Stella Adler Studio of Acting
“Astounding. . . . I have never, ever read anything as clear and personal and detailed (not to mention well-written) as this book. . . . I devoured it.” —André Bishop, Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Theater

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
File size:
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Read an Excerpt

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
by Tennessee Williams

August 1947

A thought: Directing finally consists of turning Psychology into Behavior.

Theme: This is a message from the dark interior. This little twisted, pathetic, confused bit of light and culture puts out a cry. It is snuffed out by the crude forces of violence, insensibility, and vulgarity that existin our South — and this is the cry of the play.

Style: One reason a “ style,” a stylized production, is necessary is that Blanche’s memories, inner life, emotions are a tangible, actual factor.We cannot understand her behavior unless we see the effect of her past on her present behavior.

This play is a poetic tragedy. We are shown the final dissolution of a person of worth, who once had great potential, and who, even as she is defeated, as she is destroyed, has a worth exceeding that of the “healthy,” coarse-grained figures who kill her.

Blanche and Don Quixote are both emblems of the death of an old culture. This is a poetic tragedy, not a realistic, naturalistic one. The acting must be styled, not in the obvious sense. (Say nothing about this to the producer and actors.) But you will fail unless you find this kind of poetic realization for these people’s behavior.

Blanche is a social type, an emblem of a dying civilization, making its last curlicued and romantic exit. All her behavior patterns are those of the dying civilization she represents. In other words, her behavior is social. Therefore find social modes! This is the source of the play’s stylization and the production’s style and color. Likewise, Stanley’s behavior is social too. It is the basic animal cynicism of today. “ Get what’s coming to you! Don’t waste a day! Eat, drink, get yours!” This is the basis of his stylization, of the choice of his props. All props should be stylized: They should have a color, shape, and weight that spell style.

An effort to put poetic names on scenes to edge me into stylizations and physicalizations. Try to keep each scene in terms of Blanche.

1. Blanche comes to the last stop at the end of the line.
2. Blanche tries to make a place for herself.
3. Blanche breaks them [Stanley and Stella] apart, but when they come together, Blanche is more alone than ever!
4. Blanche, more desperate because more excluded, tries the
direct attack and creates the enemy who will finish her.
5. Blanche finds that she is being tracked down for the kill. She must work fast.
6. Blanche suddenly finds Mitch, suddenly makes for herself the only possible, perfect man for her.
7. Happy only for a moment, Blanche comes out of the bathroom to find that her doom has caught up with her.
8. Blanche fights her last fight. Breaks down. Even Stella deserts her.
9. Blanche’s last desperate effort to save herself by telling the whole truth. The truth dooms her.
10. Blanche escapes out of this world. She is brought back by Stanley and destroyed.
11. Blanche is disposed of.

Find an entirely different character, a self-dramatized and selfromanticized character for Blanche to play in each scene, as if she were playing eleven different people. This will give the play the kind of changeable and shimmering surface it should have. And all these eleven self-dramatized and romantic characters should derive from the romantic tradition of the Pre-Bellum South. For example, in Scene 2 she is “Gay Miss Devil-May-Care.”

The style — the real deep style — consists of one thing only: to find behavior that’s truly social, significantly typical, at each moment. It’s not so much what Blanche has done, it’s how she does it — with such style, grace, manners, old-world trappings and effects, props, tricks, swirls, etc., that they seem anything but vulgar.

And for the other characters, too, you face the same problem, to find the Don Quixote character for them. Stylized acting and direction is to realistic acting and direction as poetry is to prose. This is a poetic tragedy, not a realistic or a naturalistic one. So you must find a Don Quixote scheme of things for each.

A kind of naïveté, even slowness. He means no harm. He wants to knock no one down. Only he doesn’t want to be taken advantage of. His code is simple and simple-minded. He is adjusted — now. Later, as the power of his penis dies, so will he, the trouble will come later, the “problems.”

But what’s the chink in his armor now, the contradiction? Why does Blanche get so completely under his skin? Why does he want to bring Blanche, as he brought Stella, down to his level? It’s as if he said: “ I know I haven’t got much, but no one has more and no one’s going to have more.” He’s the hoodlum aristocrat, and he’s deeply dissatisfied, deeply hopeless, deeply cynical. The physical immediate pleasures, if they come in a steady enough stream, quiet his resentments, as long
as no one else gets more than he does. If they do, then his bitterness spills out and he trashes the pretender. But he can’t seem to do anything with Blanche, so he levels her with his sex. He pulls her down and crushes her.

One of the important things about Stanley is that Blanche would wreck his home. Blanche is dangerous. She is destructive (like Stella Adler). Soon she would have him and Stella fighting. He’s got the things the way he wants them around there, and he does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. This makes Stanley right! Are we going into the era of Stanley? He may be practical and right, but what the hell does it leave us? Make this a personal objective
characterization for Marlon Brando. Choose Marlon’s objects. The things he loves and prizes, all sensuous and sensual: the shirt, the cigar, the beer (how it’s poured and nursed).

Stanley is exactly like you in some ways. He’s supremely indifferent to everything except his own pleasure and comfort. He is marvelously selfish, a miracle of sensuous self-centeredness. He builds a hedonist life, and fights to the death to defend it — but finally it is not enough to hold Stella. And this philosophy is not successful even for him — because every once in a while the silenced, frustrated part of Stanley breaks loose in unexpected and unpredictable ways and we suddenly see, as in a burst of lightning, his real frustrated self. Usually his frustration is worked off by eating a lot, drinking a lot, gambling a lot, fornicating a lot. He’s going to get very fat later. He’s desperately trying to squeeze out happiness by living by ball and jowl, and it really doesn’t work because it simply stores up violence until every bar in the nation is full of Stanleys ready to explode. He’s desperately trying to drug his senses, overwhelming them with a constant round of sensation so that he will feel nothing else.

For Stanley sex goes under a disguise. Nothing is more erotic and arousing to him than “ airs.” “ She thinks she’s better than me. I’ll show her.” Sex equals domination, anything that challenges him — like calling him “ common ” — arouses him sexually.

In the case of Brando, the question of enjoyment is particularly important. Stanley feeds himself. His world is hedonistic. But what does he enjoy? Sex equals sadism. He conquers with his prick. But objects too: drink, conquest in poker, food, sweat, exercise. But enjoy. Not just cruelly unpleasant, but he never matured, never grew up from the baby who wants a constant nipple in his mouth. He yells when it is taken away.

Stanley has got things his way. He fits into his environment. The culture and the civilization, even the neighborhood, the food, the drink, etc., are all his way. And he’s got a great girl, with just enough hidden neuroticism for him — yet not enough to threaten a real fight. Also, their history is right: He conquered her. Their relationship is right: She waits up for him. Finally, God and Nature gave him a fine sensory apparatus . . . he enjoys! The main thing the actor has to do in the early scenes
is make the physical environment of Stanley, the props, come to life.

Stanley is deeply indifferent. When he first meets Blanche, he doesn’t really seem to care if she stays or not. Stanley is interested in his own pleasures. He is completely self-absorbed to the point of fascination. To physicalize this: He has a most annoying way of being preoccupied — or of busying himself with something else while people are talking with him, at him it becomes. Example, first couple of pages, Scene Two.

Stanley thinks Stella is very badly brought up. She can’t do any of the ordinary things — he had a girl before her who could really cook, but she drank an awful lot. Also she, Stella, has a lot of airs, most of which he’s knocked out of her by now, but which still crop up. Emphasize Stanley’s love for Stella. It is rough, embarrassed, and he rather truculently won’t show it. But it is there. He’s proud of her. When he’s not on guard and looking at her, his eyes suddenly shine. He is grateful too, proud, satisfied. But he’d never show it, demonstrate it.

As a character, Stanley is most interesting in his contradictions. His soft moments, his sudden pathetic little tough boy tenderness toward Stella. In Scene Three he cries like a baby. Somewhere in Scene Eight he almost makes it up with Blanche. In Scene Ten he does try to make it up with her— and except for her doing the one thing that most arouses him, both in anger and sex, he might have.

The one thing that Stanley can’t bear is someone who thinks that he or she is better than he is. His only way of explaining himself— he thinks he stinks— is that everyone else stinks. This is symbolic. True of our National State of Cynicism. No values. There is nothing to command his loyalty. Stanley rapes Blanche because he has tried and tried to keep her down to his level. This way is the last. For a moment he succeeds. And then in Scene Eleven, he has failed!

Excerpted from Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan Copyright © 2009 by Frances Kazan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Elia Kazan was born in 1909 in Istanbul. He graduated from Williams College and attended the Yale School of Drama before joining the Group Theatre. He was the founder of the Actors Studio, and he won three Tony Awards for direction (for All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and J.B.) and two Academy Awards (for Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront), as well as an honorary Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement. He died in September 2003.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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