This week, we feature a guest blog from The Crucible actor Adrian Schiller...
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, Words, Words..
But of course there is a difference; first of all, with classic plays there is a burden of expectation. These pieces, which have achieved some sort of immortality in theatrical culture, come with baggage. They are held up as paradigms of the art. The characters that populate them (even the very words they speak) can be more famous than the plays themselves, achieving some kind of life beyond the world of the play that bore them. So that makes them rather daunting. Your audience, your critics, even your fellow cast members, (you yourself), are all likely to have preconceptions.
It is tempting to imagine that all these opinions are better formed than your own. (Conversely, you might imagine that you're the only person who has ever really understood the play or the part - which is certainly worse.) But the great delight of the deservedly ‘classic’ play is that it is a classic precisely because it has demonstrated its clarity umpteen times before. It has muscles. It speaks across cultures and across decades or even centuries. Typically these plays have a strong narrative structure. The different roles are clearly demarcated, their functions in the story clear. The dialogue is lively, the language toothsome. They are each a feast to be devoured.
So the text is my greatest friend. Far from being a scarily famous literary maze that will defeat me, it should offer the guidance I need to craft a performance with confidence. When I set out on a new journey with my new best friend (whoever the character may be he’s going to have to be my best friend for a bit, even if he’s a hateful mass-murderer), I try to put aside the expectations of others, and my own preconceptions, and simply start with the text. The vast majority of what I need to know about my character will be between the covers of the script itself (not in the notes). The first questions I ask are “What does my character actually do, what are my actions?”, “What do I say about myself?”, “What do others say about me” and “What wouldn't happen if I wasn't there at all?” - this last question is a good one, as it will help me understand my purpose, i.e. why the character is there, his narrative function. None of these questions are interpretive; I’m not asking why I do something, or what I feel about anything. I’m just trying to get a few basic facts. This is simple stuff and where one should start with any script at all, but it’s likely to very fruitful when applied to classics; they have so much to offer.
Take the character I played in The Crucible, John Hale. He comes to Salem from a town some miles away. He forces a confession of witchcraft from Tituba. He interrogates Proctor and his wife and is present when Elizabeth Proctor is arrested, hears her pleas of innocence and witnesses the distress of both. He sits on the examining bench in the trials that follow the early confessions and accusations. He accuses Danforth (the leading judge) of acting unjustly and walks away from the proceedings. He returns later to try to persuade the unconfessed ‘witches’ to save themselves by confessing, in the sure knowledge that such testimony would be false, finally begging Elizabeth to intervene and force her husband to confess rather than hang. Without ever examining his motives, I already know a good deal about Hale. I also know that without his initial action - that of forcing the confession from Tituba - none of the rest of the story could happen at all.
Taking a purely forensic look at the script in this way has another very useful side effect; it makes you read the script over and over and over again. Which is like practising scales on a musical instrument, you just get better at hitting the notes fluently the more you repeat the action.
Repetition breeds familiarity and familiarity should breed simplicity. When the speeches ‘seem’ shorter, resolving themselves into plain statements of intent, single arcs of thought, rather than complex paragraphs with tricky subclauses, and when actions seem simpler to understand, I feel I’m getting somewhere. I always try to find the simplest story for a char-acter. Playwrights do not complicate things on purpose. Good plays tend to be simple things with complex resonances. Actors are not responsible for the resonance (and should try not to be, though sometimes its hard, one’s relationship with a character or a produc-tion is often passionate and one wants the audience to ‘get it’). But the play should speak for itself. And there is something else that should emerge from this simpler understanding; an argument.
Every character in a story is an argument for a way of living, a proposal, a sketch for hu-man survival in the circumstances that the story describes. This argument may well change in the course of the action, as they learn and adapt. They may, ultimately, prevail or fail, that again is not the actor’s responsibility, my job is only to present the argument as clearly as possible. You, the audience, get to judge whether the argument is worth making, or persuasive, or perhaps cowardly or heroic or tragic or just spurious nonsense - again, these judgments are not mine to make.
Classic plays are (usually) rooted in a time and a place, they have a context. Often, by the very nature of a ‘classic’ they were written a while ago, and hence they are historical ‘time-capsules’. The Crucible doubly so, being written in 1953, but set in 1692. And so not everything I need is necessarily in the text. Further forensic work is required to embed the character in his true environment. This is important not just from the historical point of view, indeed historical accuracy in and of itself is not necessarily important, (classic plays are resilient and may often be set out of their original context), but it is essential to understanding motivation. To know why my character behaves in one way or another, I need to know not only what they want, but what they believe; which includes beliefs about the facts in the story, and his political and spiritual beliefs, which are almost always related. All characters live in a world of more or less precise beliefs, if the play doesn't explicitly tell me what they are, and then I have to go and find out. I find it useful to assume my own ignorance, and do some digging.
It is certainly important to know that The Crucible was written to protest the deeply reactionary House Un-American Activities Committee, headed up by the execrable Senator Joe McCarthy. The play was written with intent, a crying out against the anti-communist witch-hunt that was relentlessly destroying the lives of liberal thinkers in the US at the time - Arthur Miller had a point to make.
But the play is set, very specifically, in an earlier time and place. It is reasonable to assume that Miller did his homework, and that he had an understanding of the politics and religion of New England during the Salem witch trials. I certainly didn’t though, or at least not until I did a little homework myself. Hale is a puritan minister in late 17th-century New England. He’s a Calvinist Puritan, a very particular type of Christian. The early American colonists were often fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They were there precisely so that they could live according to the peculiar tenets of their specific faith, free from persecution. Without understanding what their beliefs were - and my assumptions about Puritanism were merely that, assumptions - I really had no hope of portraying this fundamentally convinced, passionate and religious man. Particularly interesting, incidentally, were their ideas about predestination and grace - terrifying and compelling in more or less equal measure.
Emotional investment, for me, comes a little later. Of course I have a rough understanding of the emotional journey from an early read of the text. And it is very tempting to unleash an emotional performance before being truly clear about the argument the character embodies. I try to resist this, emotional expression is hugely seductive, and of course it is demanded in performance, however it can be a diversion in rehearsal, tempting an actor away from clear story telling. To quote Arthur Quiller-Couch from his lecture On the art of writing:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: 'Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'
Murdering emotional darlings is quite a salutary experience - see if you can say this line without shouting, or crying, or tearing your hair - yes, it’s better, isn't it? I find that emotional content is something that emerges eventually from the texture of lines. This where I find my voice and my heart. As I become increasingly familiar with the precision that the playwright offers, the delivery of lines, and the level of emotional expression required, are colours that the text itself suggests.
Hale has just arrived in Salem; people are looking to him for a diagnosis of the situation and a plan of action
PUTNAM: She cannot bear to hear the Lord’s name, Mr. Hale; that’s a sure sign of witchcraft afloat.
HALE [holding up his hands]: No, no. Now let me instruct you. We cannot look to superstition in this. The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone, and I must tell you all that I shall not proceed unless you are prepared to believe me if I should find no bruise of hell upon her.
Here is a man in command of a situation. His speech is almost perfunctory, precise, measured, fair.
Now, just after Elizabeth has been arrested, chained and taken from her husband (towards the end of Act 2).
PROCTOR: You are a coward! Though you be ordained in God’s own tears, you are a coward now!
HALE: Proctor, I cannot think God be provoked so grandly by such a petty cause. The jails are packed - our greatest judges sit in Salem now - and hangin’s promised. Man, we must look to cause proportionate. Were there murder done, perhaps, and never brought to light? Abomina-tion? Some secret blasphemy that stinks to Heaven? Think on cause, man, and let you help me to discover it. For there’s your way, believe it, there is your only way, when such confusion strikes upon the world.
You can feel his desperation and doubt in the writing, the sentences are chopped about, it feels more earthbound, less erudite, less fluent, the clauses are tripping over one another; here is a man in turmoil.
Which brings me to a last point - which arguably should be my first. I try to learn lines early and to be thorough (which means paying attention to punctuation too). The text is how the author conveys his intent, and the only line of communication you have with him (it’s mostly a ‘him’ I’m afraid; white, male and usually dead), so you must listen. Some actors will say “I don't like to learn my lines ’til I know what I’m doing”. I don’t think you can really know what you are doing unless you listen to the author, and learn exactly what you have to say. To imagine you can is borderline disrespectful, it is placing your own agenda above that of the writer. I say exactly with reason; you will find phrases, idiomatic structures, pe-culiar punctuation, which will confuse you when you first, quite literally, stumble on them. Learning why I am stumbling and how not to will tell me very much more than trying to resist these passages, imagining them to be some sort of error which my instincts can cor-rect. When I cease to stumble, and can speak such passages fluently and simply, usually I have made a valuable discovery.
I find that working in this way makes me more confident of my ground if there is a debate to be had in rehearsal, and ultimately more secure in performance. It allows me, I think, to produce a detailed performance, which is also of benefit to a director - it’s always good to know precisely what you are dealing with, after all, and easier to suggest changes when offered something relatively precise. Of course a great deal of what we do as actors is instinctive, which is as it should be, but instincts are neither entirely reliable nor beyond criticism, perhaps instincts which take their cue from a thorough investigation of the text are more dependable. There are many other genuinely useful ways of investigating a character and a play, which are less to do with text and context, and every performer must find a means that serves them personally. But to serve the play, is to ensure that the play is heard. My job is to help you listen.
Classic plays, great plays, are far more than mere entertainments - though they are often very enjoyable - they are profound reflections on humanity, on our political structures, on religious belief, on love. And treated with respect, not awe, they are the most rewarding to perform.