The ancient Greeks believed an oracle was a kind of priestess that the gods spoke through. And there’s many an actor alive today that believe that their teacher, Stella Adler — arguably the most influential acting teacher of the 20th century — was their own personal oracle. In Barry Paris’ rich and impassioned new book, Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, we get a chance to listen in at the altar of this master interpreter, and if we’re attentive enough, we might even get a little closer to life’s truths. They’re writ large, but in Adler’s universe, you’d better be as big as the challenge or don’t bother.

Adler never minced words. “An actor has to be big, enormous — a giant. His mind, his feeling, his ability to interpret must be that of a giant.” That every playwright writes in his own historical moment was another of her truisms. “He doesn’t write your history,” she chides. She insisted that every actor find the play and the playwright in himself. “When you do an author, you must know him. If you don’t know the author, you’re crazy.”

And what authors! Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee are her literary giants. (Arguably, a curious omission in this prestigious lineup is Lillian Hellman, and we can only surmise that Adler decided against a reverential nod to this playwright, based on the most relevant material available to Paris’ inspection.)

Through Paris’ brilliant editing, we get an inside glimpse of not only Adler’s philosophy of script analysis, but through his own sifting of countless lecture tapes, the ways in which he captured her singular voice: direct, uncompromising, driving, obsessive, lofty, down-to-earth, always theatrical, and more often than not, mesmerizing. There is no better example of Adler’s approach than in her breakdown of Odets’ Golden Boy, his stirring play about a young boxer torn between his love of music and the promise of a career in the ring. The play was first presented by the Group Theatre on Broadway in 1937 with Luther Adler, Stella’s brother, in the lead. Adler, a co-founder of the Group had a long friendship with Odets and once said to him, “Clifford, if you don’t become a genius, I’ll never forgive you.”

Adler understands what makes an artist tick, like Golden Boy Joe Bonaparte’s frustrating need to fit into the society. She tells her class, “Even in good times, the actor is never really part of the world. I don’t know any society where the lawyer and the doctor sit down and have dinner with the actor, if they can avoid it.” She spills out her own truths about her brother Luther. “He is not companionable — typical of the artist… Luther does not belong to a house.” She prods her students about the script. “Grab that truth. Take your time but grab it. The truth is not in the lines.” She demands that they see the whore in Joe’s girlfriend, Lorna. “She lets herself be experienced, but she doesn’t experience it.” Adler confesses she’s sorry she missed that profession. “I’d give my life to know as much as Lorna does about men.” Adler talks about the role of the soul in Joe’s struggle. When Lorna tells him that when he wants all the money and fame, his soul hurts, for Adler that’s the culminating moment for him. “That’s it! He’s always left room for the soul but it bothered him inside…the way it holds up every ambitious man.” This revelatory unraveling of character is what Adler excels at.

But does it work on the page? Absolutely; nevertheless, the reader would do best to approach the text slowly, a chapter at a time, and then put it briefly aside. Confronting Adler through her words can be as intense as the live experience was to her students. She talks and you listen. Such confrontations take time to be digested. You don’t follow a rich meal an hour later with another, not if you know what’s good for you. This rat-a-tat-tat, in-your-face approach is what gives the book its greatest strengths but also its limitations. You, as the reader, must be willing to put your own reservations on hold and accept that a woman whose life was about living and breathing great theatre may know more about its lessons than you. After all, that’s why we go to great teachers, isn’t it?

Paris wisely includes a full text from one of this play’s key scenes, which is interspersed line by line with Adler’s own commentary. In Act One, Joe and Lorna sit on a park bench, getting to know each other better. He asks her permission to speak his mind and warns her if she laughs, he’ll never speak to her again. Adler gives the subtext: “So be careful of me. This character is a killer.” He goes on to tell Lorna that “with music, I’m never alone when I’m alone.” He explains that nothing is closed to him when he plays music. He’s no longer afraid. Adler responds: “‘I’m not alone when I’m alone’ is mystical. Don’t try too hard to make it logical because it’s not. Tennessee (Williams) does it all the time.” Adler quotes Tom’s lines from The Glass Menagerie: “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further. But time is the distance between two points.” Adler is nothing if not direct with the script. “Who the hell knows what he’s talking about?” She tells us Joe is trying to tell the truth, which involves trying to express the inexpressible.

Some readers will not be as familiar as others with a script format, and to see the dialogue in tandem with Adler’s comments is invaluable. Though her translation of the truths underlying such plays as O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to name just a few, are informative and often riveting, and with detailed synopses by Paris throughout, this book could do no better service to Adler than if the same reader went straight to the great plays themselves. Armed with Adler’s insights, it’s the perfect companion. Paris doesn’t avoid her “yiddishisms” either. To her students she says, “I’m going to treat you as if you were millions of years old, not just pishers on the street.” She wants them to be as big as the company they keep.

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