What is an actor? Or: Is the director … ? pt. 1

Following the traces of a previous thought: What do actors do? What do directors do?

Actors are necessary, even if they are reduced to automata or to machines. But are directors necessary to the theatrical work? What about actor-managers, don’t they in the absence of directors do just as well? Won’t they do just as well?

– Franz von Stück, Sphinx, 1895

The question, Is the director necessary? seems to arise in a context where its obverse is granted as beyond question, that actors are above all necessary, or something taking their place, a reduction. Is the role of the actor then structural where that of the director is not? If the actor’s place may be taken by something else – whether we grant that this is a reduction or not – that place has a relational significance which goes beyond what may be predicated of the actor.

The predicate would be the definition occurring according to common sense in answer to the question, What is an actor? in what has been called an Aristotelian logic. So: An actor is he who sees the gun on the nightstand in the first act, firing it in the third. An actress is she who is implied to have placed it there, to imply that she knows full well it will be seen, so that her character may be avenged on another, who, we are given to understand, has betrayed her… character… at another, earlier and fictional time… Not to overcomplicate matters…

And therefore, it may be predicated of both actor and actress that they serve the script, in so far as they perform the actions of fictional characters from it and play the emotions of those characters, so that we, the audience, know what is happening in the story; the plot comprises the series of actions and emotions played moment by moment by the actors; the story is how we the audience contrive to join together the events we witness, feelingly, on stage in order to make sense of what is happening. We follow the story by following the plot which follows the script. Actors act the plot, thickening it and thinning it as the literary precursor, the script, directs them so to do. They follow the script. As does the director.

He sees the gun on the nightstand; he later uses it. What is the minimum we need to know of the plot to get the story? Or, by what variations, introduced at the level of how it is played, is the plot now another demanding that we make up a different story? She put it the gun there for him to see? Or for us to see? Did we know that the playwright had read Chekhov? The gun disappears. There is a shot offstage. Or is it an overstretched violin string?

– Man Ray, Le violin de Ingres, 1924

A violin is on the nightstand. Are we going to assume that she intends him to use a string as a garotte in order to avenge herself on someone who has – before the action begins – betrayed her? When does the action begin, anyway?

We are being directed by both actor and actress in how we make up the story of the characters they are playing for us. For us. How dare they intercede between the writer’s intentions and the play?! He’s simply being duped by her into doing something that will remove him from acts four and five! So she can run off with someone else, he having done her dirty work. Stupid man! Wicked woman!

– Fuseli, Bottom

(Stupid man, wicked woman, about sums up the reach of contemporary New Zealand TV drama. Although what wickedness there is is implied to have been produced in women (in their characters) by living in a man’s world. But that’s another story. A supramorality, or metafeminism, the moral position of which, considered alongside the phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, sits – and sucks – quite nicely.)

– Dino Valls, Calami, 2004

The actors are caught between pleasing the audience and pleasing the writer, flattering the audience that they are clever and wise – can follow the plot – while flattering the playwright for having written such compelling and life-like characters. They are a gift to an actor, or a joy to play. But, darling, I didn’t write [add character name] for you! And I despise the way you try and ingratiate yourself with the audience using a character who is basically unlikeable and is meant to be so.

The actors are neither projections of the writer’s intention, nor that of the audience’s good will. It is not so much that actors like to be liked, and are betrayed by their very human desire to please. Even when we substitute machines for actors, removing the humanity – alienating it – that was inferred to have been the source of the problem, we find that it is not. A machine still acts the part, and where the humanity of the actor was called into question, often by the actor, or else by the audience, or writer, before, now the very materiality, or substance, of the machine becomes an issue: its ontological status. Because the problem is that the actress is not what she is, or, put another way, that the actor is what he is but what he is is an illusion. Which is also why a machine can take the place of an actor: it will become a machine in a special sense, a virtual machine, like the actor or actress, when it performs.

– God

What is being an actor? Would we be better to ask what an actor does, as if Morgan Freeman were reflecting on this issue, when he said, You do what you are, so encouraging some ingénue to keep up her investigatory work. In being what she did, what was she being but an actress and what was she doing but acting, taking the part of an investigator? However, Morgan Freeman was addressing himself to some core, to a point of fundamental identity, when he said, You do what you are, as if in the doing the being was affirmed and as if such affirmation as the acting gave the being was somehow retroactive.

– Colin McCahon, I AM, 1954

There can be no greater praise for an actor than that which takes the form, “Robert Pattinson IS Edward Cullen” [link]. Does this mean that Edward Cullen is affirmed in his being by Robert Pattinson’s doing, playing him? On the other hand, “Chaste vampires are not us” [link]. But “chaste vampires” are very much us, or R us. (See the generation of “chaste vampires” with Brazilian waxes, here.)

– Stephenie Meyer

Resisting the temptation of that Mormon devil is still an admission that the temptation and the desire is real. The proposition negated in the statement “chaste vampires are not us” has already been revoked by popular consensus. Indeed, the height of flattery and the odium of having predicates applied to ‘us’ which are not ours amount to the same difference, but not to the difference of the same. What Stephenie Meyer is reported to have said of Robert Pattinson was that he “IS Edward Cullen (sometimes).” So we may as well admit it: we are chaste vampires, sometimes. However, if we do affirm our chastity in this wise, we are also involving the contrary and performing an act of vampirism by sucking the blood from the renunciation of, particularly, sex.

– Sex

Proceeding from the negative disavowal, can we make a predicate affirming what the actor is not? Say, the actor is green, or, the actress is Dorothy Parker. A curious thing happens here which is neither due to the actor not being green without cosmetic enhancement nor to the actress not actually being Dorothy Parker without metempsychosis. The difference differs: the difference between the actor and acting-green-ness (or ‘greening’) is different from the difference between the actress and playing-Dorothy-Parker (or ‘drinking and being witty,’ i.e. qualities which are predicated of Dorothy Parker). The second case is what we might call a differential representation, because the object of playing Dorothy Parker has both virtual and actual parts, representational and differential, whereas being a tree, or trying to green, while interesting and arty, does not partake of the symbolic excess of representation by which acting becomes more than mere art and the whole of imitation is found in repetition. [cf. link]


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

– Dorothy Parker