Stella Adler premieres Awake and Sing.
The opening night of Clifford Odets’ play Awake and Sing on Broadway represented both the high point and a transition for actress Stella Adler.
The middle child of the foremost actors of the Yiddish stage, Jacob and Sara Adler, she made her stage debut at the age of four in Richard III. In the 1920s, she was a star of the Yiddish theatre, appearing in over one hundred roles, and toured Europe and Latin America. At the American Laboratory Theatre, she was introduced to the tenets of the Stanislavsky system of performing, where her teachers stressed “affective memory”: recalling personal traumatic events to evoke emotion and realism. Along with fellow students Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, she joined the Group Theatre, an ensemble dedicated to collaboration on all aspects of a play’s production and meaning. The Group Theatre’s introduction of Method acting to America made their productions renowned in the theatrical world. Clurman recalled Adler’s personality at the time as “poetically theatrical, reminiscent of some past beauty in a culture I had perhaps never seen, but that was part of an atavistic dream. With all the imperious flamboyance of an older theatrical tradition—European in its roots—she was somehow fragile, vulnerable, gay with mother wit and stage fragrance.”
Awake and Sing takes its title from Isaiah 26:19: “Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust.” The cast included Adler’s brother Luther, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, and Sanford Meisner. The play is considered Odets’ finest comic drama, and it was an immediate hit on Broadway. As Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times of the play, “Dinner becomes a simmering battle between factions, in which grievances and recriminations are passed around the table along with the salt and pepper.” The play’s rallying cry was “Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”
Yet after the run of Awake and Sing, Adler took a leave of absence from the company. She felt stifled by the group’s sharing of leading and supporting roles and its strict dictates regarding the Method. She travelled to Paris to study with Stanislavsky himself, who sent her back to America with a new perspective on his approach to theatrical truth. “Don’t use your conscious past,” she urged the company on her return. “Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character.” She began giving her first acting classes, the beginning of a 57-year career.
Adler went to Hollywood, where she acted and produced films. She directed a season of Group Theatre productions, including the acclaimed debut of Odets’ play Golden Boy. Though she continued to appear onstage and to direct, she founded the Stella Adler Theatre Studio (later the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting), where her students included Warren Beatty, Robert DeNiro, and Marlon Brando. Adler taught her students to build characters out of the material provided in the playwright’s text, within the context of the historical period presented in the play, and motivated by the actors’ imagination rather than by their personal experiences. Adler died in Los Angeles in 1992.
Far from leaving her Yiddish experience behind, she used its strengths to develop her own persona and acting skills and had the intelligence to modify these through her experience with Stanislavsky. More important for the development of theater in America, she transmitted the new acting techniques to her students and energized a generation of younger actors who shared her passion for the theater.
Sources: “Awake and Sing!” Jewish Currents.