‘Miss Sawyer, you listen to me ... and you listen hard. Two hundred people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you! It’s the lives of all those people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on and you’ve got to give, and give and give! They’ve got to like you, got to. You understand? You can’t fall down, you can’t ... you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!’
Warner Baxter’s Agincourt speech from the film 42nd Street is as near as most accounts, fictional or documentary, ever get to describing what it’s like to work in a theatre. Perhaps other professions are as ill-served, and journalists constantly complain about the poverty of fictional accounts of newspaper life (although I’ve never heard them complain about the enduring and improbable stereotype of the journalist-as-hero). Writers, directors and actors may be forgiven for misrepresenting the minutiae of the life of a journalist: they may not, after all, be lucky enough to observe the proprietor, the editor and the reporter, from life. But the one area of which they do have some direct knowledge – life beyond the stage door or on the studio floor – is not only invariably misrepresented, but is represented without any attempt to observe. Perhaps the reality is too dull. Or perhaps it’s impossible not to conspire in the fiction that life beyond the stage door is a combination of the Land of Oz, Dante’s Inferno and one of the more progressive orgies of Caligula. I once met a brigadier who asked me what I did for a living. ‘I work in the theatre,’ I said. ‘Mmmm ...,’ he murmured, his face creased with the effort of thought. ‘Mmmm ...,’ he murmured again, this time nodding with the certainty of a revealed truth: ‘Must be a lot of fucking.’
Working in the theatre can be intoxicating: a highly charged atmosphere, intense but carefully prescribed relationships, an air of sexuality, banter, fun. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. There is always a result: a triumph or a catastrophe. But rehearsing a play is a painstaking, slow and often tedious process. Or to be maddening: making a play work is mostly work and not much play. There is a Leavisite school of thought that would have one believe that rehearsals are a dogged, mirthless clinic conducted with the reverence reserved for Masonic inductions. Stephen Aaron’s Stage Fright, which anatomises the stages of rehearsal from the first day to the first night, from the point of view of a psychotherapist, endorses this impression.
Stage Fright is ostensibly about the phenomenon of chronic anxiety that afflicts most actors at some point in their career. In most cases, the anxiety is overcome, and is harnessed by the actor to help his performance; it gives an edge to it. In other cases, actors appear to be paralysed by fear, and become cataleptic, like rabbits caught in car headlights. A few years ago a well-known actor, who was opening in a play at the Aldwych Theatre, failed to return to the stage after the interval. His understudy took over, and he remained in his dressing-room, underneath a table, curled up like a baby. When Olivier was playing in The Master Builder he had a less severe attack, cited by Aaron:
My cue came, and on I went to that stage where I knew with grim certainty that I would not be capable of remaining more than a few minutes ... I took one pace forward and stopped abruptly. My voice had started to fade ... with a sickening feeling I realised that Noël was in front, and would ... write me off into a wasteland as he had Edith.
Dr Aaron argues that this is an ‘occupational hazard’ – in the sense, I imagine, that singers in heavy metal rock bands are prone to deafness, or boxers to brain damage. But in both these cases – the actor who cowered in his dressing-room, and the vertiginous Olivier – the stage fright was a symptom of a private disorder quite unconnected with the business of acting. In the first case, the actor’s wife had just left him and his retreat from the stage, his ‘stage fright’, was a public, conspicuous and dramatic way of drawing the wife’s attention to the misery she was causing him. And in Olivier’s case it was clearly a crisis of personality that had everything to do with his life offstage.
The book is an account of an artistic process in which the creative instrument is the actor, whose ‘primary tool is himself’, as Aaron puts it. He describes in considerable and often revealing detail the stages of growth of the ‘actor-as-instrument’, from the initial meeting with the director and text, to the compound relationship of actor, director and fellow actors (‘child, parent, siblings’), and finally to the departure of the director and the confrontation with the audience, with the consequent ‘traumatic anxiety attack’. Those who work in the theatre will recognise the substance, if not the form, of many of the observations, and will dispute as many more. ‘Just prior to performance an actor can get so frightened because he is about to engage in an act of exhibitionism in which he will display his genital beauty for approval. The actor is fearful that the audience will ridicule his genitals. He is exposed and risks subjecting himself to punishment for the crime of exhibitionism – namely, castration.’ One might just as well say that actors, like everyone else, are afraid of being thought inferior, of adverse judgments on their personality, person or professional ability. Actors who check their flies (something they invariably do) before making an entrance are not suffering from castration anxiety. They are seeking to avoid looking like idiots on stage.
Aaron cites the experience of wanting to go on rehearsing a play without opening it to an audience as a manifestation of ‘separation anxiety’: the wish ‘is based upon the actor’s memory of a time when he actually had the unlimited freedom to play while in the presence of an unintrusive mother. The actor understandably has a reluctance to leave his rehearsal home and meet the world.’ But to rehearse a good play with a company of good actors (and that means intelligent, witty, energetic and entertaining people) is to experience the rare phenomenon of being part of a successful social group sharing common aims, mutual respect and pleasure in each other’s company. It is a paradigm, rarely achieved outside these circumstances, of adult social life.
Despite a genuine admiration and sympathy for actors, Aaron underwrites the myth that actors are feckless, childish creatures to whom one may safely condescend. They are, after all, actors. It is true that ‘backstage behaviour has what psychologists might call a “regressive” character.’ But so, I think, has behaviour in the House of Commons, and possibly in the canteen at IBM. And, for all I know, at a conference of psychologists. Good actors are, so far as their craft is concerned, exacting, fastidious, self-aware and very hard-working. For most of this book one is overcome by an urge to find irony where none is intended. Much of my response might well be put down to an English suspicion of the translation of a familiar process into the language of American Freudian psychology. Allied to this I am suspicious of the application of any methodology, not excluding those of Stanislavsky and Brecht, to the process of rehearsing a play. The difference of outlook is dramatised for me by an actor I like and admire in spite of his epic consumption of alcohol. He was making a film in Israel, the only English actor in a cast of Americans. He was sitting in the hotel bar as the sun rose, accompanied by some local cronies and a bottle of vodka. Panting into the bar came two members of the cast, jogging at dawn. ‘Hi,’ they said. ‘Are you up to do your exercises?’ ‘I’m doing them,’ he said, raising his glass to the joggers.
Acting works by analogy. Actors look to themselves, and to their knowledge of the world, in order to bring to life the parts they are playing. It is not a mystical, though it is often a purely instinctual matter. It is difficult to describe, and there are fairly few descriptions of it – which is probably why Peter Hall’s Diaries are quoted as an authoritative source.
Stage Fright sensibly concludes that absence of the affliction tends to occur among those of limited talent. In other words, as David Belasco once put it, ‘I wouldn’t give a nickel for an actor who wasn’t nervous.’ This sensible conclusion comes as the coda to a cadenza of psychological speculation. And this is characteristic of the book: chapters are apt to conclude sensibly, with pithy and informative summaries. After a prolonged and largely impenetrable essay on the relationship between actor and director, for example, Aaron writes: ‘In short, the director tries to explain things when he, the actor, is able to hear them.’ He quotes a fellow psychologist as having discovered that ‘actors are people who have to expose themselves to anxiety in order to maintain their saneness.’ But it could equally be said that people are actors who have to expose themselves to anxiety, and that stage fright is only at its most conspicuous in the theatre.