Mediating the Method: Lee Strasberg, Marlon Brando, and the Sound of Authenticity
Method acting, the mid-twentieth century performance style developed at the Actors Studio in New York City, was both renowned and reviled for its monomaniacal pursuit of emotional authenticity in performance: sacrificing textual integrity, and sometimes even intelligibility, to feeling. (Marlon Brando’s infamous mumbling is a case in point.) But our obsession with the Method’s psychological contortions can cause us to overlook its creative dialogue with new technologies. In this talk, I’ll examine the media behind the Method: Recording undergirded the exercises and thought of Lee Strasberg, the Method’s Svengali. And Brando’s mumbling, upon closer scrutiny, reveals itself as a canny sound experiment.
The Method, in Strasberg’s conception, purported to be a system bringing the vast trove of affective experience registered in the unconscious mind into rehearsal rooms and auditoriums. But I’ll consider the Method as investigating a different unconscious, what Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious”: those uncanny aspects of everyday life revealed by the surgical incursions of the camera and microphone into reality. The Method’s most salient legacy may have more to do with media—with the ways that recording had already changed performance and spectatorship—than emotional recall.
The debates about Method acting were symptomatic of a new postwar landscape of theatrical performance—and a new conception of everyday life— in which theater was only one of many possible modes of encountering spoken art, most of them mediated to greater or lesser degree by technologies of recording. And these technologies of reproduction and transmission were becoming ubiquitous: squalling radios, TVs rattling in the background, Muzak in elevators. Life was getting noisier, and so was acting.
Jacob Gallagher-Ross is assistant professor of theatre at the University at Buffalo, where he is interim director of the MA and PhD programs in theatre and performance studies. His essays and articles have appeared in Theatre Survey, TDR, PAJ, Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, and Canadian Theatre Review, among other journals. A contributing editor of Theater, he is also a guest-co-editor of two special themed issues: Digital Dramaturgies, from 2012, and Digital Feelings, forthcoming in 2016. A frequent contributor to the Village Voice’s theater section since 2009, he also writes criticism for other national publications.
This talk is based on a chapter from his current book project, Re-Enchanting the World: American Theaters of the Everyday, which is under advance contract with Northwestern University Press. An article-length version of the chapter appeared in the September 2015, issue of Theatre Survey.