As Mother’s Day approaches it seems appropriate to continue where my last post left off paying tribute to Stella Adler’s mother. In previous posts, it is clear that Stella came from an acting dynasty. Jacob and Sara put their children on stage as soon as they could walk and Stella was no exception. They performed as the troupe, The Acting Adlers. Early in the 20th century legend had it that no curtain went up in New York without an Adler being on stage.
After first seeing Marlon Brando play in Elia Kazan’s production of Truckline Café, Madame Adler went up to the young actor and announced, “If you want, you can change your name to Adler.”
The quintessential actress, Sara was not one to reveal her age. A famous story has been retold time again, but instead of writing about it here, I’d like my readers to hear it the way I originally heard it in my interview with the late Arthur Miller who was actually “on the scene” when the story took place. Listen to Mr. Miller here.
Having such a grande dame for a mother, had a price. As previously mentioned, Stella’s first memory of her mother was not at home, but in a theatre. What follows is a description from Stella’s point of view of that moment (I’m taking poetic license here):
New York, 1904
From backstage three-year-old Stella listens to the theatre filling up — the din of greetings and finding of seats. Neighbors meet mid-aisle to catch up on the week’s news. Mothers remove newspaper-wrapped herring and knishes for dinner. Small children sit on the lap of an older sibling or parent to save money on the ticket. When the house is full, the entrance doors close, muting the sounds of vendors and carriages outside.
The audience’s whispers lull as the gas lights dim. Tonight their beloved tragediennes, Jacob and Sara Adler, are starring in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. As the curtain rises, Stella watches the play begin. She wears a Victorian polonaise bodice with square toed boots for she has a part in the production too, a fact that makes her stomach swim. No one told her about this sick feeling. Her heart pounds, her cheeks burn as if she has been out too long in the snow. Stella wonders if she should tell someone about the sickness, but the performance has begun and the real world recedes.
All she has to do is ensure that her little brother, Luther, follow her onstage where they are supposed to sit under the table and wait for the leading actress to play with them. That same actress just now begins giving orders to the servant player on stage. The woman has a wealth of coal black hair and equally dark eyes, nothing like the girl’s light hair and sea-colored eyes. Something about the woman is familiar, but then Stella has seen this part of the play numerous times and knows her cue when the actress pulls a cookie from a pocket.
Stella leads Luther onto the platform. She looks out at the audience, but can’t see past the footlights. Beyond the edge of the stage a gulf of darkness encircles her. There are people out there, she knows, but the gaze of hundreds of eyes feels more like one large creature lying in wait. It is another world on the platform, more focused and primitive. Every movement matters because it is being witnessed. Once she and her brother are under the assigned table everything feels better. The creature redirects its attention to the dark-haired woman. Stella looks at this same actress again. That’s when it sinks in. She nudges her brother, “Luther, I think that’s my mother.”
And so it was at a moment on stage that Stella realized the actress playing her mother was also her real-life mother. “She was not really a mother,” Stella later explained, “and so when I saw her, I remember looking out: ‘I think that’s my mother.’ And, of course, I kept that relationship with her all my life: ‘I think that’s my mother.’”