How the Method Made Acting Modern

Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker:

In January, 1923, Lee Strasberg went to Al Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre to see “Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich,” a nineteenth-century Russian play about sixteenth-century Russian politics, performed, in Russian, by a company called the Moscow Art Theatre. Strasberg, twenty-one years old, was born in a Polish shtetl and brought up on the Lower East Side. He worked as a bookkeeper for a business that sold human hair. He didn’t know Russian.

What he knew was acting. As a kid, Strasberg had performed in a few plays—his brother-in-law did the makeup for an amateur Yiddish theatre troupe—and by the time he graduated from high school he had fallen headlong in love with the theatre. He went to show after show on Broadway, where he saw extraordinary performances by some of the great actors of the day: Jeanne Eagels, Giovanni Grasso, Eleonora Duse. Other performances should have been extraordinary but weren’t. Sometimes an actor seemed to glow with a private, ineffable fire, only to lose the spark halfway through the play. Or an actor might start off stiff and flat and then suddenly flare with “inner life.”

Strasberg began to think about what made some performances succeed and some fail, and concluded that it must have to do with whether or not the actor was feeling inspired. This presented its own dilemma, because inspiration is hellishly inconsistent. You can’t just flip a switch and expect an inner bulb to go on. Or can you?

More here.