Posts Tagged ‘emotion’

I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.


At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.

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Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

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Do you cry in public? Do you cry in front of The X Factor or Downton Abbey when the emotion gets just a bit too overwhelming?

Remember that Hilary Clinton’s fight-back in the 2008 Primaries came, not when she started fighting, but when she started crying about how difficult things were in a downtown diner. And three of the Republican candidates choked up in front of millions of viewers at a recent debate in Iowa:

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former pizza executive Herman Cain both choked up and fought back tears. Santorum got misty-eyed when he talked about the struggles facing his young daughter Isabella, who was born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18, which results in main-organ malfunctions. Cain, on the other hand, choked up about being diagnosed with cancer. Forum moderator Frank Luntz said: “I feel like Dr. Phil.”

William Leith explains how the return of public emotion is a return to the social norm, and the stiff upper lip is just a recent blip.

Interestingly, we haven’t always felt the need to stay in control. The   academic historian Thomas Dixon, who has studied the history of crying,   tells me that the 18th and 19th centuries were very “tear-soaked” – crying   in public, particularly at the theatre, and particularly in the cheap seats,   was no big deal. Emoting was linked to popular culture – and also to   religion. There used to be lots of weeping when people found God, and when   they repented their sins. Then came the era of the “stiff upper lip”, an age   of stoicism engendered by Empire, the Victorian public schools, and muscular Christianity.

The fashion for keeping your emotions bottled up lasted about 100 years.   “Since the Seventies,” says Dixon, “we’ve been returning to something like   normality.” In other words, normality is about losing control.

I asked Adam Curtis why television is so busy creating these tear-jerking   moments. There are various reasons, he said. One is that we are hungry for   authenticity; in a highly mechanised world, in which we are often confronted   with things that are fake, or are copies of other things, we seek the   genuine. And the emotion that causes you to cry seems to come from far   inside yourself. When you cry, it feels very personal. It feels as if the   person crying is the real you.

“In this age,” Curtis says, “individual feeling is the most important thing   for us. What we neglect to think is that these feelings are part of a wider   social system. Your feelings are as much from outside you as inside you.” In   other words, if a skilled television producer knows how to short-circuit our   brains, if he can locate the neural back alley that leads directly to our   amygdala, he can make us lose control for a moment. Is that right? “The   great myth of our time is that what we feel comes totally from within us,”   Curtis says. “It’s shaped by outside forces.”

So what were these outside forces? In the second half of the last century, we   were stepping out of the shadow of totalitarianism, and wanted to celebrate   the self. At the cutting edge, there were talk-ins and hug-ins and love-ins.   After this, the culture at large began to celebrate open displays of   emotion. Footballers hugged and kissed each other when they scored. The   air-punch began its journey towards universal acceptability.

One by one, the old citadels of restraint toppled and fell. We began to see   cricketers hugging each other, politicians punching the air when they won,   and crying on television when they were skewered by a personal question.   Gazza cried. Maradona cried. Margaret Thatcher cried. The Australian prime   minister Bob Hawke cried. Peter Mandelson cried. Bill Clinton raised a   finger to the corner of his eye, several times. Diana cried. Diana died.   Blair, making the announcement outside the church in Sedgefield, seemed to   be holding back tears. There was a catch in his voice. Anything less would   have seemed inappropriate.

Then came the public outpouring. More recently, millions of Apple fans mourned   the passing of Steve Jobs with similarly religious fervour. Candle-lit   vigils were held outside Apple stores; wreaths and half-eaten apples were   placed, and iPhones laid on the ground like virtual eternal flames.

Displaying our emotions, just like hiding them, seems to be contagious. Right   now, we’re all going through a weepy phase. And who knows — in another few   decades’ time, we might be back to the stiff upper lip.

Fashions move fast these days. One question remains. Is it healthier to hide   our emotions, or to display them? Decades of research have come down on the   side of display. But the tide may be turning. A survey conducted on   Americans about the trauma of 9/11 has tentatively suggested that keeping   your feelings bottled up might not be so bad. At least, those participants   who chose not to discuss their feelings right after the attacks   seemed to fare better, mentally and physically, over the next two years,   than those who had responded openly about how 9/11 had affected them. The jury is out.

At seminary it was suggested that there was a place for ‘appropriate self-disclosure’ in your ministry as a priest. I have found that phrase very helpful over the years. As priests and public figures, our personalities and feelings are not meant to be completely hidden; but nor are they meant to get in the way of our ministry, or in the way of others meeting Christ. The word ‘appropriate’ is so important. We are human – but part of being human is knowing what to share with others and when to do that.

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