Whereas in civilized living among enlightened individuals, deception indicates knowing falsehood, and thus an unstated admission of intrinsic wrongness; in the arts, it is a virtue.
But only if the artist’s intention — the meaning of his work — is constructive. In other words, the ideas must be right if the seeming falsehood of their presentation is to be made honorable and true.
Works which deceive for propagandistic purposes are mendacious in a destructive way: destructive of our ability to appreciate Beauty, and thus to enrich our lives. We see in this country a vast body of such work in all the arts. I’m reminded of my life in China in the 1980s, when overwhelming political forces and their adherents hogtied the arts. (The iron curtain countries as well.) We in this country experience something similar, although we don’t suffer the deprivation of liberty or property those dissidents endured.
But the tide has turned. I see enough young people (and some my age, too) looking for something better. How about the last 500 years of Western aesthetic tradition for inspiration?
Deception — intentional unreality — in the forum intended for it, in the right spirit, is paradoxically the vehicle for truth. So, we reorient in the direction in which we need to go once again.
Just one more of Roger Scruton’s estimable quotes:
“Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes it self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through.”
My agreement with this sentiment puts me squarely against the last 50 years of radical selfism in the arts, which delights me no end, since we have something much better (with the proper application, nourishment and direction) coming within a generation.
What I call the modern dramatic fallacy occurs when a writer of drama convinces himself he is writing about “life.” Life as an objective fact (though entirely based on his own personal life experience, often word for word conversations!).
The actor then buys into it, taking the modern approach by searching within himself for similar “emotional resonances,” which redoubles the conviction of the writer.
The modern American audience takes the fallacy as fact, which audience always, and curiously to my mind, seems to be asking the question, “Have I ever seen this in my life and can thus accept it?” rather than, “Do I believe within the confines of the stage that an imaginative world has been persuasively created for my pleasure (or edification)?”
Instead, my perspective is this: the writer (I speak here only of dramatic works) puts forth ideas, which float around in his own consciousness, into the world through a contrivance of scene, character, dialog and action. The work is understood to be entirely imaginative and purposefully written as a falsehood (but, and this is essential, whose purpose is to uncover Truth through story).
The actor searches the script for clues to meaning, blowing into the limp balloon his own hot air — his imagination, the quality of which is demonstrated in the use of language and body, surprise and exaggeration, entirely “unreal,” and founded upon the text itself.
The audience, knowing of the intentional falsehood, accepts for the brief time they (the writer’s ideas) are enacted in front of it, the persuasively demonstrated ideas as true ** within the confines of the stage. ** Or film or whatever medium.
The former approach is an intentional and hidden deception that perpetually pretends to truth, but only tells you of a subjective and narrow life; the latter an intentional and open secret shared by all of imaginative story, known to be story, that, while clearly false, demonstrates objective truth. That, the latter, is the true kingdom of Theater.
Now, in the arts, and for the past 50 years, we’ve seen young people led away from the freedom of their imaginations and into the binds of ideology.
Promising young artists know, instinctively, that something is wrong. Canaries in the proverbial coal mine. This is a good sign. But let’s get the canaries out of the coal mine into the fresh air.
Now is the age of change in the arts. The past is rich; tradition, fertile; the collective wisdom of thousands of years of human experience. I post wherever I can to let those similarly thinking friends in the arts know that there are many of us are out here.
Why is it that many in the West avow that it’s perfectly reasonable to adopt another sex or race as one’s own in daily life (and would compel others to agree); but when it comes to fictional dramatic work, we find innumerable acting coaches declare it to be imperative that an actor “access the personal” to arrive at an “authentic moment?”
Because the world has been turned upside down. Everyday life has become a realm of fantasy and the imaginative world has become the prosaic. (Such is the “disruptive” nihilist legacy of the Deconstructionists and Critical Theorists.) It is about time for artists and performers to jump ahead of this mess by jumping backwards, by hewing to the aesthetic traditions of Western civilization. In the dramatic works of the present day, we witness proof of the failure of the post-War thinking on aesthetic performance. Yes, they used to do it better. And so can we.
We, as actors, can immediately apply tradition by 1) turning away from our personal life story when approaching a role, by refusing to make a fictional role about us, 2) by respecting the text of the work, and searching in it for imaginative opportunities and 3) by applying our fertile imaginations, rather than our own limited life experience, to dramatic expression. (To be continued…)
Today, “empathy.” Some stress empathy is central to success in character portrayal. That is, the actor puts himself in the shoes of another, sees that person’s point of view, and, with compassion thus engendered, demonstrates a portrayal of that “otherness” in himself.
But a character is not a person. A role is not a human being. It is a fiction in the mind of the writer. My job and your job, as a character actor, is not to “reflect humanity.” (A reflection is backwards, by the way.)
Rather, it is to enact a fiction. The world of that fiction is described and circumscribed by its dialog and its stage directions. It is a world complete (if well written) in itself.
The characters in the staged world do not need to comport with one’s own experience in life. An Artistic Director once said to a playwright I know of his play, “No one speaks like that.” A comment which demonstrates that A.D.’s profound failure of theatrical imagination. It is not that no one in THIS world speaks like that, but every character in the FICTIONAL world of that work does
Similarly, an actor does not have to demonstrate a compassionate concern for the life of a fictional character. Rather, he invents by means of his imagination, rooted entirely in the text, a character that believable within the fictional world. Whether or not this character is believeble in life is immaterial. The offstage world has no reality for the characters onstage.
Tell me, how is it possible for an actor, when playing a role, to have an “authentic emotional moment?”
It isn’t. And it can’t be authentic because it is all fictive. Playing at make-believe, which is what we do, is an appearance: a persuasive seeming.
Acting coaches have to make a living, too. But when they strive to convince young actors that one’s personal “feelings” – rather than their imaginations – make for persuasive character enaction, they bind up the actor in the chains of his own life.
The wisdom of Oscar Wilde may be adduced here:
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
“Reality” programming has become popular because, I would suggest, Americans at some level sense the deception that pervades public life. Especially that which is propagated by those who claim prestige on their own terms. In other words, we see through it and more clearly every day.
This is why so many look for something “authentic” or “genuine,” never for a moment considering that reality programming is also contrived. What must be reasserted is the complete falsehood of the stage. It is only through the shared and knowing fiction of intentional falsehood between performer and audience, that the truths of existence may be communicated. The ancients knew this. We knew this, collectively, up until just 50 years ago.
Perhaps in a generation, with the right education of the talented, capable and discerning young, many of whom I have met, we will see a marked improvement in the quality of aesthetic endeavor in this country. I know from experience that the shoots have popped out of the soil, but we must search for them and nourish them.