In the film MEPHISTO, the lead character—a prominent German actor during the Nazi era—speaks of the element of surprise in acting. Apart from the core issues the movie raises, I’ve been thinking about that speech in relation to all forms of storytelling.
The paradox is that sudden, startling events only work if they’re prepared and supported by what’s gone before. The suicide at the end of THE SEAGULL only works because its possibility is prefigured earlier in the play, then Chekhov sets us up with an atmosphere that promises to end the play with a Chekhovian tone of comic sadness. The news is delivered in a whisper, and the mother who will be destroyed by it has not yet heard it.
In the theatre, it happens in different ways. In the play itself, of course, as described above, but also in the life of the actors and their interaction. I’ve sometimes described a scene, pissed-off-edly, as “two actors each rehearsing their audition monologs.” I.e., each performance would be the same no matter how the other actor did it. As in jazz, the life is not only in the notes they play, but how they breathe together, how one’s riff informs the other’s riff.
I’ve seen too many performances that are “live” in the sense that real actors are there, but otherwise dead, dead, dead, no matter how “professional” the work is. At such times, you yearn for the moment when someone goes up on his lines: suddenly that glitch makes it “real.” Or a college staging of HAMLET, I playing Laertes, when the guest actor Hamlet began improvising the duel: neither of us being fencers, the audience was treated—at last—with a memorable scene.
I recall our experience playing DESSIE, a play we had on tour for 9 years, well over 400 performances, and other short sketches we’ve played hundreds of times. Keeping it live means a very tight attunement to your partner. To the audience, two performances might seem identical; to the players, they’re alive with the unpredictability of life: I step over the cat if he’s there, not if he’s not.
On the written page, the challenge is more difficult. Of course it happens in major plot terms, in an unexpected response from a character, in the intrusive appearance of a hiccuping waiter in midst of a painful cafe dialogue. But it also occurs in the surprising shape of a sentence, a twist on a common cliche, an adjective that stings.
Each art form creates life in its own way, whether on stage or on page or on film or canvas or disc. It’s the surprise that strikes you if you walk into a room at the Prado that’s filled with Goya’s “dark” paintings, and you’re suddenly on a whiplash ride through his mind, or looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait and seeing him look at you nakedly across the centuries.
Life isn’t all surprise, nor is human personality totally a function of your kidneys; but without’em you’re dead.