Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Plays without actors

In the world of cinema, actors are often given more prominence than the characters they play. Film critics commonly refer to the character not by his or her name but by that of the actor playing the part. This is less true of stage plays, where the name of the actor is often no better known than that of the character. But a famous actor playing, say, Hamlet, is still likely to get more attention than Hamlet himself, however scrupulously he obeys Hamlet’s own rules for actors.

The ancient Greeks avoided this by hiding their actors’ faces behind masks. The effect was of an animated statue that had the power of speech. The actor’s job was to speak the lines so that every word could be heard clearly by all 15,000 people in the audience. Whether he was short or tall, fat or thin, with a face like a god or a goat, was irrelevant, since no one ever saw him without his mask, costume and high-heeled tragedian’s boots. Thespis, one imagines, was able to walk the streets of Epidaurus without fear of being mobbed by autograph hunters.

Today’s opera singers, whose physique is often ill-suited to the role they are playing, would benefit greatly from the theatrical conventions of the ancient Greeks. So would we. The Mimi we saw would be the face on the mask, with a voice to match. The actor could be a man, a counter tenor, and no one would know. But convention counts for a lot and, if the voice is good enough, the audience will use its imagination to bring the face and body up to the required standard. If all else fails, you can always close your eyes and listen to the music.

Which is what Shakespeare, in the prologue to Henry V, asked his audience to do. My words, he said, with the help of your imaginations, can turn this wooden O into Agincourt. All he asked of his actors was to speak the lines as they were written.

Samuel Beckett went to extreme lengths in some of his plays to deprive his actors of everything but their voices: burying them in sand, making them act in total darkness, putting their voices on tape. Other playwrights have tried replacing them with puppets. Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu began life as a puppet play. Maurice Maeterlinck, his contemporary, published Three Little Plays for Marionettes in 1894. Rabindranath Tagore was another of that generation who thought his plays would be better performed by puppets. His plays are sometimes compared to Maeterlinck’s, but really owe more to the folk tradition of his native Bengal. Combining dramatic action with song and dance, perhaps they owe something too to the theatre of ancient Greece.

Granville Barker, an influential figure in the English theatre of the early 1900s, wrote in his introduction to the English translation of Maeterlinck’s three plays, ‘The English-speaking people should get into the habit of reading plays.’ His argument, like Shakespeare’s, is that a playwright’s vision is realised, not on the stage, but in the audience’s imagination. ‘When you analyse in cold print the apparently meagre means by which the vision was created you become conscious that you too have shared in the work of imagination.’

A generation after Jarry, Maeterlinck and Tagore, came Federico Garcia Lorca, with plays that drew on the musical and theatrical traditions of Andalusia, including some for puppets. The plays for which he is best known, Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba, were not puppet plays, but I don’t think they would lose much, and might even gain something, if they were. If what we heard in performance were human voices and what we saw were wooden figures, the poetry might be set free. These plays of Lorca’s are his Greek tragedies. They obey the classical unities of time, place and action. They are poetic. They are musical. By way of Andalusian folk songs and puppet plays, Lorca takes us back to Epidaurus, to the dramatic conventions of ancient Greece.

Brecht too was at pains to make sure that his actors did not get in the way of what he wanted to say. They mere mouthpieces, not to be confused with the real people that other dramatists tried so hard to get their audiences to believe in. Brecht takes us back to Aristophanes and the conventions of ancient Greek comedy.

The thing is, not to be bound by convention, but to use it. The word means a coming together, in this case of playwright and audience, an agreement made between them, such as that made by children playing a game of make-believe. The ‘rude mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream feel they have to explain the convention before they put on their play: ‘This lantern doth the horned moon present.’

In a period when the prevailing convention is the realistic portrayal of plausible and recognisable characters, a play that depends on a different convention may never find its audience. To quote Granville Barker again: ‘In truth, Maeterlinck needed for his plays a theatre far other than the one he could then step into for a franc or two, far other than any he has found since.’

Any convention, if it lasts long enough, becomes conventional. Instead of being an act of the imagination to which actors and audience contribute in equal measure, a play becomes merely a spectacle in which the actors do all the work and the audience sinks into passivity.

When this happens, it is time to re-negotiate the agreement. Audiences need to be made to work harder, actors told to do less. Shakespeare knew actors well enough to know that there was always one, like Nick Bottom, who would play all the parts himself if he could. When Francis Flute says, ‘Let me not play a woman, I have a beard coming,’ Peter Quince has only to say, ‘That’s all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will.’

maeterlinck 01         greek mask 01         lorca 01

My next essay, due on 22 January, will be about LAURIE LEE

The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 15 January and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.

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