Acting and Values
This is the third of four essays written in Summer 2008 as a preparation for The Deal
On Acting and The Deal is the first of four
On Theatre and Economics is second of four
Thinking about Space is fourth of four
Acting and values
In my imagination I am watching Rembrandt at work. Delicately and layer by layer the work is emerging. I am visiting him day after day and witnessing the process of creating a painting. I am aware of fine intricate and precise movements. He will tell me that the process is determined by the materials themselves, the mixing of the colours, the application of the pigments to the basic raw material of the paint, the stretching of the canvas, the making of the brushes. I am aware of the extraordinary structuring of procedures and processes of a practical nature, aware of the importance of timing. The nearest thing is cooking. One day I visit and nothing seems to be happening. Nothing coherent appears on the canvas of the key painting I am interested in. The following day everything has been transformed. The whole process of realisation seems to have rushed forward. At one point everything appeared to be conscious, deliberate, things were being done only in order that other things could happen. Then suddenly everything is spontaneous and being done for itself and for immediate effect.
I visited Jackson Pollock the other day. The day I arrive he has just got back in a pick-up with dozens and dozens of tins of paints. Nothing is going on in the studio but I can feel something is about to happen. A very large canvas has been laid out on the floor. Things are tense. I stay the night nearby and return the following day. The work has been more or less completed. I wonder whether he would have been a painter at the time when Rembrandt was working.
There are painters around today who are trying to reproduce the work that Rembrandt was doing. This seems a strange retroactive activity. All painters are aware of the history of painting. Each painting and painter in the long line that precedes them is a point of no return, a door that is closed. Each time a painter sees another artist’s work s/he knows that they will never paint that painting or paint in that style. They cannot go back. There may be early processes of intense influence, of dedication, of following a ‘master’. A painter’s originality is formed through this process of recognition of what has gone before. In some respects an artist working today has absorbed all the other paintings that he or she knows about. This absorption of all known previous work becomes a kind of internal pressure to create individual and original work. Although painters return diversely to their predecessors so the history of art is not like a straight line. It resembles a spiral where a movement forward is accompanied by a return and a repetition of earlier phases.
This process of development seems like a relationship to our ancestors. As individuals, in the practice of our lives, we have wittingly or unwittingly absorbed all past human development. This goes for pre-history as well as history. It is as if our ancestors or antecedents have done certain things so we are relieved from having to do them. They have prepared the ground and we, as it were, take over where they left off. Take, for example, standing up. At a point in our distant past we made a crucial adaptation to our environment and became more the creatures we are today. We were able to stand up. Though this left our soft underbelly exposed to the world and to attack, our ability to stand gave us key advantages in terms of food collection and increased our range of vision considerable. This was no mean achievement since the weight of our heads, mainly due to the size of our brains, which offer such unique problems to our birthing, creates a series of problematic repercussions for our skeletal frame. The strain on our spinal structure is such that that we generically suffer the consequences today. However, when a growing human being goes through this extraordinary learning process, he or she doesn’t go through it alone. We do so on the basis of an inherited experience of success in this activity. The shadow of this evolutionary movement falls over the individual even as an example. Though each of us has to go through the business of learning to stand on our own two feet and this moment is emblematic of our autonomy throughout our lives. It is significant in terms of the particular growth of the human species, the differentiation of individuals. This is also connected to the development of our consciousness.
Advances in biochemistry have just added even more wonder to the curious areas of human activity which lie on the border between the conscious and the unconscious. This is what makes so challenging Richard Dawkins’ invention of the intermediate term, ‘meme’, to describe those inherited modes of being and behaviours that lie between genetic determinations and conscious individual action and which are generally attributed to culture.
At another level the influence of the repressed and unrealised urges and desires of our parents have been described by Jung as being the most powerful psychological force. So the question of inheritance has both a close echo in terms of the immediate spiritual and psychological conditions into which we are born and in terms of the evolution of our species. The way phylogenetic development and ontogenetic development reflect each other reminds us that as we discover more about our biological (or even geological) history we also discover more about the development of the human individual. There is also, from this point of view, what might be described as the intermediate terrain of history. We have to wonder what are the changes to the individual sensibility which derive from the neolithic revolution, the growth and decline of other powerful shaping institutions such as the great religions or of the state. In the current period, when our relationship as a species to our environment is changing so quickly, what consequential changes are taking place in our sense of our selves? Has how we recognise the human in our selves and others changed? We call the parts of the world that have gone farthest in the process of industrial and technological change the ‘developed’ world. Any thinking person will be unhappy with this description because we know that the price of this process has been the underdevelopment of the masses of people. It has meant the domination of masses of people by a dreadful supine apathetic dependency thoroughly imbued with fear of loss. It has meant a holding back of human development and a regression to a child-like intemperance and an addictive enslavement to appetite, often artificially induced. This dumbness is manipulated into an insensitivity to the pain of others. Television and public culture is more and more used as a training ground for this destruction of compassion. The virtues of win at all costs and kick arse vitality are promoted unrelentingly. It is not clear at the moment what the consequences might be for the human species of this extremely powerful movement.
There are questions about the shape of an individual’s life and how it might have changed. In the ‘growth-blighted’ world ‘life expectancy’ has increased. We are familiar with movements which may be characteristic of personal stories in this part of the world. For example, how the idealism of youth passes into the realism of maturity is maybe a typically modern pattern. Jung has remarked on the psychological consequences of the decline of religion in pointing out that as we have abandoned externalised objects of worship or taboo we have internalised these forces and they plague us like demons. It is possibly true that as the beliefs and iconography of the great religions cease to be an adequate expression of the tensions of our epoch we may well witness individuals moving through a period of belief in a higher collective good and then moving beyond it. Similarly with the illusions of nationalism. Of course stories will also be told to the contrary.
In the middle of the forest in As You Like It, Jacques famously makes his observations about this question of the shape of a human life. He describes the different phases that a ‘man’ might go through as being a series of roles that he’s given. He leaves out of account what roles a woman plays in this earthly drama and it might be instructive to compose an equivalent series. The circular movement suggested by him that unites the dependency of the digestively-challenged baby with the second infancy of old age is biologically verifiable. The theatre as an image of human life may have had a more forceful currency when Shakespeare was writing. The metaphor was invigorated by the development of the public theatre, an innovatory institution. If the image of the human being has changed maybe also the work of the actor has changed. When Hamlet calls the actors the ‘abstract and brief chronicle of the time’ he suggests that they are the major observational instrument and storage receptacles for the characteristics of humanity during that particular life-time. In the age of information technology this presumably could no longer be so true today. Just as human life can be seen in terms of theatre and acting (the playing of a series of roles) so too theatre and acting can be seen in terms of the dimensions of a human life. For Shakespeare there is a promise that each play is a total world in which the whole of human life is present and the different roles and characters add up to a whole vision of the human, just as a whole set of characters make up a complete set in an alphabet.
If I was able to visit a rehearsal at Shakespeare’s theatre as I was able to visit Rembrandt’s studio how would the work of acting differ from a rehearsal some 2000 years before in Periclean Athens as they prepared the plays of Sophocles and his contemporaries for the annual festival dedicated to Dionysus. How would these examples differ from what we might do today? What might be generally true would be that in the working procedures means of expression would crystallise into a given style or method. Certain senior actors would have perfected a series of short cuts and methods which would be considered the way to do things. This kind of emotion is signified by this kind of gesture. In this instance this cadence or gesture will work; the audience will recognise and respond to this movement here. The great work on Indian Theatre the Natya Sastra, a central exploration and articulation of aesthetics put together in the Kashmir region of India by the great Sanskrit scholar Abhaniva Gupta includes a complete description of human emotion and the accompanying theatrical gestures. The truths which this great book installed nevertheless had to be reinhabited and re-lived by each practitioner. These would be being challenged by new observations about the human creature. The codifications of gestures and working methods would actually be based on evaluations and judgements about human behaviour. They would be held together by general assumptions and customary apprehensions. Theatre is open to generational change and it is for this reason that so often in traditional theatres the work is passed down from the older generation through the family to a younger generation. Each generation which emerges must challenge the institutionalised apprehensions which it is given. These challenges may themselves have substantial and radically new recognitions about the emergence of new constitutional features of the human individual.
Every actor works from a powerful drive to perform but also from a sense of truth derived from observation, a combination of self observation and observation of the human world around them. They also must imbibe or train in the prevailing methods and techniques. The powerful transformative process whereby the actor draws all the various stimuli and observations together into the focus and concentration of the performance is protean in theatre. The basic business of enactment and of embodiment that we encounter as children is the basis of this art. It teaches us who we are and whom we might become by means of compassion and mimicry. On the stage it explores human life and capabilities and continues to tell us who we are. We are aware of different styles of acting through the written texts of playwrights. Different plays written at different times appear to require a different kind of acting. Actors may be aware of certain kinds of acting being old fashioned but actors unlike painters cannot absorb and work through the art of their predecessors unless it is indirectly through the architecture and playwright’s work. There may be only a superficial difference between the painting of the Sistine chapel roof and the installation of a replica of a war protestor’s poster display in a major public gallery. Are there parameters or circumstances that determine acting in different historical periods? What are the characteristics of this epoch which influence acting? It is clear that certain elements in the acting process remain while other aspects of the art change.
There has been a substantial movement in theatre towards emphasis on the liveness of the performance, onto the physicality of the act of theatre, over the last 20 years. One aspect of this movement has been theorised as the arrival of a post-dramatic theatre. To some extent here in the UK this has been pushed forward by the influence of drama courses at Universities. There has been the renewed interest in the dynamics of performance given by the inspiration of physical theatre.
Within a theatre performance there are a number of interconnecting spaces. Each space has a dynamic relationship to every other space. The space of the fictional world which is being represented in the performance could be called the world of the play. This is dominated by the narrative and is an imaginative or imaginary element. It is this space which is ‘represented’ in the actual space of the performance. These spaces are dynamically disposed towards the space inhabited by the audience and then the space of this whole theatre, with its stage and auditorium, is dramatically disposed towards the social and political space which surrounds the theatre. A change in the dynamic of one relationship changes all the other relationships. For example, if a piece of work is performed in a public space, where the separation between the ‘stage and auditorium’ space and the surrounding social and political space is dissolved, this will have immediate effects on the relationship between the ‘world of the play’ and the actual space of the performance. It is not so clearly true that a change in the relationship between the ‘world of the play’ and the actual space of the performance will change the dynamics of the relationship between the space of the ‘stage and auditorium’ and the surrounding social and political space.
The ‘post-dramatic’ movement in theatre can be characterised by its emphasis on the space of the actual performance. One key neologism is ‘performative’. One drive behind the need for this emphasis is the growing power and influence of mechanical and electronic media. However there are clearly other impulses and discoveries which have shaped this development. Within television there has been through a similar preoccupation with performance, associated with ‘reality television’. Watching human behaviour in extreme or constructed televisable situations has been a correlative development. For acting this has led to an accent on performance.
The commonplace distinction between an actor and a performer is that the emphasis in the actor’s work is focused on the narrative world of the play while the performer is focused on the actual space of the performance. A performer has a number of tasks of a physical sort to accomplish: song, dance, acrobatic, gymnastic, musical. The performer may work with puppetry or through mime or through mask. The actor is working through an absorption in the narrative dynamics of the play and this is registered in the total embodiment which the development of a character requires. The development of the character implies the construction of a whole human being. There is an emphasis here on the similarity between the actor and the character, the suggestion of an equivalence.
The basic anatomy of the dramatic performance that is given above is reflected in the way these capabilities are manifested in the young human being. Playing and pretending have a key role in individual human development. The infant learns who it is by a mimetic process. Later as a child the use of play to assume various potential roles depends on pretending. Very often there is a high degree of absorption in the various ‘pretend’ games that a child undertakes. Sometimes a very intense event can happen when the child cannot distinguish the fantasy world he or she has constructed from the real actual world around her/him. Also the child develops through an experience of itself as a performer where it is calling attention to itself or displaying some acquired skill. These two elements of play tend to be separate in children. As the human being develops it learns to integrate these aspects of play.
At the beginning of the last century the theatre formed by Stanislavski, famous for its production of Chekhov’s plays. put into effect an influential aesthetic of acting which relied on the absorption of the actor in the narrative space of the play and the work to produce the character as an integrated image of a whole human being. Although this system has prevailed in all forms of dramatic work there have been powerful countervailing movements amongst which, of course, can be counted the recent move towards physical theatre and post-dramatic theatre. The narrative space of Chekhov’s plays is characterised by the possibility for the audience to enter the world of the play through any of the characters. It is a non-hierarchical world although it may portray a real world full of hierarchies. The actors’ work in realising the character is done, as described above, on the basis of an equivalence. The first contact with the character is through a sense of shared humanity and mortality. The Chekhov space is a space of dramatic equals and the work of the actor is to create an access for the audience to the world of the play through the emotional point of view of their character. This dynamic plays upon a quality of isolation between the characters. Chekhov’s characters are solipsistic, free individuals in a social space in which they make each other but seem unconscious of the full existence of the other.
What the cultural elements were that produced this sensibility is complex. The psychological tradition of the European Nineteenth Century novel with its development of an idea of subjectivity, the relatively recent emancipation of the serfs in Russia, the development of an urban educated middle class where women were assuming a new independent identity may all have been factors. The values of a new bourgeois liberal modernist enlightenment was laying the basis for a development of human subjectivity. The massive shock of the first world war rocked the foundations of this egalitarian vision. The humanist values which were underscoring even the compassionate identification which lay at the basis of the Stanislavskian system were immediately open to question. However the carapace of social progress was taken up by the new nationalisms and states which became the guardians of this elusive ideal of modernisation and progress, constantly undermined by the need for them to guard the property rights of the ruling elite. Critical or dissident values found their expression in theatre in an aesthetic that emphasised the distance between the actor and the character. In this alternative rhetoric characters were seen to be types or embodiments of social forces and therefore had to be displayed as such. On the other hand in a move towards greater abstraction in representation this distance was also emphasised in order to enhance the musicality of the performance and the creation of pieces which brought into theatrical expression a complete repertoire of human gesture which the actor played upon as if s/he was his/her own instrument.. This was accompanied by a great attraction to the theatre/dance languages associated with Asian theatre.
Also, the idea of the free individual creating a free social space which underscored the theatre of Chekhov implied that the individual was somehow integral, a whole thing. The perception that we have of ourselves as consistent, recognisable entities was being brought into question by Freud and psychoanalysis. Expressionism was one form of theatrical expression which articulated this. Artaud is a significant thinker because he sought a theatre which was capable of expressing human movements that were not just registered at the level of the individual. These practices all have different implicit ideas about the nature and composition of the human being. They challenge the unity of the subject and the consistency and continuity of the individual.
As the species changes and the individual changes with it, new demands are placed on acting to express this modern reality. Is there a form of theatre that can be developed to express the new situation of humanity?
Brecht deliberately set out to criticise the ‘dramatic’ theatre and called for an epic theatre that would accord with the requirements of a scientific age. Boal has created a participatory dramaturgy the aim of which is to create activism and self knowledge in its participants. Human beings are more and more being displaced from the landscapes of their birth, dispossessed and having to find new identities not necessarily tied to nation or traditional community. On the one hand the human individual is being isolated from the traditional structures of extended family and community. We are displaced and we are in some ways more alone in our mortality than we have ever been. Our place on the earth is not given. We appear to have to earn it. This is part of the imperative of the market system. For millions our work is no longer on our own account but we must link ourselves to the productive system in order to survive but this poses a consequential question about what exactly it is about us that survives in this situation. New kinds of inclusions and exclusions have been cultivated and enforced. New kinds of dependencies are evident. Our much vaunted independence and autonomy as creatures, looked at from the point of view of a hunter gatherer who would be aware of his or her absolute community with the living and the dead, must seem to be linked to extreme dependence and interdependence. Can these contradictions be expressed in theatre? How can we represent the space of a globalised world? The subjective feeling of this space is a space without determinable horizons. We have lost our home on this earth. We give ourselves experiences of finding it again but some fundamental link has been cut and the redress is temporary. Looking at the operation of the state by comparing the ostentatious spectacle of the Inquisition with the equally sharply known strategies of disappearances and so-called ‘rendition’ transportations of the tortured, we can see that the relationship between individual experiences and collective life has changed. Just as the extraordinary productivity of the modern industrial society has seemed to make real the promise of paradise on earth so too we have managed replicate the extreme anonymity and meaninglessness of hell. This is how the human being is being made today. How can theatre express this new reality? What is required of acting?
8th August 2008