As a polemic against Method acting and its acolytes, "True and False"
is more common sense than heresy.by Matthew Surrence
ichard Dreyfuss was once asked in an interview if he subscribed to the Method or to some other system of acting. How do you do it? the interviewer wanted to know. What do you use to create a character?
"Whatever works," was Dreyfuss' answer.
A most practical approach. Ultimately, what matters is creating a good performance, and whatever an actor does to bring that about is obviously effective. But many actors, David Mamet asserts in his provocative new book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (Pantheon Books, $20, 127 pp.), are not so much artists concerned with what actually works as acolytes adhering to a theoretical received wisdom that hampers rather than helps their performances.
Instead of employing Dreyfuss' realistic, pragmatic use of any and every tool at his disposal to help him realize his proper objective--to bring the character he's playing to imagined, and imaginative, life--Mamet observes that contemporary actors, particularly those whose primary performing venue is the classroom rather than the public stage, have fallen prey to an unthinking belief in the Stanislavski-derived Method, which, the author charges, is a theory that simply doesn't work.
Mamet's book will arouse renewed debate about this much chewed-over subject. On the dust jacket, along with approving quotes from Steve Martin and familiar Mamet actors Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, is a conflicted blurb from Alec Baldwin: "I agree with almost nothing Mr. Mamet says in this book and encourage you to devour every word." (It would be enlightening to know whether Baldwin's disagreement is informed by an effective use of Method techniques in his excellent performance in the film of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.)
Presumably, most of what Baldwin disagrees with is Mamet's attack on Stanislavski, whom the author dismisses as a rich amateur dilettante, and the approach to acting that Stanislavski advocated, which has come to be known as Method acting. But True and False is not the place to look for a detailed examination of Stanislavski's work, or of the refinements, adjustments, and even permutations the Method has undergone in the United States. The names Adler, Strasberg, Hagen, and Meisner never come up; nor do those of any actors or directors associated with the Actors Studio. In one instance, Mamet's scholarship is sloppy: While advocating a servile role for the actor within the grand design of the play or film, Mamet mistakenly attributes to Eisenstein a theory of Pudovkin's.
Rarely does Mamet offer specific examples to support his opinions; much of what he does, especially in the early sections of his 127-page polemic, is to issue sweeping pronouncements: "The Stanislavski 'Method' is a cult," or, "It's the job of the actor to show up, and use the lines and his or her will and common sense, to attempt to achieve a goal similar to that of the protagonist. And that is the end of the actor's job."
This is heresy? When has the Method not been reviled? Mamet's supposed challenge to received acting wisdom is old news to anyone familiar with the history of the craft of American acting in the 20th century; it's the response of every actor or director who, in fear of the craft's complex demands, has invoked Spencer Tracy's unhelpful words: "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture."
Nature or Nurture
When Stanislavski began his investigations into acting in the late 1880s, to help himself and other actors eradicate falsity and summon theatrical truth, it was in response to the style of acting common at that time in Russia. The introspective style of acting developed in the U.S. at the Actors Studio was a similar rejection of pre-World War II acting styles, a rejection that had its coeval equivalent in the new approaches that were introduced in other arts: Modern jazz, abstract expressionism, and Beat poetry all made use of a heretofore unexpressed inner life of the artist to achieve an honesty and immediacy analogous to the introspection and heightened emotion that marked both the best examples and the worst excesses of Method acting.
It's inevitable that what is once new eventually becomes outmoded. That applies to both the Method--and to Method-bashing. Forty years ago it might have been a bracing challenge to upend dearly held tenets of the Method; today it's a bore. A more interesting question might be, What makes good acting--effective techniques or gifted actors? If the Method is bogus, why have good performances been created by its adherents? Conversely, if it is effective, shouldn't all Method practitioners always turn in good performances? Does any acting style work consistently for all? Is any actor always good?
Good acting is an art, not a science; it's hit and miss based on a mysterious mix of circumstances--the right performer saying the right lines in the right part with the right director and the right fellow cast members.
Some of Mamet's attack seems merely to be the vanguard artist's inevitable rejection of the old; some of it, particularly the slings and arrows aimed at the institutionalization of acting in private and public schools and universities, is both apt and familiarly personal--those conversant with Mamet's thematic concerns as a dramatist will recognize his abhorrence for administrative authoritarianism.
But in deriding doctrinaire Method acting, Mamet is beating a straw technique. Few contemporary actors or acting teachers I have encountered either practice or advocate a strict adherence to the Method. Mamet is well within the fold of current dogma when he stresses that actors must "play the action." The effectiveness and proper practice of affective, emotional, and sense memory have been exhaustively argued; his contribution to the argument--that they're "hogwash"--could benefit from deeper examination.
When he says that it's not the actor's job to be moved but to move the audience, he is echoing what countless acting teachers have declared, some ignorantly, some rebelliously, most making an honest attempt to correct the confusions that give rise to fuzzy, navel-gazing performances.
But if Mamet's "heresy" is actually closer to current orthodoxy, much of his common sense is sound. Although some commonplace advice is dispensed in a Polonius-like voice ("Know your lines cold. Choose a good, fun, physical objective. Cultivate a love of skill"), many of his other points are presented with admirable clarity, even if they are not original to Mamet.
The author properly criticizes a favorite, meaningless cant phrase of actors and acting teachers, "becoming the character." Mamet rightly points out that an actor doesn't "become" the character any more than a dancer becomes a dance or a musician becomes a concerto. It seems that actors lapse into such talk because sometimes actors find such a true groove in performance that it feels as if they have merged with the character (and their fellow actors and audience) on some kind of transcendent plane. All performers who have gotten it exceptionally right have experienced this. For actors, I think it gives rise to such murky expressions because the actor's instrument is himself; and, along with his body and voice, a large part of what an actor employs in the portrayal of his part is his imagination, his intellect, and his emotions.
In the case of the latter, Mamet would strenuously disagree: "[The actor's] job is to get out onstage and act in spite of his feelings," he says. But that does not take into account that in addition to his body and voice, an actor brings his thoughts and emotions to bear on everything he does. To tell an actor at any moment to shut off his feelings is ignoring reality and inhibiting the possibility of inspiration. An actor, in rehearsal or performance, who is aware of his feelings and open to them, and can put them intelligently in service of the script, is poised to create a fresh, unexpected, and true interpretation of his part.
It's only when the actor's feelings supersede, rather than serve, the play that they are out of place. In my experience, actors work poorly when they fail to tune in to their feelings and their thoughts as they create and then perform their characters; they work finely when they do.
In the chapter "Find Your Mark," Mamet craftily acknowledges the actor's need to be alert to his emotions: "We say, 'I can't play the scene in Hamlet because I am unprepared, I can't play the scene in Othello because I don't quite trust those around me, I can't play Desdemona because I don't believe the fellow playing Othello would actually act that way.' " As Mamet deftly points out, these are all examples of actors' feelings that are of course analogous to the feelings of their characters.
"How can the actor know that that which he or she is feeling in the moment is not only acceptable but an eloquent and beautiful part of the play?" Mamet asks. The actor cannot, he answers. Act on it, he says. But how?
Mamet doesn't offer a clue, other than such boilerplate as "have courage." But that is too general, and as impossible to achieve as "be happy." The poor performances I see don't suffer from too much emotion but from phony, calculated, simulated emotion that doesn't seem to come from any place other than a reliance on clichƒ in the absence of skill or directorial help.
Mamet says actors learn by being on the stage, but what the bad stage actors I see appear to have learned, and repeatedly demonstrate, is not how to overwhelm their characters with their own emotions--such rare honesty, even in excess, would be welcome--but the short cuts that gull theatregoers and critics into accepting their crude, repetitive simulations as credible stage performing, even though those audiences must know that what they are applauding bears no resemblance to the kind of real acting that makes them gasp in recognition, as we do at such great performances as, say, Al Pacino's in Donnie Brasco.
Rather than declaring anything the actor has at his disposal to be "hogwash," we should instead take the kind of humble, questioning approach that Stanislavski displayed in his original notebooks; we should look to those actors who consistently give good performances, and ask them what works. To Mamet, what works is for the actor to put his concentration--a subject about which he is quite lucid--to a task outside himself.
With that point I agree, but would add a paradoxical wrinkle: Sometimes the actor's task is to become open to and to explore what he is feeling, what his physical sensations and thoughts are--to bring that investigation to the surface, and bring it to bear upon his character. Often, the task of trying accurately to reveal what he's feeling is precisely the action that takes the actor outside himself. Invariably, whenever an actor does that--in class, onstage, or on film--he becomes immediately compelling.
"Nothing in life is as interesting as a man trying to get a knot out of his shoelace," Mamet says, quoting Brecht. The solipsistic actor, concerned only with his emotion--his emoting--or with the effect he's creating, is the actor who, as Stanislavski put it, is improperly in love with "himself in the art." He's not focused on the task or the character but on himself.
Only when the actor puts his full self--body, voice, mind, emotion--at the service of an honest exploration of both himself and the material, and combines the two to create his unique interpretation, does he attain that state both Mamet and Stanislavski would agree is the right one for the actor.
For only then, as Stanislavski put it, is he cultivating the art in hims