Author Richard Hornby is no crackpot extremist peddling a newfangled method, but a traditional Stanislavskian calling for a careful re-reading of the Master, to be achieved by disentangling him from his chief American (mis)interpreter, Lee Strasberg.
Like Adler, Hornby objects to the way Strasberg’s emphasis on self-analysis conflates acting with psychoanalysis, and thereby diminishes the importance of the actor’s work on the script and character and on other aspects of craft like speech and movement. “Your talent is in your imagination the rest is lice!” Adler warned her students; and echoing Adlerian doctrine, Hornby attests that the essence of acting is self-transformation and that therefore acting is not just like life. In chorus with Adler, Hornby argues that acting demands a size and an energy that place the actor in a world apart: “The stage is a platform, and is not to be confused with the street,” Adler told students, many of whom she suspected of being Method mumblers at heart.Unlike Adler, however, who dismissed Strasberg as a “laughingstock,” Hornby is not out for the kill.
He acknowledges Strasberg’s great influence, admits that his Method has produced some remarkable results (though he doesn’t pause to consider why), and even concedes that Strasberg’s affective memory, in which actors are trained to recall responses to charged past events in their own lives, is a technique all performers should know how to use. More dispassionate than Adler, Hornby presents Strasberg as flawed but gifted, a man whose private wounds pervaded his approach to acting, Astutely, Hornby links Strasberg’s glacial demeanor to his obsession with the actor’s problems in expressing emotion.
To Hornby, with his wide-ranging interests, Strasbergian mimesis diminishes acting’s stature and its possibilities.End the strangleholdHornby’s “radical view” is a call to dislodge the Strasberg Method from its stranglehold over the teaching and practice of acting in America. In Strasberg-influenced programs, a little learning is dangerous – a Strasberg subtext was that literary analysis posed a potentially mortal threat to the actor’s instincts; Hornby wants to take acting out of Method-based workshops, where actors examine their own experiences, and put it back into an old-fashioned liberal arts curriculum where acting students learn about the history and theory of their art, become familiar with the dramatic literature of many different cultures and periods, and instead of doing scenes and monologues from contemporary pieces have the chance to perform in a broad range of full-length plays from the past. For Hornby, quite unlike Strasberg, the play’s the thing, and he wants actors to read widely so they will not make the mistake of assuming that ancient Greeks or the Elizabethans were just like us.
In his brief, demanding book, which is part polemic, part how-to, part theory and part history, Hornby practices what he preaches. His discourse goes far beyond Strasbergian parameters as he attempts to define the essence of acting; explains why we are drawn to it; grapples bravely if inconclusively with the elusive nature of the actor’s creative state; and along the way provides citations from a pantheon that includes Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Descartes, Diderot, Coquelin and contemporary theory in semiotics, structuralism and phenomenology.Realist or idealist?Hornby is a teacher of acting who writes in a brisk, epigrammatic style, a style to take notes to. While he is enough of a realist to admit that theatre schools exist to give out-of-work actors jobs as teachers, he is ultimately, and perhaps unavoidably, an ivory-tower idealist.
Strasberg’s approach is certainly limited, but it has become so deep-rooted because it trains actors to animate the kinds of characters in the kinds of stories most audiences want to see. The exciting, humanistic program Hornby envisions, on the other hand, would enable actors to speak verse, to understand the historical purpose of the use of masks in Greek tragedy and the semiotics of the performance space in Shakespeare’s Globe, and to master a range of styles from Brecht’s alienation theory to Meyerhold’s biomechanics to Vakhantangov’s fantastic realism; and for these splendidly prepared players there would be few jobs except for those in the kind of university theatre department Hornby proposes as his model.As Hornby must recognize but chooses not to stress, versatility of the type he advocates is not, and perhaps never has been, an asset in the American theatrical marketplace, where the raw native style, in which actors sell personality, has traditionally won out over the technical British style in which actors hide out behind an assortment of characters. The performers who do most of the acting in movies and on television and even in the theatre speak and move just like regular folks, projecting a here-and-now quality audiences are comfortable with.At the end of his book Hornby predicts optimistically about his educated actors that “theatre will change them, and they will change theatre.” But in a culture whose highest-paid performers are Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, would he not be whistling in the dark?