The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In most reasonably large towns in the United States and Europe, you can find, on some important public square or street, a professional theater. And so, in various quiet neighborhoods in these towns, you can usually also find some rather quiet individuals, the actors who work regularly in that theater, individuals whose daily lives center around lawns and cars and cooking and shopping and occasionally the athletic events of children, but who surprisingly at night put on the robes of kings and wizards, witches and queens, and for their particular community temporarily embody the darkest needs and loftiest hopes of the human species.
The actor’s role in the community is quite unlike anyone else’s. Businessmen, for example, don’t take their clothes off or cry in front of strangers in the course of their work. Actors do.
Contrary to the popular misconception, the actor is not necessarily a specialist in imitating or portraying what he knows about other people. On the contrary, the actor may simply be a person who’s more willing than others to reveal some truths about himself. Interestingly, the actress who, in her own persona, may be gentle, shy, and socially awkward, someone whose hand trembles when pouring a cup of tea for a visiting friend, can convincingly portray an elegant, cruel aristocrat tossing off malicious epigrams in an eighteenth-century chocolate house.
On stage, her hand doesn’t shake when she pours the cup of chocolate, nor does she hesitate when passing along the vilest gossip about her closest friends. The actress’s next-door neighbors, who may not have had the chance to see her perform, might say that the person they know could never have been, under any circumstances, either elegant or cruel. But she knows the truth that in fact she could have been either or both, and when she plays her part, she’s simply showing the audience what she might have been, if she’d in fact been an aristocrat in a chocolate house in the eighteenth century.
We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.
Actors are treated as uncanny beings by non-actors because of the strange voyage into themselves that actors habitually make, traveling outside the small territory of traits that are seen by their daily acquaintances as “them.” Actors, in contrast, look at non-actors with a certain bewilderment, and secretly think: What an odd life those people lead! Doesn’t it get a bit—claustrophobic?
The Haircut Speaks
It’s commonly noted that we all come into the world naked. And at the beginning of each day, most of us find ourselves naked once again, in that strange suspended moment before we put on our clothes.
In various religions, priests put on their clothes quite solemnly, according to a ritual. Policemen, soldiers, janitors, and hotel maids get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, go to their locker rooms, remove their clothes, and get dressed again in their respective uniforms. The actor goes to the theater, goes to his dressing room, and puts on his costume. And as he does so, he remembers the character he’s going to play—how the character feels, how the character speaks. The actor, in costume, looks in the mirror, and it all comes back to him.