Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
The Actor — Introduction
Camus wrote Le Mythe de Sisyphe from which the following essay is taken at about the same time as his novel L'Etranger (The Outsider), well-known to English readers. Outsider told the story of the man condemned to death; Le Mythe de Sisyphe (never translated) the theory of the man condemned to death—his passionate regarding of the world, his revolt against the ordinary life, and his deepest freedom which is the freedom of hope. This is the actor, whose character is drawn in this essay. In a later play (also translated) Camus has shown Caligula who has power over the lives of millions and considered their life and death a matter of complete indifference.' Caligula is in a way the apotheosis of the Actor.
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'The play's the thing wherein I catch the conscience of the King,' so speaks Hamlet. Catch is the right word. For conscience moves fast or withdraws. It must be caught in full flight—at that barely noticeable spot where it looks at itself with a hunted glance. The average man does not like slowness. Everything makes him hurry. At the same time nothing interests him so much as his own person, and especially his possible destiny. Hence his taste for the theatre, for the play, where so many destinies are suggested to him of which he takes in the poetry without suffering the bitterness. There at any rate we find unconscious man and he is always pressing on towards some hope. The absurd man begins where this other man ends, where ceasing to admire the game, the spirit wishes to enter into it. To penetrate into all these lives, to experience them in their diversity—that indeed is truly to act them. I do not say that the generality of actors answer this call, nor that they are absurd men, but that their destinies are absurd destinies which mig htseduce and attract a penetrating spirit. It is necessary to suppose this so as not to misunderstand what follows.
The actor reigns in the transitory world. By common consent his is the most ephemeral of glories. At any rate we can say so in conversation; but all glories are ephemeral. From the viewpoint of Sirius, the works of Goethe will be dust in a thousand years' time and his work forgotten. Some archaeologists will perhaps be looking for monuments of our era. This idea has always been instructive. If carefully considered it reduces our agitations to the profound nobility which is found in indifference. Most of all, it directs our pre-occupations towards what is most certain, that is to say, towards the immediate. The least capricious of glories is that which is lived.
The actor, then, has chosen a countless glory, the one that crowns and is experienced. It is he who draws the best conclusion from the fact that we are doomed to die one day. An actor either has success or not. A writer retains hope even if neglected. He supposes his work will bear witness of what he has been. The actor, at best, will leave us a photograph, but nothing of what he was, his gestures and his silences, his short breathing and his love sigh will come down to us. For him to be unknown is not to act and not to act is to die a hundred times with all the beings he might have animated or revived.
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Yet, is it astonishing to find a transient glory founded on the most ephemeral creations? The actor has three hours to be Iago or Alceste, Phedre of Gloucester. In that brief span he makes them spring to life and die, on fifty square meters of stage. No better or more persistent example of absurdity was ever found. Splendid lives, and those unique complete destinies growing and ending between walls and for a few hours are the most re-vealing shortcut. Once off the stage, Sisig-mond is no longer anything. Two hours later he can be seen dining in town. It is perhaps then that life is a dream. But after Sisig-mond comes another. The hero suffering from uncertainty follows the one who clamours for revenge. In order thus to pass through spirits and centuries, in order to imitiate man as he can be and as he is, the actor approaches that other absurd character, the traveller. He is the traveller of time, and in the case of the best, the hunted traveller of souls. If there is any support for the ethics of quantity it lies in the singular phenomenon of the stage.
To what extent the actor profits from his characters is difficult to say. That, however, page 11 is not the question. The problem is only to know in how far he identifies himself with these irreplacable lives. It happens indeed that he carries them along with him, that there is a slight overflow from the time and space where they were born. They accompany the actor, he no longer separates himself very easily from what he has been. It happens that in taking up his glass the gesture of Hamlet raising his cup comes back to him. No, the distance separating him from the beings he brings to life is not so large. He then exemplifies, every month or every day, the valuable truth that there is no frontier between man's desired and real existence. He shows, by always pursuing better performance, in how far appearance creates reality. For his art is precisely that: to make the absolute pretence, to enter as deeply as possible into lives which are not his own. At the goal of his effort his vocation becomes clear, to try with all his heart to be either nobody at all or several people. He has been given narrower limits within which to create his character and he has greater need of talent. In three hours he will die in the shape that was his to-day. In three hours he has to experience and express an entire exceptional destiny. That is called losing oneself to find oneself again. In those three hours he goes to the end of the dead alley which the man in the stalls takes a lifetime to travel through.
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As imitator of the transient he only studies and seeks perfection in appearances. It is dramatic convention that the heart cannot be expressed or made understood except through gestures and by the body—or by the voice which has as much body in it as soul. The rule of the art is that everything should be made big and translated into flesh. If we had to make love on the stage, or use the inimitable voice of the heart or gaze, as in real life, we would be speaking in a secret language. Here silences have to be heard. Love raises the tone and even remaining motionless becomes a spectacular thing. The body rules. It is not given to all to be 'theatrical' and that wrongly maligned word hides a whole system of esthetics and of ethics too.
One half of the life of man is spent in divining an implication, turning away and being silent. Here the actor is the intruder. He unweaves the spell from the subdued soul and the passions at last burst forth. They speak in every gesture, they only live in cries. Thus the actor composes his characters for the parade. He draws or sculpts them, wraps himself in their imagined shape and gives his blood to their shades. I refer to tragedy, naturally, where the actor has the opportunity to fulfil his entirely physical destiny. Shakespeare is an example. In his drama the body's rage leads the dance from the first movement. It explains everything. Without that rage, all would collapse. King Lear would never have his meeting with insanity if he had not made the savage gesture by which Cordelia is exiled and Edgar condemned. It is right that this tragedy should develop under the sign of madness. The souls are thrown to the devils and their saraband. No less than four fools, one by profession, another by choice and two through agony, four disordered bodies, four unspeakable forms of the same condition.
Even the range of the human body is insufficient. Mask and buskin, make-up which obscures the essentials of the face, or brings them out, the exaggerations or understatements of costume belong to a world which sacrifices all for appearance and is made only for the eye. By an absurd miracle the body again makes us understand. I would never understand Iago well unless I were to play his part. I may listen to him as much as I like, yet never grasp him except at the moment of seeing him. Consequently the actor has the absurd personality's monotony, the unique deadening silhouette both strange and familiar which he carries through all his heroes. Again, great drama encourages that unity of tone* There is the actor's contradiction: he is the same and yet so varied, so many souls taken up by a single body. This individual who wishes to reach and live everything, this vain effort and pointless persistency is the absurd contradiction itself.
Yet the eternal contradiction is united in him. He is where body and soul join and embrace, where the latter tired of its de page 12 feat returns to its most trusted ally. 'Bless'd are those', says Hamlet, 'whose blood and judgment are so well commingled That they are not a pipe for Fortunte's finger To sound what stop she please.'
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Could the Church have failed to condemn such a pursuit in the actor. She rejected in that art the heretical multiplication of souls, the perversion of the emotions, the preposterous claim of a spirit refusing to live but one destiny and flinging itself into every excess. She proscribed in actors their taste for the present time and their Protean triumph, which both are negations of her teachings. Eternity is not a game. The madman who throws it away for a drama has lost his salvation. Between 'everywhere' and 'always' there can be no compromise. Hence this underestimated profession can provide a spiritual conflict disproportionately large. 'What matters,' says Nietzsche, 'is not everlasting life but everlasting liveliness.' Drama, indeed, lies entirely in this choice.
Adrienne Lecouvreur, on her deathbed, desired to be shriven and to communicate, but she refused to forswear her profession. She thereby lost the benefit of confession. What did this mean if not to take the side of her inward passion against God? And this woman in her death-struggle refusing in tears to renounce what she called her art showed a greatness she never reached before the footlights. To choose between heaven and a laughable loyalty, between preferring oneself to eternity and giving all to God is a secular tragedy in which we choose sides.
The actors of the period knew they were excommunicated. Entering the profession meant choosing Hell. And the Church recognised in them her worst enemies. Some literary gentlemen are indignant about it: 'What? Refuse Moliere the last rites?' But that was proper, especially for Moliere who died on the stage and ended with make-up on his face a life entirely dedicated to dissipation. For his benefit people argue that genius excuses all. But genius excuses nothing, for the very reason that it does not give in.
The actor, then, knew the promised retribution. But what sense could such vague threats have in comparison with the last punishment life itself had in store for him? It was the latter he had experienced in advance and accepted in its entirety. For the actor, as for the absurd man, a premature death is irreparable. Nothing can compensate for the number of shapes and centuries he would otherwise have passed through. But in all cases it is a question of dying. For the actor is no doubt everywhere, but time dogs him too and leaves his mark on him.
A little imagination is enough to feel then what the actor's destiny means. He shapes and puts together his characters in Time. He learns to master them in Time. The more different lives he has lived, the better he separates himself from them. The time comes when he must die to the stage and to the world. What he has lived stands before him. He sees clearly. He feels the pain and loss in this adventure. Now he can die. There are homes for old actors.
(Translation: E. Schwimmer.)