A Woman For All the Seasons (1901-1992)
by Gad Nahshon
Stella Adler, who died in 1992 at the age of 91 in Beverly Hills, is the most famous acting teacher that was born in this country. Her Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York City had distinguished international prestige. One of her most famous admirers is her student, Marlon Brando. In his autobiography, "Songs That My Mother Taught Me," he told the story of Stella Adler and included her picture. Certainly, Adler was a drama genius. But she was, first of all, an actress of the Yiddish theater in America. She was the daughter of the great actor/director, Jacob Adler, and a member of a unique "tribe" in the American world of drama. Almost 25 Adlers acted in the American theater in English or Yiddish. Among them, the famous Luther Adler, Stella's brother.
Stella also acted in several movies. There is a famous story: since some of the Jewish moguls of Hollywood before World War II did not like Jewish actors who looked too Jewish, Stella had to change her name. Stella's prestige stemmed from her pioneering theater in the 1930's. She was, for example, among the co-founders of the famous "Group Theater," together with Elia Kazan. Stella was always a person with integrity and courage. It is not surprising that she developed in her acting studio a new method of acting. She was born in Odessa and was a disciple and a follower of the great Russian theater genius, Konstantin Stanislavsky and his concept of drama and acting. The Stella Adler concept was described in her only book: "Technique of Acting" (Alfred A. Knopf).
So it is not surprising that this prestigious publishing company decided to let Stella Adler come back to us from the forgotten cruel realm. It is not easy to find many unique personalities such as Stella. Therefore, we must thank Barry Paris, an American-Russian scholar, who decided to meet Stella two months before she passed away. He was introduced to her by her stepdaughter, Victoria Wilson. Paris and Adler decided together to print her famous lectures for the first time. Paris came across 3,000 pages of lectures. Adler told him: "In your choice lies your talent." Paris decided to edit Adler's lectures on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. Therefore, the title of his Knopf book (New York 1999) is "Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov." Paris has contributed material to the legacy of this legendary personality. Let's hope that his book will stimulate writers to write her biography.
Adler, for example, has an unknown chapter: She was an active member of the "Irgun" delegation in the United States, better known as the "Peter Bergson Group" or: Ben Hecht Group. Adler was the one who pushed many actors to join this group. She played an important role in the activities. She was one of the few Americans who cried out against the silence of America in the Age of the Holocaust. She organized along with the Peter Bergson Group rallies and fund raising events. She also acted or produced special shows whose goals were to mobilize American public opinion in order to rescue Jews.
Her brother, Luther, also mobilized against the silence of F.D.R.'s administration. From 1944, Adler was Vice Chairman of the new Irgun's organization called "The American League for Free Palestine." Adler was a fighter against British cruelty such as the closing of the gates of Palestine in front of the displaced people or the Holocaust survivors. She served the Irgun and preached its Zionist gospel. She was a member of a Zionist organization whose members were disciples of Vladimir Jabotinsky.
The Jewish establishment in America attacked this group as a dangerous pro-fascist Jewish entity and even tried to expel its leaders, such as Peter Bergson, Shmuel Merlin, Yitzhak Ben Ami and others from America as aliens. Indeed, Adler had a unique strong personality. She was tough. She was very serious, very analytical in her approach to any issue. These characteristics were manifested in her concepts of art, drama and acting. When you read 323 pages of Paris' book, you can see that Adler was a great thinker. She developed her own interpretation of the plays of the great classic playwrights, Ibsen, Strinberg and Chekhov. She was first of all the enemy of the superficial approach to any play. She believed, for example, that he actor or the director must learn and pay attention to the aspect of the landscape of many plays. Adler also believed that the actor must learn and understand all of the aspects of the theater's production. This book deals only with these three playwrights but, indeed, one can learn about their greatness and uniqueness through the "eagle eyes" of Stella Adler. She told Paris, "It's for actors. It's for directors. It's for other people. It's for readers. An awful lot of theater people want to know and understand, don't you think?"
Paris wrote about Adler's devotion, first of all, to her tradition, to her education, to her great father, Jacob Adler, indeed to the world of Yiddish theater. She told him: "No curtain in New York goes up in New York without an Adler behind it." Stella herself made her debut in 1906 at the age of four in a Jacob (Adler) production of "Broken Hearts" at the Grand Street Theater in New York. She performed in more than 100 Yiddish plays. Adler was always proud of her Yiddish-Russian heritage: "I'm so delighted that I come from a family where my parents spoke Yiddish," she said to Paris and explained: "The Yiddish theater was not what most people think it was. It was more. The plays were so formidable. I saw them all, such a pleasure. . . my parents (Jacob and Sara Adler) brought the greatest literature of the theater to a Yiddish speaking audience."
Adler worked with great personalities of the world of theater, for example, Harold Clurman, who was also her husband. She performed in many plays on Broadway (as Bessie Berger in the play "Awake and Sing" by the Jewish playwright Odette). She also played in three films, such as "My Girl Tisa" (1948).
What about the future of quality theater in America? While discussing Chekhov's plays "The Seagull," "Uncle Vania," "Three Sisters," and "The "Cherry Orchard," Stella remarked the following: "Nowadays in America intellect has been traded in for a better car, a better pool, better titles, better kitchen - you must really have a good kitchen. In Chekhov's Russia, you could put on a good play because you had an intellectual audience. Even the working class was lively. It caught on."
* Sub titles: She was a legendary personality in the world of theater and a leader of the "Irgun" in America.
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