Monsters

This post is so far out of the Christmas spirit that I’ve decided to put this warning at the head of it. Apologies. Continue only if you’re feeling Scroogish.

Continuing my sideline of reading whatever roughly contemporary anecdotal accounts of acting and performance I find in secondhand bookshops (e.g. Sher’s, and Brook’s), I’ve just finished volume two of Actors Talk About Acting. It was first published in 1961, and contains seven interviews with the luminaries of the American theatre of that time: Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, José Ferrer, Maureen Stapleton, Katharine Cornell, Paul Muni and Anne Bancroft. I enjoyed going through it, and shall try and get hold of volume one.

There is much talk of psychoanalysis, of the Method, of the decline of touring, and of other issues relevant to acting in the late 50s and early 60s. The interviewers, Lewis Funke and John Erlanger Booth, were both, however, wise enough to ask more general questions of the stars, to which they give some interesting answers, whether your interest is learning to act or (like me) learning about how people talk about acting.

One passage in particular, from the conversation with José Ferrer, sticks in my mind, and clearly stuck with the interviewers too, as they mention it later when talking to Anne Bancroft. After answering positively the question, “Do you relate your character to situations that you have observed in life or to experience?” Ferrer is then prompted to elaborate on how he is forced to generate feeling in spite of the numbing effect of repetitive performance.

Do you remember The Shrike, that famous last scene? […] Well I had to do that eight times a week, twice on Wednesday, twice on Saturdays. And you should know some of the things I did to myself in my own mind. At one point or another, I think I killed every single person that I loved – and I saw them lying there bleeding before me on their deathbeds – to work myself up to the point where I was moved. Because along about the third or fourth month of eight times a week, I can’t be as stimulated by the situation as I was the first month; and I killed my father and my daughter and my best friend and his wife and my pet dog and my rabbit and my canary. Anything. I ran over strangers. I recreated how … Anything that would move me to the point where I was susceptible to an emotional impulse – and then I could, you know. Because I’m very, very honest.

This is shocking to read, and the interviewer immediately moves the conversation on to talk of Helen Hayes and – of all things – virginals. Yet, as I said, this grisly topic comes back later in the book, and, indeed, apparently also surfaced in volume one during a session with John Gielgud.

The fascination of this passage lies in its apparent honesty. Ferrer himself speaks of how he is “very, very honest”, and the whole section reads like the confession of a good man who committed crimes under duress. By wanting to do the right thing and provide a satisfyingly moving experience to his audiences night after night, Ferrer has been driven to imagine horrible things. Of course, those horrible things are conjured precisely because of how abhorrent they are to him, otherwise they would not have the desired effect. Yet, at the same time, there is something disturbing simply in the fact that Ferrer is obliged to resort to this technique in order to act: such thoughts should not, one might say, be thought (and drained of emotional charge) at all.

Ferrer’s dilemma is not a new one, and suspicion of quite what goes through an actor’s head when he is performing has often been a major motivation for the persecution of performers. Actors have long been portrayed as either monsters, totally absorbed in the evil parts they play, or hypocrites, able to simulate evil when they are really not. Samuel Johnson, riffing on this theme, apparently said the following in conversation with John Philip Kemble in the late eighteenth century.

JOHNSON Are you, Sir, one of those enthusiasts who believe yourself transformed into the very character you represent?
KEMBLE I have never felt so strong a persuasion myself.
JOHNSON To be sure not, Sir, the thing is impossible. And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster Richard the Third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed it.

This comes from a selection of Johnson’s Table Talk, and is something of a throwaway comment, taken up by James Boswell as proof of how “Dr Johnson had thought more upon the subject of acting than might generally be supposed”. For me, its interest with relation to Ferrer’s interview lies in the distinction that while Johnson calls the actor who totally believes in his role the monster, Ferrer shows us what is monstruous in the performer who, aware that he is performing, must still seek out suitable, monstrous stimuli for his act.

Quite what Johnson would have said to th that is anyone’s guess. It probably wasn’t the kind of thing you could talk about around a table, or, for that matter, in blog posts written on Christmas Eve.


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