[In Part 2 of my report on Why Acting Matters, I present my own discussion of what I consider author David Thomson’s most significant idea, the phenomenon of acting in everyday life. I think Thomson gives this topic short shrift in his monograph, so I’ve expanded on his introduction of it and, drawing on a few other writers on the topic and my own experience, examine the real reason I find acting matters in human society. See if you agree—and don’t hesitate to comment with your own thoughts on the notion that all of us act in our ordinary lives nearly all the time.
[I recommend that newcomers to this blog go back to Part 1 to read about the book and its author. The first installment of this post also includes my own appraisal of Why Acting Matters as well as some background.]
David Thomson does touch in Why Acting Matters on an aspect of the significance of acting in real life that I can see having spread worldwide with human DNA. The author suggests that “it’s fundamental that acting out began as a longing to communicate and a need to impress . . .” (p. 36). “We have to imagine,” he explains, “that one day, or one millennium, in the gradually emerging thing to be called society, men and women began to act. Instead of just being themselves, they presented those selves with some sort of purpose” (p. 35). Ultimately, by the time humanity begins to become civilized and socialized, and they “gathered together in their urge to communicate, people will perform, pretend, exaggerate, lie . . .” (pp. 34-35). This, I hope we’ll see, is why acting really matters—above and outside any profession that employs it as an art form to entertain or inform viewers. Because human beings are impelled to play parts all the time in their everyday lives. So forget Olivier and Brando and Leigh and Day-Lewis, David Garrick and Richard Burbage, Mei Lanfang and Bando Tamasaburo. Think about Uncle Bill; Cousin Mazie; Joe from down the block; and your boss, Mr. Jones. And you, yourself. None of these may be actors . . . but they all act.
Thomson makes this point, which I think is his most important, as an afterthought, relegating it largely to a half dozen pages near the end of his last chapter plus a few references earlier in the book. But other writers have examined this phenomenon more centrally. One that Thomson mentions in a note is sociologist and writer Erving Goffman (1922-82), whose study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1959) is intended “to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied.” Goffman sets out to “consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them,” but, the scientist makes clear, the “perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones.”
In Goffman’s report, he explains, “the individual . . . was viewed as a performer, a harried fabricator of impressions involved in the all-too-human task of staging a performance; he was viewed as a character, a figure . . . whose spirit, strength, and other sterling qualities the performance was designed to evoke.” The other writing team, in contrast, looks at the same phenomenon from the opposite perspective: instead of studying society through the prism of theater, John Lahr (b. 1941), the long-time theater reviewer and son of actor Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, 1938, and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, 1956), and Jonathan Price (b. 1941), a poet and theater professor, examine theater by looking at the ways we perform in ordinary life. In Life-Show: How to See Theater in Life and Life in Theater (Viking Press, 1973), wrote the authors:
When we explore the boundary between the stage world and the real world, the questions . . . of performance and authenticity dominate the inquiry. To understand the life of the stage is to confront the drama of culture. In both, we find Man making scenes, acting out his problems, manipulating sets, props, costumes, gestures, and language to reveal and conceal himself. The study of each illuminates the other.
Finally, I consulted performance artist Linda Montano who published a book on her work called Art in Everyday Life (Astro Artz, 1981). Montano (b. 1942) wrote: “Everyone has energy and wants to express it, direct it somewhere”; her impulse was to do performance art “because it allows me to give value to things and I also like getting so involved in something that I can transcend my ordinary concerns,” echoing one of David Thomson’s reasons he says acting matters.
I date the history of acting in “The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines,” posted on ROT on 21 July 2011, the same way Thomson does (see Why Acting Matters, p. 35). As I imagined it, the impulse to perform came from the need to teach or explain events of import to the community:
That impulse predates written language so it was channeled into two other outlets: art and performance. The first theatrical performances must have occurred the first time a Neanderthal hunting party danced around the campfire to replay for the rest of the clan the day’s success. This surely led ultimately to modern theater, and, eventually, film, television, and even YouTube, but acting out stories, both actual and made-up, is one of our oldest tools for building a society.
Many cultures today, such as Native Americans, use this method to pass on the group’s history and religion or teach new generations the ways and customs of the society. It was how we perpetuated and passed on our traditions. It’s part of nearly all human culture. “Culture is a story told around a fire,” declared stage director Leonardo Shapiro. The campfire is gone and in many societies, performance largely moved into theaters or designated performance spaces—but not all of it, and not all the time. As Lahr and Price demonstrate in Life-Show, “The issues dealt with by stagecraft and stage management are sometimes trivial but they are quite general; they seem to occur everywhere in social life . . . .” Thomson lays out a couple of typical scenarios:
You are having an important job interview. You are meeting a person of one sex or another, without knowing yet how significant the relationship may prove to be. You are in the offices of a movie studio pitching a story to them: it might rescue the studio and do you no harm. Or, in an idle part of a summer afternoon, in a remote part of the forest, you are simply trying to observe yourself as a way—of understanding this curious role you have been assigned. Will nothing suffice? (pp. 147-48)
And so, we play-act. It’s no accident that Thomson quotes director Robert Eyre in the front matter of Why Acting Matters: “What is true, I think, is that if you scratch an actor you will find a child. . . . [A]ctors must retain a child’s appetite for mimicry, for demanding attention, and above all for playing.” As Thomson notes often in Why Acting Matters, another way of way of saying ‘acting’ is ‘playing’—and so is ‘pretending,’ both activities associated with childhood. (Thomson also likes to remind us that yet another synonym for ‘acting’ is ‘lying,’ and he’s not the only one. The author reveals that the only acting class Brando ever taught was called Lying for a Living [p. 156-57].) Furthermore, Lahr and Price point out:
Actors are signs: they give off messages with their bodies, their voices, and their words. They manipulate the audience for the required emotion; they disguise themselves in roles. They assume identities before our eyes.
So do we.
Because, it seems, we never grow up completely. We retain the drive to pretend. We just use it for more sophisticated purposes. “Thus,” writes Goffman, “when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.” So, the sociologist posits, we employ the technique of role-playing in various ways. “Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain.” This would be mostly how Richard III behaves, say when wooing Lady Anne or refusing the crown. It’s also Hamlet in his scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after he begins to suspect them of disloyalty. “Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case.” This is also Hamlet, but when he’s with Horatio and perhaps his father’s ghost. “Sometimes he will intentionally and consciously express himself in a particular way, but chiefly because the tradition of his group or social status require this kind of expression and not because of any particular response (other than vague acceptance or approval) that is likely to be evoked from those impressed by the expression. Sometimes the traditions of an individual’s role will lead him to give a well-designed impression.” This is most of us in many social or business circumstances; it was me when I was in the army, especially when I was in uniform, or when I was teaching middle or high school and in front of my classes. (To be sure, Lahr and Price observe: “The corporate ladder, the military chain of command, the classroom represent both ground plans for action and prompt-books for required responses. Within these environments, the life-performer tries to construct his image for the public.”) It could also be seen in Hamlet’s demeanor in the court scenes where particular behavior is prescribed or Richard’s when he confronts the Lancasters, his family’s enemy, when a certain insolence is expected. This develops because, as Life-Show observes, the “life-performer” “is continually being placed in cultural scenes in which special performances are demanded and in which his position is clearly blocked.”
“[T]he adept life-performer has a sense of timing, symbolic gestures, and setting with which he impresses people,” Lahr and Price report, “and conveys an idea of himself and what he stands for. His scenes are often staged and done for effect.” Both on stage and in life, these writers point out, “we find Man making scenes, acting out his problems, manipulating sets, props, costumes, gestures, and language to reveal and conceal himself.” And Goffman underscores that both on stage and in everyday life, “the successful staging . . . of false figures involves use of real techniques—the same techniques by which everyday persons sustain their real social situations.” Thomson, from his perspective, puts it this way:
You probably never meant to be an actor yourself, in the professional sense, yet you are steeped in the awareness that a smile, a silence, a pause, or a sigh are all things that will be read as signs of character and intent. That is how you look at other people; that is how you assume they study you. (p. 149)
So, just like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and (God forbid) Richard III, we become different selves for different people in different circumstances. That’s acting in everyday life. (For some reason, we don’t like to use theater words for real-life performance. Maybe it’s just a matter of keeping the distinctions clear, but there’s an edge of discomfort in the euphemizing of acting terms outside the theater. Note that the writers I’ve cited here, one an academic using theater to examine everyday interaction and the others a pair of theater people using real life to illuminate theater, use alternative terms: Goffman, for example, calls the performer in his study “the observed,” while Lahr and Price’s term for the actor is “life-performer.” When I guided an elementary-school class in a social studies exercise in which third-graders played settlers in a 17th-century Massachusetts colony, the classroom teacher insisted on calling the exercise a “role-play” rather than a “performance” and the preparation sessions were “caucuses,” not “rehearsals.” I later did a playwriting project with this same class and then theater terms were okay.)
Let me give you some examples of “role-playing”—the presentation of my self in specific everyday situations—out of my own “life-show”; I imagine that you’ll recognize parallel instances from your experiences.
When I was in Berlin in the army, contact with an East German or Soviet agent had to be reported. It was my unit’s job, aside from determining if there was any security problem, to scare the GI or U.S. civilian more than they already were in what were called SAEDA briefings—Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army. I remember one very vividly because it involved a teenager, a high school boy whose dad was a GI in Berlin Brigade. The boy had driven to West Germany with a teacher to take his SAT’s in Frankfurt, as I recall. On the way back to Berlin on the Autobahn through East Germany, when they stopped at one of the checkpoints, the kid decided to practice the Russian he’d been studying. While the teacher was getting the papers attended to, the boy started a conversation with a Soviet guard and gave him a pack of American cigarettes, a prized acquisition. Well, someone in another car at the checkpoint saw this exchange and reported it at the MP station where he crossed from East Germany into West Berlin. The MP’s reported this to us, and we ID’d the student and called him in for a SAEDA talk. I was the agent assigned to talk to the kid and no matter how much I assured him that nothing was going to happen, he was sure his father was going to get shipped home at the very least. It was quickly obvious, of course, that nothing serious had happened—though contact with a Soviet guard was against regs. I did my best Dutch Uncle routine, a role for which I consciously had to apply my acting skills as I wasn’t much older than the kid was, and sent him home, still terrified.
In addition to on-the-job acting, I did some amateur theater in Berlin, the principal outlet for which was the facility of the Special Services Office. There was an incident where I wore my Military Intelligence . . . errr, cloak, I guess—and put on another improv. The Special Services director came to me because a member of her staff had been telling people he was an intel agent. He’d even taken to wearing a snap-brimmed fedora and a trench coat! Now, a lot of people outside MI had an inflated idea what spooks could and might do because of movie and TV figures like James Bond, Derek Flynt, Napoleon Solo, and the Mission: Impossible team. I never disillusioned anyone of their fantasies; I just let them believe what they wanted—and this PFC was one of those in awe of my spook status. (Counterintel was low-profile, but not clandestine.) So I had an informal talk with the guy. I believe he thought I might actually make him disappear or something. (I’ve always been pretty good at playing hard-asses.) Now, I never made it official, but I gave him one of my “stern talking-to’s”—a performance like the SAEDA briefings but more intimidating. I put the Special Services guy on notice—like a traffic cop who says, “I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but don’t let me catch you speeding again!” He was . . . ummmm, shall we say, chastened? He thought I was King Shit after that. I just let him.
Neither of these roles was the usual me—not that they aren’t part of my makeup; they are, but not the face that I customarily show to the world. They’re special masks I created for specific occasions, to impart the impression with which I want to leave my “audience.” Another occasion where I played an unacknowledged role in real life, although this actually took place in a theater, came a few years after I left the military.
Early in my attempt to make a career in the theater, I assayed my first professional directing gig. An Off-Off-Broadway cast of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a couple of weeks into rehearsals, had fired its own director! They’d become frustrated with his work because he hadn’t blocked the show, hadn’t given them any character notes, and, despite fervent requests, hadn’t made any cuts in the script. The artistic director of the theater (where I’d been working as an actor for a while) asked if I would consider taking over the production. I watched a rehearsal and agreed to accept the job. In addition to not wanting to upset the cast any more and, perhaps more importantly—certainly for me—not wanting them to see that I didn’t know what I was doing, I consciously chose actions to appear more secure and authoritative than I really was. It was a deliberate strategy, because I didn’t want the cast to feel they had just jumped from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. I decided, first, not to tell them that I’d never directed pros before, then to make very definitive decisions about text cuts (that was the straw that caused the rebellion) and tell them exactly what was in, what was out, and what we could discuss. I made some detailed directing notes, mostly blocking, and worked out some physical business to insert, and I made some very specific character notes. It was all pretty arbitrary and basic stuff, but I deliberately selected these actions so that I’d seem to be in charge and on top of the situation (even though I wasn’t—I was just SWAGging). It was all a choreographed act I figured would carry us into the rehearsals far enough until the work itself became a focus. One thing that worked in my favor, of course, that I couldn’t have known about was that the cast was so desperate for some guidance and real direction that they glommed onto my efforts like Velcro! The bluff worked, but mostly because the cast was really ready for it. (After the play opened, and we had our opening night party, several of the cast, drunk by then, very forcefully said they’d work with me anytime again and that I was a real “actors’ director.” That’s when I told them that this had been my first professional gig. They were shocked—and I was delighted!)
I pulled this performance off (and the one on stage, too), but that was probably mostly down to the cast. Even though they were actors, they didn’t twig to my own acting because they were so focused on their own task and so receptive to my decisiveness, I was able to keep my performance going until the play opened and I copped to the role-play. It helped, of course, that this group of actors didn’t know me (I inherited the cast assembled by the original director) so as long as I didn’t slip, they had nothing with which to compare my behavior. I tried the same gambit four years later on a more limited scale, but this time I was working with a cast, some of whom knew me, who were more confident and less desperate. On the basis of my “directorial authority,” I tried to bluff one actor, whom I’d just directed in another show (and with whom I’d acted twice as well), into something I wanted him to do and he just didn’t buy it. Life-Show posits that “ the working consensus,” Lahr and Price’s term for the implicit methodology of the role-play, “established in one interaction setting will be quite different in content from the working consensus established in a different type of setting.” If that’s so, then the reverse must also be true: the set-up that worked in one situation won’t necessarily work in another, however similar they may seem. (It’s also true that a “performance may seem sincere, but that does not mean it is truthful,” most likely because the acting is poor, and the observers for whom the desired impression is intended can tumble to the deception.)
The upshot of acting in everyday life is, I think, what Lahr and Price affirm:
C. G. Jung argues that role-playing is the necessary fluid through which the individual flows into society. Roles are shaped and developed through social demands. On stage and in life, the discovery and acting out of roles is an attempt to impose an order on the world.
In Why Acting Matters, Thomson puts it more ominously:
We have had to do this [i.e., perform in everyday circumstances] because in the increasing crowd self-awareness may be our defense against fears of anonymity. But that pressure towards loss of identity increases all the time, and so the process of acting becomes more necessary as an assurance that we exist. (pp. 149-50)
In fact, Thomson declares dramatically: “Why acting matters? Could it be that we fall apart without it” (p. 150)? That may be overstating the case considerably, but social discourse would certainly be a great deal more difficult and fraught if we didn’t act in our everyday dealings with one another.