Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self
Publication Year: 2014
Published by: University of Michigan Press
Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance
Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page, Dedication
To reflect on acting is to rethink identity. It is to examine the playful withdrawal from established connections between self and embodied agency. Exploring this process in its manifestation as a performing art, involves an attempt to pinpoint the uniqueness of this imaginative metamorphosis, and the ways in which it affects an audience. Understanding the more evasive manifestations of acting outside art requires a probing into the rich experiential...
Part I: Life on the Stage
There are three general methods—descriptive, historical and conceptual— of explaining the acting process. Descriptive accounts focus on practitioners’ own conceptualizations of their work. Historical explanations trace evolution and changes in conceptions of acting, embedding these in broader cultural contexts. Conceptual accounts pursue a psychological or philosophical depth-structure that underlies self-descriptions offered by practitioners....
What Actors Do
“Acting is the process whereby people imaginatively become somebody else.” This seems like a plausible characterization of acting. Regrettably, it is unsatisfactory. To begin with, it misses the embodied nature of imaginative transformation in acting—which differentiates acting from activities such as daydreaming, writing up a literary character, or whimsical role-playing. Secondly, such a definition runs together delusion and acting. As an oft-cited...
Three Kinds of Existential Amplification
Acting is a gateway to living more—such is a short version of what I shall now propose. Existential amplification will be the name given to such expansion of one’s sense of being alive, and three ways through which acting puts such amplification into motion will be presented. The first consists of accessing fictional possibilities. The second appears in the manner whereby lived content is realized. The third occurs through the withdrawal from one’s identity....
The Experience of Amplification
A philosophy of a practice is required to illuminate questions actually posed by practitioners. In what way does the view of acting as existential amplification address puzzles raised within acting theory, and how does it elucidate the felt experience of acting? This chapter opens with the feeling/ projecting controversy. I then suggest how existential amplification is able to expose misrepresentations of the acting process by leading actors who identify acting with lying. Finally, existential amplification will explainv...
Acting is a form of existential amplification. But why is an audience drawn to watch it? This chapter takes up the relationship between spectatorship and the existential gesture performed by the actor. An important difference between watching live and watching filmed acting would thereby emerge....
Listening to Actors
Striking, memorable acting is often bound up with effects created by modifications of the actor’s voice. Stanislavsky summons Salvini’s testament on the point: “When Tommaso Salvini, the great Italian actor, was asked what one must have to be a tragedian, he replied: ‘Voice, voice, and more voice!’“1 Salvini is not alone in singling out the voice as a crucial tool for potent acting. Chaplin repeatedly declined offers to make his tramp talk. “This was...
Part II: Staging Fictions
This part of the book investigates diverse ways in which fictions are animated. Two chapters explore the relationship between literary and theatrical fictions. The first chapter traces differences and points of overlap between embodying a fictional character, and the writing of one as author or the identification with one as reader. All three have all been perceived as “life-amplifying” at one time or another. Setting them apart without missing the ...
Any comprehensive philosophy of theater and acting is rooted in a conceptually prior understanding of the relationship between theater and literature. Two extreme versions regarding such relations are currently on offer. The first is Aristotelian: theater exists in order to enact literature. The second holds theatrical performances to be autonomous (aesthetically, ontologically, conceptually) from literature. Neither of these theories should be accepted....
From Aristotle on, genres such as comedy or tragedy have been understood solely in terms of the content or the emotional structures they are meant to convey. Tragedy is (still) said to instill a sense of waste, or of estrangement or homelessness, or to induce a combination of pity and fear, or to bring into collision a conflict of mutually exclusive values. Comedy, by contrast, is understood as establishing an experience of momentary superiority, or as...
Acting is the process of animating a fictional role. Puppet theater, a medium that celebrates the animation of that which is manifestly not alive, reifies this process. Since, in puppetry, such animation is purified of many aspects involved in an actor’s performance, puppetry opens for the philosopher of acting an important gateway into the aesthetics governing both creation and reception of this distinct strand of the actor’s art....
Part III: Between Life and Stage
We have so far explored processes in which “being in another way” through acting facilitates transcending the boundaries of one’s identity in various ways. But there is an altogether different manner of becoming other through acting, in which identity is not momentarily abandoned, but is actually recreated through the acting process. Like stage-acting, one becomes other through a particular kind of performance. The difference is that instead of...
Jonas Barish’s The Antitheatrical Prejudice is rightly considered a classic of modern scholarship. Carefully compiling the various strands of antitheatrical thought, Barish exposes and analyses its vicissitudes and implications. Caustic wit animates his evaluation of the literature produced by the “legions of hard-shelled, mole-eyed fanatics” who could find nothing of value and yet much danger in the theater: “an unmistakable crackpot streak...
Pornography and Acting
Pornographic performance constitutes a philosophically riddling form of role-playing. Those who merely distinguish between authentic agency and artificial pretense are likely to altogether miss the problem. They would simply identify acting with pretending, and perceive pornographic acting—if it is acting—as no more than another kind of mimicry. From such a perspective, the philosophical questions raised by pornography are mostly moral in...
Part IV: Life as Stage
The previous part of the book discussed self-shaping role-playing by performers who regard themselves as such. In this part, I turn to self-determination through kinds of acting conducted outside the formal boundaries of the theater. Goffmanesque personality theories or the Theatrum mundi tradition are the more familiar ways in which such self-creation is typically articulated. Such approaches stress role-playing selves who, juggling among several...
The Theatricalization of Love
Masochism is theatricalized love. To access what this statement may mean requires casting a patient glance at a sensitive portrayal of embodied erotic submission. A rich and potent description of this kind is offered in a novel written by the person who gave masochism its name: Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870). The novel unfolds the relationship between Severin von Kusiemski—a self-proclaimed dilettante listlessly flirting with...
The Theatricalization of Death
Anorexia is a prolonged unfolding of a theatrical suicidal gesture.3 Such will be the contention of this chapter. Bewildered relatives, friends, therapists, colleagues, teachers, strangers casually met in the street—all make up the anorectic’s audience. The audience also includes the anorectic herself, engaged in complex self-spectating of her acting body’s response to her own directing mind....
A young man enters the stage carrying his old servant on his back. The servant has beseeched him to go on without him, so that he would raise his own chances of survival. The young man refuses. He is fervently looking for food to nourish the servant. Because all this takes place immediately after one of the most celebrated speeches in Western drama, the episode tends to be overlooked. The oversight is unfortunate....