When you talk about the great directors of the middle of the twentieth century, whether of the stage or the cinema, one name is bound to come up, Elia Kazan. After all, this is the man who was responsible for iconic productions of modern American classics like Death of a Salesman on stage, On the Waterfront on the screen and A Streetcar Named Desire on both. He worked not only with playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but others like William Inge, Thornton Wilder, and Archibald MacLeish. He directed Brando and James Dean, Vivien Leigh and Jessica Tandy, Lee J. Cobb and Raymond Massey, and, well too many others to mention. So any book that gathers together his analysis of his individual works, his thoughts and advice about the directing process, and his characterizations and evaluations of those he worked with is bound to be a gold mine for anyone concerned with the art of directing.
Kazan on Directing is just such a gold mine. Edited with scholarly care and erudition by Robert Cornfield, it collects original material about each of Kazan's major productions from interviews, his production notes, journals, and letters to collaborators. It provides insights into the way he went about analyzing the work he was directing, the way he worked with actors and playwrights, and the values he sought to communicate to his audience. The book is neither a systematic presentation of a coherent aesthetic, nor a practical guide for the student director. What it is, is a miscellany of bits and pieces, a hint here and a suggestion there, and every once in awhile an aphoristic precept or two about how to go about the business of directing thrown in for good measure.
So, for example, the director's first job, he tells the reader, is to find a 'center' or 'spine' of a play to give his direction "organic unity." The 'spine' of Arthur Miller's All My Sons "has something to do with how to live in this age and in this civilization." The spine of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth is to "show with pride the lasting power of the human race." Within the spine of the play, each character has his own or her own spine. In A Streetcar Named Desire for example, Stella's spine "is to hold on to Stanley;" Mitch's spine is to escape his mother's control. It is necessary for the director to get the actor to find the spine of his character on his own, but he must make sure that the spine the actor finds is the one the director has determined is there. The director is always manipulating, always in control.