The Cannibal Theater

An English playwright, PETER SHAFFERattended Saint Paul’s School, and after a stint in the English coal mines as a “Bevin boyin the war, went on to Trinity College, Cambridge. His most recent play, FIVE FINGER EXERCISE,directed by Sir John Gielgud, ran in London for almost two years and has recently been playing to full houses on Broadway. It won the Drama CriticsAward last spring for the best foreign play.

I SHALL always remember my first encounter with actors, probably because it so disappointed and depressed me. It occurred in a B.B.C. studio at the rehearsal of my first play, a piece for radio. That day was certainly the most exciting of my life up till then: the acceptance of the play (after many rejections of plays and ideas for plays); the invitation to attend rehearsal; a Sunday journey to London into the peeling, cracked, almost defeated shabbiness (1947 shabbiness) of Marylebone. I remember a long corridor, red lights on and off, and then the vast studio itself and the control room into which I was ushered in a flurry of half-rising figures, whispered greetings, and uncompleted handshakes. The actors were grouped around the microphone, out in the middle of the floor. I listened, and suddenly a huge wave of joy bashed over my head: the sound, the first irrecapturable sound of my words being spoken by professionals! My words! For five minutes they made no sense; the surf of pleasure pounded inside me. Then, when this hurricane of self-approbation was over, I began to listen critically. They weren’t very good lines, but at least I had selected them from all possible combinations, and that thought gave me an encouraging sense of my own existence. More, it gave me a curious sense of proprietorship in the actors, a vain, childlike, rather thrilling emotion. It was soon to be dispelled.

At the lunch interval I was introduced to this cast I mentally owned. Nervously I went with them to a pub nearby, all exposure and anxious amiability. They asked me what I’d like to drink; I said beer. That was our whole conversation. Thereafter nobody said anything to me at all. For the rest of the hour the actors talked shop among themselves, workaday shop with all the unromantic trivia of the true professional. Finally they returned to work, briskly performed my play, and walked off together, forgetting even to say good night. Suddenly it was all over. I found myself in the subway, feeling injured and disappointed. It was my first taste of that deep sense of rejection which nonacting playwrights feel around actors. They went their way, I went mine; they together, I alone.

This is always how it is, at least on the surface. Actors, no matter how solipsistically mad they are, live in a fraternity, an indissoluble Order. They take vows to join it, largely unspoken; they feel safe with other members of it, even though they often resent them: behind their most irresponsible displays is the awareness of a Calling. Though here, of course, as elsewhere, few are chosen.

My first reaction was one of annoyance, concealing envy. It must be so good to belong, to be sustained by the professional warmth, the intimacy, the pattern of dressing-room life, and the inalienable duty to play, whatever happens. I have never lost this envy, although when I tell an actor so he rarely believes it. For his part, the actor is made nervous by authors; as often as he can he retreats behind a screen of simple-mindedness (“I’m just the actor”) which is only partly sincere. If you say to an actor, “How do you remember all those lines?” he will spit in your eye; but that same actor will say to an author, or wonderingly imply, turning on him the half-mocking, half-impressed blue eye of theatrical innocence, “However do you think of it all? I wish I were clever like that!” Now, behind all this banter, and behind even the deep yearnings to belong, or to be “clever like that,” is a deep, grave antagonism which cannot be eradicated. Between actors and playwrights exists, at best, a violent, desperate, irrefragable relation which makes reconciliation in a conventional sense impossible between them, and even undesirable. It is perhaps the most profoundly loving, because the most urgently needful, of all relations — that between hungry beings and their prey.

Over the years my simple view of actors, as a jolly company of people to be wistfully envied, changed and deepened as I came to see their exclusiveness and their ultimate indifference to writers as something infinitely more profound than mere trade unionism. What I had first observed as a fraternity was also in fact a primitive tribe, with which I was intimately and terribly connected — over which, indeed, for a short spell, and with the inevitable penalty, I had to rule.

The rehearsal of a serious play is an elaborate and quietly awful ceremony of fertilization; a ritual, despite its frequent appearance of disorganization and its very real air of friendliness, of sacrifice and rebirth. At the beginning, the playwright is accepted as God-King; he is felt to contain some truth without which the players cannot live. He is treated with deference, consulted, danced before. He speaks, or his interpreter speaks for him, and is eagerly obeyed.

For a spell the tribe, still weak and undernourished, moves at his nod; he sits enthroned in the secrets they require, assured, assuring, needed. Then, gradually the actors gain strength — his strength: they learn his words, his secrets; they cut off his hair. They take away everything he has, at first tentatively, and then boldly, with increasing assurance. They catch his quick sentences and acquire his speed; they subdue his big speeches and take away his gravity; they tear out his jokes and leave him humorless or imperceptive. They must invade him entirely and search for their nourishment in his darkness; they need his potency, and do not rest —cannot rest — until they have it. For the actor dies between roles, and comes to work seeking his spring. It is not an accident that we speak of the theatrical “season.” Under that trivial word you may see primal planting, the earth wetted with lifeblood, the shoots emerging, thickening, tailing, harvested, and eaten; a corn of text, and words becoming flesh.

IT IS an awesome thing for a playwright to watch good modern actors who have played his parts for a year on the stage become suddenly obliged, say for a new production somewhere else, to take up the actual scripts again and do a reading of the play. They stumble and slur, they look resentfully at the lines, they are surprised and at times quite thrown by minute alterations between the original typescript and what they have been saying for months. They are made uneasy by the printed page, by the return of flesh to word. (Re-productions of plays with the same cast in another city can never be easy; they represent a reversal of the order of nature. How does one resurrect the dismembered body of an author, or turn back the process of ingestion, except by vomiting?) Actors will tell you, and tell you rightly, that they can do nothing until they have thrown away the text — until, that is, they have thrown away you, until there does not survive a single punctuation mark to remind them of your vanished power, or a word remaining undissolved in their blood streams.

And when this happens, you feel your death. You are the least needed person in the theater; you are totally superfluous. The actors go on stage and forget you; they even forget they had to memorize your words. They must do this. The parts, all parts of the parts, the very private parts, are theirs now. You may have brought John into the world, but like a mother who learns about her children from everyone else, you must accept the fact that John has become Mr. A., the actor, and that with a dazzling arrogance which you cannot but acknowledge, he can truly say: “I (John) don’t feel it like that,” “I would never do that,” and even, when your rewrites are disputed, “I would never say that.” When the actor comes to say this last, the sacrifice is really complete; there is nothing left of the author at all.

Of course, the playwright doesn’t merely accept this role; he needs and demands it. He also seeks rebirth, and the only way for him to achieve it is to be liberated from his old play, to have the obsessional demon who first beat it from the cover of his unrest haled out of his body in the fullness of performance. The actor is the playwright’s exorcist.

But the actor, too, needs freeing. He also lives in isolation and needs to be released, through the harness of a text, from intensity of feeling unyoked to purpose. Thus each of these incomplete beings is living in the other and released by the other, as in an inevitable love affair. Unease must remain, for the writer, quite simply, writes; and this hard process of setting down is never really acknowledged by the actor, who to be true to himself must believe that the words are born in his living throat without any intermediary process. Paper, for the actor, is a commodity which does not exist; for the author, it is the focus of his reverence. Still, each is united to the other with a true force, without which none of this ritual, this loosing of carnivores, would be tolerable.

I have noted that actors are a fraternity and take vows. In England, certainly, they are regarded with extreme suspicion. Something deep in the conforming heart is disturbed by the thought of the actor’s nonattachment to homes and steady visits to offices. And something is also puzzled and offended by a certain indifference in him to social reality, political iniquity, world danger — a seeming frivolity he shares with priests. Our attitude toward actors is always uneasy; though we are hardly aware of it, and actors themselves do not understand it, we treat them with the same halfscornful, half-flattering wariness which we would show to priests of some incomprehensible but rather awesome cult. Which is certainly the right way to regard them.

What is their article of faith? It is simple and immense. Every man contains in himself the history of man. No man is an island; he isn’t even a continent: he is, viewed rightly, the world. Therefore, no pattern of behavior should be incomprehensible to us, and no feeling in another inaccessible to us. We fail in our sympathy over and over again, because of our preconceptions and our unexercised imaginations, and because our hearts shrink in the effort to present to the world an image of ourselves.

The actor is not concerned with this at all; in his dual nature he can succeed where we fail, and in a real sense succeed (as in all art) for us. He has therefore an almost divine function in society, for to survive as a true speaker for us he must find in himself what most of us deny is there — the experience of the race. He must refuse in himself the pressured right we claim to prejudice; he must take on all lonelinesses and fears, relish confidence where he himself has none, enjoy many kinds of jokes, though he himself has but one sense of humor. Ideally, no hunger is too acute, no perversion too obscure for him to live it out imaginatively, and to do this he must set aside, as a barrier, all personal condemnation. The moral purpose of actors, which is the exorcism not only of playwrights but of society, can be accomplished only by slaying the mortal enemy of truth, preconception.

And in the same degree the playwright does likewise. This is where we meet, on moral ground. We both sense what charge is laid upon us, what dark journeys have to be made in the way of business, descents into Nibelheim to gratify Wotan. The encyclopedic imagination which is necessary to the actor is needed as urgently by the playwright; he must list from within himself an inventory of authentic emotions enough to furnish all the mansions of the blessed and unblessed. Many actors fail — I don’t mean technical failure — because of their inability to meet these demands in full or because they don’t even realize unconsciously that the demands are being made, which means that they are bad actors. The strictures of good actors on bad actors are harsher than in any other profession, for this reason: to a dedicated player, a bad piece of acting is a betrayal, and a bad actor is a whisky priest. And most playwrights fail for the same reason. Both are moral agents.

One last thought: the playwright has an added duty, specifically to the actor. He has an obligation to write good parts. Without them, despite what theatrical fans say, the actor can do very little. What good is it to own the Tarnhelm, if all you are asked to do is turn yourself into a frog? There is no excuse under heaven for creating people whose sole reason for living is to hear a pistol shot, to say the carriage is without, to announce Lady Bore’s arrival, to hold a spear or a Martini. These parts are betrayals. I would be truly ashamed if an actor told me a part of mine wasn’t, in the real sense, big enough — even though, as often as not, the actor will prove to be foolish enough to have counted the lines and not the heartheats of the part.

So, on this frail bridge of obligation, the baker can meet the starving boy: he offers him homemade bread; the boy snatches it and waves him impatiently away. The baker goes, dismissed, knowing that in a little while the boy will be hungry again and will wander the streets hollow-eyed, seeking his shop, praying there will be something in it worth eating.

And that is the prayer of the playwright too: to be full again.