Swans Commentary » swans.com June 4, 2012  



Acting Out


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - June 4, 2012)   In Shakespeare's As You Like It, the character of Jaques says:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

This was the birth of a great truism; one whose ramifications have been both analyzed and oversimplified for centuries. In a sense, every person resembles certain fictional characters that are similar, if not direct reproductions, of characters conceived by playwrights and screenwriters. We acknowledge that the stage, being a mirror of our own society, throws back reflections of the people we encounter there. The fops to be found in the plays of writers such as Wycherley, Congreve, and Sheridan were often duplicated in the salons and coffee houses of l8th century London. In the 1930s in England, young suave men who wished to appear clever and worldly imitated the bearing and language of Noel Coward, sometimes turning Coward into a parody of himself. In the '60s, the marginal characters depicted by actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean were to be found among young disenchanted youths both in England and America; their behavior, dress, and attitudes directly copied from theatrical or cinematic models. One might argue that the "types" found in the society were the inspiration for the writers' depictions on stage and in films, but one can just as easily argue that the artifacts came first and the imitations followed.

Social behavior, as social-psychologist Erving Goffman demonstrated in several books but most notably in Behavior in Public Places, is itself often "theatrical" in that people who wish to convey certain attitudes or states of minds do so by consciously demonstrating mimetic behavior that gets their message across to others -- in precisely the same way an actor on stage organizes his physical behavior in order to convey a playwright's intentions.

Take the case of attire -- which is sometimes based on a fictional character and deliberately selected in order to create a particular effect in one's own social circle. The art of the actor and the "acting" of the ordinary man or woman are both artistically intertwined in a form of social messaging that is derived, consciously or unconsciously, from the same art employed by the professional actor. In that sense, many of us are unconsciously projecting aspects of selected prototypes.

This should not be confused with people who, in the psychiatric sense, are "acting out" by simply being "who they are" and trying to relay aspects of their personalities to others. The techniques employed in this mimicry are almost always unconscious, but because they utilize gesture, body language, and embellished consciousness to make their points, they fall into the purview of acting.

We tend to mimic traits in people we admire. It is a way of assimilating qualities we would like to possess ourselves. When Ronald Reagan quoted Clint Eastwood's warning "Make my day," he was assuming a toughness that has been appropriated from a character for whom toughness is an indigenous trait. In quoting the actor he was reproducing a cinematic quality that he personally lacked but admired and therefore "borrowed." It was an imitation that in some way supplemented a deficit in Reagan himself who, in his own personality, was not particularly threatening. We do this all the time in regard to actors or actresses we admire for qualities that we lack.

It could be argued that all of us possess alter egos influenced by fictional characters with whom we tacitly correspond -- characters who have come down to us from books, plays, movies, legends, fairy tales, even paintings and illustrations. When men try to seduce women, there may be a template in their subconscious of Valentino, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, George Clooney -- just as women may consciously or unconsciously pattern themselves on public personae such as Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, etc., performers whose films have lodged certain character traits in our minds and whose personae we preserve in our dream life.

We use the tactics of acting in social interactions when we want to convey attributes we do not naturally possess -- viz a robust style of delivery to mask uncertainty, an outward show of calm that often conceals an inner turbulence, a mask of great concern when we are in fact totally disinterested. We project those traits that we believe are expected of us in social situations -- for instance, in genial exchanges with people we actually dislike, or by exaggerating our skills in a job interview when we have few or none. Instinctively we know how to mask anti-social characteristics by portraying traits that are deliberately chosen. We do not have to rehearse these actions; we borrow them, usually unconsciously, from gestures, expressions and behavior that we have derived from books, films, plays, or television. We could simply attribute these traits to "human nature," but the specific selection of posture, diction, and attitude are often derived from "performances" we have assimilated from an exposure to a bevy of social artifacts. Professional actors employ fakery to project their characters. "Real people," beyond the range of esthetics, do exactly the same thing -- their behavior being just as "put on" as that of professional actors. We all poach attitudes, characteristics, even language from professional players, just as the players poach insight, attitudes and language from the performing arts.

But that happens when all or most of one's behavior is purloined from outside sources? Is that still "acting"? Is it theft? Is it homage to make believe? Is it encroachment from the media and simply an extension of "entertainment"? Or is it a kind of dishonesty -- the kind of behavior that labels one as being insincere, a faker, a phony?

As you can see, I am trying to define differences and similarities rather than projecting a thesis. Rather than determine some penetrating truth based on fiction, I am simply pointing out similarities and wondering if, as the Bard would have it, "All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players." Or would it be more accurate to say: "All the world is an interaction between artists and the general public in which the latter, consciously or not, appropriate behavior, attitudes, language, and stereotypes which they believe to be their own"?


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 4, 2012