Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Great Performances
Scene4 Magazine-inView

October 2011

So, the mailbox held a request that went to many people.  We were asked by Actors' Equity to "Help Actors' Equity Association select ten Landmark Performances that were powerful enough to change the craft of acting. Equity is proud to celebrate its centennial, 2012 – 2013. As a way to underscore the impact of live theater and its contribution to American culture, we are creating an in-depth reference and coffee table book about the organization and theater history.  [. . .] We ask for your assistance in selecting ten Landmark Performances that, in your estimation, were powerful enough to change the craft of acting, and have become legendary for both professionals and audiences alike."

As a performer and historian, the request posed interesting challenges.  What performances carried with them enough of the breeze of change that impact would be felt by everybody?  How to assess that impact?

As I thought about the last hundred years of American theatre, some conundrums presented themselves.  For example, actors in Tennessee Williams' plays were legendary – Brando and Taylor both made my list – but performances in Arthur Miller's plays weren't equally legendary.  Lee J. Cobb (the original Willy Loman), for instance, didn't make nearly the splash that Brando made. Was it the material?  The actors?  Something else?

And I think the biggest impact on American acting in the last century was made by actors who weren't native to the USA – important for a nation of immigrants.  While Forrest, Booth, and Jefferson might be remembered in some small ways, these great actors of the 19th century didn't really leave any legacies in the 20th century.  I think the greatest impact on American acting in the 20th century was the immigration of Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspanskaya to these shores.  But their impact was not due to their performances in American theatre which were fairly nominal.

I don't have ten performances.  But I share the top of the list in roughly chronological order.  I ask the readers to share their thoughts on how they'd fill out the group, recognizing many omissions from my list.

1. Bert Williams performing with the Ziegfeld Follies.

Williams was one of the first African-American actors to work as part of a company of white performers in the U.S.A. I note that the company wasn't integrated, simply that Williams was a black man in a white company.  Reportedly, members of Ziegfeld's company balked at being in a company with a black man. Ziegfeld pointed out that he could replace all of them, but he couldn't replace Williams.  Williams, already an international star, added to the lustrous cast that made the Follies an entertainment powerhouse.  One of the curiosities of the age was the fact of Williams doing black-face routines with Eddie Cantor.  The black man and the Jew in black-face.  Where else but America?

Infamously, Actors' Equity moved toward strike in 1919 during the run of Williams' last season with the Follies.  There , was back and forth between Ziegfeld and the young union.  Williams later told W.C. Fields that the first night of the strike,

    'I went to the theatre as usual, made-up and dressed.  Then I came out of my dressing room and found the stage deserted and dark, the big auditorium empty and the strike on.  I knew nothing of it: I had not been t old.  You see, I just didn't belong.  So then I went back to my dressing room, washed up, dressed, and went up on the roof.  It all seemed a nightmare.'

Fields added, "It was one of the saddest things I ever listened to and felt ashamed that such a thing could happen to so fine an artist."

2. Charles Gilpin as Jones in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

Charles Gilpin came out of African-American theatre in Chicago.  His origination of the title role in O'Neill's play  basically initiated integrated casts by playing on stage in a Broadway with a white man.  

In those days before the Tony Awards, the Broadway community ended the season with an awards dinner and gala party at a large Manhattan eatery.   These awards were not surprises.  Gilpin was to be honored for his work in Jones. This time the restaurant in question let it be known that they would not feed a black man.  To their credit, the Broadway community let it be known that they would find another location for the event.  Curiously the possibility of loss of business ended the issue fairly quickly.  So Gilpin's award helped in the integration of both awards events and at least one NYC restaurant.

3. The Moscow Art Theatre tour of America in 1923.

Probably the greatest impact on American acting was the influence of Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspanskaya on Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and others on the East Coast and Michael Chekhov to groups of actors on the West Coast.  This impact didn't come from any of their performances on the stage, per se. Rather the impact probably came from teaching and film work.  But the émigrés came to America and found interest in American actors because of the American tour of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1923.

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, the Moscow Art Theatre was in a kind of a wreck.  The Russian Civil War, like other civil wars, brought wholesale destruction of lives, property, and relationships.  The U.S.A. was starting the decade of the "Roaring '20s."  To repair the company fortunes, it was decided that Constantine Stanislavsky would bring a tour of the Moscow Art Theatre to America.  Performing under a grueling work schedule, the Russian actors thrilled home-grown actors with their skill, abilities, and talent.

Richard Boleslavsky, who had recently preceded the company to NYC helped his old mentor by directing locals in crowd scenes. People asked him about the acting secrets of the Moscow Art Theatre.  He gave lectures and wrote articles that ultimately became Acting: The First Six Lessons.  With Maria Ouspanskaya, Boleslavsky started a studio theatre.  Amongst the students were a young Lee Strasberg and a young Harold Clurman. The rest, as they say, was history.

4. Two actors in Tennessee Williams' plays. Laurette Taylor in "Glass Menagerie" and Marlon Brando in "Streetcar Named Desire."  

I consider these two performances as being ground-breaking, and a tie.  Ms. Taylor brought a naturalness to the stage that inspired a generation of actors. Multiple actors who saw her performance strongly believed it wasn't a performance at all.  Many said that their first perception was a question about who let the washer woman come on stage.  Taylor's ability to achieve a level of truth on the stage inspired a generation to emulate her example.

Brando brought a new kind of sexual dynamism to how actors thought about roles. Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski electrified audiences in the theatre and then in the cinema.  Both Brando and Taylor inspired a new kind of American "realism" for actors that led eventually to American movie acting which, in turn, influenced actors the world over.

There's my list.  Essentially five performances that I'd argue had a lasting impact on the last century of acting.

Who did I leave out?  Who would you add to the list?

Source for information about Bert Williams from
Hill, Erol G. and James V. Hatch, eds.
A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge U Press, 2003.

Editor's Note: You can add to the list or divvy up your yeas and nays by just clicking on the Comments button below and posting to the Readers Blog (Letters to the Editor). It'll be good to hear from you.

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©2011 Nathan Thomas
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2011

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