Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama

Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama

by Shonni Enelow


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Winner of the 2016 George Jean Nathan Award

Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama provides a new understanding of a crucial chapter in American theater history. Enelow’s consideration of the broader cultural climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s, specifically the debates within psychology and psychoanalysis, the period’s racial and sexual politics, and the rise of mass media, gives us a nuanced, complex picture of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio and contemporaneous works of drama. Combining cultural analysis, dramaturgical criticism, and performance theory, Enelow shows how Method acting’s contradictions reveal powerful tensions inside mid-century notions of individual and collective identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810131835
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/31/2015
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

SHONNI ENELOW is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University. She is the author, with Una Chaudhuri, of Research Theatre, Climate Change, and the Ecocide Project. She also writes for the theater.

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Method Acting and Its Discontents

On American Psycho-Drama

By Shonni Enelow

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3183-5


"Pathological Hypnotism," Hysterical Methods

Halfway through Richard Boleslavsky's 1933 Acting: The First Six Lessons, the first acting manual on the Stanislavsky system to be published in the United States, a young actress confides to her private acting coach and personal mentor that she has a problem with her current role in Hamlet. Boleslavsky's Acting is written in a series of dialogues between "I" and the actress, whom Boleslavsky calls "The Creature," and over the course of the manual we see her transform from a quivering neophyte to a confident and successful performer. In this scene, titled "Characterization," "I" and "The Creature" have met in the theater where she is to perform, and "I" asks her to play one of her troubling scenes for him. Boleslavsky's scene is anomalous in several ways. In all the six lessons, this is the only one in the theater, the only one in which we actually watch the Creature act a full scene. Lengthy stage directions appear throughout Boleslavsky's book, describing the action but often including "I"'s commentary and inner monologue; here, however, as "I" watches the Creature play Ophelia's climactic scene with Hamlet, those stage directions take a surprising turn. Here is a sample from the end:

"O heavenly powers, restore him!"

(But heaven and earth are silent. The only thunder is the voice of one whom she trusted and loved. The words behind that voice are like stinging scorpions. Not a sign of understanding in them, not a sign of tenderness — not a tone of mercy. Hate, accusation, denouncement. The end of the world. Because the world for all of us is the one whom we love. When he is gone the world is gone. When the world is gone we are gone. And therefore we can be calm and empty and oblivious to everything and everyone who a minute ago was so important and powerful. The Creature is alone in her whole being. I can see it in her contracted body and wide open eyes. If there were an army of fathers behind her now, she would be alone. And only to herself would she say those heartbreaking words, the last words of a sound mind, that tries desperately to verify all that happened a second ago. It is unbelievably painful. It is like the soul parting from the body. The separated words crowd each other, hurry one over the other in a fast-growing rhythm. The voice is hollow. The tears behind it are inadequate to accompany the last farewell; the speech is like a stone falling down, down, into a bottomless abyss.)

"O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

* * *

(She sinks down on her knees, exhausted, staring into the blackness of the empty house right at me, without seeing, without registering anything. Madness next would be the inevitable and logical madness of the mind which has lost its world.)

The Creature's performance as the archetypal madwoman of Western theater, Ophelia, is so emotionally intense that it breaks the containment of the stage and overwhelms her audience: watching her, the teacher feels as deeply as she, spontaneously spouting poetic description which, if not quite Shakespeare, is as expansive and theatrical as any soliloquy. Slipping from "we" to "she" to the abstract article "the" (as in "the voice is hollow"), he weaves in and out of identification with the Creature/Ophelia and is ultimately carried away by vicarious feeling.

From his breathless description, one might expect that "I" would declare the Creature's performance a triumph. But instead he soberly asks what her director thinks. "He says it is pathological hypnotism, not acting," she reports, "and that I will ruin myself and my health." Surprisingly, "I" agrees and tells her she needs to work on her characterization: she must play Ophelia going mad, not go mad herself. Apparently the Creature's performance was too authentic: it crossed the line from good acting into something else — something called "pathological hypnotism," dangerous for her health. There is no further comment on the Creature's performance, and no hint whatsoever as to why such a dangerous spectacle would cause the teacher to be so overtaken by poetic feeling. Are we to be faulted if his ensuing instructions on characterization fall somewhat flat? How could the reader not be seduced, as the acting teacher clearly was, by the show-stopping dramatic power of the young woman on stage going mad before our eyes, "as if somebody suddenly appeared naked in a dressed-up crowd," as the Creature's director tellingly described it?

This scenes mirrors Monroe's desert scream in The Misfits in compelling ways. In both, a woman's psychological breakdown is performed so convincingly that it blurs the line between the performance and what is being performed: insanity. Is the character insane, or is the actress — and if it is the actress, is her insanity a function of her performance? Or is the performance itself the insanity? In both scenes, madwomen act mad for an audience of men, who are alternately shocked, cowed, moved, and repulsed. In both cases, the male gaze is staged for the audience, seeming to offer the male subject position as the audience's own; however, also in both cases, the woman's experience takes over not only the scene but the medium itself. In The Misfits, the incongruity between the almost unrecognizable sight of a distant body and the cutting, overwhelmingly intimate sound of her scream almost creates the sense that the film itself is screaming. In Acting, as we saw, the narration is completely captivated by the Creature's performance; the narrator might as well be the Creature herself. Both scenes, as if to arrest and contain this overwhelming emotion, end with a male audience member's pseudo-clinical judgment: "She's crazy," says Guido; "pathological," says the Creature's director. Not only does each performance, Marilyn / Roslyn's and the Creature's, blur the line between acting and being, but both representations also align the actress's performance with hysteria.

That Method acting entails a form of hysteria is one of its most enduring critiques, alongside the criticism that Strasberg's techniques "resemble psychoanalysis itself — or a parody of it." Both the techniques and the aesthetics of Method acting were linked to the look and feel of hysteria, neuroses, and psychic excess, and not only in representations of Strasberg's teachings but also in his sometime colleague's directing: in 1963, film critic Andrew Sarris wrote of Actors Studio cofounder Elia Kazan, "Kazan's violence has always been more excessive than expressive, more mannered than meaningful. There is an edge of hysteria even to his pauses and silences, and the thin line between passion and neurosis has been crossed time and again." "Excessive," "hysterical," and full of "neurosis" — Method performances crossed the line into madness "time and again." As early as 1961, Sherman Ewing ridiculed the Method in Theatre Arts for implying that if an actress is playing a liar, she should "consult Freud for the motivation for that trait of character." "The analyst's couch is as out of date in the theatre as the casting couch," he concludes. "Let's send them both to the dump!" The gendering of this example is revealing: like the Creature, like Marilyn / Roslyn, for Ewing the hysterical, psychoanalysis-dependent Method actor is female.


The first part of Elin Diamond's groundbreaking Unmaking Mimesis tracks the female hysteric's challenge to the patriarchal systems of knowledge production in early realist drama. Diamond's book supports feminist critiques of realism, like Case's, but adds a wrinkle to them as well, suggesting the potential for a "contaminated" realist text:

A body imitating hysteria generates other hysterias, and the solid geometry of representation, the theater of knowledge, is radically disturbed ... It does not abandon narrative, but it refuses the closure of positivist inquiry. It does not dismantle the text as a unique source of meaning, but it destabilizes the relation between text and performance, each contaminating the other. What are the implications of a contaminated text, a realism-without-truth?

Since the publication of Unmaking Mimesis in 1997, scholars have often followed Diamond in arguing that realism, like psychoanalysis, countered melodrama, associated with hysteria and its "ruination of truth-making," and some have extended Diamond's argument to cover Stanislavskian realist acting, but few have followed through on her suggestion that rather than rejecting hysteria wholesale, realism adopted and transformed its theatrical power both for its own ends and, perhaps, against them. Shawn Kairschner, for instance, analyzing Stanislavsky's famous rehearsal process for Chekhov's The Seagull, argues that Stanislavsky's actors "joined hypnotized hysterics and tubercular patients in presenting performances of safely reordered and coercively reinscribed interior realities." Kairschner, like other scholars, such as Jonathan Pitches, relates Stanislavsky's system for ordering and technologizing acting, turning what had been seen as mystical inspiration into scientific technique, to the psychological science for ordering and investigating what was hidden from consciousness that emerged at the same moment. But what these critics have tended to share is the conviction that realist acting "safely reordered" psychic experience. Like Counsell, like Savran, they contend that this kind of acting coercively contains subjectivity by shaping interiority into legible expressions.

My reading of Method acting complicates this understanding of its coercive legibility. I want to put pressure on these theorists' versions of what Michel Foucault calls "the repressive hypothesis," reconsidering the relationship between the ordering, containing, limiting thrust of Stanislavskian acting and the luxuriating, pleasurable expressions it incites. My point is not that this kind of acting is inherently liberating (which would reproduce the repressive hypothesis inversely), but rather that it exceeds its repressions. In this reading, instead of dismissing attacks on the psychoanalytic tenor of Strasberg's Method, as other scholars interested in recuperating Method acting have done, I take them seriously without replicating their pejorative tone. One of the reasons it is worth looking again at the psychoanalytic resonances of Method acting is its implications for our views of its gender politics: it's time for a new feminist reading not only of Method acting but also of denunciations like those of Ewing and of Richard Hornby, who, in his 1992 polemic against what he calls "Strasbergian acting," reports the story of an acting teacher who had sex with his female students, likening these practices to "wild" psychoanalysis. Marshaling Freud (whom he sees as a sober, intellectual antidote to such excesses) against Method acting's "parody" of psychoanalysis, Hornby's attack recalls Boleslavsky's distinction between "pathological hypnotism" and the careful, analytical work of real actor training. Whereas Diamond casts the female hysteric as a powerful, disruptive, protofeminist figure, for critics like Hornby she is unambiguously a victim of male machinations, as he replicates the melodrama of female victimization at the hands of a sinister seducer. But what if the hysteric is both a powerful, disruptive figure, as Diamond claims, and also intrinsic to Method acting — not contained or clamped down by its practices, but inspired and stimulated by them?

At issue, in part, is how we understand the relation between "pathological hypnotism" and the acting training that apparently rejected it, but in fact smuggled it in, as it is smuggled into Boleslavsky's book. The relationship between theater and hypnotism has been a contentious issue since the eighteenth century, when Franz Mesmer's techniques took hold in the United States and Europe; for many Enlightenment rationalists, stage hypnotism revealed the immorality of theatrical art, as it confused the art of acting with scientific phenomena. Hypnotism as a scientific technique returned at the end of the nineteenth century through Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, one of Freud's important early influences, who pioneered the scientific study of hysteria at the Salpêtrière hospital and who found that hypnosis could induce patients to repeat symptoms of hysteria under observation. Despite Charcot's defense of the empiricism of his methods, he also made good use of the theatricality of his hypnotic techniques. His "Tuesday lessons," where he publicly demonstrated those techniques, went beyond reproducing the stages of the disorder: Charcot and his colleagues also used hypnotism to direct little plays, telling a patient, for instance, that half of her body was married to one man and half to another, and watching as two real men caressed her. Georges Didi-Huberman's influential study of Salpêtrière makes the connection explicit: "The Tuesday Lectures ... are written, or rather rewritten, just like plays, with lines, soliloquies, stage directions, asides by the hero, and so on." There was also quite a bit of exchange between Salpêtrière and the commercial stage: some of Charcot's hysterics became stars in their own rights, stage hypnotists would advertise that they were following Charcot's methods, and Sarah Bernhardt, who attended the Tuesday sessions, used what she saw as material for at least one of her roles. This theatricality was a central part of Charcot's scandalous discrediting in the late 1880s, when Hippolyte Bernheim demonstrated that hypnosis was not, as Charcot had insisted, something possible only in cases of hysteria, but rather could be practiced on almost anyone. In the end, it was all just theater.

Whether or not Boleslavsky intended to cite Charcot in his acting manual, Charcot's hypnotic performances of hysteria are certainly a key precursor to the "pathological hypnotism" that the Creature's director derided in her too-real Ophelia. In fact, Boleslavsky may have had a good reason for trying to distance his kind of acting from Charcot's performances. For although the spectacles of hypnotism and hysteria exemplified precisely the histrionic theater that Stanislavsky rejected, the psycho-theatrical tradition of "pathological hypnotism" was transmitted through him all the same. Stanislavsky developed the affective, or emotional, memory exercise, which would become so important to Strasberg, after reading Théodule Ribot, the French founder of psychological science who also crucially influenced Charcot's research into hypnotism and hysteria. Ribot and Charcot were colleagues, and it was Ribot's theory of psychological dissociation that Charcot used to explain how hypnosis worked: how an idea from outside the body was sufficient to transform it. The fact that theater occasioned this transformation is not incidental: Charcot needed Ribot's psychology to explain the workings of his theater, to explain how a psychological suggestion or dissociated idea could have real physical sway over the body.

Ribot has long been a cipher for students and critics of Stanislavsky and the Stanislavskian tradition. Eric Bentley's 1962 essay "Who Was Ribot? Or: Did Stanislavsky Know Any Psychology?" concluded that Ribot was unimportant and Stanislavsky's knowledge of psychology thin at best. Rose Whyman has recently proven these conclusions wrong: Stanislavsky, who heard about Ribot while exploring an actors' training method that could help actors capture the essence of emotion in performance, read a good deal of the psychologist (his copies of his books are substantially annotated). The relatively scant analyses of Ribot's impact on Stanislavsky have tended to place him squarely in the behaviorist tradition: Carnicke, for instance, locates Ribot "at the beginning of psychology as a science, and more specifically of behaviourist studies into the nature of emotion: William James and Carl Lange's psychophysical theory, Ivan Pavlov's and Ivan Sechenov's work on reflexology and conditioning." Behaviorism was an important touchstone for Stanislavsky's thinking about the connection between internal stimuli and external expression, and an important element of Strasberg's thinking as well. But Ribot's impact on the development of psychoanalysis is equally important, and has been much less explored. George Makari's lengthy book on the origins of psychoanalysis begins with Ribot, who, he argues, first put forward the crucial idea that psychological research required both introspection, the collection of subjective impressions, and objective analysis — all crucial theses for the development of psychoanalysis. According to Makari, Ribot thus "created a sturdy framework that organized French psychological inquiry for the next thirty years," the framework that Jean-Martin Charcot adopted around 1885, just as Freud came to Paris to begin studying with him.

Ribot's writings on affective memory have much to reveal about the roots of the emotional memory exercise, as well as its connection to contemporaneous artistic experiments with memory, most obviously that of Proust. What is equally important for my purposes is the light that Ribot's research sheds on the complicated relation between acting and writing. "La Memoire Affective," the pamphlet that became the eleventh chapter of The Psychology of the Emotions (where the term was translated into English as "emotional memory" or "emotion memory," beginning a long-standing practice of interchanging the two terms), describes the research that explicitly inspired Stanislavsky and includes a long quotation of a letter from the poet Sully Prudhomme, which strikingly presents emotional memory as a form of staging. The poet reports that when he reads a poem he wrote with great emotion in the past, he "poses" the feeling "as a model":

It is my habit to separate myself from the verses I have written before finishing them, and to leave them for some time in the drawers of my writing-table. I even forget them sometimes, when the piece has seemed to me a failure, and it may happen to me to find them again several years after. I then re-write them; and I have the power of calling up again, with great clearness, the feeling which had suggested them. This feeling I pose, so to speak, in my inner consciousness, like a model which I am copying by means of the palette and brush of language. This is the exact opposite of improvisation. It seems to me that at such times I am working on the recollection of an affective state.


Excerpted from Method Acting and Its Discontents by Shonni Enelow. Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 3

Part 1 Psycho-Methods "She's Crazy" 25

Chapter 1 "Pathological Hypnotism," Hysterical Methods 31

Chapter 2 The Case of Suddenly Last Summer 47

Part 2 Political Methods State Servant 65

Chapter 3 The Method and the Means: James Baldwin at the Actors Studio 71

Chapter 4 Blues and The Blacks: Acting at the Close of Humanism 91

Part 3 Methods and Scripts

Chapter 5 "Come On, Alice, Stop Acting!" Scriptedness and the Radical Method 103

Notes 123

Bibliography 141

Index 151

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