Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Director Elia Kazan collaborated with some of the best talent in American theater and film to produce an impressive body of work that emphasized the realist presentation of scenes and emotions.

Summary of Event

Famous for his inventive, uncompromisingly emotive stage technique, Elia Kazan became a twentieth century catalyst for the departure from classicism that brought American drama into its golden age. Under the guidance of Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford during his association with New York’s distinguished Group Theatre Group Theatre —the most influential American drama experiment of the 1930’s—Kazan received stage training in the gritty, naturalistic Stanislavsky method. Method acting In employing this unpredictably emotional type of method acting, actors immersed themselves in the feelings and responses of characters, thereby achieving verisimilitude through their re-creation of actual psychological states; such performances were often marked by weeping, shrieks, and other unconventional stage behaviors. Naturalism (cinema) Naturalism (drama) Theater;naturalism Realism;drama [kw]Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen (Oct. 15, 1942-1961) [kw]Naturalism to the Stage and Screen, Kazan Brings (Oct. 15, 1942-1961) [kw]Stage and Screen, Kazan Brings Naturalism to the (Oct. 15, 1942-1961) [kw]Screen, Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and (Oct. 15, 1942-1961) Naturalism (cinema) Naturalism (drama) Theater;naturalism Realism;drama [g]North America;Oct. 15, 1942-1961: Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen[00620] [g]United States;Oct. 15, 1942-1961: Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen[00620] [c]Motion pictures and video;Oct. 15, 1942-1961: Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen[00620] [c]Theater;Oct. 15, 1942-1961: Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen[00620] Kazan, Elia Wilder, Thornton Williams, Tennessee Miller, Arthur Inge, William Anderson, Robert (1917-2009) McCarthy, Joseph Mielziner, Jo Brando, Marlon

The first of three sons of George and Athena Sismanoglou Kazanjoglou, Kazan was born in Constantinople, Turkey, and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1913. The family settled in a Greek community in New York City and later moved to New Rochelle, New York. As a teenager, Kazan was influenced by a teacher, Anna B. Shank, who encouraged him to forgo his family’s commercial interests and to follow his intellectual bent. An honors student, he graduated from New Rochelle High School and attended Williams College, where, in his senior year, he resolved to study drama; he graduated from Williams in 1930.

After two years’ work at the Yale University Drama School, Kazan quit what he considered to be worthless, repetitive study, and he allied himself with the Group Theatre the following year. There, utilizing the Stanislavsky method, he played roles in Clifford Odets’s Paradise Lost (1935), Waiting for Lefty (1935), Till the Day I Die (1935), Golden Boy (1936), and Night Music (1940), and he also appeared in two Anatole Litvak films, City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). A respectable actor, he received favorable notices for his efforts.

After several years’ theatrical apprenticeship, Kazan advanced from method acting to a similar style of directing. His early efforts went unnoticed, but his 1942 production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth Skin of Our Teeth, The (Wilder) brought him serious critical acclaim and opportunities to work with the major American playwrights of the era, including Arthur Miller, William Inge, Robert Anderson, and Tennessee Williams. Wilder’s play, a bold mix of fantasy and comedy starring Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, Florence March, and Florence Reed, opened to rave reviews in the author’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, on October 15, and it moved to Broadway a month later on November 18. For this production, Kazan netted the 1942 New York Drama Critics Circle Award New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for direction.

Kazan followed this success by directing acclaimed productions of One Touch of Venus (1943), Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944), and Miller’s All My Sons All My Sons (Miller) (1947), a gripping post-World War II family drama that won for Kazan a Tony Award Tony Awards and another New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It was after Williams saw a performance of All My Sons that he and Kazan first connected. The playwright, like Kazan, was a loner and an outsider, and he and Kazan formed an unusually cooperative relationship. Their first project together was A Streetcar Named Desire Streetcar Named Desire, A (Williams) (1947), a dramatic tour de force set in New Orleans.

The production, with set designs by Jo Mielziner, was notable for its stinging, animalistic depictions of Southern decadence, and Kazan earned accolades for his sensitive treatment of the play, one of the most highly regarded and frequently produced dramas of the twentieth century. On opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire, the director stood upstage with tears in his eyes, moved by the cooperative effort of writer, cast, and crew. The satisfaction gained from the experience created a lifelong friendship between Kazan and Williams, even though the author received the bulk of the praise for their collaborative achievement.

A year later, Kazan, equal to the challenge of staging the most serious dramatic works of the age, enhanced his stature as the dominant voice in American theater direction with an award-winning production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Death of a Salesman (Miller) (1949), which critics proclaimed the prototypical American tragedy. Kazan coaxed powerful performances from stars Lee J. Cobb, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Kennedy, and Mildred Dunnock, and the play became the dramatic touchstone of its era.

Kazan followed this productive period with work at the Actors Studio Actors Studio , a teaching institution he had founded in 1947 with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. There, he was brought into contact with such innovative talents as Marlon Brando, who played the role of Stanley Kowalski, the lascivious, semiliterate seducer in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Although intrigued by the brutal, evocative inner sparrings of A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan admitted that he preferred the humanistic themes of Death of a Salesman, particularly as they applied to his own father’s commercial career. The popular response to Willy Loman, the play’s central character and victim—who has since evolved into an American archetype—became Kazan’s pinnacle; the production’s resounding success earned the director a reputation as America’s most brilliant stage director. The success of Kazan with Death of a Salesman stemmed largely from the director’s deep respect for the play’s verities and his genuine admiration for the character of Willy, a buffoonish loser who never failed to touch the audience’s sensibilities.

The anticommunist crusades of the Joseph McCarthy era, which for more than ten years deprived notable stage and film talents of opportunities for artistic expression, brought particular public notoriety to Kazan, who in 1952 agreed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities] HUAC (HUAC). With unusual candor, Kazan admitted to an involvement with the Communist Party during a two-year period in which he had grown increasingly disenchanted with leftist doctrine.

By supplying names, dates, and crucial details, notably about the role of Arthur Miller in leftist activities, Kazan cut himself off from old friends and colleagues, especially from adamant libertarians such as Dalton Trumbo Trumbo, Dalton , an eminent and forthright screenwriter who chose to go to prison rather than to accept what he thought was a blatant infringement of his First Amendment rights by the House committee. This turbulent era cost Kazan significant loss of face and caused him to worry that his four children—Nick, Judy, Katherine, and Chris—would suffer for his testimony.

Kazan’s career, far from being ended by political scandal, brought him into further collaboration with Tennessee Williams in Camino Real (1953), followed by Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953), Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), William Inge’s Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), and Archibald MacLeish’s J. B. (1958), a lyric success that Kazan professed not to understand. The amalgamation of such creative talent continued to produce riveting dramas, climaxing in Kazan’s last major stage effort, Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams) (1959), in which Kazan compensated for weak plot development by commissioning Jo Mielziner’s multimedia innovations.

In 1962, Kazan left Broadway to become one of the directors of the repertory company at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts . Kazan had high hopes for his association with the company, but his first Lincoln Center production, Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1962), met with mixed reviews. In 1964, after several badly received productions, Kazan resigned his Lincoln Center post and turned his attention almost exclusively to film direction.

Kazan had begun directing documentary films in 1937; in 1945, he made his first feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A (Kazan) . That film’s popular and critical success led to other Hollywood assignments, including Sea of Grass (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Gentleman’s Agreement Gentleman’s Agreement (Kazan)[Gentlemans Agreement] (1947), for which Kazan won an Oscar as best director Academy Awards;Best Director . He continued with a series of well-regarded, socially conscious films that included Pinky (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Viva Zapata! Viva Zapata! (Kazan) (1952), and Man on a Tightrope (1953).

In 1951, Kazan directed the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire Streetcar Named Desire, A (Kazan) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Streetcar Named Desire[Streetcar Named Desire] , in which Brando reprised his role from the Broadway production. Brando’s explosive performance in the film made him a major star, and he and Kazan collaborated again on Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront On the Waterfront (Kazan) (1954), for the latter of which both won Oscars. Academy Awards;Best Actor Many critics viewed On the Waterfront, the story of a courageous mobster turned informant, as Kazan’s apologia for his testimony at the HUAC hearings.

In 1955, Kazan enjoyed another major success with East of Eden East of Eden (Kazan) , which brought another intense, brooding actor, James Dean Dean, James , to stardom. Kazan continued to coax stellar performances from his casts in Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960), and his last major cinematic accomplishment, Splendor in the Grass (1961).

From 1962 onward, Kazan remained active, but his level of accomplishment declined as his emphasis began to shift. In 1963, he released America, America, based on a best-selling novel of the same name that he had published two years before. He published another best seller, The Arrangement, in 1967, but a 1969 film version was a flop. He put out still another popular novel, The Assassins, in 1972, but did not translate the story to film. In the 1970’s, Kazan largely withdrew from Hollywood, producing instead low-budget “home movies” such as the critically panned The Visitors (1972). In 1976, he returned to big-budget filmmaking with what was to be his last film, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1941 novel The Last Tycoon.


Kazan’s influence on theatrical realism influenced American stagecraft well into the 1960’s, when period drama, Hollywood films, and live television stage plays began to emulate the Actors Studio’s insistence on psychological truth. During his heyday, Kazan insisted on an intense stripping of surface niceties; his approach helped move audiences into a new era of cathartic concentration that spotlighted motivation above spectacle, costuming, and other surface treatment. Actors, many inspired by Brando’s inarticulate, boorish stage antics in A Streetcar Named Desire, exceeded the bounds of classic theatricality by striving for an exaggerated naturalism, often marked by slovenly dress, nonstandard vocal expression, and working-class realism.

In both his film and stage work, Kazan rejected the star system and the use of production gimmicks to create a realism that emphasized the strength of his material. His influence is evident in the work of a wide range of directors; his disciples have included such disparate stage and screen talents as Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese. In addition to helping launch the careers of Brando and Dean, Kazan also was instrumental in establishing such stars as Warren Beatty, Julie Harris, Natalie Wood, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, and Carroll Baker. In a career that spanned nearly half a century, Kazan left a major mark on American drama. Naturalism (cinema) Naturalism (drama) Theater;naturalism Realism;drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1968. A valuable overview of theater history. Gives valuable information about set designers, producers, and music directors who influenced the growth of world theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. A thorough autobiography complete with one hundred photographs and a detailed index. Readers interested in the McCarthy era will find complete information about Kazan’s involvement in the Communist Party and his decision to testify before HUAC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Kazan—The Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews with Elia Kazan. Edited by Jeff Young. New York: New Market, 1999. Compilation of various interviews with Kazan discussing his life and work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Brenda. Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A thorough study of the collaboration between the playwright and the director on their productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Illustrated, with extensive notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pauly, Thomas H. An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. A thorough survey of Kazan’s career. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs of Kazan’s stage productions and stills from his films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prideaux, Tom. World Theatre in Pictures: From Ancient Times to Modern Broadway. New York: Greenberg, 1953. A remarkable photographic montage of the most significant moments in theater history, featuring original casts and stressing action shots of such Kazan-directed productions as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Death of a Salesman.

HUAC Investigates Hollywood

A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen

McCarthy Hearings

The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture

Categories: History