Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov

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An original member of the famed Group Theater, Stella Adler was one of the most influential artists to come out of the American theater. As a Stanislavsky disciple and founder of her own highly esteemed acting conservatory, the extravagant actress was also an eminent acting teacher, training her students—among them Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro—in the art of script interpretation.

The classic lectures collected here, delivered over a period of forty years, bring to...

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Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov

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An original member of the famed Group Theater, Stella Adler was one of the most influential artists to come out of the American theater. As a Stanislavsky disciple and founder of her own highly esteemed acting conservatory, the extravagant actress was also an eminent acting teacher, training her students—among them Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro—in the art of script interpretation.

The classic lectures collected here, delivered over a period of forty years, bring to life the plays of the three fathers of modern drama: Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov. With passionate conviction and shrewd insight, Adler explains how their plays forever changed the world of dramaturgy while offering enduring insights on society, class, culture, and the role of the actor. She explores the struggles of Ibsen's characters to free themselves from societal convention, the mortal conflicts that trap Strindberg's men and women, and the pain of loss and transition lyrically evoked by Chekhov. A majestic volume, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov allows us to experience the work of these masters "as if to see, hear and feel their genius for the first time." (William H. Gass)

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"No critic has ever talked about theater . . . with more insight and passion. Earthy and sophisticated, imperious and droll, [Adler] had the gift of making plays written over 100 years earlier seem excitingly modern." —The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Plunges you into the world of theater . . . [and] reveals Stella Adler as a literary and social analyst, Stella Adler as an acting teacher, and Stella Adler as a great personality." —The New Republic

"These inspired lectures are evidence 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." —John Guare

"One regrets never having seen [Adler] perform, but reading her on these writers, especially Chekhov, is the next best thing." —The New York Times

Arnold Aronson
Adler constantly reminds her pupils that acting is becoming someone different from themselves, in knowing "the difference between the way your character thinks and the way you think. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While this posthumous collection of lectures by one of the great acting teachers of the century will be of enormous interest to actors, it will be obvious to others that Adler's primary gift was as a vibrant performer, not as a critical writer. Her previous book, Techniques of Acting, outlining her approach to the craft, has been a standard text since its publication in 1988. Here, Paris presents Adler's thoughts on three of the most influential playwrights of the modern theater. Adler is at her best discussing the social contexts of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, exploring the cultures that made each writer who he was. She was a lively and dynamic speaker, and one can sense how exciting her presence must have been. Unfortunately, some of the excitement, and the effectiveness, is lost in the transcription. For instance, the statement "I don't know if he went to Greece, but if he did, you can bet he spent more than two days" sounds clunky and amateurish on the page, although it could be illustrative and amusing in a talk. Adler's forthright opinions about theater, though, are still provocative: "all serious playwrights now fall into the category of what we call modern realism." What would Beckett say to that? Adler has inspired generations of American actors to care deeply about the magnificent plays she discusses here; this book will allow generations to come the opportunity to benefit from a great teacher's wisdom.
Library Journal
Adler, who died in 1992, was one of a handful of acting teachers in the direct line of descent from Stanislavsky. This book is based on edited transcripts of classes from the 1970s and early 1980s, with a promise of more to come, but provides little new critical insight or methodology. Some passages are expansive to the point of repetition, others are short and aphoristic. Yet there is much wisdom here for actors to absorb. Adler provides commonsense advice on how to approach each play and character. She advises extensive research into the playwrights era and culture and asks her students to penetrate to the subtext that informs the dialog and action. Her interest is restricted to realismshe has nothing to say about Ibsens later work or Strindbergs postinferno plays, which yield to her schooling less well because they demand a different style of acting. Recommended with reservations.Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA
A legendary acting teacher offers insights on the work of Ibsen, Stringberg, and Chekhov. Through the plays of these masters, she discusses play writing and script interpretation, and looks into aspects of society and class, our cultural past, and the evolution of the modern spirit. Lacks a subject index. Adler was a disciple of Konstantin Stanislavsky, and established the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in 1949. Paris is a Russian scholar and has translated the plays of Chekhov. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Mel Gussow
As transcribed and then edited by Mr. Paris, these lectures have a certain spontanaeity
— at moments we feel as if we are in the studio with Adler
— but they are also diffuse....With Chekhov, she makes her most original observations....This book offers a sampling of the brilliance of her teaching.
The New York Times
Arnold Aronson
Adler constantly reminds her pupils that acting is becoming someone different from themselves, in knowing "the difference between the way your character thinks and the way you think."
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The late acting teacher's legendary lectures on script interpretation lose something when transposed to the printed page, though they still make a fine introduction to modern drama and the acting style it requires. Like Moscow Art Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavsky, with whom she studied, and like her fellow members of the Group Theatre, which popularized his revolutionary acting technique in America, Adler (1901–92) stresses the actor's role as servant to the playwright. Ibsen and his successors created a new kind of drama based on middle-class life and speech, she asserts; since what people say isn't necessarily what they mean, actors in these plays must imagine and convey their characters' inner lives beneath and beyond the text—but always for the purpose of illuminating its themes. Adler's interpretations stick closely to received wisdom: Ibsen depicts the individual struggling for liberation from society's conventions; Strindberg portrays men and women in mortal conflict; Chekhov is the poet of nostalgia and loss. Nonetheless, her specific examples of how an actor can particularize these themes in an individual character's actions–e.g., Nora's habit of hiding things in A Doll's House—are fascinating. It's hard to say what exactly film biographer Paris (Garbo, 1995, etc.) did to edit Adler's talks, which, judging by internal references, date from the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s. He provides very few footnotes, and he eliminates neither her repetitions nor her actressy asides for the benefit of her audience ("I'll tell you because I want you to love me"). More rigorous cutting would have better highlighted Alder's very serious commitment to these plays and to theart of acting. Despite these flaws, Adler is majestic and inspiring as she speaks to us from a bygone age in which the theater was the principal creative home for actors who achieved dignity from their abilities as interpretive artists, not from their celebrity status or their paychecks. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679746980
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 792,109
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Stella Adler died in 1992 at the age of ninety-one. Barry Paris lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

Chekhov says that beauty brings a sense of loss; that the possibility of happiness is too far removed. Life can give you a little, but beauty has a way of disturbing you because you can't have it all. It isn't easy to define this kind of unhappiness, but he explores it in the plays. Chekhov has no theory of life to explain things like Shaw or Ibsen or Strindberg. But he is perhaps the greatest author in the understanding of human beings. He understands that the human life is lived inwardly. Chekhov in Russia is considered greater even than Tolstoy. I would say that he is my favorite author.

        He criticized himself right down to the depths. He said, "I'm a cheat, I'm a liar, I don't love anybody, I'm a lousy writer." He is constantly battling with his apathy and need for self-approval. You meet characters in The Seagull who have that apathy but who have the ambition to fight through, the will to struggle for something better. The individual he admires most is the one who at least tries. In Chekhov you get an understanding of the man or woman who makes an effort. It can be a weak effort—there is a kind of fragility in it—but they make it. "I'm going to work, I'm going to change my life." It doesn't have to be strong, it doesn't have to be large, if even for a moment they can see, "I have to push myself ahead a little bit."

        There is great weakness in Chekhov's people. He doesn't have a lofty sense of man, in his time, with dignity. "What difference does it make? I'm defeated. To hell with it. Give me a drink." Most men of his society have given in. Chekhov has a feeling that the great past of the Russian intellectual is over. He says, "I am living in a moment where I have to sell things to support my brother and sister." He himself writes stories to sell, and then he writes a play to sell, and then he says, "I have to write and sell more."

        Ibsen says society has to be changed, it is corrupted by false  values. Strindberg teaches you something else. Chekhov doesn't believe in a philosophy, doesn't believe in God. Uncle Vanya doesn't believe in anything. If you believe in communism, it is better than believing in nothing. But Chekhov has no thesis. That is one of the things that makes his characters dissatisfied with their lives. He doesn't have a world view that you discuss when leaving the theater.

        Chekhov was preoccupied with studying man despite the fact that life had lost its bigger meaning, which made him able to smile at certain things instead of scream. He is interested in man. Most audiences find this close to their heart—the fact that he is close to the inner meanings of human emotions. He sees the world for beauty but does not think it is full of great significance. That is lost and he knows it. It is our loss, but we can't help it. He felt no obligation to explain life, but to put it down as he saw it truthfully. He was able to see what other writers before him had seen but did not understand. He put it down for the world to understand: man as he functions as an individual, with the suffering inside.

        Chekhov stopped preaching at an early age and became an observer. His understanding of life brought out the empathy he felt for people and you feel as actors when you do the play. The compassion Chekhov brings out universally is why he is so much more played than other writers. Chekhov is an artist you understand if you think of him as a man whose art is expressed best with no words, like painting or music. You feel Chekhov the way you feel music or realize a painting. It is not the words, it is something without words that comes through to us, because it is on a human level. The experience is inside. He presented the life around him as it was lived physically and inwardly. The times were turbulent, and Chekhov chose to show with truth and precision the hopeless longing that one felt in one's heart.

        Uncle Vanya makes no point. Chekhov said a play need not make a point. At its best, it might suggest one. He wanted to provoke a mood rather than communicate an idea. He reached that part of the soul which is touched by the arts that speak without words. He studies man in a world full of beauty and wonder and sorrow. The real theme of Chekhov is the destruction of beauty in the world, which is always very sad.

What makes Chekhov different from any other writer? Why did an entirely new system of performance have to be worked out because of him?

        The introduction of Konstantin Stanislavsky into Chekhov's life and plays was an intrusion on the whole realistic theater. You cannot work with plays anymore unless you do it. From now on, you must come with a complete understanding of what the character is experiencing. You cannot come onstage and look for the experience on the set. You can only come on after you have injected into the character his essence that you find from the external things.

        In Chekhov, minds don't mesh. One character does not know the other. That is Chekhov. He puts people together who don't understand what is going on in each other.

        Once I was taking a walk in Venice on a very hot day—men with their shirts off, working-class. I saw a man walking in front of me, sweating. I said, "Gee, from the back of him, I would have said he was Stravinsky." I slowed up and looked when I passed. "Jesus, that is Stravinsky!" It didn't occur to me he could ever look like that. It doesn't occur to you that a guy in a sweaty shirt is Stravinsky.

        That's how Nina feels about Trigorin in The Seagull.

        I am trying to tell you that from the beginning in every relationship there is a superficial misunderstanding as well as a misunderstanding in great depth. Never do two people understand each other on the same plane. In modern acting, don't come in and expect the set or the lines to give you the play. They will not give you the play in Chekhov.

        You have to come in with a past for your character. You have to match up with what doesn't mesh. You have to bring what's in you to the lines. You must know how Chekhov builds a character, a relationship, a scene.

        Chekhov couldn't have done it without Stanislavsky because he is the kind of a writer who puts so much into the past of the character that unless the actor knows how to understand that past he can't get the present or know what's going on on the stage. Each character comes in with his former life. You can't come on and expect the stage to feed you without knowing your past.

        Trigorin in The Seagull, for example, is modeled very much on Chekhov, who wrote, wrote, wrote. He wrote hundreds of stories. He wrote five hundred jokes a week in the beginning because he had to make money in the joke papers. One time Chekhov was sitting with a very unimportant journalist named Potapenko and he noticed an ashtray. He said, "Tell you what, see that ashtray? Tomorrow there will be a story about it." And there was.

        The reason most actors can't play Chekhov is because they think, "These people are Russian, they are different, they are strange." But Chekhov creates them and the play in such a way that makes it possible for you not to follow so much the plot as the people themselves. Read the play to see what the differences between these people are. Their actions are human. People live life, not a play. We live, "I went there and now I'm here at a class and then I'm going home and out to dinner." It is not a play. We don't live a play, we live a scene at a time.

        So Chekhov doesn't write a play where this scene connects with that one, and that scene connects with the next. He writes this scene and it is perfectly disconnected from the next scene. If you can understand that, you can understand Chekhov.

        It is worth understanding.

Chekhov lived into 1905, when the first tremendous revolution was put down. The political ferment was all around—enormous socialist and anarchist and nihilist political movements. Tsar Alexander was assassinated. There was a complete police state. The serfs had been freed in 1863, but they made them pay for their land and there was no money to pay and so there was chaos.

        In Stanislavsky's and Nemirovich-Danchenko's realistic production method, the first priority is that the director and the actor must understand the social situation of the time of Chekhov's plays. What was it? The Communists, left-wing social democrats, right-wing radicals—all kinds of radicalism is in full swing. In twelve years you have the Bolshevik revolution. It is incredible. We are dealing with a moment when the revolution is right there.

        The key word is "transition"—from one way of life to another. If you can't make it, you go under. Many people went under when the revolution came along. You think you can play Chekhov without understanding this social situation? But you don't. You have to be told or you have to get it on your own.

        Get it on your own. Read.

        Oh, well, I'll tell you, because I want you to love me. Isn't it awful that I am begging for your love? On second thought, I take it back. Don't love me. I don't give a goddamn whether you love me or not. I give a goddamn about the plays.

        I was so absolutely committed to the plays and the period that there were always twenty books about Chekhov and Tolstoy on my bed. There I was in bed with Tolstoy and Chekhov and all this history. I said, "I can't see anybody for two weeks. I can't answer the telephone." It's crazy. When you are working on a playwright the social situation is so strong that it gets you.

        Chekhov is very close to today because everything is in such flux. Tolstoy and the kings and queens and Count Nekhlyudov—all that is gone. It is a changeover into the middle class. The Cherry Orchard is the middle-class buy-up of the land. In The Three Sisters they have nothing left, only one old nanny. There is a change coming.

        This aristocratic class is not democratized. When someone comes in from the outside who doesn't fit, like Natasha in Three Sisters, it is a shock, it is like thunder to them. It is like being at a lecture Einstein is giving and having some kid say, "What the hell are you talking about?" You can't have that.

        Chekhov doesn't deal with anybody's mind that he doesn't respect. He doesn't deal with the working class or the peasant class. He can't deal with the mind of the working class because they have no mind. If you work ten hours a day in a factory, your mind is not to be relied on. This might be very disillusioning.

        I wasn't a Communist myself, but I was awful close. My generation was very much a part of class structure and we wanted much more for the worker. But we didn't want him to become the President. We didn't think it would go that far. Terrible actor, that Reagan. I better not talk about politics. I have already testified in Washington. I was on the blacklist of those big senators who were saying, "You are betraying this country." Chekhov's people all have a point of view because they are in a political moment. We are in a political moment, too. We go down and have tea, but we know that money is being raised for the next war. All right. I better not talk politically anymore.

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Table of Contents

Henrik Ibsen
1 Ibsen the Pioneer 3
2 Morality, Money, and Marriage 22
3 Truth and Lies 37
4 The New Character in Realism 52
5 The New Performer in Realism 76
August Strindberg
6 Father Knows Abyss 119
7 Six Characters in Search of an Actor 138
Anton Chekhov
8 Russian Revolutions 177
9 The Seagull 206
10 Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard 243
11 Three Sisters 260
12 Craft and Creation: Exercises In and Out of the Void 292
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