“A man’s maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Beyond Good and Evil
On Facebook, my old friend Michael Goodfriend (!) reminded me of how our acting teacher at Yale, Earl Gister, liked to make use of this quote. And what a quote it is. It holds in tandem the values of work and play, duty and obligation, indulgence and discipline. It would seem, indeed, that the art of living, to say nothing of acting, involves navigating between these poles.
The actor needs seriousness because she tells stories, and the stories, we can only hope, take up serious things. The stories look into love, cruelty, justice, failure, success…the stuff that life is made up of. Comedy is very serious business, another teacher of mine was fond of quipping. Much comedy derives from people being frustrated in their pursuit of what they need. Thus they have to need something. Thus they have to care about something. Thus the actor has to be able to care. Deeply. In fact, caring about stuff, unreal stuff no less, is the single most important thing the actor does. Every line she speaks, every movement she makes, needs to issue from caring about something or someone. If it doesn’t, who cares? An audience certainly won’t.
It is possible, of course, to be too serious. This can prompt an actor to try to plan things too carefully, to worry about perceived obstacles or shortcomings, to overlook the pleasure that is to be had in this work. Play is indispensible to the actor; and to any artist. Art depends on a lightness of touch, a delicacy, a wit, a discretion. Obtuseness, clumsiness, and the heavy hand are anathema to the practice of any artist. For the actor, responses must be allowed to emerge; the actor needs to take an attitude of curiosity towards what a situation will elicit from him. Another teacher of mine liked to characterize the playwright Anton Chekhov as embodying an attitude of “amorousness toward the invisible” in his writing. Chekhov, famously, does not attempt to dominate his material, to force his characters to fit into a pre-conceived plan. Yet, as the writer, he is responsible for the whole, and for keeping it from devolving into the arbitrary or capricious. So how can he confer the autonomy on his characters that he wants them to have, and at the same time survey the unfolding of the whole and assure its integrity and balance? The answer, it would seem, is the adoption of the lover’s attitude: nothing is more important than the beloved, thus nothing a more serious matter, and yet the beloved is also a source of potential pleasure. Not to take love seriously is to discount the danger involved, that is, the danger of rejection and abandonment; to take it with seriousness exclusively is to strangle it or cause it to take flight, never to return. Chekhov adopted an attitude of amorousness towards his subjects: they needed to be coaxed and tempted to give up their secrets, but not coerced. Whatever happened between him and them would be made by both of them, and hence, greater than either. It would be collaborative, it would be playful and it would be serious.
So, as actors, if we want to emulate Chekhov, and it is not easy to think of a better person to emulate, we need to approach our work as we would a courtship: with a measure of bravado, respect and care, and also with an eye to the pleasure to be had, every step of the way.