The Books: On Directing, by Harold Clurman

It is time to say goodbye to the Biography shelf. I still have many self-described genres to get through. I decided to move on to my messy well-thumbed shelf of Acting/Theatre books. Books on the history of acting, history of theatre, different methods, how-to books, these are mostly books I have had since high school.

Daily Book Excerpt: Theatre

First book on the acting/theatre shelf is the classic On Directing, by Harold Clurman


Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford: founders of the Group Theatre

When I first discovered that acting was a craft, practiced by people who worked at it (thanks to the one-two punch of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and James Dean in East of Eden when I was 12), I went to work, like the good librarian’s daughter that I am. I even worked as a page in a library at the time. I was a kid. It was my first job. I was methodical. One by one, I read every book on the entertainment shelf. I read Shelley Winters’ memoir. I read Carroll Baker’s autobiography (which launched a thousand ships in my life). I read The Mutant King. I read everything. Certain names kept coming up. Lee Strasberg. Elia Kazan. Harold Clurman. So I researched them too. By the time I was 15, 16, I felt like I had been an ensemble member of the Group Theatre, I knew the characters so well.

Harold Clurman grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of Jewish immigrant parents (like so many of the Group Theatre members did). He was influenced by the Yiddish Theatre, thriving at that time (oh, for a time machine). He went to Columbia, and then went to France to study theatre. He was a young man, and not sure what his gifts were, although he knew what he was passionate about. He started out doing a little bit of everything, acting, stage managing, directors’ assistants. He was interested in the new “Stanislavsky System”, and studied with the great Richard Boleslavsky (as many of the Group Theatre people did – you can see why these people all eventually came together). Clurman’s work in the New York theatre of the 1920s left him dissatisfied on an almost existential level. He had seen the national theatres of France and Russia, and felt that the work was much more vital, more relevant to the actual experiences of the people than what was going on in the glittering high-class comedies and farces on Broadway at that time. He hungered for a theatre that mattered. He hungered for a theatre that was an actual voice.

He found a couple of kindred spirits who felt the same way. Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. They wondered if others felt the same way. Clurman began holding late-night lectures for actors, who would come by after performing in their shows. Clurman was not shy. He could TALK. He would talk for hours. You had to drag him from the room. The lectures brought together actors and other members of the theatre (designers, stage managers) who also felt dissatisfied with the state of American theatre. (There’s the famous story of a young understudy attending one of Clurman’s lectures. She listened politely, didn’t say a word, but when she got up to leave she said, “This may be all right for you people. But I’m going to be a star, you see.” Katharine Hepburn wasn’t shy either, even before she was famous.) Crawford, Strasberg, and Clurman continued their talks in private and then decided to take it to the next level. They would form a permanent ensemble company devoted to doing new work from new voices, and creating a distinctly American style. They would incorporate the Stanislavsky system in their work so that all of the actors in the ensemble were coming from the same place and had the same background. They would live, breathe, eat, their company. They asked about 30 people to come away for an intensive summer retreat at a farm in Connecticut. And that was the birth of the Group Theatre, which only lasted a decade (1931 -41) but represented a revolution (still incomplete) in American theatre, and produced such talents as John Garfield, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Franchot Tone, and many many more. One of the most important legacies of the Group Theatre is that it produced the generation of acting teachers (Adler, Strasberg, Meisner, Bobby Lewis) that would have such a gigantic impact on American acting that it made phenoms like Marlon Brando possible. Ironic, that these people who were so devoted to the theatre would actually end up articulating an acting style that was MADE for the cinema.

Harold Clurman was the pontificator, the theorizer. Cheryl Crawford was the businesswoman. Lee Strasberg was the director and acting mentor. Clurman did do some directing with the Group, and certainly went on and directed things after the Group’s demise (as did Crawford). All of them had successful careers.

Harold Clurman and lead actress Stella Adler had a stormy off-on relationship for years before marrying in 1940. They divorced in 1960. Their tempestuous relationship was always a source of gossip during the Group years. I love the thought of them as a couple. It’s so hot and bizarre. They remained friends and sparring partners even after the divorce.

He directed only one film, a noir called Deadline at Dawn – written by his old Group colleague Clifford Odets. I reviewed it for Noir of the Week. Clurman ended up being a prolific theatre critic (volumes of his reviews are now in existence), and his voice as a critic of the theatre is perhaps his second most important legacy (the first being the Group Theatre). By writing about theatre to a wide audience, he helped people know how to think about it, talk about it, what to look for. His reviews are magnificent. Opinions on him as a director vary. Uta Hagen said he changed her life when he directed her. Others felt that he was not up to the task, that he was more of an Ivory Tower guy than someone who knew how to deal with the compromises that needed to be made in the everyday.

Either way, he was a giant figure in the 20th century theatrical world.

He’s written a number of books, and On Directing was a classic immediately upon its publication. It is still taught in university undergraduate theatre programs. It is a guidebook to people who want to direct for the theatre. He covers everything. How to think about set design, lighting, casting, but perhaps his most important contribution is in the script analysis realm. (His wife, Stella Adler, as a teacher, was also second to none when it came to script analysis. Robert DeNiro studied with her and said that her script analysis class was the best class he ever took.) Clurman breaks scripts down into their “spine”, an easily articulated simple sentence, that then dictates every decision you make as a director. The set must dovetail with the spine, the lighting choices, the casting. Each character has a “spine” too. This is the ultimate objective of the character: To get to Moscow, to save my house, to save my marriage. Some of this I have found, as an actress, to be a bit too reductive. Human beings, out in the world, can’t really be boiled down like that – it can make your choices too predictable – but it is really really helpful when starting to work on a script to think in terms of “spine”. Because then you get in touch with my acting teacher in college used to call “the pulse of the playwright”. Hamlet has many elements to his character, but the spine, the one driving force, is to avenge the death of his father. All else comes from that. It’s helpful to keep it simple, stupid, when you’re working on these great plays.

Here is an excerpt from Clurman’s classic On Directing. This excerpt has to do with “style”.

Excerpt from On Directing, Harold Clurman

All plays worthy of the name have a style. “Stylization” has come to designate any style which markedly departs from the “realistic”. When actors paint their faces to resemble masks, when furniture and props stand askew on the stage, we speak of “stylization”. This is a shorthand indication that conventional realism has been eschewed. But stylization is of many kinds; only a method of presentation particular to each play may be spoken of as a style.

We read of the Greeks, the Elizabethan, the Renaissance, the neo-classic styles. Some nomenclature is more historic than aesthetic. It rarely leads the director to a specific solution of his task. Many designers dealing with a text of a bygone era consult illustrations (plates) from the period for architectural shapes, costumes and stage settings. The results – except when the designer is stimulated to his own concept through such investigation – are closer to archaeology than to creative activity.

One source of a play’s style may be related to its national or racial roots. An American, English or French cast, for example, will not duplicate the exact tone of a Chekhov play. Perhaps it shouldn’t try! But within their own limitations every director and his company should study the salient traits of alien behavior patterns, “psychology” and environment which they wish to approximate. They may serve as clues to some aspects of a play’s style.

It may be helpful at times to study the actual “soil” from which a dramatist’s work has emerged. A trip to our Southland may throw some light in preparation for some of Tennessee Williams’ plays. Books relating to costumes, manners, morals and everyday practices, and other literature – novels, chronicles and diaries – as well as the folk music of a particular people and time may also prove invaluable in the quest for a convincing style. My long residence in Paris probably influenced my direction of Anouilh’s Colombe and The Waltz of the Toreadors. In doing Golden Boy I received a considerable education through visits to the haunts of the boxing world and through many meetings with its personnel.

It is important to remember that style in the theatre is not chiefly a matter of decor, costumes and the like, but of acting. The most basic actions – ways of speaking, sitting, walking, smiling, eating, expressing love – are affected. Have you never seen an actress in elaborate court costume of the sixteenth or seventeenth century cross the stage as if she were on her way to a tennis match?

Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders, a London success and a failure in its first New York production, offers a striking example of stylistic confusion in the directing of acting. The play was a cartoon of contemporary American mores. Everything said and done was outrageously caricatured. The constant sounds of shooting to kill on an ordinary city street were more or less taken for granted as normal. The effect was properly comic. At the end of the second act the sympathetic ingenue of the play, while talking to her lover in her home, is shot and killed by an unseen triggerman from the street. The production was ruined: the fun was over.

Such a “death scene” might have been rendered as funny as the rest of the play without sacrificing any of its satiric bite. The actress’s fall should have been made as hideously grotesque as horrible catastrophes and brutalities are made in movie cartoons.

In one production of Macbeth the director’s announced intention was to stage the play as a savage epic. Macbeth’s first appearance struck the keynote: he looked like a hairy beast. But in the scene in which Lady Macduff teases and fondles her little son what we were shown was a genteel young woman being as charmingly maternal as she might be in a commonplace domestic comedy. If the production had been true to the proposed style, all of the acting would have been physically primitive.

I can make my last assertion clearer by another example in a production of a play about Jacob and Rachel I saw many years ago in Paris. The director conceived the characters as creatures barely past the neolithic stage of civilization. Makeup, clothes and vocal timbres corresponded to this conception. Nothing was so memorable for me as the moment when Jacob, to flatter his prospective father-in-law took to tickling Laban’s feet, to which the older man reacted with something like animal “giggles” and movements to show how much he appreciated the compliment.

What is wrong with most “traditional” productions of Shakespeare (this usually means nothing but the nineteenth century English manner) is that they have little relation to the nature of Shakespeare’s writing. I once saw a Moliere play done by youngsters in Greenwich Village which a reviewer condemned as a distortion. All he meant was that the play was not being staged as it was in Paris. But the rowdy Village show was far closer to Moliere’s high jinks than the “conservatory” recitation of Moliere so frequently seen at the Comedie Francaise, the “House of Moliere”.

The conflict between director and playwright is a common subject of controversy. We have all read about Chekhov’s complaint that Stanislavsky had turned his characters into “crybabies”. With authors long dead the issue is certainly a legitimate aesthetic and literary subject for critical dispute. But we may arrive at a firmer grasp of this ticklish problem if we cite instances of our common experience among contemporary playwrights and directors.

Clifford Odets set Golden Boy in such places as an Italian fruit vendor’s home, a gymnasium and a prizefighter’s dressing room. He set Rocket to the Moon in a dentist’s office in mid-Manhattan. Most of the sets I had Mordecai Gorelik design for these plays had very little resemblance to the designated locales. The reason for this is that in reading the two scripts I did not feel that either of the texts was primarily concerned with a depiction of the stated environments or with the business of boxing or dentistry. Audiences accepted the settings – rather free abstractions – as “characteristic”, i.e. “realistic”1

I envisioned one of the characters in Golden Boy, Fuselli, an Italian gangster, as a sort of “Renaissance prince”. It seemed to me to possess a certain elegance, there was something almost “aristocratic” about him. He would be as meticulous about his dress as a courtier; his gait and address would strike the unaware observer as particularly poised and polished. Elia Kazan played the role in accordance with this aim.

When Odets saw a complete run-through of the play during the third week of rehearsal he protested that I had made Fuselli into an utterly unbelievable figure not at all like the New York gangster he had imagined. I knew little about gangsters, and those I had encountered had no similarity to Kazan’s Fuselli. But I insisted that the personage that we had set on the stage was the very image of what Odets had written; with some vehemence I maintained that I had “invented” nothing. Odets allowed Kazan and me to go ahead with our interpretation as much for the sake of peace as from conviction.

After the play’s opening when Thomas Dewey (then New York’s District Attorney) and J. Edgar Hoover had, on different occasions, seen the play they complimented Odets for having so keen a perception of the true nature of gangsters. His intuition as a writer was greater than his visual stage sense.

I have often thought that the production of Edward Albee’s plays – particularly A Delicate Balance and Tiny Alice – might have been rendered truer to his texts and probably more convincing to their audiences if his director, Alan Schneider, had not followed the auctorial instructions so faithfully. The realistic or semi-realistic settings did those plays a disservice.

Jean Vilar, a director who scrupulously adhered to the dramatist’s text with a minimum of scenic elaboration or embellishment, asked, “How many playwrights would be capable of giving one a precise analysis of their play or even of their plots!” Chekhov never tried to explain any of his plays to his director or actors – though he would complain when he found something “wrong”. Stanislavsky wasn’t wearing the right clothes as Trigorin in The Seagull, for example. When asked to be more specific Chekhov would only say, “But it’s in the play. Read the play.” There were no references to the characters’ apparel in any part of the text.

This does not mean that the playwright does not “understand” his script. In a very real sense he thinks in another medium than the director: in words – speeches, story line, situations, characters. The director’s medium is the behavior of living men and women, physical shapes, lights, color, movement. When a director controverts the playwright he does so only to arrive at a result more congruous with what the playwright has conceived than that which the playwright believes he has written.

The director may, of course, be mistaken. The playwright is often converted. The text has been absorbed in the production. The audience or the critic may serve as the final judges. The issue may always hang in the balance, with no final “verdict”. That is part of the theatre’s incalculability. It explains why there can be so many different productions of the same play. As a critic, I did not altogether approve of the Peter Brook-Paul Scofield King Lear but I found it far more interesting than any other production I have seen in which the director assumed the humble position of the dramatist’s lackey. Gorky was wise or simply shrewd when he assured both directors of Yegor Butlitchev – one at the Moscow Art Theatre, the other at the Vakhtangov Theatre – that each had done the play in exactly the right way, though the two productions were so dissimilar that they looked as if they had been based on two different scripts.

To sum up: A particular rather than a generic style is what the director must achieve for each play. Generic styles only benefit academe.

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