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  • Acting1
  • James R. Hamilton (bio)

What is the nature of that bit of human behavior we English speakers now call “acting”? I do not want to press too hard on the evolutionary pedal, but it is intriguing to wonder first what might have led members of our species to act, and second what already existing, hence “precursor,” behavior they adapted to the tasks of acting?

The first question, the evolutionary question proper, is not likely to get an answer that is better than a “just so” story. Despite the fact that there are some highly plausible stories to that effect, most recently one offered by theater theorist Bruce McConachie,2 we simply no longer have access to the relevant evidence and, lacking that evidence, we are left only with plausible stories. And plausible stories are not science, as biologist Richard Lewontin has recently reminded us.3 Acting is not unnatural behavior, to be sure, even when it is uncanny. But it is hardly the sort of behavior for which an empirically supportable biological adaptive story is likely to be forthcoming. Nor is it quite obvious what sort of spandrel it, or any other form of art, might be, as philosopher Stephen Davies argues.4

The second of these questions seems at least partly tractable, however. For even if the origins of enactment are lost in the mists of time, how we think of acting now is reflected in the kind of behavior we take it to be. And, so, that is the question for which I will pose an answer in this paper. I will continue to use the term “precursor behavior” as a way of signaling that acting comes from somewhere and that our models for it are largely conceived of as something from which acting, per se, emerges.5 But I want to be clear at the outset that I believe that no one has anything more than mere clues as to how acting actually got started in our species.

In this paper, I elaborate on the simple idea that actors show audiences the features of the characters they portray. The view I develop first presents performing as a kind of display behavior. I then show how to situate acting within the broader practices of performance, to treat it as a distinctive kind of performing. It will follow that acting has no greater (or lesser) significance than is determinable apart from the terms in which acting is describable as a distinctive form of performance, or display.

As a first step in developing the sketch, consider three explanations of the importance of the performer. On the first, which theater maker Joseph Chaikin [End Page 35] and others have espoused,6 performers are important because they are the sources of energy or power in theatrical performances. On the second, as suggested by philosopher David Davies,7 performers are important because they are sometimes the source of the contents of performances. Much that is illuminating can be and has been said regarding these explanations of the importance of performers. The view I now present you, however, is more general and more inclusive than either of these. It is less mystifying than the first, and begs fewer ontological questions than the second. On this third view, performers are important primarily because they are typically the main sources of whatever information is transferred in a performance to any spectator.8

That is, I take performances, including those performances involving acting, to be coordinated sequences of actions that cause information present at a “source” to become present at a “destination.” The sources in this case include the performers and the destinations are human spectators. The produced sequence of actions is the performance. This may seem no more than a metaphorical extension of the technical idea of “information;” but while it may seem fanciful, I mean it quite literally.

The view I will propose is not the view that plays are information systems wherein, as theater theorist W. B. Worthen puts it, “the text [consists of] abstract information to be decanted to the proper platform.”9 The idea of plays as information systems, which Worthen critiques in depth and detail,10 has also excited...


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