Today I made a new friend on Goodreads who noticed I had written a biography on Stella Adler and said she was “interested in learning about her.” I asked if she had ever heard of Stella. Negative. Then I asked if she had heard of Lee Strasberg. Her answer should have been predictable to me at this point in my journey, but I continue to think for some reason that if people outside the theater and entertainment industry don’t know who Stella is they would logically not know who Lee Strasberg is. That is not the case. Her answer: “Yes, absolutely.”
I wanted to ask if she knew who Harold Clurman was, but I already knew that Clurman’s name has fallen into as much obscurity as Stella’s. And yet, Clurman, as much as Stella and Strasberg, influenced modern day theater and cinema, which is best illustrated through his “apprentice” Elia Kazan.
In 1932 twenty-two year old Kazan met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg seeking an apprenticeship in their collective, the Group Theatre, a Depression-era socially-conscious ensemble founded the previous year that would revolutionize American theater. In the interview Kazan rather boldly told Strasberg, the Group’s director, that he wanted his job. Strasberg didn’t like the joke. Still, Kazan would be accepted into the Group and turn out to be one of the most influential directors on both stage and screen of the twentieth century. However, it was Clurman whom Kazan gravitated toward. He would diligently take notes during rehearsals Clurman directed and follow Harold everywhere, studying him. Stella Adler, irked since she was used to that particular kind of adoration, flippantly asked Kazan if he were “queer.”
Years later, after Kazan founded the Actors Studio, after he had won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront (which established Marlon Brando as one of the greatest actors of his generation); after he had made an icon of the gifted James Dean in his film East of Eden; he wrote that Clurman’s
directorial style was essentially different from Lee’s. He encouraged actors and admired them, instead of confronting them with their inadequacies. . . . He had the culture to know that if you attempt difficult tasks you’re bound to fail as often as not. . . . Harold made me feel that artists are above all other humans, not only in our society but in all of history. I’m not impressed with any other elite, not of money, power, or fame. I got that from Harold.
One cannot write Stella Adler’s biography without also writing Harold’s. They were born the same year, they revered the Yiddish theater, they wanted to build a national theater, they married, and when that union dissolved, they remained life-long friends. And yet, I had no idea what Harold meant to me until I actually had a chance to read the biography after it was completed. This was my reaction: