Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
I know that I was very moved in many ways by German Expressionism when I was in school: yet there too something was perverse in it to me. It was the end of man, there are no people in it any more; that was especially true of the real German stuff: it’s the bitter end of the world where man is a voice of his class function, and that’s it. Brecht has a lot of that in him, but he’s too much of a poet to be enslaved by it. And yet, at the same time, I learned a great deal from it. I used elements of it that were fused into Death of a Salesman. For instance, I purposefully would not give Ben any character, because for Willy he has no character—which is, psychologically, expressionist, because so many memories come back with a simple tag on them: somebody represents a threat to you, or a promise.
For actors who want to develop their art, there’s no better place to do it than in a permanent repertory company, where you play different parts and you have opportunities you’ve never had in a lifetime on Broadway.
But the Method is in the air: the actor is defending himself from the Philistine, vulgar public. I had a girl in my play I couldn’t hear, and the acoustics in that little theater we were using were simply magnificent. I said to her, “I can’t hear you,” and I kept on saying, “I can’t hear you.” She finally got furious and said to me, in effect, that she was acting the truth, and that she was not going to prostitute herself to the audience. That was the living end!
In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions; I’ve heard actors change the order of lines in my work and tell me that the lines are only, so to speak, the libretto for the music—that the actor is the main force that the audience is watching and that the playwright is his servant. They are told that the analysis of the text, and the rhythm of the text, the verbal texture, is of no importance whatever. This is Method, as they are teaching it, which is, of course, a perversion of it, if you go back to the beginning. But there was always a tendency in that direction. Chekhov, himself, said that Stanislavsky had perverted The Seagull.
What Chekhov was doing was eliminating the histrionics of his actors by incorporating them in the writing: the internal life was what he was writing about. And Stanislavsky’s direction was also internal: for the first time he was trying to motivate every move from within instead of imitating an action; which is what acting should be. When you eliminate the vital element of the actor in the community and simply make a psychiatric figure on the stage who is thinking profound thoughts which he doesn’t let anyone know about, then it’s a perversion.
This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part IV will post next Wednesday.)