The twinned masks emblem for acting establishments never appeals to me as an image or metaphor, frightening for being facile and loud. Just like that.
A dare to expect more, that should not have needed saying?
I found a poem by Robert Browning that says barely enough about acting to justify inclusion of the subject in a metrical project that is all commentary and no substance, remarkable more for its use of rhythm and form than for its images or rhetoric. I found it looking for uses of hexameters that stood some test of time in the English language, and decided these lines were quotable out of context.
Only because the narrator’s most plausible rhetorical flourish was in comparing himself to actors. He may be none, but he attempted to flatter himself in the right general direction.
It addresses acting briefly, and revolves instead around the members of the audience who like to construct “unflattering” comparisons between themselves and those on stage. The witticisms that make best use of the comparison, of course, are those that play up the questionable implications of the “pretty boy” theory of who will or will not be an actor.
So the poem’s narrator is the one looking implicated, when he tries to compare himself to actors for dissembling in a way that honors the little truths one cites in building up a lie.
Since this is a 19th century poem, it seems remarkable that Browning was already commenting on the search for truth in a performance as characteristic of stage play.
What little those of us who enjoy film or theater tend to think we know about acting is a notion about “method acting,” one influential approach to preparing a role first taught by Stanislavsky and popularly associated with either authorial self-expression by a celebrity star actor, naturalistic verisimilitude in performance, or both. But Stanislavsky was actually a stage name, used by the famous teacher to keep his profession from embarrassing his parents back in 1884.
The poem is long, but without much context this passage says all the poem has to say about how the actors come across, so addressed as a subject in passing while the narrator courts a girl in their milling audience at a carnival.
“Mistake his false for true, one minute, – there’s an end
Of the admiration! Truth, we grieve at or rejoice:
‘Tis only falsehood, plain in gesture, look and voice,
That brings the praise desired, since profit comes thereby.
The histrionic truth is in the natural lie.
Each has a false outside, whereby a truth is forced
To issue from within: truth, falsehood, are divorced
By the excepted eye, at the rare season, for
The happy moment. Life means – learning to abhor
The false, and love the true, truth treasured snatch by snatch,
Waifs counted at their worth. And when with strays they match
I’ the parti-coloured world, – when, under foul, shines fair,
And truth, displayed i’ the point, flashed from everywhere
I’ the circle, manifest to soul, though hid from sense,
And no obstruction more affects this confidence, –
When faith is ripe for sight, – why, reasonably, then
Comes the great clearing-up. Wait threescore years and ten!
Therefore I prize stage-play, the honest cheating; thence
The impulse pricked, when fife and drum bade Fair commence,
To bid you trip and skip, link arm in arm with me,
Like husband and like wife, and so together see
The tumbling-troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage
Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.”
– Robert Browning, Fifine at the Fair
He means little by it when he trades on the appearance that they know just what they do. It’s not clear he knows that, but that is the implication he would trade on in saying this much. Today it is conventional to take the notion seriously from the audience point of view, regardless of how little acting methods are understood in the attempt to ascertain what happened in performance.
As a very serious acting fan, I wasn’t thrilled to find these comparatives in the mouth of an unreliable narrator. The entire poem is addressed by a fictional character to one of two women he’s courting at the same time.
The actors described in this poem do come across as more honest than the member of their audience describing them so, but they are not naïve either. The girl addressed by the poem’s text, one assumes, is the only one who would believe the message was a courtly invitational, for fun.
This is as good as an explicit goal for actors: to excel in discovering the truth about human behavior. If for no higher purpose than that finding the truth in a lie is the trick to selling it, perhaps while obscuring any higher purpose from those so abused in the service of it.
Consider this description of an exercise actors used to prepare for a famous ritualistic theatrical production that was called Dionysus in 69, which to me is a terrifying illustration of the courage involved in navigating the gauntlet of exposed self-awareness that characterizes this performance art:
“A question or statement is made which, according to the rules of the exercise, must ‘cost something’. An answer is given that is equally revealing or difficult.” After everyone has contributed at least once, the actors turn on a sacrificial victim, who “had to answer the questions, but could not ask any.”
This final interrogation would continue until the victim has to admit he can’t continue – when his “opacity [is] sufficiently pierced” he then says, “This is mortifying.” The exercise ends. One of the performers in this production said of his role, “I am not interested in acting. I am involved in the life process of becoming whole. I do many technical exercises which organically suit the process. They act as a catalyst for my ability to let essence flow, to let my soul speak through my mind and body … Dionysus is my ritual.”
– from the book Theater, sacrifice, ritual: exploring forms of political theater
Though calling acting therapy or ritual or both sounds like a caricature today, this is why I trust actors to do more, in the sense that for me, a line of dialogue stands or falls on its delivery. The page would tell me less, with few exceptions.
The actor finds credibility in it or fails to do so. But once given the words have no independent credibility outside the actor’s interpretation of the speaker’s role, until and unless they are taken up in production by some other actor “ready to engage.”