August 21, 2007

Letters to a Young Actor

by Robert Brustein

Twenty six short essays or letters explore how one might learn to act — and think about acting — and the trials and challenges of a life in the theater. This collection might be best viewed as a response to David Mamet's True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor; Brustein and Mamet clearly respect and value each other, but they appreciate very different aspects of the theater and Mamet's abjuration to "Stand up, speak out, and stay out of school" is anathema to Brustein.

Just offstage, a third party to the dialogue is Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler, proponents the The Method, which Mamet views as a delusive infringement into the playwright's special domain and about which Brustein is deeply ambivalent, treasuring the psychological depth of many Method-influenced performances but mistrusting the dangers of amateur psychology and the perils of identification.

The book is also interesting for its portrayal of an experienced teacher looking back on a career of students. Uniquely here, non-professionals may feel they know the teacher (as an artistic director and a critic) and we also know a number of his students (Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones).

Of special interest is Brustein's impassioned insistence that criticism should work in the service of art instead of alternating between amusing ridicule (to sell newspapers) and and empty praise (to sell tickets). Brustein describes a a variety of attempts to deflect criticism, instead, into the pursuit of artistic truth. All failed.