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"Everybody Act Natural!": Realism and Acting

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James McKinnon

on 16 April 2014

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Transcript of "Everybody Act Natural!": Realism and Acting

"You're Acting Hysterical!"
The Final Frontier of Realism

By 1900 Realism had improved in many areas:
Playwriting
Chimene
Rodrigue, and here! Whence your audacity?
Go, you harm my honour now; please leave me.

Rodrigue
I go to die, Madame, yet come to you,
Before my death, to say a last adieu.
Eternal love that binds me to your laws
Accepts my life in homage thus to yours.

Chimene
You go to die!

Rodrigue
I haste towards that hour
That yields my being to your vengeful power.

Chimene
You go to die! Has Sanche’s blade such art
It works on your indomitable heart?
Enter TROFIMOV, then LOPAKHIN.

TROFIMOV. Well, it's time to be off.

LOPAKHIN. Epikhodov, my coat!

LUBOV. I'll sit here one more minute. It's as if I'd never really noticed what the walls and ceilings of this house were like, and now I look at them greedily, with such tender love. . . .

GAEV. I remember, when I was six years old, on Trinity Sunday, I sat at this window and looked and saw my father going to church. . . .

LUBOV. Have all the things been taken away?

LOPAKHIN. Yes, all, I think. [To EPIKHODOV, putting on his coat] You see that everything's quite straight, Epikhodov.

EPIKHODOV. [Hoarsely] You may depend upon me, Ermolai Alexeyevitch!

LOPAKHIN. What's the matter with your voice?

EPIKHODOV. I swallowed something just now; I was having a drink of water.
But something was still missing...
Acting before Realism reflects -- and reinforces -- a way of seeing humanity:

People innately recognize "good" and "bad"
Character is
marked on the body
i.e., the outer person is a direct sign of the inner soul
Actors
shape
real behaviour as much as they mimic it!

Classical acting was highly
conventional
and
codified
(like ballet, sign language, or chess).
From "Chironomia," 1806
"Chirologia," 1644
X-Rays and microscopes
reveal the interior of the body, proving that the exterior does not
reveal
the truth...
Psychiatry
seeks to reveal the interior of the
mind
New ways of imaging lead to new
epistomologies
("ways of knowing").
Because of these new ways of imaging the body,
we now think of the body as hiding interior truth, not revealing it
.
decoding the clues of the body requires a trained specialist
Psychology tries to map the "normal" psyche by studying images of "abnormal" mental patients...
... particularly "hysterical" women.
Hysteria was one of the oldest diseases, first described by Hippocrates as the consequences of one's
uterus
wandering around, "blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease"...
Over the 19th century, instances of hysteria skyrocketed -- as did its "symptoms."
Hysteria was a very profitable disease, and the search for new treatments created many devices still in use today...
Rise & fall of hysteria diagnoses
...but psychologists like Freud and Charcot suspected that hysteria was not caused by trauma to the body, but to the
mind
.
They
read the bodily symptoms
of hysteria as enigmatic signs of a
hidden mental disorder
.
Psychology and neurology taught people to read the
signs of the body as indirect and often enigmatic...
...
not direct and conventional, like the signs projected by melodramatic actors.
The first published X-Rays created a sensation in 1895.
Jean-Martin Charcot inducing hysteria through hypnosis
The physical symptoms of hysteria were a “false” appearance offering signs about the true interior, the patient’s mind.
Paradigm Shift
In this model external signs = interior truth
Realist playwriting
reflects the new epistemology of the human:
Our speech and appearance do not reveal our inner truth -- they hide it.
Ibsen and Chekhov believed that ordinary life – eating, drinking, mocking people's hats – was a surface concealing a “realer” life underneath.
Whereas melodrama – and Naturalism! – used dialogue and action to REVEAL the character’s thoughts, feelings, soul, etc....
... Realism demands actors who can HIDE the character’s desires...
"A green oak by a curved seashore, upon that oak a golden chain..."
"Why do I keep saying that?!"
"What?! You want me to pretend I'm not acting?!"
To realize realism, a totally new approach to acting was needed.
Stanislavski realized that “old theatre” acting consisted of gestures, cadences, and verbal effects which only “produce mechanical signs of the absence of genuine feeling.”

To accommodate the new epistemology of the human subject, Stanislavski began to devise a completely new approach to acting.
Enter Constantin Stanislavski.
"Stanislavski was fond of surprising his friends with disguises."
Freud and Jung treat a delusional Stormtrooper
... 19th century acting was incompatible with realism!
"Oh! If only I understood how to portray Hedda!"
These rules were based on the idea of a "natural" correspondence between the external body and the internal "self."
Conventional acting sends "false" signals.
When N S Butova played Sonya in "Uncle Vanya," she made a gesture like this to beg Srebryakov to listen to Vanya.
Chekhov said:
So realism was exciting because it offered "freedom" from conventions...
At first, Stanislavsky focused on techniques for producing authentic emotions, based on the notion that the authentic truth was hidden in the interior.
"You must not do that. ... All the meaning and all the drama of a person lies internally, not in external manifestations”
This part of his work produced "Emotion Memory."
Emotion memory migrated into English and became "The Method"!
But the end of "The Method" was just the beginning for Stanislavski...
Emotion memory has two serious drawbacks:
1. Stanislavsky realized that it what the actor feels is not important -- it's what the spectator sees.
2. The emotional memory technique can cause insanity.
"I has a sad."
Phase I: Emotion Memory
Michael Chekhov was only the first to discover this...
"My life is meaningless without the black knight!"
Scenography
Costume
But then medicine literally changed
how we see ourselves
...

Our culture has a dualist view of humanity:
exterior body vs. interior soul/mind

Actors therefore represent this tension.
But how do they use the surface of the body to represent the character's interior truth?
... but often
hides
it!
We have "internalized" the beliefs that:
the surface of the body does not indicate "naturally" what is happening inside
the body only offers hidden or encrypted "clues" about the "true" condition of the interior
people's bodies not only conceal the truth from others, but even from themselves
... which is the opposite of everything actors were taught to do!
... but for the actor that "freedom" was like "freeing" a chess piece from the rules.
Telling a 19th century actory to use their body to hide the truth about their character is like telling an athelete to be more "realistic."
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