Happy for You: A Novel

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Wage War Against Cliché: The Millions Interviews Isaac Butler

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Isaac Butler’s The Method is the rare instance of book that lives up to its blurbs, its hype, and its press. Arriving in February to a hectic flurry of praise, I read and sticky-noted my copy slowly through the spring, savoring its masterful blend of historical research, literary analysis, and celebrity dish. The Method chronicles the evolution of what we now call “method acting”—and regrettably now associate with such bad behavior as Jared Leto sending boxes of dog poop to costars—beginning with its roots in Russian theater as a reaction against the artificial declamatory style of nineteenth-century Continental acting style. Over the course of the next two decades, Konstantin Stanislavski honed what he called “the system,” an at-times opaque practical philosophy of dramatic technique that disciples like Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya brought to America, where it was, in turn, adopted by and refined by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

The Method is illuminating in historical and cultural terms, but I was especially drawn to Butler’s descriptions and analyses of Stanislavski’s ever-evolving craft principles. Butler is thoughtful and eloquent on the subject of craft, and on the way great artists articulate and advance craft through their work. Dramatic craft, from its nascency in Russia to its current iteration in the popular imagination, is the main character of The Method.

Butler was gracious enough to answer some craft-related questions that arose for me during my reading. I hope you’ll find our conversation this as enlightening as I did!

The Millions: As a fiction writer (and more specifically, a fiction writer interested in craft), I helplessly read The Method through the lens of fiction writing and narrative. To a degree, the book also encourages this reading by beginning the book with the figure of Nemirovich, Stanislavski’s original partner, whose specialty was the text itself. I know that you’re a great reader of fiction, and a very smart thinker about it as well—to begin with an open-ended question, was there any aspect of Stanislavski’s acting system, or the ideas that Strasberg and Adler converted into the Method, that felt particularly resonant in terms of reading and writing narrative? And were there any of these ideas that guided the writing of The Method?

Isaac Butler: First of all, thank you! I love your writing about craft, so I take it as a huge compliment that you think I’m a good reader of fiction. I took so many craft lessons from Stanislavski that I feel in some ways like Stanislavski himself taught me how to write a book about his ideas. But isn’t that what we hope will happen on these big projects? That in some way the project teaches you how to create it as you become the artist worthy of serving it? But to be less woo-woo for a moment, Stanislavski’s idea that both the thing you are working on and the process to create that thing (in his case, a character; in my case, a book) could be broken down into “bits,” and then you could attack each discrete bit, and then put them all together to have the whole of the project (or process) was super helpful. And then just about everything that falls under the broad category of “script analysis”—the “task/problem,” dramatic action, the throughline of action, the given circumstances, et cetera—was all stuff I knew a bit from my theater background, but going deep into it was really useful. I’m actually trying to figure out a way to teach dramatic action for prose writers—or maybe write a guide to it or something— because I think other people could benefit from it.

TM: One thing that struck me throughout The Method is the way that this 19th century Russian’s ideas about craft still feel so modern and relevant in 2022. For instance, Stanislavski’s fixation on “given circumstances” and specificity are still so resonant with writing axioms about the importance of detail and the dreaded “show don’t tell.” So many of his (and later Boleslavsky, Strasberg, and Adlers’s) ideas about acting craft, seem to describe (and possibly anticipate) shifts in literary craft. Do you have any sense of the interplay between the evolution of what theater and literature valued in the twentieth century?

IB: I draw a couple of connections in my book between the Method and realist MFA fiction, and I wish I had had time and space to research that more deeply because it’s a fascinating thing to consider. At the same time, it just wasn’t that germane to my book’s supertask! Stanislavski’s artistic predilections arise in response to trends in literature and visual art, which he considered more forward-thinking than the theater of his time. He was incredibly inspired by Tolstoy’s What is Art, the work of critic Vessarion Bellinski, and the Moscow Art Theater’s signature dramatist Anton Chekhov, who was known as a prose writer, not a playwright. So, I do think these things are all related! And when it comes to America, I think all these things are influencing each other. The way people are thinking about character crosses over to TV and film and fiction, and then it’s flowing the other way too. Just think about the term “the beat” which is something we get from Stanislavski, and is now used whenever we discuss storytelling in any form.

TM: You mention Stanislavski’s idea of the task (zadacha) and supertask (sverkhzadacha). The Method covers these ideas in great detail, and I found them to be extremely valuable craft concepts that port easily to fiction writing. In my intro to fiction classes, I often describe stories as problems, a situation or series of related situations the character must attempt to get out of or figure out. A story without a problem, I tell them, is not a story. On the subject of the supertask, in Stanslavski’s view, is the supertask “owned” by the character or author? That is, does it exist in the realm of theme or character, or both? And do you think this concept is applicable to other art forms, perhaps even non-narrative?

IB: I’m so glad you’re talking about the zadacha! It is one of the most useful concepts for talking about how narrative works. Characters have something they need to do—the task/problem—and that in turn necessitates action, and even if that action is somehow internalized, it is still a kind of action nonetheless. But it goes deeper than that, because Stanislavski’s other brilliant idea here is the sverkzadacha, or “supertask,” which is the character’s main goal in the text. In a perfect world, you want to find a way for all of the task/problems to derive from the supertask in some way. And then if you take all of those actions and line them up, you have “the throughline of action” which is everything the character does in the play, or story, or novel, or what have you. It’s so elegant and helpful!

But to answer your question, all of this actually exists at multiple levels because plays (or stories, novels, what have you) have their own supertasks. Later on, in the United States, this is often called a play’s spine: the big thing that the play is doing. Hopefully, the play’s supertask and the supertasks of the characters relate. But generally, figuring these out is not the author’s job, it’s the job of the director and actors, because plays have rich veins of ambiguity due to their restrained set of tools. To give a maybe-obvious example, a version of Hamlet about the nature of justice will have really different tasks from one about the Oedipal complex. I’m honestly not sure how well this all applies to non-narrative or abstract work, except in the general sense that you want the individual components of something to relate to its major themes.

TM: Here’s a loaded old-fogey question: there has been a vogue in writing craft for quite some time not to worry what stories are about, that they are the thing they’re about. Obviously I disagree with this. Are we living in an era of harsh supertask deprivation? Related, can you talk about any recent books or films that struck you as having especially well-articulated or interesting supertasks?

IB: Oh man, I love this question, and I have really conflicting thoughts about it. I do think in something as big as a novel, there’s space to wander afield, digress, get lost, wrestle with a difficult subject and maybe even lose the fight. If things get too well-organized, all the life can go right out of your project. And, of course, if the supertask is “make sure the reader knows I have the right political opinions and good taste,” the work gets didactic and boring.

At the same time, is there anything better than experiencing a foreign consciousness working its way through some unanswerable question in a narrative? God, I love it! I was recently really struck by Claire Stanford’s Happy for You and the way every piece of it relates to questions about happiness, and what the meaning of happiness in our present moment might mean, and how the world of tech is defining for us what happiness is. Or Laurent Binet’s HHhH and how it obsessively circles the meaning of history, and the relationship between history and fiction.

In a way I think films, plays, and short stories can be much more focused with their supertasks because they’re so much shorter. The film Everything Everywhere All At Once is laser-focused on questions about what it means to lead a meaningful life, and the short story “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus has a very particular thing to say about what it means to be a father. I think one of the reasons why Barry is such a great TV show is that it’s got a very silly high-concept premise—a hitman tries to become an actor—but it’s really about whether or not people can change, and while it takes a way more pessimistic view of that question than I do, the results are bracing.

TM: Are there examples, in your mind, of TV, films, plays, or novels that have over-articulated supertasks? Is it possible to go too far in organizing the supertask of a piece of narrative?

IB: Oh, for sure. For a while I had a running bit on Twitter where I would tweet, apropos of nothing and without context, “It’s a metaphor for depression,” because it felt like every show, video game, comic book, and movie was just hammering that gong over and over again. I really think sometimes authors can keep their eye on the supertask too much. This is what I find so suffocating about Nabokov. The work is too controlled, too schematic, and too often it feels like the real supertask behind whatever he’s doing is “make sure the reader knows I’m smarter than them.” The sense I get from people who love Nabokov is that it’s like watching a really dazzling stage magician put on a brilliant performance. And while that makes sense to me, and I can see why people love his work, the few times I’ve ventured into it, it has left me really cold. Whereas someone like Iris Murdoch—whose The Black Prince feels very related to Lolita—is exploring how we all know less than we think we do, including herself. That negative capability is really powerful, and I think if we try to locate our own negative capability and use it in our work it can help avoid this trap. I’m reminded here of the end of Invisible Man where the narrator announces the book’s supertask: to reveal his contradictions as a way of helping the reader to see their own. That’s a kind of wild one because it allows so much freedom within it, and the book really takes that freedom and does so much with it.

TM: Lingering on the subject of zadacha, the book talks about the way Adler and others urge actors to manifest the zadacha in their physicality. In a sense, it seems to me, good acting involves a constant awareness, and externalizing of, zadacha. How do you think this might inform an author’s fictional approach to their characters?

IB: Stella Adler and Elia Kazan were both really big on this: characters are always doing things. The way you reveal subtext is physical action. Every task has to result in action or it’s not worth anything. Stella has this whole riff about how even “to reminisce” is an active choice, because it’s about the self reaching out to the past for understanding. When it comes to fiction, I don’t want to give interiority short shrift. The revelation of interiority, the use of language to explore consciousness, is something fiction can do that plays cannot. But at the same time, I think it’s worth thinking about a scene in terms of its physical action. What are the bodies doing in this space you’ve created? Particularly in the first person, where you want the reader to read around your narrator a bit. What can the bodies reveal that the narrator might not want you to know? If we think about physical action as flowing from character need and desire, it might also help to make those actions we include feel a little less arbitrary. Sally Rooney, of course, does this—there are times where the disembodied narrator of Beautiful World, Where Are You? is forced to speculate about what physical actions might mean because that narrator has no access to the characters’ thoughts. I’m not saying everyone should write like Sally Rooney so much as it might be worth it to try writing a scene where everything is revealed through staging just to see what happens. You’ll probably rewrite it! But you’ll also probably learn something.

TM: I was struck by the idea of the “circle of attention” in acting. Is this, like zadacha, a concept that could be applied to character awareness? And expanding the idea, could this also be applied to authorial awareness, delineating authorial style?

IB: I often tell students, “A character is made out of the things they do, the things they think, and the things they notice, and then how each of these are described.” Of course that also means they’re made out of the things they don’t do, the things they don’t think, and, especially, the things they don’t notice. The same is true of our narrators, no matter what POV strategy you’re employing. A novel cannot pay attention to everything. So what you choose to pay attention to goes a long way towards defining your style. For what it’s worth, I also think it goes a long way towards defining who we are as people as well. One thing living in New York City does to you is drive home how much you are making choices about what you will and won’t notice to get through your day.

TM: I want to pull back a little from craft and ask a large-scale question about the book. It seems to me that a central tension you describe in The Method is a tension embodied in the different philosophical approaches of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler to Stanislavski’s system. As you put it, “Strasberg used the self as raw material for a performance, [while Adler] wanted to transform and transcend the self.” Strasberg stressed the use of affective exercises that predate the actor’s performance, while Adler believed (perhaps in closer step with Stanislavski) that the actor’s energy had to derive from the work itself and the character’s tasks. This schism seems to aptly describe several different ways people tend to think about fiction and fiction writing: the novel as a vehicle for an author/narrator’s lived experiences vs. artifice that reveals truth through story; author as mystic vs. author as technician; authorship as performance vs. authorship as reception. Does this capture Adler and Strasbergs’ differences? If so, do you feel a greater kinship with one of these traditions? And is there a meaningful or even necessary way to reconcile them?

IB: Yes, I think this is a good way of putting it. Not to get too highfalutin here but what they’re really wrestling with is two different sides of the nature and purpose of art. One thing Stanislavski talks about a lot is that art comes from real life experience, but it is a refinement of that experience. There are all sorts of things a play leaves out. Every painting has a frame, after all. But through that act of compression and refinement, the coal of life gets pressurized into diamonds. So art comes from real life but isn’t real life. Stanislavski’s protege Richard Boleslavsky talked about how we go to art because we yearn for perfection of the fallen world. I think there’s a grain of truth in that, even as it’s a very, very Christian idea and I am a secular Jew.

Lee Strasberg really attaches to the “based on real life experience” part. He wants to unlock the idiosyncrasy of the actor, their individual peculiarities, so that their palette will have as many colors as possible, in order to wage war against cliché. Meanwhile, Adler felt that we had to earn the right to be artists, we had to earn the right to play our roles, because art was so much bigger and better than we were. In order to do that, you needed to use research, imagination, action, and an incredibly in-depth encounter with the text. I find the way Adler talks about theater unbelievably moving and, as a director, writer, and critic, her way of analyzing text is massively influential on me. But at the same time, there were lots of brilliant actors and directors who felt that Strasberg was really where it’s at. So one of my jobs as a historian is to take that seriously and to think about why they felt that way, and trust them to accurately represent their own experience, and to kind of hold back my own preference for Adler in order to understand these people and their world better.

Adler and Strasberg talked about their methods as irreconcilable. Adler would tell anyone who would listen that Strasberg was a sick man who was practicing psychotherapy without a license. When Lee died, Stella’s first words were “good riddance.” Meanwhile, Strasberg would refer to her as “an actress I once worked with” instead of saying her name. But actually, their approaches are totally reconcilable! Many people studied with both teachers and created their own synthesis between Strasberg’s focus on the self and Adler’s focus on the text, imagination, and the world.

TM: I think the affinity for Adler is evident, but you do an admirable job of keeping the scales level. To conclude with a stupidly literal question, in general I have been drawing parallels between the acting philosophies laid out in The Method and the creation of characters and plot and narrative. But is there a way that writers themselves might employ Method ideas as they themselves attempt to write? That is, in terms of psychological and emotional preparation, could we conceive of a kind of A Writer Prepares?

IB: Maria Irene Fornes, the great experimental playwright and writing teacher, adapted Strasberg’s exercises into her own artistic practice, and then would use them as part of her teaching, apparently to great results. I think all of these techniques are adaptable and usable for other forms. And as I said before, I’m kind of thinking about writing this myself, at least as it pertains to dramatic action. I’ve talked to a few fiction writers about this, and they all feel like it’s a subject that could use more exploring and fleshing out, so I suppose, watch this space!

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