twenty-sixth part, called “the subject XXVI,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

the subject

The selfish actor: it was remiss of me to introduce him and give no other description than the abstract—she identifies the depth below the stage as her own—and the advice that everybody knows the type. The selfish actor is the most common, even the dominant of the figures we see on the stage, but not for dominating. You might call it a professional hazard. Either that or a privilege of position.

Firstly, let us say a selfish actor is not a bad actor. The problem is she has become the model of the good actor. The selfish actor is often very good precisely at acting.

What affords us this precision? Let’s move past the abstract and look at what he does. A selfish actor takes the stage without any discomfort. What does she see? What, as Donnellan might say, is her target?

Donnellan’s admirable move is to de-psychologise acting. The actor does not act from what is inside him; he acts from what is outside. And the character is like a shell. In a way that is almost Deleuzian, he also invokes the crack.

An actor projects what the character she plays, which is no more than a shell or mask, sees, without it needing to have any reality whatsoever. The character is in the world only inasmuch as the actor can evoke it for herself. That is, this world belongs to the actor. The target is its point of interest, the bit it is reduced to by perception. The target therefore moves and changes with the changing, moving interest of the character.

Donnellan therefore maintains a distance, a psychological distance we might say, between actor and character. An actor’s technique is operational. It operates the character through projecting what this character perceives. The impression aimed for is liveliness, the life of the rigidity of the mask. And here it is worth noting that mask-work does exactly what Donnellan describes: it pares down the world the mask inhabits, who is a subject of it, its life world or life language, say, to singular points of interest.

The mask is an instrument to focus in on what exactly the character, of the mask, and generally, perceives, which will always be a portion or point in that world: the target he is trained on, and by which entrained, since the actor follows it, keeps it in sight. Like a good hunter, she does not chase it, but as it were sits inside it. Ideally, it becomes a point of contemplation, a moving, changing point, subject to all the vicissitudes an actual living world would visit on it.

The danger is not the identification of the actor with his character, or mask, but that of taking the target to be representative of the world. To believe it is real; when this is exactly what an actor is called on to do: which is why a selfish actor is a good actor. The selfish actor acts as if these phantasmatic projections, which her character, the part played, the mask worn needs to be life-like, were real. Were actual living targets.

A selfish actor then has an excellent understanding of what acting is. He understands it to be what it asks of him. And acting becomes a self-less act. But he is a selfish actor!

Consider what is asked of the slave. She has been volunteered for the games. An island has been fabricated in the middle of the colosseum, and it has been populated with wild animals. Trees provide some cover, and rocks, and other low plants, but not so much she will not be seen by the onlookers when she is attacked.

She smooths down the fur on the pelts that are her costume. She plays the savage inhabitant of an island about to be eaten by lions imported from the Barbary coast. But she is about to beat her fate because when she runs, when she screams, when the lions’ claws tear her flesh, when she sees her ‘children’ eaten in front of her, her ‘husband’ running away, and when she is herself picked up in the lion’s jaws and shaken like a toy, when her arms are flailing out and her legs treading air, and some vital organ is punctured or her spinal cord is broken, she will be acting. She will be acting when she dies.

The problem is not not knowing the difference between reality and the projected reality of a role’s interests, which give life to the role, and of which its (life) world (life language) are comprised. The problem is not confusing reality with art, the actual with the artificial. The problem is not not knowing the limits of the stage or of forming too strong an identification with the role. The problem is with thinking that it is you giving everything you’ve got: the problem is identification with the self.

It is too easy to call this ‘ego’ and the selfish actor an egotist. No, no. The selfish actor is self-less in doing what he is tasked with, but this fulfillment of his tasks is seen to be the selfish actor’s and not the character’s or role’s. A selfish actor is even self-less when it comes to acknowledging others, both in their roles and in their performances, inasmuch as they help her in the construction of the world.

We see this clearly in the case of our politicians. A selfish actor can, however, be damning of those who are not helpful. She is first to call out those actors who undermine her in the performance of her role, who don’t play their parts—who are not as good as she is. And who undermine the world she is painstakingly engaged in constructing. Target by target. Interest by interest. Point by point.

To say this of our political representatives is no mere analogy, because they, if they are any good are selfish actors. And we judge them by the same being good at what they do. And we pick at the masks and attempt to pry them away from their faces. So, this is a problem too: the selfish actor has become the model of the good politician.

What a selfish actor is is still an actor. And is so not for belief in the world but for belief that this world exists entirely without consequence. A selfish actor knows he has no power actually to do anything in the world. That is, too well because this too is that with which she has been tasked, she knows the limits of the stage.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.

If you would like to receive these posts, as they are written, as letters addressed to you, please send me your email address.