Reading the biography of Sue Bradford, and it’s a good read, left me pondering on the difference between performance and theatre. In the modern world the demand for performance is pretty universal, and the higher the importance ladder a person climbs, the greater the performance demands. Sue is a performative person and I wondered, reading the book, how much performance, more generally, is driven by the Oedipal complex. Her performance evolved from Progressive Youth Movement activist, to drug taking hippie, to communist, to community activist, to politician, to academic, back to community activist, to radical intellectual…and there were parent and partner roles to play as well. It’s an admirable and coherent ensemble of performances, emanating from the bosom of a middle class family.
Sue Bradford in the Unemployed Roadshow, 1996.
When I worked with Sue on a theatre project in the 1990s, I suspect she found theatre a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle because of the dialectic that is at the heart of acting, as opposed to the certainty required in performance. Let me explain.
The basic acting mantra was succinctly expressed by the Russian master, Stanislavski: If I were this person in this situation how/what would I feel/think/do? The ‘If’ is crucial, because it requires the imagination. I’m not Hamlet, but if I were Hamlet in this situation (a rotten state with a usurper king) what would be going on in my head and heart and what would I do about it? The play states what Hamlet does and what he thinks and feels, to an extent – but there are still immense subtleties to be created by the actor bringing to bear his own experience of like situations. For example, in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates suicide, but to make it ‘real’ the actor has to bring his own knowledge of contemplating suicide to the scene. The actor will experiment with past situations that might work; which memory of despair? And then, in dialogue with the director, intuitively choose. For one works better than another. From that comes a score of physical movement. Hamlet slowly unfolds. And in becoming another, the actor becomes more himself.
This I-I dialogue is at the core of acting and is more complex than the politician performing the role of him or herself as politician; the key to that performance being the casting aside of the doubt that imagination produces. Doubt and imagination are fatal for the politician, and for other performative roles: real estate salesperson, talk show host etc. Accordingly, as the 21st century becomes increasingly and noisily performative, this I-I duality is banished. In many ways the imagination and the doubt from which imagination emanates, are banished, to be replaced by public opinion polls, sales figures etc.
This perhaps goes some way to explaining the extraordinary increase in suicide, especially amongst young men. Their tendency to become attached to the screen, to play those games, means both the performance is a solitary one and the I-I breaks down, for the screen can never be an I, despite its promises. It is a series of digits, that’s all, colonising the imagination. When doubt hits, it must overwhelm.
When I think back to previous cultures, perhaps God was once the other ‘I’, providing a dialogue. Or was it that performance was a matter of birthright, reserved for the aristocracy, the peasant simply tilling the soil? And here, there remains continuity. The performance of those who work with their hands lies in the work of their hands: the builder, the mechanic, the road maker, the digger driver… Sure, there’s greater help from the tools but there is still a physical object to have a dialogue with. The I-I (or is it I-it) prevails.
In this way the old class paradigms remain intact.
There’s probably more to say on this issue, some of it to do with the Oedipal pattern and how that’s changed as well, but I’ll leave it there.