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The Philosophy of the Actor

An Actor’s Life for Me

The Fox
The Fox

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts – William Shakespeare

In Disney’s Pinocchio, the song “An actor’s life for me” is sung by the fox, luring Pinocchio into the realm of suspended belief and hedonistic living. It is the dark call to adventure, that seeks to tempt Pinocchio away from going to school and working hard towards the prospect of a life of luxury and entertainment that awaits him in show business.

Eventually, Pinocchio will come to know that such a life is a fantasy. Like Pinocchio, most of us are tempted to look for shortcuts, but the children story’s moral lesson, is that we should fight this temptation, for it will only lead us to a temporary but ultimately empty experience of life, where have assumed many roles and identities but never our own.

Don’t be a Bad Actor

In his book, The 48 Laws of Power, Greene has a chapter named “Re-create Yourself.” In it, he explains how we are all actors. Society and our upbringing has imposed fixed roles on us, and it is up to us to either accept these roles or rebel against them and construct our own authentic identity.

There is no use trying to hide from wanting to be an actor, since any persona we choose to display to the public is an act.

What differentiates the powerful from the weak, is that the weak assume whatever role is assigned to them without question and are often bad actors – being too dramatic or too predictable. Whereas the powerful creatively craft their own personas, and unabashedly display it to the world, even going so far as shifting their identities when the occasion calls for it. The powerful refuse to accept the status quo that predestines them to misery. They will always use the Promethean fire within them to navigate away from the undesirable situation they find themselves in.

Do not people talk in society of a man being a great actor? They do not mean by that that he feels, but that he excels in simulating, though he feels nothing.

Denis Diderot, 1713-1784

Greene’s point is that being authentic is often a luxury. There are situations that require you to be inauthentic, but what is important is to maintain the perception of authenticity. It is normal and part of human nature to experiment with personas that are not truest to you. But the biggest error you can commit is to play your part badly.

Perhaps the reason why being authentic is so compelling and recommended is because it is the best defense against being perceived as a fraud. If you act in a way that is congruent with your inner nature, it is easier for you to sustain this act for a long time, and thus appear more authentic to people. This will not only make people respect you more, and yield important practical benefits, but concretizing your identity in this way will make you feel more at ease with yourself. Rare is the person who is comfortable with constantly switching identities.

An Actor’s Absurd Life

Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus has an interesting take on the life of an actor. He starts with an apparent paradox. The typical person is fascinated with himself and with his potentialities, which draws him to movies and theater. At the same time, he is uncomfortable with facing his conscience, and with getting to know himself deeply. A self-fascination is contrasted with a repulsion with oneself. And then Camus tells us about the thoughtless man, who is constantly hurrying from one stage to the next, filled with hope, but ultimately not reflective.

“Of all kinds of fame the least deceptive is the one that is lived.” – Albert Camus

Thus, enters the absurd man, who goes beyond admiring the play, or the poetry contained within, but chooses to enter the lives they see in theater and experience them all. This is what the actor does. This isn’t to say that all actors are absurd, but that their fate is an absurd fate. Actors live in the realm of the fleeting, and it is the actor’s fame that is the most ephemeral, although it can be said that all forms of art are ephemeral.

“By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. Like him, he drains something and is constantly on the move. He is a traveler in time and, for the best, the hunted traveler, pursued by souls. If ever the ethics of quantity could find sustenance, it is indeed on that strange stage.” – Albert Camus

The actor has chosen to experience the fame that is characterized by multiplicity rather than authenticity, quantity rather than quality, and extensity rather than intensity. But an actor will either succeed or not (think of the countless actors who never made it), while the writer has some hope even if he is not immediately appreciated. His works will convey something deep about himself, whereas the actor will leave us with pictures of himself, but nothing of who he truly was.

“Occasionally when reaching for his glass he resumes Hamlet’s gesture of raising his cup. No, the distance separating him from the creatures into whom he infuses life is not so great. He abundantly illustrates every month or every day that so suggestive truth that there is no frontier between what a man wants to be and what he is. Always concerned with better representing, he demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being.” – Albert Camus

To be an actor, means to be formless. What Greene recommends we do in “The 48 Laws of Power” is to apply the actor’s philosophy in real life. Instead of trying to reflect on our internal nature, it is better to assume whatever role will yield the best results. The roles we take are dictated by the effects we crave. But there is something lacking in that philosophy. The dilemma is between authenticity and pragmatism. The politician is an actor, the same way a wrestler or musical celebrity is an actor, but by constantly trying out new forms, like Camus’ traveler, they have no form of their own.

Contrast this with Camus’ take on Dostoevsky who is defined by his works more than his works are defined by him, because they reflect a deeper inner truth. And in life, you will have to choose to live somewhere on the spectrum between authenticity and deception, and this decision will affect to what extent you grow to know yourself, get what you want, and how you will be remembered.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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