Method acting and the limits of identity in the American mid-century
Over the last thirty years, scholars have overwhelmingly viewed Lee Strasberg’s Method acting through the characterizations of Cold War containment culture, with its bankrupt liberal humanism, coercive universalism and repression of difference, deterministic psychology, and milquetoast realism. This dissertation upends these critical stereotypes, pairing close readings of drama and film with historical analysis to demonstrate that Method acting was deeply intertwined with the political and philosophical concerns of its time, and far more aesthetically complex than has previously been understood. In fact, Method acting’s emphasis on personal experience conceals a stronger implication that identities are porous, that emotional experiences are interchangeable, and that psychological identification is literally transformative. Strasberg’s Method acting, based on the realist acting techniques of Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky but developed along distinct lines in the United States, reflects the complex relationship mid-century American culture had with psychology and psychoanalysis, a relation which is responsible for many of the most striking elements of mid-century American drama. Focusing on the years 1958 to 1964, a transitional moment for American theater, this dissertation charts the Method’s strange and extraordinary underside, where the containment of body and stage wrangle with an uncontrollable boundary confusion, universalism provokes unnatural and promiscuous alliances, and authenticity encounters its opposite. Three plays produced in these years anchor the chapters: Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams, Blues for Mister Charlie, by James Baldwin, and The Blacks , by Jean Genet. In these close readings, I use the Method as a hermeneutic: each playwright wrestled with the problems the Method pulled together in its theory of dramatic subjectivity. The epilogue extends my analysis to film, showing how Method acting catalyzed cinematic innovation and was transformed in the process. Method acting is an American cultural phenomenon, and it continues to hold sway in the popular imagination; as this dissertation demonstrates, its concerns speak not only to mid-century theater and film but also to questions of identity and identification that continue to plague our cultural and political landscape.
0323: American studies