Nathaniel on characters, actors, and playwrights
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
3:20 a.m. So, gentlemen, I took some time off from direct interaction, and spent the day reading ad thinking about things. May we resume? That isn’t actually a question, I hope. I have come to rely upon there being someone on the other end of the line when I call.
And you are thinking of Joan of Arc and her voices that ceased to speak to her, and what was that all about.
I was, vaguely, yes. Joan was an historical character. What she did is not disputed even by the most mechanistic, determinist, materialist critic. The fact that she did what she did cannot be explained without reference to the voices she listened to, the miraculous events that occurred as she foretold, and the power that she came to wield not only as a symbol but in her person. The Middle Ages had no trouble putting the facts into its accepted framework of the world – God and angels, miracles and sorcery, true faith and heresy. We in our half-blind civilization – or maybe I should say, blind in different areas – cannot quite make sense of it. The “modern” thing to do has been to talk away miracles and any sign of what people call the supernatural. Only, Joan is history, not merely legend, so the only way to talk away the miracles attending her career is to talk away he miracle that she was, that her career was.
I’m drifting from the point. Captured [by the English enemy forces], Joan was not any more helpless than she as a young peasant woman (disregarding other factors) would always have been. But when her voices failed her, she knew not what to do. Why did they fail her? She hadn’t lost faith, if I remember rightly, but they ceased. Why?
This will seem harsh.
I know what you’re going to say.
You say it for us, and we will correct.
Joan’s task, like Lincoln’s, was to be an enduring symbol, and her martyrdom, like his, sealed and multiplied the effect of her life upon her contemporaries and their descendants. But how could she be seen to be defeated and destroyed while still in connection with the forces that had made her career? It would have been discrediting to the forces as reliable, perhaps, or perhaps as being of God. So, by their withdrawing from her, she was seen to be destroyed in the absence of that connection, which preserved the prestige of the link that there had been, hence preserved the charisma of Joan as saint.
More or less accurate.
Hard on faithful Joan, to die thinking she had been forsaken. Maybe even thinking she was to blame.
All right, now remember to tie this in. Hard on Joan in her role as Joan. Not hard on the actor (actress?) playing the role of Joan. That is what we mean by not quite real, or not fully real.
The actor playing Hamlet wouldn’t profit if the play were re-written to let Hamlet live in Act V.
He would not. At Hamlet-the-character’s level of reality, the tragic ending is implicit in the rest of his life as expressed and hinted at. At the actor’s level of reality, the role and the play make a satisfying mini-world for a couple of hours, leading people on an emotional and intellectual journey (at the actor’s own level of reality). At what we might call the behind-the-scenes level of reality, the playing of the play, all over the world, all through various centuries, is a useful and interesting pry-bar kind of tool which occasionally lifts people out of their accustomed mental habits or emotional patterns and leaves them temporarily or permanently altered. Only remember, everyone lives all three levels at once. Just because you aren’t aware of being actor, character, and behind-the-scenes observer doesn’t mean you don’t live all those roles, each at its appropriate level of reality.
Did I get carried away there and put words in your mouth? How do we play Hamlet, say?
The words are right. Your question is not. The life you lead – the external life you are accustomed to take for granted in the way you take your body for granted – is the role. Your occasional or continual awareness that you are not your role – that is the actor’s self-awareness, thinking about his career while on stage mouthing the author’s lines. Your non-3D awareness – at a higher level than your non-3D at its usual accompaniment-of-3D level – is you as playwright, you as observer, you as co-producer.
And, I get, flashes of greater awareness can interfere with our lives.
Well – “interfere.” Let’s look at it. Is this interaction here interference, or is it enrichment? What interferes is conflict of self-definition and experience. Without that conflict, you get greater richness, greater scope, as you should know. However, yes, the conflict between too rigid a self-definition and inflowing awareness from things not included in that self-definition can be disorienting, even harmful. Why do you think we repeatedly send you angels?
The definition of angel is “messenger.”
Yes, I know that. I wasn’t aware of it when I titled my first novel Messenger, but someone called it to my attention then. And so –?
Disorientation is sometimes the only path to re-orientation. Not always, but sometimes. And one path to disorientation is an influx of incongruous or inexplicable contents from the levels of reality beyond the one of the person to be disoriented. Joan as ordinary farm girl was a role useless to herself and to her country. Joan as ordinary farm girl inspired by divine voices was a role of a lifetime – a role of the civilization’s lifetime. But the early stages were not necessarily any easier for the character than the later stages. But don’t waste your pity: They weren’t difficult or painful for the actor (except perhaps by empathy). And the role got played.
So what I’m hearing between the lines here is that the character, not merely the actor, had to be disoriented.
No, although in this case that is true. The point is not about the character – the role Joan of Arc that was played upon the world stage – but about the actor, the equivalent of the level of reality you and your readers exist on. That actor wasn’t playing Joan (as far as she was aware) but being Joan. Therefore the identity between actor and character was absolute as long as the play was being performed, but only – shall we say tenuous and theoretical? – once the play had been performed. While it was being performed, everything depended upon the actor. Playwright could only watch and see how well or badly the scenes were brought to life. Character could only act as she felt impelled, often having no idea why she felt that way, living on faith. It was up to the actor how it played.
Except, all possible variants were lived.
Correct. Great performances, flops, revisions, ad libs, every variant – just like the rest of your lives.
So Patton didn’t always slap the shell-shocked soldiers in Sicily, but maybe he didn’t always lead the charge liberating France.
All possible performances exist, you know that. The ones you choose to identify with [i.e. the reality we experience as real] say something about you as individuals, except that it is not so much conscious choice on actor’s level as on playwright’s level. There is, after all, at least a loose plot, and certain desired developments.
Now, don’t get too enmeshed – entangled, we might say – in this actor, character, playwright analogy. It is useful, but it is analogy. We almost think we should apologize for continually reminding you of that, only we know it is necessary! Analogy, not identity – but useful. You live at different levels of reality, and if you make that real to yourselves, many emotional knots will ease, much of the world’s injustice and cruelty will appear in a different light, and your own potential and burdens and opportunities will all be enhanced. It you do not choose to make it real to yourself, an entirely different array of choices and constraints automatically appear, or rather, seem to remain self-evident.
We know you feel a bit at sea. No harm in that.
It’s just that I can’t really say I have a handle on where this session went. Does it contradict itself somewhere? That is the feeling I have.
“Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid. Neither be dismayed.”
I have to say, the first two are easier than the third, sometimes. J But, okay. Is that it for today?
Enough, and we will rejoin you at another time.
Thanks as always.