Great Directors at Work

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In the extensive critical literature devoted to the theater, there has been a marked shortage of works which take the director as their focus. Critics disagree concerning the extent to which directing is an art, and among the general public there is a lack of understanding about the role played by the director. Indeed, the concept of the “director” is less than a hundred years old, having evolved from the office of “actor-manager”: in time, direction became part of a complex collaborative effort, taking many forms.

Fundamentally, the director’s role is to bring the script of a play to the stage and to establish its “style,” the components of which include the aural and visual pace of the play, the mood, atmosphere, “sharpness of meaning,” and the tone of the production. These choices are often made in collaboration with the playwright, set and lighting designers, and actors—all while observing the financial constraints of a commercial theater and the needs and expectations of the audience. Ideally, the director is what Gordon Craig called “an artist of the theatre,” with jurisdiction over meaning, form, and style.

Great Directors at Work: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook examines the craft of four directors, each representing a different model of this modern concept, with each chapter centered on the production of a significant example of its subject’s work. The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky, founder of the famous “method” or “system,” is represented by the 1898 Moscow Art Theatre production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896). The German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht is represented by his play Mother Courage and Her Children (1940), whose evolution is traced from 1948 to 1951. The American director Elia Kazan, a disciple of Stanislavsky by way of the Group Theatre, is represented by his famous 1947 production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which starred Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter. The British director Peter Brook, representing the modernist trends in experimental theater, is discussed via his 1964-1965 production of Peter Weiss’s play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Director of the Marquis de Sade, or, as it is better known, Marat/Sade (1964).

Although each chapter is organized somewhat differently, there is a set of underlying assumptions governing the choice of these four directors. All are identified as “intellectual figures” whose ideas about craft, art, and culture have been influential and historically important. Stanislavsky is identified as “the theatre’s Freud, its Mendel.” While Kazan is acknowledged to be the least intellectual of the four, his inclusion is justified because of his influence through the Actors Studio (of which he is a founder) as an American interpreter of Stanislavsky’s theories, nurturing some of the most important actors America has produced.

Brecht represents a “theatre of point of view,”...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, November, 1986, p. 491.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, May 1, 1986, p. 698.

Library Journal. CXI, June 1, 1986, p. 138.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, July 27, 1986, p. 11.