I've just finished reading a long piece by Jesse Green in the NY Times, which starts as a review of a new book about the tyrannical monsters who created modern American acting: Konstantin Stanislavski, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, etc. Their way of teaching acting involved savage abuse of their students, and their directorial methods involved just as much brutality, along with a lot of sex. They were empowered to bully and extract sexual favors by a system that gave huge power to insiders who were accountable only in terms of the final product they produced.
These days we would cancel them. I hope, though it's really hard to tell, that this movement is making life better for people in theater and film. We discussed Joss Whedon here last year, after he got into some trouble over his bullying, which was small potatoes compared to what people like Kazan got away with for decades.
There is, of course, another way to think about the relationship between human decency and art. Consider this, about Jerome Robbins:
To improve the dancing of Mickey Calin, who played Riff in the original production of “West Side Story,” Robbins “pounded him into dust” before “molding him back into clay,” as Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, told Amanda Vaill for her Robbins biography, Somewhere. Robbins got the performance he wanted, but did his methods have to be so cruel?
For him, apparently so. Robbins’s process, perhaps based on his emotionally violent family history, “was to make the cast seethe with hatred for one another — or for him,” Vaill writes. “It was almost as if he couldn’t create without confrontation and pain.” In the index, “Robbins, cruelty of” gets its own entry.
But here’s the bizarre thing, though we see it repeated everywhere in theater, now as then: Many of his dancers, most of his collaborators and nearly all of his audiences (who in those days knew little of the backstage truth) admired Robbins anyway. They were able to put his behavior to the side, even including his having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950. . . .
Perhaps they believed, at least in this case, that greatness was inseparably joined to awfulness; you couldn’t have one without the other. Then too, the awfulness wasn’t doled out evenly. If Robbins’s tantrums suggested that he took too literally Stanislavski’s nickname — “the big infant” — his favorite dancers, like Chita Rivera, who thrillingly played Anita in the original production of “West Side Story,” nevertheless called him “Big Daddy.”
These days we all believe in encouragement, but that is not the only tradition of instruction. The monster who bullies his students into achieving beyond what they thought possible is at least as old: the football coach, the drill sergeant, the ballet director. Come to think of it, our oldest traditions of initiation involved such grueling tests for young people that they regularly died.
One thing I have noticed in stories about great director/teachers like Robbins and Balanchine is that while some of their performers felt abused, and some were driven into drug addiction or worse, others thrived. People like Chita Rivera came to appreciate the intense criticism because they felt it helped them become great. Several of Stanislavski's students later said that it was only his version of pounding them into dust that unlocked their talents. Green interviewed Rivera for this piece, and she was dismissive of sensitive young actors who feel insulted when the director so much as raises his voice. She called them "spoiled."
I don't really care that much about acting and film, and I would like to see them become nicer even if it did mean we would miss out on some great creations. But I wonder what effect this shift is having on our whole civilization. Jordan Peterson has gotten famous by focusing on one of our great social problems, the drifting young men who do nothing but watch porn and play video games. Might some of them benefit from a tougher approach? Is there a personality type that responds better to bullying and humiliation than it does to encouragement?
Do some of us simply lack the will to pursue our own dreams by our own efforts, and need some pressure from outside?
My academic friends all complain that students don't work as hard as they used to, or learn as much. Could that be at least partly because all their teachers have been nice to them, and they have no fear of authority?
I don't know. I just feel very strongly that our society does not have all the answers, so I sometimes react badly when people seem to assert that niceness is the only way, and if we have troubles the only solution is to be even nicer.