The Actor as Literary Critic

by Jay Malarcher
Louisiana State University
229 E State Street
Baton Rouge LA 70802
(504) 343-7262

I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind!...It's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!

--Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve

The historical relationship between actors and the scripts from which they work has been explored from many aspects, but seldom, if ever, from the point of view of information processing and literary criticism. Because this paper will involve the ancient Greek period, I need to point out two linguistic relationships at the heart of my thesis: first, a distinction between hypokrites and rhapsodos, roughly the difference between an actor impersonating a character and a reciter of (usually epic) poetry; the present discussion will deal entirely with the actor. Second, hypokrites is derived from the same source as the Greek for judge, kritikos*. The literal meaning of hypokrites is 'answerer,' and the relationship to dialogic convention is unquestionable; still, the echo of 'judge' must have been heard by the Greeks, or at least by the actors, who would have followed the argument of the play more closely precisely because they were communicating it to the audience. Today, the emphasis many actors place upon their feelings, their motivations, and their bodies as instruments clouds the principal purpose of the actor somewhat: textual valuation and evaluation. The determination of the relative importance and potentials of the component parts is criticism.

According to tradition, Thespis was the first to step from the ranks of the dithyrambic chorus, and so has been deemed the first actor. Thespis, a poet, performed in his own tragedies, so his relationship to the text would fall under the heading of self-criticism. Thespis exercised the most important self-critical judgment for playwrights, 'Is this good enough to show someone else?' With Cleander, the lesser-known second actor to Aeschylus, we have the first recorded performer of another's work in an individual character, and not just as chorus member (Duerr 11). Cleander, then, will be the model for the discussion, since his relationship with the text most closely parallels today's view of the process by which an actor confronts a role.

To what extent does an audience member 'read' an actor's version of a character? Very often, an audience member's only knowledge of an author's work comes from an actor's performance; while not exactly analogous to reading a critic's review in a newspaper, still, there exists a real phenomenological transference of identity between idea and action, or more specifically, between an idea of an idea and an action. This paper seeks to analyze what constitutes criticism in action, from the point of view of the performer-text-audience liaison. The function of the director, historically a recent adjustment in the process, does not reduce the rudimentary job of the actor.

The first literary critic, Aristotle, sheds enormous light on the theatre of his time, but rarely does he directly address the subject of the actor. On one occasion he summarized a problem concerning performers:

Why are theatrical artists generally persons of bad character? Is it because they partake but little of reason and wisdom, because most of their life is spent in the pursuit of the arts which provide their daily needs, and because the greater part of their life is passed in incontinence and often in want, and both these things prepare the way to villainy? (XXX:5)

He does not answer these questions, and from smears such as this one from the Problemata, scholars have generally assumed Aristotle's dislike of actors (a valid conclusion), but they have done an injustice to Aristotle and to actors by assuming that because Aristotle has little respect for the acting profession and process, he has nothing to offer the study. I would therefore like to explore Aristotle's explicit and often implicit observations about the process of acting, and to use this paper to delineate an Aristotelian model for what an actor ideally should be: the actor qua literary critic. Let us begin with the actor as reader.

In his recent book, Acting is Reading, David Cole, partly on the evidence of images from Attic vases, states that 'present-day authorities on Greek literacy take it for granted that actors could read' (5). The very act of reading cannot be glossed over as a foundation for literary criticism. The actor is the first audience of a play, the first reader, who, as Aristotle points out in his Poetics, enjoys the universal pleasure felt in imitations (implied in 1448b:9). But imitation of an action bears twofold on the acting process: the actor appreciates the poet imitating the action of the myth, but he also appreciates himself imitating the action into a performance. Aristotle says later in the same passage:

Thus the reason men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in observing it they can learn or infer, and maybe even say, 'Ah, that is he.' . . . If one happens not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be from the imitation not as it pertains to the original, but to the fulfillment, the complexion, or another cause of that type. (my translation; 1448b:15-19)

Two implications for actors arise in Aristotle's conclusions about mimesis: first, an actor not only says, 'ah, that is he,' but further extrapolates to, 'ah, I am he,' in seeing himself in the role; second, if an actor is a theatre professional (as Aristotle often refers to the occupation), then he is able to imagine at least somewhat the staging of the play he is reading--the spectacle, so to speak--while he is reading it. The actor, then, exercises judgment in his reading that cannot be ignored if actors are to be seen as more than puppets of the playwrights. The act of imagining a scene is a job for the poet as well; after Aristotle attended a performance of a play by Carcinus, he scolded poets who did not keep track of their characters' entrances and exits in their plotting: 'But as you put the plot together and work out the words [diction/dialogue] just right, you should as much as possible set it before your eyes' (1455a:23- 4). Many translations use the word scene here--'place the scene . . . before the eyes' (Butcher 41)--which is not present in the Greek. In the literal, the pronoun references the word 'plot' (mythos) so Aristotle simply asks that while a poet is constructing a plot, he should try to imagine what 'it' will look like. This introduces a seeming paradox: how can a poet imagine a stage scene while constructing an imitation? Is the play an imitation of a stage play or of an action? To be true to the principles of mimesis, shouldn't the poet imagine Hercules, for example, slaying a monster, instead of an actor in a mask?

In a famous passage from the Rhetoric, Aristotle grumbled that in his time the actor was more important than the poet (1403b:33), and it not unreasonable to speculate that during a period of revivals, as Aristotle's time certainly was, the casting decisions would be more in dispute than the quality of a Sophoclean text, for example. Therefore, if an actor exercised any amount of influence about what plays were performed, he must have had some criteria by which to judge the texts. In the Poetics, plots are given primacy over poetic devices like rhythm. It is very likely that the plays being written in his time tended to run contrary to Aristotle's prescriptions, otherwise why mention the problem? As he portrays the abuse, people add the word 'poet' to all users of verse as if 'they were poets not for their imitation, but just for writing in verse' (1447b:14). Clearly Aristotle's preference for well- constructed plots colors his criticism away from the actor's areas of influence; the poets had to please the constraints of literary storytelling before attending to performance requirements. Those works that did not follow Aristotle's precepts, whether written in the past or in his own time, were deemed flawed in the Poetics. That actors judged texts is evident in Aristotle's reference that 'Bad poets write episodic pieces from lack of talent, good poets, to please the actors' (1451b:36-7). Certainly actors would judge plays that offered more characterization potential superior to those that subsumed actor to plot function. Seen in this way, Aristotle chides the actor who adds stylistic histrionics to overcome shortcomings in the text while in a later passage, he suggests an analogous thing to poets: 'highly elaborate diction conceals both character and thought' (1460b:5).

What pleases actors most has apparently not changed in 2,500 years: pleasing the audience. For this reason, some actors of Aristotle's time embellished the text with extraneous movements. 'The audience is supposed to be too stupid to understand unless some of their own shtick is added by the performers, who indulge in movement for its own sake' (1461b:29-31). This failing was by no means restricted to the hypokrites; Aristotle included the rhapsodos as well: '[The censure of tragedy as lower than epic] attaches not to the poetic, but to the performance art; because gesticulation may just as easily be overdone in epic recitation, as by Sosistratus' (1462a:5-7). If an actor performed a role well in this respect, he must have exercised good judgment, approached his role critically, because Aristotle states in an earlier passage that 'Now the wonderful is pleasing, which may be inferred from the fact that everyone tells a story with some addition of his own, knowing that his audience like it' (1460:18). Since Aristotle does not condemn all actors for this, there must have been some who exercised a kind of control. Nevertheless, the choices of an actor in communicating a text are necessarily restrictive, certainly more so in Aristotle's time than in our own.

The concept of choice is central to seeing an actor as a critic. An actor's job, had Aristotle been keen to state it plainly, would perhaps be that he actualizes the potentiality in a text--'tragedy implies people acting...' (1449b:33)--thus, Agamemnon on the written page is potentially a character in a production of the Oresteia; it is up to the actor to actualize, external to the text, something implied in writing a drama in the first place. A seeming contradiction appears in Aristotle's later comment that 'The power of tragedy is felt apart from representation and actors' (1450b:18). This may be true, yet what a reader feels is the power (dynamis), the potential contained in the script, which the actor must release through praxis, or action. Praxis for Aristotle is distinct from poiesis, which is also translated into English as 'action.' Poiesis is any doing or making, as in the making of a poem. Praxis is the final step in a process that includes understanding and a sense of certainty. So the result of an actor's critical struggle with a text is his conduct, action, his praxis.

Therefore, it is clear that actors have to deal with the text, and their handling of it constitutes criticism in action, or more precisely, criticism into action. While Aristotle could not ignore the actor in a discussion of tragedy, still, he was able to deflect the actor's importance and even allow poets excesses that he could not allow actors. Had Aristotle approached the acting process, he might have provided a greater blueprint for future movements in the theatre, taking into account a relationship between the actor and the text and the actor and the audience. As theatre history played out, the acting profession had to develop primarily from the ranks of street performers, the commedia dell'arte and its like, so the ancient disparaging of actors actually remained a self-fulfilling prophecy until very recently, arguably with Brecht. So to conclude as Aristotle might have concluded, this is all that need be said about actors and their texts.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: kritikos is an adjective; the Greek for 'judge' is krites.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Problemata. Loeb Classical Library.

Butcher, Henry (trans.). 'Aristotle's Poetics.' In Laila Gross (ed.) An Introduction to Literary Criticism. New York: Putnam's, 1971.

Cole, David. Acting as Reading: The Place of the Reading Process in the Actor's Work. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Duerr, Edwin. The Length and Depth of Acting. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1962.

Jay Malarcher
Louisiana State University