The image of an actor holding a skull is the extraordinarily powerful, even iconic image that often stands in for acting itself. This essay argues that the interaction between actors and human remains onstage illuminates the uncanny relationship between acting and stage objects, revealing to us the strangeness of things onstage and the peculiarities of acting itself. The essay examines a range of strategies employed by actors to harness and contain the disruptive powers of human remains. It begins by looking at how remains might be imagined through Stanislavski’s complex and often contradictory approach to objects in performance, and argues that their use onstage resembles that of religious relics. The essay considers the ways in which communion with objects might facilitate and displace virtuosity in acting. It then examines how Ron Vawter controlled the power of the cremated ashes that he used in his 1992 performance Roy Cohn/Jack Smith by making all of his theatrical strategies public—apart from his use of human remains. These examples help to investigate how the language of possession, the anamorphic powers of relics, and the struggles over authority and agency in performance feature in the imagined role that human remains play in producing acting. It argues, furthermore, that the abject qualities of relics may function as powerful and disturbing metaphors for the process of acting itself, by underscoring the loss of self that the actor must undergo in order to act.


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pp. 355-371
Launched on MUSE
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