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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: December ::
Becker's *The Denial of Death*
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 903.  Monday, 6 December 1993.
 
From:           Jeff Zinn <
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Date:           Sunday, 5 Dec 93 22:02 EST
Subject:        [Ernest Becker's *The Denial of Death*]
 
I was thrilled to see the list wander into my particular area of interest.  (I
guess it's bound to happen sooner or later.)  I have been thinking about and
working with ideas generated by Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death" for
the past several years.  I came across him while researching a production of
Ionesco's "The Killer" when I was a directing student at the ART and have
been hooked ever since.
 
Becker's thesis is that awareness of our mortality is the prime motivating
force in human behavior.  He argues this for hundreds of pages - and it's a
tough sell - but it can be brought back to a question of the survival instinct:
All organisms strive for life over death.  Man takes it a step further.  He
not only needs to live, he needs to feel that he is alive.  His mortality is a
thorn in his side and so he must construct a symbolic immortality narrative
that justifies his existence.  This narrative - or "causa sui project" - both
denies the fact of death and narrows down the overwhelming immensity of life's
possibilities into a manageable and do-able shape.  Thus: "character".  A
person's symbolic immortality project might be humble (I am a shoe cobbler) or
grand (I will conquer the world).  In each case - and the permutations and
possibilities for its shape are as infinite as there are people on the planet -
character is the thing that stands between us and the fact of our deaths.  Or,
on an existential level, the buffer that keeps us from the gruesome reality
that we are quite insignificant in the cosmic scheme.
 
Now to the theater.  The success or failure of this project must be met and
proven in everything we do, and especially, in every human interaction.  We
have long recognized the importance of "motivation", "intention", "action" and
all the other words that describe just what it is we want when we step onto the
stage.  Often the search for the right motivation leads us down a slippery
slope of Freudian investigation and we get hung up (as actors and directors)
with the dilemma of making a bridge between the character's experience and our
own.  But if Becker is right, then all of us, on the deepest level, share the
same motivation:  to justify the rightness of our immortality project.
Convincing the "other" is literally a matter of (symbolic) life or death - that
quality we're always looking for in the theater!  My work as a director has
focused on bringing the actor to an awareness of his or her own symbolic
immortality narrative, finding ways of recognizing the stakes inherent in its
success or failure and relating it to the "character".  It also opens the door,
I think,  for a new approach to text analysis.  The question must be asked:
"What does the character do to earn his primary sense of self-worth".  This is
Becker's question.  He went on, in Escape From Evil (also published
posthumously) to argue that it is in the defense of various immortality
mythologies that most wars have been waged and heinous crimes committed. How
does this all relate to Hamlet and J.C.?  I'll leave that for another
posting.
 
Jeff Zinn
Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

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