Acting that “isolates and intensifies” the truth

January 22, 2013

Everyone remarks on Craig Horner’s extraordinary work portraying the experience of physical pain as Richard Cypher. This performance challenge is most spectacular in the episode “Denna” (directed by Michael Hurst). Craig describes it as the greatest challenge in filming The Legend of the Seeker, but also the episode he considers the best out of both seasons.

Standard acting advice on portraying pain or suffering is to resist the temptation to make it loud. In the words of Peter Hall, “A child who comes toward you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. But a child crying his heart out, a child in extremis, is less certain of our acceptance.”

Craig found a way to bring out the extreme nature of the pain in the torture sequence without violating this rule of drama. Of course, a magical weapon like the agiel helps. There are no points of comparison for the wise-asses in the audience to insist they could endure the same with more composure, because the hypothetical potential of the agiel’s magic is “unimaginable.”

But perhaps more importantly, he has a well-developed political torture sequence to work with in “Denna” – a full complement of psychological torture techniques enrich the exposition of the idea of torture in images.


In a book on acting first published in 1925, Stark Young wrote: “When an actor does a torture scene we are harrowed and sickened not because we think him tortured, but because we receive from him at that moment an idea of torture so compelling that it moves us, moves us more powerfully, perhaps, than the same blood and wounds in life might have done. He does not blur any truth but that of mere accidental externality. He does not, in so far as he is good, blur truth at all, but isolates and intensifies it to fuller power.”

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that a torturer’s power is the true instrument of totalitarianism, destroying the freedom of the individual mind one person at a time. The threat of further punishment is internalized, until any built environment that once would’ve seemed benevolent feels exactly like a cell. Political refugees far from their tormentors see the shadow of that same fear everywhere, reliving the same nightmares awake or asleep.

Actress Jessica Marais describes Denna’s psychological strategy in breaking Richard as “nonreactive,” keeping her tone and facial expressions unreadable, and so exploiting his warm and friendly nature by heightening his sense of isolation. Even when encouraging Richard’s compliance when he stops resisting, she doesn’t seem genuinely impressed. She is free to hurt him whimsically, instead of keeping a score card of whether or not he “deserves” any punishment, though she may tantalize him with a sense of having something to look forward to for good behavior when she turns to seducing him.

Is it strange to warm to someone capable of this? Not when you are otherwise isolated, no.

.. My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. – Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious.

But to exploit necessity this way, as isolation torture does, is yet another level of monstrosity. Coldness is not disgusting when it’s ugly. A garden slug is disgusting, but this is not a strong enough word for someone who would salt one. Such an act is better described as repulsive.

How then can walking away seem unacceptable, even if the monster inflicting such pain cannot be overcome or redeemed? Rilke wrote, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” As if this were the sticking point for those entrapped by every coercion known to their assailant to be at hand – that out of awful familiarity, looking inside, they confront the soul that would be held to account, rather than spared such honesty out of disdain for the wicked.

As the Mord Sith Cara says in Temple of the Winds, “We always let our captives keep their weapons. It’s a constant reminder to them they are helpless, that even their weapons will do them no good against us.”

It is at first bizarre to watch the deleted scene in the episode “Denna” that reveals she may be falling in love with her victim. Mord Sith madness entails affectionately enjoying instances of showing mercy to a “pet” one is torturing (“training”), but every act of kindness is really intended to cultivate false hope and maintain sensitivity, the better to inflict further pain and catch the victim off-guard.

Being repulsive in this way is something Denna takes satisfaction in, because it serves her purpose – it makes bonding with her excruciatingly difficult, so that a slave she has broken is more completely broken. This is her job, and she is good at it.

Mord Sith know how to co-opt a captive’s pride in his willingness to resist torture, punishing them until they no longer wish to fight back, but then needling them to find another trigger for involuntary reactions that resist again, until in the confusion of pain and self-sabotage they only know for certain that resistance is futile. All sources of pain can temporarily inflict this sense of being at war with oneself and unable to win, but the victim of a Mord Sith knows she could change her mind, and so comes to look to his tormentor as his only hope of any reprieve.

To stop resisting the use of operand conditioning to enforce compliance with simple commands is one degree of surrender, which Richard gives Denna when he partitions his mind by “locking his dignity away.” This surrender comes with a heavy price – he is suddenly quick to reveal his feelings for Kahlan, when before he had the presence of mind to hold back, knowing his feelings could put her in danger. But it is not like flipping a switch, for Denna is an expert at finding chinks in a prisoner’s armor. The secret to staying the course is Richard’s insight that through partial surrender, something inviolable can be held back and preserved from Denna’s effort to corrupt it.

Denna will not settle for anything short of breaking his will. What a Mord Sith expects of her slaves (and what Darken Rahl expects of all Mord Sith) is that they embrace contact with the agiel merely because she wishes to use it on them, and compliance with those wishes is all they desire. These bonds are hierarchical, with none of the ethics of equality and reciprocation.


The viciousness defining what a Mord Sith is telescopes our darkest motives and deepest cruelties, as efficiently as the image of the dragon whose teeth were sown at Thebes.

Several linked but different features occur in brutalization: 1. Pleasure in the pain of the victim or victims. 2. The formula ‘I am not going to suffer’ is pervasive. ‘You are going to do the suffering’ is implied and acted upon. 3. ‘I cannot contain what I feel in the way of fear, anger, or persecution’ … 4. Some people do suffer but cannot digest or metabolize the internal situation and it appears that instead of being resolved, old hurts get worse .. until what is acted out is far worse than the original suffering. – Cruelty, Violence and Murder

Not to wince away from the contact through the agiel with the tormenter is a gesture that embraces the shared experience of pain, as the way “out” that obliterates the horror of instinctively trying yet failing to escape. This is what Denna is getting at when she coaxes Richard to appreciate the metaphysics of pain, to use the profound nature of the experience of suffering as a way of escaping the worst.

As Weil says, likening all human experiences of pain to the passion of Christ, the divine spirit “shudders before suffering and death and feels itself in the depths of anguish isolated from man and from God.”

Craig’s decision to show extreme muscle tension by flexing all visible muscles to show maximum definition and strain when grasping the agiel creates a visually stunning effect true to the mechanical “vicious cycle” in which pain magnifies itself, which can be exacerbated when physical torture is combined with psychological torture. “Pain leads reflexively to counter-tension and this, in turn, to renewed pain, so these events continue in a kind of vicious circle.” – At the side of torture survivors

The deep muscle definition Craig uses in this scene also taps into the ability of the audience to relate to the experience of exertion/strain as causes of physical pain. There are also disturbing connotations of sexualized exploitation in this image, evoking the sense in which “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing,” as Weil puts it.

There is also restraint in Craig’s performance. Richard’s tone of voice is strangely guarded when he reveals that he wishes to spare Denna pain at his own expense. But he has seen the fawning sycophantic behavior she is accustomed to from her slaves. He knows these gestures are really just an elective humiliation in their systems of adaptive depravity, expressing self-loathing as the last refuge of interpretation, to despise their own fate. He clings instead to the last shreds of compassion, hanging by the flimsy thread of unconditional love.

Given the opportunity, before facing the final test, Richard begs Kahlan to stamp out all that is left of his vulnerability, and take his soul with the magic of confession. She refuses, and he calls it a betrayal. But she has hope, guarded though it may be by ignorance of what he has really endured already.


After recognizing all this in the performances at the heart of “Denna”, there is something distasteful about Rilke’s gentle consolation, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” The story, Richard’s journey of the mind, gets under your skin, and then you recoil from the nicer ways of putting it.

This is the difference between perpetrating life-like illusions and the actor’s work as an original artist: “the actor gives you the eternity of love, grief, and death; … The art of acting in that scene is ultimately to be judged by the completeness and significance of its idea. Every work of art endures at last not by its likeness to things outside itself, but by the depth and freedom of the content that it embodies and expresses.”

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