Friday, December 22, 2006

The fissility of self

Simon Callow at the Guardian on Malcolm Andrews' fascinating-sounding new book on Dickens' performing selves:

As a young man and aspiring actor he had been deeply influenced by the actor-writer Charles Matthews, whose wittily designated monopolylogues had the performer playing several different people, as well as the narrator. Like Matthews, Dickens came increasingly to delight in abandoning himself to the characters, and this aspect of his performances drew the astonished admiration of his audiences (many of whom were professional actors themselves). "Assumption," he said, "has charms for me ... being some one in voice etc not at all like myself."

Before the audience's very eyes, and without the aid of props or costume, he would become David Copperfield, Mrs Gamp, Fagin. "The impersonator's very stature," reported Charles Kent, "each time Fagin opened his lips, seemed to be changed instantaneously. Whenever he spoke there started before us - high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words ... his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness." This description underlines the fact that acting is above all an act of imagination rather than of mimicry: it is an overpowering mental connection which produces a physical result. Andrews finely says: "in order to get the right voice, in a concentrated way, Dickens had to move his full being into that of the character." I can think of no better description of the art of acting, and Dickens's readings, without any external aids, show this in particularly pure form. He explored in the flesh, as he had done in his novels, "the fissility of self", the multiphrenia latent in us all.

Acting is indeed above all an act of imagination, isn't it? That's why it's like writing (oh, I am totally lapsing into cliche and also just repeating what Callow has said, but it really does strike me so forcefully...). It's very hard work, but uniquely gratifying. For some reason when I was doing a lot of acting I always wanted the slightly villainous parts, but the magical thing that happens is that you so fully identify with the part you're playing that you find yourself taken aback when your friends in the audience sort of reel away in horror from your character's awfulness.

I had this happen again and again: I remember a friend of mine in high school saying bemusedly after seeing me play Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, "You know, afterwards I had to remind myself that you're not like that at all" (indeed I am not); and I was always very puzzled myself when people said things that implied that Inez in No Exit or Lussurioso in The Revenger's Tragedy (two particular favorite parts) were not generally thought of as sympathetic characters, the point of rehearsing and performing these things is that by the time the show goes up you really are so completely in the head of that character that it's very difficult to imagine someone thinking his/her actions are not fully justified by the circumstances.

This, too, is the appeal for me of something like Gitta Sereny's remarkable biography of Albert Speer: she's struggling (it's an ethical fight) to get inside the head of someone most people would write off from the beginning, just as she does when she writes about Mary Bell, who killed a little boy when she was herself only a child. It's the great phenomenon of Shakespeare's villains (Richard III to begin with, but Edmund and Iago with greater technical subtlety) and Milton's Satan. Not as many novels do this as you might expect, but when someone pulls it off it's quite amazing: I'm not talking about the kind of novel where there's a sort of knowing gap, a writer standing behind the narrator and pointing and mouthing "Unreliable! Unreliable!," I'm thinking instead of the really great works of sympathetic imagination in the first person or the close third-person perspective where there's a deliberate refusal to judge, a kind of committed neutrality.

I think Lolita is disqualified from this category by its almost demented aestheticizing, but it might be a candidate. I am going to go now and think about this and figure out what some others might be (John Lanchester, James Lasdun? in a way Great Expectations works very much like this, and so does Lionel Shriver's Double Fault, but in both those cases there's a strong autobiographical element that makes it a somewhat different question--oh, perhaps some of Ishiguro--hmmm....--the kind of neutral stance I'm thinking of, though, is maybe found more often in essays and biography, Rebecca West has a bit of it and so does Orwell, it's a temperamental thing).


  1. I just read "Perfume" - perhaps that might count?

  2. Yes, of course, and now that you mention it I think of some of Dostoevsky also...