In his magnificent study of the seedy underside of nineteenth-century New York, Low Life, Luc Sante notes the long history of the Bowery stage. The neighborhood was once second only to Broadway as a site for legitimate theater in New York. Well before the Bowery had turned into a haven for ethnic theaters (particularly Yiddish theater) and burlesque joints, dime novelist Ned Buntline struck gold with his "Mose cycle". The plays starred Mose, the Bowery Paul Bunyan, a brawling boozing Irish b’hoy who fought whole fire engine companies and drank vats of beer at a go. A certain amount of accuracy to the role was assured casting a neighborhood toguh, Frank Chanfrau, the younger brother of the man who had beaten the real Mose Humphreys in a fight for the first and last time in 1838. Humphreys afterwards quietly decamped for parts unknown, leaving the path clear for Chanfrau to ascend to stardom simply by having the right accent and a certain jaunty way with his hat and cigar. Neighborhood loyalty was assured, and loyalty in the Bowery was no small thing; a few years later, native son actor Edwin Forrest incited the Astor Place riot (22 were killed) after feeling insulted by rival (and, more importantly, British) Shakespearean William Macready, appearing uptown in a rival performance of Macbeth. Macready assessment of Forrest was almost certainly correct: Forrest was more noted for his athletic ability than his stylings as a dramaturge, and Sante describes Shakespearean performances in the Bowery of the 1830s as "stiff-legged oratorical displays interspersed with swordplay". The Bowery theaters were famous for working in as much blood and thunder as possible: volcanic eruptions, ships afloat, earthquakes, fifty horses on stage. They were less famous for sensitive and nuanced performance in which actors plumbed the psychological depths of their characters. Swordplay, oratory, and spectacle were the tools used to arouse "one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery—no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew’d men." Walt Whitman decried the "vulgar programmes" of later Broadway years, but perhaps his taste for popular Americana (and eye for full-sinew’d men) had abandoned him. Spectacle was what drama was about in the Bowery.
The Divine Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous actress of the nineteenth century; her fame had little do do with nuance and much to do with her gift for melodrama and her larger-than-life persona. Bernhardt’s famous performance in Hamlet demonstrates that stunt casting wasn’t invented in the twentieth century; the flipside of the boys in drag of Elizabethan drama, use of "breeches actresses" was fairly common. Realism is performances was hardly a concern. Drama had been religious ritual, like early Greek drama; blood-and-guts melodrama, like that of the Romans (when the Romans were not appreciating broad farce); and religious spectacle, as in medieval mystery plays. It took a wealthy Russian director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, to turn the focus inward and concentrate actors on inhabiting their roles.
Stanislavsky’s legendary stagings of Chekov were among the most influential performances in the history of modern drama, for all that the playwright himself hated them ("Stanislavsky has ruined my play. Oh well, I don’t suppose anything can be done about it.") His Stanislavsky System, as interpreted and reinterpreted by those Americans it influenced, has had a huge and lasting effect on how people understand the craft of acting and did as much as anything else to remove the stigma of a profession that had once been classed with rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars. Stanislavsky’s system was Stella Adler (a former Yiddish theater and Hollywood actress who taught at the New School and later the Stella Adler Studio), and two noted directors, Sanford Meisner (of New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse) and Lee Strasberg (of the Actor’s Studio). Adler and Strasberg differed strongly on which aspects the System were the most important (Adler focused on characters’ objectives and the particular circumstances of the play; Strasberg’s famous "Method" was based on relaxation and emotional memory), but their students revolutionized Broadway and Hollywood. Adler taught Marlon Brando, Harvey Keitel, and Robert De Niro; Strasberg taught Al Pacino and Paul Newman.
The two may well have permanently upended the acting tradition. The great Shakespearean Laurence Olivier — who learned to inhabit his role not through intensive study, emotional memory, or an attempt to recreate the character’s circumstances, but through finding the perfect prop and altering his walk, a technique he called the green umbrella method — famously suggested that to approach his harried and sleepless role in Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman skip staying up all night and "try acting." But the techniques, particularly the Method, flourished in Hollywood, perhaps due to the radiant charisma of early adopters like Brando and perhaps because of Strasberg’s focus on facial expressions. Just as the development of improved microphones enabled Bing Crosby to croon and still be heard in the back row, the film camera meant that facial nuance could be emphasized to a degree that would have been unworkable on stage. Anti-Stanislavskians like Erwin Piscator remain influential theorists; directors like Lars von Trier and David Mamet (a student of Meisner) who deliberately attempt to distance their actors from naturally inhabiting their roles still exist; but the casual and critical reaction to an acting performance is still likely to be concerned with transparency, with effortlessly inhabiting a part. Stella Adler, who synthesized Stanislavski and her ethnic theater, didn’t set out to start a revolution. The motivation in her scenes was a bit more direct: she had couldn’t get work as an actress because she been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten. Teaching had to pay the bills. Thus are the ways of dramatic irony.