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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: June ::
Re: Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0506.  Tuesday, 7 June 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Leslie Harris <
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        Date:   Monday, Jun 6 17:27:41 EDT 1994
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
(2)     From:   Rick Jones <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 94 21:36:27 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
(3)     From:   William Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH>
        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 1994 21:47:17 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Art, Life, the Turing Test, and Universals
 
(4)     From:   Adrian Kiernander <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 14:12:13 +1000 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
(5)     From:   Cary M. Mazer <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 09:00:27 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
(6)     From:   James Schaefer <SCHAEFEJ@GUVAX.BITNET>
        Date:   Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 10:10:29 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Leslie Harris <
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Date:           Monday, Jun 6 17:27:41 EDT 1994
Subject: 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
Hi, folks.  This is my first posting to Shaksper since joining the list about
a month ago.  I thought I'd join the fray, though (and quite a fray it is),
supporting what Jean Peterson said about an Elizabethan sense of the self
differing from our notion of the self.
 
I'm not coming to this issue from a New Historicist standpoint, but I do think
it is important to recognize that the Elizabethan sense of the self was very
different from our own.  Our semi-serious adage "You are what you eat" was
taken much more literally by thinkers during the Renaissance.  The process of
digestion was not just physical.  According to the theory of the four humors,
physiological imbalances could lead to psychological imbalances--to dominant
character traits, based on which humor was dominant.  This strong link between
the physical and the temperamental meant that the self was not seen as
distinct from its surrounding environment as we tend to think.
 
The notion of the uniqueness and the originality of the self were also less
pronounced during the Renaissance.  Shakespeare and Jonson's use of source
materials would be considered plagiarism by modern standards.  For Jonson, the
"centered self" included others within it, whose works and ideas were digested
and "turned to blood"--to become a part of our own being.  Our notion of the
self (and of the influence of others on us) is much less physical.
 
Leslie Harris
Susquehanna University

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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Jones <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 94 21:36:27 EDT
Subject: 5.0504  Re: Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
I find Harry Hill's recent post interesting -- not because I agree with all of
it, but in its desire to re-structure the terms of the debate into something we
can all agree about.
 
Unlike Mr. Hill, however, I find myself agreeing BOTH with those who see
playscripts as "mere" blueprints for production (if they were really intended
primarily as literature, wouldn't more of them have been printed in the
author's lifetime?) AND with those who say "it's all there already" (I have a
great affection for a number of Shakespearean plays I have never seen in actual
production, and I suspect I am not alone in this).  But I would never say the
former in a literature class or the latter in an acting class.  That, perhaps,
is what separates me from some other folks on the list.
 
I would also point out that not all modern acting theory is Stanislavsky-based
(much less *post*-Stanislavsky based), that many (most?) acting teachers and
directors, especially those who chose to work with pre-modern texts
("pre-modern" meaning "pre-Ibsen" in theatre terms), understand that meaning is
often carried in the poetry, the emblems, even in the sound of the words
themselves.  I have used one of Cicely Berry's books as a central text in my
Acting II course, and confess to having a number of friends in the theatre who
consider me hopelessly anachronistic for insisting on a recognition of the
forces she explicates.
 
But the emphasis on action as opposed to emotion suggested by Mr. Hill's
student is nothing new to *anyone* in theatre: it is indeed the central
principle of modern (dare I say Stanislavskian?) acting -- take another look at
Timothy Pinnow's or my initial posts on this topic, for example.  Both of us
talk about forgetting about trying to play emotions and concentrating on
actions.  Is it coincidental that we're among the perhaps 1% of listmembers who
have actually taught acting courses?  Neither of us deny for a moment the
importance of literary study, but we both realize that actors are pragmatic
beasts: playing abstractions is impossible; playing here-and-now motivations
can be done.
 
It is, in short, very easy to develop completely inaccurate visions of
disciplines about which we have limited knowledge.  The common misconception of
Shakespeare as dull, dry and irrelevant is well known to everyone on this list.
 Let me assure my literarian colleagues that precious few *real* acting courses
are about "being an ice cream cone", whatever the popular mythology might be.
 
With apologies to all, especially to Adrian Kiernander, for the intermperance
of my last post...  my reservations remain, but my missive reads much nastier
than I had intended it to be.
 
Rick Jones

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(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           William Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH>
Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 1994 21:47:17 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Art, Life, the Turing Test, and Universals
 
John Drakakis has accused me of confusing life and art. But this I deny.
Indeed, without life there would be no art. For those of us who can muster no
belief in a deity, and thus do not believe that nature is the art of god, art
is only created by living beings, and some of us would no doubt restrict that
creation to humans. Dramatic art is a human cooperative venture. There can be
no confusion here. Art depends on life. Without living beings, there's no art,
no artists, and no critics. The assertion that art transcends life is only a
moderately conforting fantasy.
 
Now, isn't it interesting that the character called "Terence Hawkes" cannot
pass the Turing test? This character always says the same thing about
character, but when asked a question, never responds. "Terence Hawkes"
recurrently asks about Lady Macbeth and fainting. When confronted with a text,
"Terence Hawkes" says nothing. Instead, John Drakakis has to step in and tell
us what "Terence Hawkes" means. It seems fairly obvious to me that "Terence
Hawkes" is a computer. And thus again I distinguish between art (the computer)
and life (John Drakakis).
 
And, finally, my universalist argument is limited, but hard to deny. All living
mammals have certain common experiences. If they had no common ground, there
would be no category mammalia. Warning: I make no further claims.
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Adrian Kiernander <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 14:12:13 +1000 (EST)
Subject: 5.0504  Re: Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
My point about the Mnouchkine Richard II was not to suggest that this is the
only acceptable way of performing that play, but that Mnouchkine,
strategically, made a decision to deny the actors the refuge of naturalism and
psychological verisimilitude in order to force them to use a search for
theatricality as a yardstick, rather than probability. Only too often actors
content themselves with solutions which are dull or overcomplicated or so
subtle as to be invisible because these satisfy aims in acting that they have
been taught are important in terms of psychologism.
 
But what I most object to is the dogma, which I have encountered in many
trained and experienced actors and directors, that psychological plausibility,
depth, motive and so on are the ONLY way to approach any play from any period,
especially if it's by Shakespeare. I would like an acknowledgement that this
approach to acting is relatively recent, that it is not ideologically
neutral--there's a good essay by Raymond Williams on the ideological basis of
naturalism--and that some of the most exciting productions of Shakespeare that
I know of have abandoned psychology as a working method. Which is not to say
that the audience can't come to conclusions about psychology as they read the
performance.
 
In reply to Rick's questions, most of them (especially the final one about
directing rather than writing articles) lose some of their force, I think, in
terms of what I've said here. I am not saying that there is one (modern) right
way of performing Shakespeare, just that the search for essential character
traits in the roles is limiting and, when practised almost exclusively, harmful
to the student/actor/production etc... and distracts attention from approaches
I find more interesting, and that approaches which ignore what some consider to
be the core of performance work can be very successful.
 
I would go as far as saying, though, that I can't imagine any Shaekspeare
production engaging in a quest for naturalism to have any interest for me
personally and that any good productions of Shakespeare scripts would probably
have to be aiming in the opposite direction. But given that there's only one
naturalism and a wide variety of anti-naturalisms, I don't feel too reductive.
 
Adrian Kiernander

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(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Cary M. Mazer <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 09:00:27 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 5.0504  Re: Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
Harry Hill's student, working from within a classic Stanislavskian paradigm, is
absolutely right when he says that "emotions in acting are the results of
actions."  But if Professor Hill takes that to mean "the WORDS and their
referents are what affect us," he should go back and READ Stanislavski until he
can understand what his own student means by this.  (For a shortcut, and a
quick definition of what the student means by "action," he might try
Boleslavsky, *Acting:  The First Six Lessons*, or anything by Boleslavsky's
friend and colleague, Francis Fergusson.)
 
Now, I am not suggesting that Stanislavskian conceptions of character and
performance are at all germane to the way dramatic "character" (NOT
Shakespeare's word for it) is conceived or structured in the playscripts; I
agree with Jean Peterson's warnings about recognizing the historical
differences.  But if Terence Hawkes is saying that "Shakespeare doesn't mean;
we mean by Shakespeare," what contemporary actors mean by Shakespearean
character, anachronistic to the scripts though it may be, is character
according to a mid-twentieth-century post-Stanislavskian model. Well-trained
actors DO know how to use the verse; but if you think people like John Barton,
Cicely Berry, Kristin Linklater and others are abandoning Stanislavskian
paradigms in HOW they ask actors to use the language, then think again (and
re-read, or review the first chapter/program of Barton's book/series *Playing
Shakespeare* and see what he means by the "two traditions").
 
It's our job as scholars and teachers and self-historicizers to understand
these differences and to situate our own era's aesthetics.  If Professor Hill
wants a new "just-speak-the-words" paradigm of acting, let him invent one of
his own, let him train his own students, let him fund his own theatre, and may
any and all English professors who agree with him go and have a good time,
applauding with one hand and patting themselves on the back with the other.
I'd rather wait and see what Jerzy Grotowski, Joe Chaikin, Peter Brook, Robert
Wilson (God save us), Eugenio Barba and others come up with, and then see what
that aesthetic does, equally anachronistically, with Shakespeare.
 
Cary M. Mazer
University of Pennsylvania
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Schaefer <SCHAEFEJ@GUVAX.BITNET>
Date:           Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 10:10:29 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 5.0504  Re: Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0504  Re: Character
 
Hear Hear! again to Harry Hill.  If we have any useful role as scholar/teachers
in either English OR Theatre, it is to help our students to learn how to read
dramatic texts, how to tease the life out of a dramatic text, because that is
where good playwrights put it (as opposed to bad playwrights, who tell us about
it in their Prefaces and Introductions and Afterwords).  Shakespeare's texts do
contain psychological truth(s), but they are not presented in the form of
predigested "characters," the kind that Strindberg decried in his Preface to
*Lady Julie* (incidentally, does anyone know where Strindberg's example,
"Birkis is willin'," comes from?).  Theatre imitates life by giving us bits and
pieces that WE form into an idea of character, just as we do in real life.
Harry's student is correct: the actor (et al.)'s job is to present those bits
and pieces. Motivations are apparent to, or even guessed at by, the actor as
well as the audience only AFTER action occurs.  No, Codelia has no character,
nor is she emblematic: she is enigmatic, and we play her and watch her to
examine and re-examine her mystery, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
 
But to say she doesn't change??  I'm sitting without text at hand (some of us
administrative types have to work all [Northern hemisphere] summer), but my
students and I spent most of a class session this past semester examining how
her speeches late in the play differ from those earlier, how her change in
vocabulary and poetic structure suggest the changes that she has undergone as
queen of France, out from under her father's oppresive rule.  It is from these
hints that we know of her development as a character--and they only deepen the
mystery of her love for her father.  The actor who cannot read these hints will
not convince us of these changes, and we will all be poorer for the loss.
 
Great discussion!
 
Jim Schaefer

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