Navigate / search

Stella Adler scholar explores acting master's interpretation of great American playwrights

By Emily Neie

Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris
Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris

“Mommy, is that God?” a little girl once whispered to her mother as Stella Adler swept into a party in New York City. The girl’s mistake was understandable: 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. Adler began acting at age four in the “Independent Yiddish Art Company,” run by her parents, and continued her acting career until 1961. In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theatre, where she worked closely with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

In 1934, she went with Clurman to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, an acting great famous for developing the Stanislavski System, a set of acting techniques that was tweaked by Strasberg and is known today as Method acting. Adler believed strongly that actors should use their imagination to synthesize characters, whereas Strasberg relied on emotional memory exercises, and the two eventually split over their differences. Adler left the Group Theatre and later opened her own acting school, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949 in New York City, where she taught famous actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. She opened another school, The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, in Los Angeles in 1985 with her friend and protégé Joanne Linville, who continues to run the school today.

The Ransom Center hold Adler’s papers, which were used extensively by Barry Paris in his book Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights (Knopf). The volume peeks into Adler’s classroom and explores the acting master’s take on American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, and others.

The book was put together using transcripts from Adler’s script analysis classes, where lively discussions of American culture, socioeconomics, and history fleshed out the context of the plays—a practice on which Adler placed the utmost importance. Adler once said of the great artists featured in the book: “these playwrights all saw what was wrong.” She believed it was imperative for the actor not only to bring personal experience to the role, but to truly understand the beliefs, prejudices, and lives of the playwrights who crafted the plays she taught. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Adler’s former students, praised the book for “bring[ing] back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision.”

Paris, the book’s editor, did extensive research in the Ransom Center’s holdings on Stella Adler and Harold Clurman.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

By Christine Lee

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as “what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

Tragic play ending transformed into happier film version in "Sweet Bird of Youth"

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Sweet Bird of Youth.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Sweet Bird of Youth.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center concludes tonight with Richard Brooks’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), featuring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. The series features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Chance Wayne (Newman), returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in order to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, whose father ran Chance out of town years before. Chance left to become a movie star, but he never made it big. Instead, he supported himself largely by becoming the lover of older, wealthy women. One of them, the aging movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Page), accompanies him on this trip. As Chance feels his youth and good looks fading, he becomes more and more desperate to seize his dreams of happiness with Heavenly.

For the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Newman and Geraldine Page reprised their Broadway roles. As with all adaptations of Williams plays from stage to screen, significant changes were made. In the play, Heavenly refuses to run away with him; in the final moments, Heavenly’s brother Tom and a group of his friends prepare to attack, and possibly kill, Chance. Several of Williams’s drafts of this final scene depicted Chance being castrated. In the film, however, Heavenly does leave with Chance. The final image is of the couple, along with Alexandra Del Lago, driving into the distance, presumably to live a happy life. This ending removes the aura of perpetual failure that surrounds Chance in the play and turns him into a more traditionally empowered hero.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Method actor Karl Malden stars in both stage and film version of "Baby Doll"

By Elana Estrin

Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'
Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series continues tonight at the Ransom Center with Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), featuring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Malden) looks forward to finally consummating his two-year marriage with Baby Doll (Baker) on her upcoming 20th birthday. When rival Silva Vacarro’s (Wallach) cotton gin burns down, Vacarro plots revenge against Archie Lee through Baby Doll.

Karl Malden was an American method actor who created both the Broadway and film roles of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire as well as the role of Archie in Baby Doll. Malden had a long and full career and was considered, from a casting agent’s point of view, “the ideal Everyman,” as he was remembered in his obituary in The New York Times. Malden’s performances in Williams’s Streetcar and Baby Doll are two of his strongest, and he flourished as an actor under the direction of Elia Kazan. As Malden put it, critics applauded him for being “No. 1 in the No. 2 parts I was destined to get.”

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Vivien Leigh takes a mad turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

The Harry Ransom Center kicks off the Tennessee Williams Film Series tonight with Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1951 film adaptation of Williams’s 1947 play, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. No other play of Williams’s rivaled A Streetcar Named Desire for its intensity, insight, or impact, and it was Williams’s favorite because it embodied “everything I had to say.”

In the story, Blanche DuBois (Leigh) moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law (Brando) while her reality crumbles around her.

British actress Vivien Leigh was the only leading member of the screen cast not originally in the 1947 Broadway production of the play. Leigh was given the movie role because the film’s producers felt Leigh had more box office appeal than Jessica Tandy, largely for her Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Leigh’s performance earned positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “haunting,” adding that “Miss Leigh accomplishes more than a worthy repeat of the performance which Jessica Tandy gave on the stage…Blessed with a beautifully molded and fluently expressive face, a pair of eyes that can flood with emotion, and a body that moves with spirit and style, Miss Leigh has, indeed, created a new Blanche Du Bois on the screen—a woman of even greater fullness, torment, and tragedy.”

Later, Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder for much of her life, would claim that the part was responsible for her illness following the film’s production. She was hospitalized multiple times and treated with electroshock therapy.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

By Courtney Reed

The first major production of a Tennessee Williams play, Battle of Angels (1940), was a complete failure and scandal. The play was poorly received; one critic compared watching the play to being “dunked in mire.” Boston City Council members called for the play to be censored, and it ran for less than two weeks there. As Williams biographer Robert Bray wrote, “the haphazard decision to move the opening from New Haven to Boston in December of 1940 left Williams faced with a priggish audience unprepared to entertain his juxtaposition of sexual and religious themes.”

At the production’s end, Williams left Boston with the intention of finding a quiet place to recuperate. In a letter to his friend, Joe Hazan, Williams writes that he is sickened by the failure of his play, laments that the audience could not recognize the “poetic tragedy” of his work, and calls the critics who reviewed the production second-string “prissy old maids.”

After its failed Boston debut, Williams continuously revised and rewrote Battle of Angels with the hope that the play would be reproduced. He confesses in an “Imaginary Interview” with himself, “there was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart, that never let go, and I kept re-writing the play, I guess I must have re-written it once every two or three years since 1940.” The play embodied a theme central to his writing—“a prayer for the Wild at Heart Kept in Cages.” The play eventually reemerged some 16 years later, transfigured as Orpheus Descending (1957).

In Williams’s tongue and cheek “Imaginary Interview” Williams, the interviewer, struggles to get a straight answer from Williams, the playwright, about the theme of Battle of Angles:

“Question

I still wish you would tel [sic] what it’s a prayer for, this play.”

Williams, playwright, finally answers Williams, interviewer, that the prayer is for “More tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

Williams was the “primitive poet” of Battle; his prayer for the “Wild at Heart” was one against censorship and for artistic appreciation. He asserted that his work dealt with the “wild at heart kept in cages:” those who struggled against conventions, relationships, expectations, or prejudices that at the very least tamed them and at the worst crushed them beyond recognition.

This typed interview can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.