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Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et al.

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“Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little.”
 
“You must get beneath the words before you can say them. The text must be in you. It is your job to fill, not to empty the words. They can only be used if they come out of what you need to ...
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Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee

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Overview

“Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little.”
 
“You must get beneath the words before you can say them. The text must be in you. It is your job to fill, not to empty the words. They can only be used if they come out of what you need to say.”    —Stella Adler
 
From one the most celebrated and influential acting teachers of her time, of all time, whose generations of students include Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Eva Marie Saint, Diana Ross, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Annette Benning, Peter Bogdanovich, Mark Ruffalo—the long-awaited companion volume to her book on the master European playwrights Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (“Evidence,” wrote John Guare, “that Stella Adler is hands down the greatest acting teacher America has produced . . . Nobody with a serious interest in the theater can afford to be without this book”).

She was a force of nature, an unforgettable personality. Once, when she walked into a crowded room and her presence caused a hush to fall over it, a little girl asked, “Mommy, is that God?”

Adler saw script interpretation as the actor’s profession (“The most important thing you can teach actors is to understand plays”). Her classes of script analysis became legendary; brilliant revelations of the playwrights, the characters, the social class and the time of the play as opposed to one’s own. Adler explored how to find the ideas and experience them; how to search for the soul, for what is unsaid; all of this as a way of building craft as distinct from talent.

Her new book, brilliantly edited by Barry Paris, brings together her most important lectures on America’s plays and playwrights, the giants of the twentieth century, men she knew, loved, and worked with. Adler considers, among them, Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra; his first play, Beyond the Horizon; and his last, Long Day’s Journey into Night (“O’Neill is a mystical playwright . . . his speech is vernacular, down-to-earth . . . it conveys the idea that there is nothing real outside, but that’s where I want to be—somewhere out in the fog. The answers are hard to get in a fog”) . . .

She writes about Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, and The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (“Williams captivates us because of the romantic way in which he escapes the filth and frustration . . . The greatness in Williams is that [the characters] have a right to run away. What do they run away from? From the monster of commercialism and competition, from things that kill the melody and beauty of life”) . . . about Clifford Odets (“Clifford, if you don’t become a genius,” Adler once said to him, “I’ll never forgive you”); and about his plays Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy (on Lorna Moon and Joe Bonaparte: “You can’t put a whore together with a Napoleonic man and think they’re going to make it. They might make it under certain conditions—but not from the point of view of love. This is not a love story. It’s a hate story”) . . . about William Inge and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba; about Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (“[The salesman’s sons] are Biff and Happy . . . They’re not George and Jacob. Their names are shortcuts. It’s the American Way—a way of saying, ‘We’ll leave out tradition’ . . . That tells you something you’ll see throughout the entire play: they are cut off from custom”) about Miller’s After the Fall; and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and The Death of Bessie Smith.

Illuminating, revelatory, inspiring: Stella Adler at her electrifying best.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…intoxicating…Paris has done a magnificent job of condensing and editing a number of different talks into coherent and resonant chapters on various plays and playwrights. Most exhilarating, for her many former students at least, is that the book brings back the sound of Stella's unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision. And now, of course, I not only understand it all, but also find that every sentence is a treasure. For actors and actresses, this rich material is essential. For those interested in the American theater, it is a must. For cultured people everywhere, this book belongs in their personal canon. It's about so much more than simply bringing to life the work of major artists; it is really the expression of a way of life, and of looking at art as something larger than life.
—Peter Bogdanovich
Publishers Weekly
Culled from the voluminous lectures of the late American actress, Group Theatre cofounder, and renowned teacher, this companion volume to Stella Adler on Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov (2000) shares the same forceful qualities and inescapable drawbacks of the earlier selection, but will be essential reading for the actor as well as a bracingly original introduction (or refresher) for the general reader. Beginning with a discussion of O’Neill, Adler establishes key themes, including an explication of the marginality that produces great theater and its implicit challenge to the mainstream convictions of its audience. She then moves through playwrights who were defined by, and in turn transcended, their particular eras. With respect to the Great Depression, for example, there’s a keen, stimulating consideration of Thornton Wilder (along with William Saroyan, discussed in a later chapter) as a Chekhovian writer of enormous, universalizing humor, paradoxically cosmopolitan and thoroughly (ambivalently) American. Although editor Paris (Louise Brooks: A Biography) takes pains to reduce the natural redundancy across these talks (in addition to offering synopses of the plays discussed and judicious explanatory footnotes), the transfer to the page inevitably entails compromise; chapters land somewhere between transcripts and cohesive essays. Nevertheless, nearly every page shimmers with Adler’s bounding personality and discerning grasp of her subjects. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“Intoxicating . . . Paris has done a magnificent job. . . Most exhilarating is that the book brings back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision . . . Every sentence is a treasure.
 
[The book is] about so much more than simply bringing to life the work of major artists; it is really the expression of a way of life, and of looking at art as something larger than life.
 
Stella had a marvelous way of mixing erudition with down-to-earth realities, show business know-how with a few Yiddishisms, all combined with a vivid sense of what she called a theater of ‘heightened reality’. . . . this book brings her voice back quite viscerally. It’s Stella talking, taking you on her particular roller-coaster ride through the playwrights and their characters, with an occasional anecdote or comment about her most famous student, Marlon Brando.
 
For actors and actresses this rich material is essential. For those interested in the American theater, it is a must. For cultured people everywhere, this book belongs in their personal canon.”                              

—Peter Bogdanovich, The New York Times Book Review

“Stella was a first-name force of nature . . . grand . . . There is considerable entertainment in the energy of her assertions . . . And then there is the staggering clarity, the piercing insight and the pure, undeniable genius of her dissection of the plays themselves . . . Refreshingly, Adler's perceptivity extends to the political and social potential in our family-drama dominated canon.”
Washington Independent Book Review
 
“Adler was known as a presence of divine proportions, a tall, glamorous woman whose grand gestures and dramatic one-liners captivated audiences both large and small.”
Cultural Compass, University of Texas at Austin

“[A] modern-day oracle . . . life through the prism of the play . . . Stella Adler was an incendiary force of nature.”
GALO Magazine
 
“Incisive . . . If you’re interested in what it means to translate O’Neill, Odets, Williams, Miller and Albee from the page to the stage, read it carefully.”
Playbill

“Wisely balances masterpieces with minor works . . . Paris has performed a great service by presenting Adler’s astute perspectives about these writers, whom she knew and admired. Her views are valuable not only for actors, but for anyone interested in the American theatre and its extraordinary achievements.”
Bay Area Reporter

“A grande dame of the American theater . . . Adler’s voice pops into life on the pages . . . a valuable guidebook . . . illuminating for actors and lay readers alike . . . fascinating . . . often hilarious [and] sprinkled with a fair bit of dish . . . Adler knows these plays the way a master violist knows her instrument.”
The Boston Globe

“Even on the page, Stella Adler projects to the back of the house. It is indeed the voice of a giant . . . vivid . . . as vibrant an impression as I’ve come across of the social and artistic chaos in which American playwrights of the early 20th century found themselves . . . [Adler’s book] provides invaluable insights . . . and erupts into sustained verbal fireworks as you’ve never heard elsewhere.”
—Ben Brantley, The New York Times

“Passionate, opinionated, and consummately dramatic, Stella Adler’s voice and personality come through in every word . . . filled with insight, wit, and fervor . . . a lively and fascinating look into the beliefs and methods of the late teacher, who, twenty years after her death, is still regarded as one of the greatest in the history of American theater.”
STAGE Magazine

“For more than forty years, the lefty theatrical dynamo and acting teacher Stella Adler worked to bring a greater understanding of the human condition to the American stage. Her primary tools were her pleasure in the text and her often firsthand knowledge of the playwrights’ lives. [This] is an essential text . . . Adler’s perceptive humor sheds fresh perspective on masters ranging from O’Neill to Albee.”
—Hilton Als, The New Yorker

“Arguably America’s preeminent acting teacher . . . Adler’s voice comes through loud and clear . . . Actors, acting students, and serious theater fans will savor the insight and inspiration served up here.”
Library Journal

“Essential reading for the actor as well as a bracingly original introduction (or refresher) for the general reader . . . Nearly every page shimmers with Adler’s bounding personality and discerning grasp of her subjects.”
Publishers Weekly

“Brilliant . . . The indomitable Stella Adler . . . displays both her omnivorous intellect and decades of experience in this generous second volume . . . An exciting, inspiring and essential book.”
Kirkus (starred review)
 
“We usually go to scholars, dramaturgs, and critics for detailed analyses of the modern American theatre. Well, forget that! Here in this amazing book is Stella Adler in full and insightful bloom, preaching, exhorting, insulting, provoking, and always helping her many acting students. Through character study and scene breakdown within a specific play, she manages to give us a personal tour of the times and lives of the 20th Century’s most illustrious playwrights. She knew them, she knew the world they lived in, and she remembers EVERYTHING!
A brilliant book.” 
—Andre Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater

Kirkus Reviews
Brilliant lectures on the American masters from the late, legendary acting teacher. The indomitable Stella Adler (1901–1992), who tutored Marlon Brando, displays both her omnivorous intellect and decades of experience in this generous second volume of acting-class lectures (following Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, 1999) edited by celebrity biographer Paris (Garbo, 2002, etc.). Here, the teacher covers Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. Adler knew the play, she knew the writer, and her message to her actors was direct: You must understand the play and the playwright at both the macro and micro level. You can't do O'Neill if you don't know about his tormented Irish-Catholic background; you can't perform A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman if you don't know about postwar alienation. "If you don't use the play's world, you are not an actor, because the play is taken from that world, not yours, and you have to go there to find it." Also, you must know the character's inner and outer life: "Does he have an accent? How does he dress, how does he wear his hair? ...What are the circumstances he lives in?" In Beyond the Horizon, Robert is weak, but don't play him weak; he thinks he is strong. In Mourning Becomes Electra, play Christine like a queen; "use your epic voice, not a little intimate voice." In The Glass Menagerie, Laura wears a leg brace; when she sits on the floor with her gentleman caller, she's in pain. Read between the lines; follow what's said and what isn't. Adler has another, subtler message for her actors: Stay true to your art. An exciting, inspiring and essential book for anyone interested in American theater.
The New York Times
Even on the page, Adler…projects to the back of the house. It is indeed the voice of a giant…Adler…had a ringside seat for the American theater's most transformative, tumultuous and fertile period, not to mention personal acquaintance with most of the writers she discusses here. And she gives as vibrant an impression as I've come across of the social and artistic chaos in which American playwrights of the early 20th century found themselves…As a reader…I loved listening to Adler vamp as she erupts into sustained verbal fireworks as you've never heard elsewhere.
—Ben Brantley
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679424437
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/14/2012
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,444,738
  • Product dimensions: 6.66 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

STELLA ADLER began her life on the stage at the age of five in a production that starred her father, the legendary actor of the Yiddish Theatre, Jacob Adler. Stella Adler was one of the co-founders of the revolutionary Group Theatre. In 1934, she met and studied with Konstantin Stanislavski and began to give acting classes for other members of the Group, including Sanford Meisner and Elia Kazan. Adler established the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in 1949 and taught at Yale University.

BARRY PARIS is the author of biographies of Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo.

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Table of Contents

EUGENE O'NEILL(1888-1953)
Overview
Beyond the Horizon (1920)
Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)
Long Day's Journey Into the Night (1956)

THORTON WILDER (1897-1975)
Overview
The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)

CLIFFORD ODETS (1906-1963)
Waiting for Lefty (1935)
Golden Boy (1937)
Golden Boy: Text Analysis
The Country Girl

WILLIAM SAROYAN
Overview
Hello Out There!

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (1911-1983)
Overview
The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (1941)
The Glass Menagerie (1945)
Summer and Smoke (1948)

WILLIAM INGE
Overview
Come Back, Little Sheba (1950)

ARTHUR MILLER (1915-2005)
Death of a Salesman (1949)
After the Fall (1964)

EDWARD ALBEE (b. 1928)
The Zoo Story (1959)
The Death of Bessie Smith (1959)

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