Coda: The Role of the Player
“The play's the thing”--Hamlet
At the first rehearsal of a recent production of As You Like It, which I had the privilege to observe, the director opened the read-through of the script with the words “Now, it's Good Friday today, so feel free to crucify yourselves.” He meant, of course, that the actors were welcome to approach the script with as much creative gusto as they liked and ought not be too self-conscious about it. A sound piece of advice I thought, and one that I find too often actors need to be reminded of—especially when they approach Shakespeare. The simple reason, I expect, is this: modern actors favour character-focused interpretations over plot-centred ones. Such an approach assumes that Hamlet's value of “that within” is greater than a man's outward actions and that the truth and value of something is dependent upon its inward emotional manifestation. We have already examined the dangers of this approach for the actor. However, we have said little about the quality of the performance it produces.
As a part of the Elizabethan repertory system, plays were produced at frequent intervals. Andrew Gurr notes in The Shakespearean Stage that the players “can have had little time for doing more while studying their parts than the essential learning of the lines”(103). They performed 6 days a week and each day demanded a new play. Gurr observes that, “The Admiral's in their 1594-5 season...offered their audiences a total of thirty-eight plays, of which twenty-one were new to the repertory, added at more or less fortnightly intervals” (103). Such frequent introduction of new plays would hardly have allowed for in-depth character interpretations. As such, players were often type-cast to some degree according to their talents and plays were often tailored with the talents of the particular company in mind. While actors were admired for their versatility, the breadth of their talents rather than the idiosyncrasies of their interpretations were the real attractions.
By contrast, the modern actor is concerned with producing realistic and complex emotions on the stage. The preparatory work of the actor often involves a labour-some psychological background study of his character, including the invention of that character's biographical history. It is an extensive individual creative process. Similarly, in the modern production of Shakespeare plays, the design and direction of the play often involves careful and particular decisions aimed at offering a unique concept and fresh approach to the play. This approach or interpretation is frequently based on a particular message or issue of great personal importance to the director. In other words, the modern theatrical production is not only carefully crafted in its every detail, but is also essentially self-referential.
There is no question that Shakespeare took the purposes of playing very seriously, that his plays offered much more than mere entertainment, and that much of his own personal interests, beliefs and ideas must have gone into his writing. But the concept of a play or of that play's characters could not have been intended to overshadow the scripted play as a whole. The practical and business lives of the company members would have made such detailed artistic refinement impossible.
As such, many of Shakespeare's plays give trouble to modern actors and directors because they must invent non-existent motives and explanations to account for scenes or dialogue, which may have been intended as little more than an entertaining interlude to display the talents of a particular player. Such an idealistic approach to the script can, in a way, be admirably reverential. The assumption behind this approach, I imagine, may be that Shakespeare's genius is such that one must only stare at a play long enough and like a Magic Eye stereographic it will reveal its ultimate unifying truth. All the director needs to do to make sense of the play is figure out the meaning and purpose of anomalous scenes or bits of dialogue.
No doubt this approach is partly symptomatic of the past two hundred years of character-focused criticism, but the expectation that each play should be a consistent unified revelation of truth often leads to the most fantastical interpretations of characters and the creation of ever more bizarre play-concepts. And perhaps more unfortunately, it leads to the alteration of the script in order to aim at such concepts and present a unified play. Such a production is not one of the author's invention, but of the director's and the players'. The play is lost in the concept of the play, the character is lost in the concept of the character and the play, and the humanity of the production is lost in the concept of humanity represented by the production.
Part of this problem, I think, is due to the widely accepted method of characterization first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski, and now taught almost universally as part of an actor's training. Stanislavski invented what is known as “method acting” or “the method.” The basic principles of his approach involve an actor's use of his personal memories or actions on stage to produce convincing emotions. The actor is not performing a fake emotion. He is endeavouring to produce the emotion psychologically through memory or action and to react to it genuinely.
Most actors utilize method principles to some degree and many of today's most lauded and versatile actors are of the method school. Audiences value the believability of an actor's stage performance and there is no question that method principles help bring about some of the most marvellous and complex character interpretations which audiences cannot help but admire for their texture and realism. However, because the actors are looking at themselves and focused on their individual emotions as a way to tell the story, they are too often busy finding the truth of their character's emotions to tell Shakespeare's story instead of their own. The overall value of the play as a whole is often diminished
The loss to the performance is threefold. First, the method-actor whose performance is self-referential, runs the risk of never really performing anybody but himself. There is a sensationally funny scene in David Mamet's State and Main in which an actor is insisting to his director that cuts must be made to the script before they begin shooting. When the director asks his film star why a certain line must be cut the actor responds, “Because he wouldn't say that.” What the actor really means of course is that he himself wouldn't say that. With this attitude, the character is perceived by the actor as just another incarnation of himself under different circumstances and the craft of acting amounts to little less than self-indulgent fantasy.
Secondly, the actor who uses a self-referential form of characterization, while often pulling off brilliantly complex creative performances, also contributes little to the unified effort of the cast of a stage play. Method techniques may work wonderfully in film when one can cut and paste different shots or re-record dialogue to create a certain flow and consistency. But on the stage the players must work together to tell a story in real-time. I recall seeing Paul Gross play Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario several years ago, and while his performance of the character was quite compelling, the play itself was utterly forgettable. None of the actors were really talking to each other—least of all the lead, and the story was again eclipsed by the character.
Third and finally, the actor who is self-referential not only cuts himself off from his fellow actors, making for a disjointed production, but he also cuts himself off from his audience. This approach is easier because it involves looking no further than himself for emotionally stimulating material, but it is also easier because it is safe. While I was observing the rehearsals for As You Like It the actor playing Orlando was struggling with his opening speech and the coach recommended that he try not to allow the energy of his speech to build up in his shoulders, but to come from his gut and be cast into the audience. He tried the speech again in this manner and the result was beautifully engaging. The coach asked him how he felt about it and he replied that it was scary. When I asked him why, he said that throwing his performance out to the audience made him feel as though he was vulnerable and not in control. The actor who plays himself on the stage is effectively playing himself in disguise. The character becomes a barrier between himself and his audience and therefore any real contact with his audience is greatly diminished. The emotions he portrays are all genuine, but since they are not offered to the audience the loss to his performance is great.
In many instances I would argue, especially in the production of Shakespeare for the stage, what this approach amounts to is a disappointingly inconsistent play-experience. Shakespeare clearly felt that a person's actions, as opposed to emotions or intellectual thoughts, to be the determining factors of their character, both on and off the stage, and while there must be a certain amount of preparative thought that preempts a performance, method acting encourages a self-focused, emotive view of the craft which lends little to the talents of the actor, the production of a play, or the experience of an audience.
What Shakespeare seems to promote is an unself-conscious approach to acting which assumes a certain acceptance of one's part in the company. The clown may be free to extemporize but he was not free to play the hero. Nor indeed was the hero free to play the clown. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare makes fun of the idea that being an actor proffers complete freedom to choose one's part. Bottom the Weaver repeatedly interrupts the handing out of parts in rehearsal to beg that he might play each one as well as his own, and while the absurdity of his excitement is almost endearing, the clear message is that every man must play his own part or there can be no play. Some men must play the heroes, others the lions, others amount to nothing more than a wall. The play is greater than the parts within it. This principle applies not only to the company of players, but to the world at large. The player's contribution to society is complex and important, but it is nonetheless a humble part to play and appears perfectly ludicrous when it is taken too seriously.