I am not now, nor have I ever been an actor-- not a real actor. I have worked at acting only as a teacher, seeking to know what it is that an actor does to enable me, a teacher-director, better to assist young actors on stage. I have wanted to understand what it is that actors do, strange as it is. I have stood at the door and knocked….
To this end, I have worked, or touched upon, most every function of the theatre, the better to teach about it. I have not much distinguished myself in these efforts, but I was always deeply in earnest. I still stand at that door and knock. I want now, at this hour of my life, to tell someone how grateful I am for the privilege of having lived close to actors and their acting. I sense something holy about it.
And so here follows the first of two ragged essays about it.
On Actors and Their Acting
The Ancient Actors
It’s tricky territory where I begin thinking again about actors and acting. Something always pushes me back to wonder about those first public performers, those “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy fellows” who wandered the by-ways of early European life, coming too soon and too late, here and there, free-wheeling, trying to make a living and stay out of the local jail. They were generally loved, feared, and sought after by our benighted ancestors who lived almost totally without any of the stimulants of modern life.
When those early player-folk came frolicking into town, the fun began, but you were best first to run “lock up your daughters and your spoons”. Play it safe, because the devil may have come to town!
With outsiders like these lurking about, who can be safe? They seem to live on air, on their wits, and their crazy charm. Watch out for the children and for your wives!
The players arrived in town as a veritable parade, though perhaps only five or six of them. A drum and a tambourine alone can raise a lot of hell, both literal and metaphoric.
We see that there is really no historic beginning or end to performance. It is always all around us in one form or another. It is just more vivid sometimes, some places.
A modern instance: barely a hundred years ago, descendants of these ancient players might have shown up, touring the western frontier, say, in a remote Colorado mountain mining town. An enterprising hotelier, might conspire with these “sturdy fellows” and dazzling ladies to place themselves in the hotel dining-room where the locals could gather to watch them eat-- for only one quarter, twenty-five cents, one fourth part of a dollar! Surely the actors would make a show if it. What elegant manners, what style, what aplomb! And how sexy!
I think, too, of the performers in a modern traveling carnival.
I remember, as a kid, hearing rumors of what went on out back among the wagons, out of the glaring and colored light of the carnival proper where all was black and summer-hot. Grown men sneaked off and paid their dollar to get into another, rougher tent where La Grande Femme in her worn and torrid person, performed things these men had never imagined, rituals of a glamour that made them sick to their stomachs with lust. I wish I had been there.
A thousand years earlier, when the player rogues rolled into a medieval village, they brought with them the same stuff, lots of that dark glamour, plus acrobatics, singing, dancing, juggling, miming, magic tricks, always their raucous obscenities, along with any available thieving. And, you know, they told stories-- by doing them!
We might think they looked like actors, acting.
We might be tempted to dismiss their rude audiences as ignorant and superstitious; but like every generation in every age, they thought of themselves as smart enough for their working day and always thoroughly realistic. They saw things as they really were, including ambient ghosts. Belief wants only a really good pitch-man. Back then, those folks were daily pitched, a world of miracle, and mystery, of other worlds, of heaven and hell, and every manner of demon.
So when that lurid fellow up there on that box with his painted face and “funny” way of talking began to behave as though he were someone else, there had to be a thrill, a sense of danger, of a miracle, running up and down the spines of those who watched and believed. Just like Hamlet when he saw his father that night.
The local “rubes” were watching acting. They saw a man fooling around with who he was, and they believed in him.
Who has that performer become? Where has he gone? We seem to have lost track of him. (Remember Houdini in whom we believed) We realize, with a shiver, that we sometimes feel “slippery” about ourselves, if only in our dreams, like that fellow up there who looks like… who knows who?
And he’s got all those colorful “glad rags” about him, a wonder of the world, all the frippery and magical stuff that keeps coming out of that huge buck- basket that they hauled into town with them.
And underneath it all there was always that gut-grinding current of the erotic.
We have to remember that these villagers were a people starved-- though they would not have articulated it in my bald way-- starved for images. Think for a moment of a time with no media but the Church and certainly no theatres. Think of living without seeing a picture, without even the sensuality of a mirror, without letters, or any proper music much beyond a drum and a bell.
There were a few static images of other worlds only in the church, their variety and richness depending on their church’s rank in the hierarchy. The cathedral, as close as maybe only a few difficult miles, but where few had ever been, was by far the richest, the grandest, and its magic the most exciting.
The villager, however, had to be content with a few carvings, maybe a little colored glass, and the daily routine of the mass, the obligation of everyone to attend. Perhaps the priest sang nicely, but folks knew his tune by heart and had long ago grown dull to its transformations.
The poor priest had to be ever on the alert to dangers to the souls of his flock. When the players came to town, he had the responsibility to protect that flock from these demons who might well be in league with Satan himself. That was only their sensible and accepted realism. In this mysterious life talking to them. The supernatural was as natural as grass.
But what are we to make of this protean fellow on the box who insists that he is not who he is. He seems to be the true and faithful image of someone else! How wonderful he is!
But, how, we might ask, when the time comes, will God find the real man behind the actor, when he must be called to judgment if he is in the person of someone else, somewhere? Mustn’t we assume that God always knows who and where we are?
Up there on his platform box, this actor person may not be who he is…. He may even die up there on the box, in front of our very eyes-- slipping through the hands of God, and then, when God isn’t looking, suddenly, jump back up all smiles and throwing kisses at us. He is alive after all….. What the hell is God to do! If we are not who we are! If we can even rise from the dead?
The priest is supposed to be in charge, in charge of the truth that we are who we are and we are not to mess with that truth. It may be a losing battle when the actors come to town….
So historically the Church was at serious odds with acting. At odds with it, until in the twelfth century, in spite of everything, the Church turned to acting to enhance the Easter service with a trope of the arrival of the three Marys at the empty tomb. The innovation proved a sensation and developed into the medieval mystery (Biblical) and morality (secular) plays that continued to enthrall the crowds right down to the sixteenth century when the youthful Shakespeare could come under their spell.
Let me tell you a story of my own boyhood experience of vagabond players:
A Real Medicine-Show
It must have been about 1936, when we kids saw a big dirty-white tent going up on a vacant lot at the corner of 8th and Pearl. It got us excited, especially when we learned there was to be a "show" in the tent that night and that it would be free.
We got out of the house after supper on the declared intention of going to a soft-ball game but headed fast down to that tent. Early that summer evening, a crowd, mostly men, had begun to gather outside, reluctant to barge on in. We kids, though, ran straight in to get front seats on planks supported on nail kegs. A rough trestle stage was lit by a string of naked light bulbs hanging along the ridge of the tent. I remember all the glare, all the dust and disorder-- and our apprehension.
I remember the raucous banjo music. I remember the medicine- man coming out on stage to “warm us up” by telling jokes that were boring to us kids, and to introduce the show's "lady," dressed in fewer clothes than I'd ever seen a lady dressed. It was raw.
She danced around to the banjo music while the medicine man clapped in time, urging the crowd to join in. I remember feeling embarrassed, scared, and out of place. I sort of wished I were at home….
Then he brought out a box of bottles of stuff he said was a great healing medicine and set about flogging them to the crowd at fifty-cents a bottle. He sold… I don’t know how many.
On stage, down right, was a strange mechanical apparatus, the distinguishing feature of which was a big wheel with a handle to it, a wheel not intended to go anywhere, to do what, we had no clue.
At one point in the "program" the medicine man announced a Big Event and lured seven or eight of us scared kids up onto the platform where he lined us up across the stage-- me close to the machine-- and gave us short black rods to hold between us, connecting us in line. The boy on the far end was given an ordinary light bulb to hold in his left-hand finger-tips.
The medicine-man then put one of the black rods in his mouth, held it to the rim of the big wheel of the strange machine and began cranking it round and round, faster and faster. When he was satisfied that it was going fast enough, he pulled the rod in his mouth away, turned to the first boy, and touched it to the rod in the first boy's hand. Then he repeated the process, cranking and touching the rod in his mouth to the machine again. We boys began feeling kind of funny. Again he touched the rod to the one in the first boy's hand. And lo! the light bulb in the fingers of the boy on the far end of the line lit up!
The crowd of maybe fifty or so laughed and cheered, the way I’d never seen grown men carrying on before.
Anyhow, it was a big night. There were some words spoken that we failed to understand at which the crowd snickered and hooted. That show-lady did some more of her dancing which got a little scary. Then it was over and we were out in the dark Colorado summer night and walking home. Sort of relieved to be out of there and headed to the safety of home and our mothers.
This had been the first live theatre I'd ever seen in all my young life.