The Joy of Truth

As the summer begins, I’ve been fighting off a predictable cycle of postseason depression by enjoying a great new book about a different vocation. The book is The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, by the dramatist Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury, 2022). My public library was kind enough to order a copy and reserve it for me.

Why is this book doing so much to cheer me up? Because it’s about a multigenerational group of people who dedicated themselves to figuring out how to tell truer stories—how to develop more vivid, more authentic, and more meaningful experiences for audiences watching the stage and screen.

The Method is, of course, a particular approach to acting. Today, it’s widely understood to refer to a style of overacting. (“Method acting” typically means relying on gimmicks like living 24/7 as your character.) Historically, the Method is also strongly associated with a few actors who burned a path across American culture from New York to Los Angeles in the postwar era—especially men like Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, known for the intense energy they brought to the movie screen. But Isaac Butler argues that both of these impressions are misleading.

Marlon Brando in 1950 (Photoplay); public domain

True, the Method was (and is) embodied in a few literal schools of acting, all of which base their work ultimately on the theories of the Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). However, Butler argues that the Method (or the “system,” as Stanislavski called it) was never just one thing. From the very start, it was contested. Even Stanislavski was known to change his mind fundamentally, and his charismatic disciples in America, especially Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, sometimes fought bitterly over what his theories meant and how they could be implemented safely.

What practitioners of the Method all had in common, in the end, was Stanislavski’s elusive ideal of perezhivanie, which Butler translates as “‘experiencing,’ or perhaps ‘re-experiencing.'” This is a state of integrity in which “the actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels, perhaps even think what the character thinks.”

As a teacher, I find this book compelling in part because it’s a book about great teachers. It’s exciting just on that basis. But as a history teacher, I particularly appreciate this book as a celebration of the joy of helping audiences experience true stories in more authentic ways.

My “methods” are fundamentally different, of course. It would be a mistake to think I’m reading this book as a performer, in the sense that any of the actors in this book were performers. But my teaching methods still focus on the task of bridging the external worlds of the past and the internal worlds of my students—achieving a different kind of perezhivanie.

It’s a good book, and many other teachers will probably enjoy it. If you’d like to know more, I can recommend Isaac Butler’s interviews with Terry Gross and Karen Han.