- Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009, $25.00
It is 1974 and Edward Day and his peers are being educated by Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, and other famed authorities on acting technique. The novel touches on the polemics around the various approaches just enough to illuminate the cultural logic of the bohemia in which the characters circulate. The name of the game, though, is getting an Actors Equity card and earning a wage. As Day explains it, “When an actor has a part, he has a life, and a full one”—a rule that holds for “ethnic” Method actors and British Shakespearians alike. In Martin’s smartly-tailored conception, one’s destiny is pinned to one’s parts. Day finds his best mentor in an established actress with whom he is paired in a summer stock production of Tennessee Williams’ twisted May-December tale, “Sweet Bird of Youth.” She pulls a Tarot card and advises him to not lose his atypical coldness, warning him that Meisner will try to rid him of this special trait.
Day’s coldness is stage-specific, a matter of his physical presence, and so not made all too evident in his self-rendering. The reader accepts this observation on faith, and then cannot help notice this actorly chill seeping into Day’s authorial identity and eliding his attachment from what he recounts. With this crafty stroke, Martin draws attention to the divide between literary realism and performance; her arena is psychological and her precise metaphors are what the reader cherishes: “She studied me for a moment—the way adults look at a child who has revealed in some transparent and inappropriate way that he is in pain.” Day’s narrative includes suicide, impotence, uncertain paternity, and a menacing antagonist. Actual occurrences run in loose parallel to Day’s stage life; “Hamlet,” “The Birthday Party,” and “Uncle Vanya” all figure in.
Day’s nemesis, another actor named Guy Margate, has a knack for off-stage conflict and an aggressive fixation on Day. They first meet when Day is drowning and Margate happens to be there to rescue him. They love the same woman, and his rival reasons that Day’s debt of life should require him to step aside. Such a crude idea of repayment for a good deed might raise the question of how such a brutish thinker could even be an actor at all. From Day’s critical vantage, Margate is not one: “He created a character from the outside looking in, he constructed a persona.” The reader, however, may be taken in by this enigmatic and manipulative persona and wonder for a time which of the two actors has more talent.
To inhabit a character is an ideal of acting and calls for a science of emotions. This novel charts the correlation of interiority and craft—it harnesses the energy of an era when the repertory classics still ruled and questions of what makes feelings real still loomed. For Martin’s young actors, identity itself is a peril: They hurl themselves into unmeasured depths and struggle with who they are. Martin’s book makes one wonder how anyone can succeed at the tightrope walk of a Brando or Streep, and how anyone could not be tempted.