Aeschylus, James Dean, William Shatner, and Writing

When I was in college and majoring in theatre I had an opportunity to listen to a short clip of a very old recording of a performance of Oedpius Rex. When I say “very old” I mean the recording dated from just before the 1900s, and I was curious to hear what the performance what like. The actor, whose name I can’t remember, was apparently very highly regarded in his day, so it was a chance to hear one of the greats performing one of the classic works of theatre from a time that pre-dated the automobile.

The professor pressed the play button, and the room fell silent. Then we heard the first words of the actor’s soliloquy:

Yea, Oedipus, my sovereign lord and king

And we burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.

Imagine a sigh that starts at the very top of your vocal range and cascades down until it dips just below your normal speaking pitch. Now do it again, but speak “yea, Oedipus, my sovereign lord and king” while you do it. That’s what we heard, and it sounded ridiculous. We all walked out of the classroom that day thinking how happy we were that acting had evolved to its higher state, and felt pity that audiences in that time period were stuck with such poor notions of what acting really was.

We were wrong, of course, but that seems to be the natural opinion of anyone in the modern age looking at any kind of art: we have the idea that art evolves and gets better over history, that we cast aside primitive notions of what is good as we discover better, more refined notions of what is good, and that as a whole the art gets better. This idea, by and large, is a load of crap.

It’s not that there is no change in art, no evolution, or discovery, or improvement. All of these things happen—technology improves that makes the presentation of art easier. Techniques improved and are refined to make some of the artist’s tools and skills easier to hone. But what also happens is that artists become restless with what other people have already done and try to find new ways to do things… and if they succeed, they like to encourage the conceit that their success is proof that the “old ways” had no value, and if their new ways become commonplace then people forget what the “old ways” were even for.

There was, once upon a time in the world of acting, an idea that classical plays were poetry set to action, and the performers in the play devoted their time to highlighting and accentuating the poetry of the words. There were, at one time, books published demonstrating specific gestures and stances that should be used during specific phrases in order to add extra weight to a passage. In other words, at one point in time acting was less natural and more ritual. More ceremonial and less ad hoc. And audiences would sit down and experience it and think it was brilliant.

“Because they didn’t know any better,” some might say. To which I would respond “because they knew what they were looking at.”

Which is why, in that classroom, when we heard a famous passage from a famous play recited by a then-famous actor, we burst into laughter. We didn’t know what we were “looking at.”

Being able to put something into its proper context is an important part of appreciating any kind of art. If you are incapable of putting any work into a frame of reference that makes it comprehensible, you’re going to hate it. Or find it ridiculous, or even embarrassing. And the context that we were missing from this performance of Oedipus Rex was that the guy was, to a certain extent, singing a song to the audience, and the audience was expecting that. He was making choices with language that heightened poetry rather than reality, and it worked, in its time, because the audience accepted that as a valid choice.

It was, at that time, in vogue.

“In vogue” sounds like a shallow way to describe it, and it’s unfortunate to a certain extent that in these modern times we either critically accept or uniformly reject something on the grounds that it’s popular. Popularity, from a perspective of art, can be very convenient—it provides a common reference point that everyone can start from, and then move away from, together. Popularity is a two-edged sword, however, because tastes change over time, and what is popular now is often very unpopular later.

This happens in art as well. The problem with art is that people who like a style that is currently popular will often assume it is popular because of a timeless quality, rather than because it’s tapping into a modern preference, and they assume that because specific choices are good now they will always be good.

You can look at the history of modern theatre and see that this isn’t the case. Specifically, “Method acting” or “The Method.”

The Method is what Lee Strasberg called a process used by actors to try to portray a role as realistically as possible, with genuine emotional depth. It was based on the work of Constantin Stanislavsky, who birthed the movement, and was a reaction against a completely different style of acting that was popular at the time. At the time, the popular method of acting was very external—the plays would be primarily witty and urbane, the dialogue would be clever and fast, and the performance would focus on a specific rhythm that you can see in a number of old Hollywood movies featuring actors like Cary Gant, Clark Gable, and David Niven. It was described by its critics as shallow acting, because it focused on the externalities of the performance, on keeping the show moving, on hitting the rhythms of the conversation—it was, in its own way, a form of ceremonial storytelling just as much as that performance of Oedipus Rex I remember so well.

With The Method, actors tried to discard all that. Instead, they thought about what was happening to the character, what would motivate the character to do what he or she did, then tried to make connections between that character and actual experiences the actor had in order to generate and display an emotion that would genuinely represent what was going on internally.

One of the most famous actors from that era was James Dean.

Cast aside the rebellious, iconic image of James Dean for a moment in order to understand what I mean—James Dean was considered one of the greatest actors of his era, and his death was considered a tragedy to members of his profession not because they’d lost a cultural icon, but because they’d lost a person who was really good at his job. What I’m trying to say is that when people saw James Dean perform, they saw him as a champion of realism in his performances.

If you ever have a chance to see Rebel Without a Cause, keep that in mind, because you’ll be in danger of laughing out loud. By today’s standards, Dean’s performance is utterly, ridiculously over the top. It’s big, it’s grandiose, the emotions in the “tearing me apart” scene are ridiculously out of proportion to what’s going on. It can even feel uncomfortable to watch.

But, and this is important, Dean is not being a “bad actor.” He’s being a daringly unconventional actor for his time, and he’s reaching into himself to try to bring out emotions in a medium and at a time when the common style focused on a certain form and arms-length style of performance that went in a completely different direction.

Also, keep in mind, that the actors who represented the style that The Method was rebelling against were not being “bad actors.” They were working very hard at adopting a style and set of skills that made a specific set of decisions about “how a performance should go” work as smoothly and effectively as possible. They are a different set of skills, but no less difficult to develop. But to the new method actors, the old guard were “bad actors.” They weren’t being authentic. And eventually people decided they liked this method acting thing, and the older style fell out of favor, and the older actors became “bad actors” in the popular opinion of the arts.

Enter William Shatner.

Shatner and Dean were contemporaries. They were even born in the same year—1931. They were both students of The Method. If you look at performances of Dean and performances of Shatner from the same period, you’ll find they were doing essentially the same things. And before Shatner came to Star Trek he was considered a “serious broadway actor,” and when he signed on to Star Trek it was considered a coup because that status lent the show a certain level of dramatic legitimacy.

And he continued being thought of as a serious actor… until he wasn’t. Until the style changed again and he didn’t change with it.

Because the style did change. Look at Rebel Without a Cause, look at the performances in there, and look at a performance of Law & Order. In Rebel Without a Cause, emotions are BIG (at least in Dean’s case). They are dragged out of a person and thrown out into the camera for all to see. Similarly with Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire: we laugh at him ripping his shirt and shouting “Stella!” now but it was something raw and uncontrolled at the time because people just didn’t show that level of emotion in performances then. In Law & Order, everything is small. Emotions aren’t so much conveyed as they are hinted at, there are very few speeches that could be considered soliloquies (except for some summations). The back and forth between characters may contain incomplete sentences, and sometimes the response will be just a tiny, tiny nod. That’s the way acting changed from 1950 to 1990, and Shatner didn’t really evolve with it. His… halting! Way… of… speaking! is now fodder for dated comedians. Bad actor? No, and it’s unfair to call him one, but that’s the way it goes. Tastes change, preferences change, and if you can’t adapt then you get discarded. (Although it should be noted that Shatner has, in fact, managed to adapt in recent times—quite brilliantly, I should add—and has experienced a resurgence of popularity as a result.)

You might be wondering, after 1700 words, exactly what this has to do with writing.

Simply this: all art experiences this, and writing is no different. Read an old but beloved book and see exactly how many “rules” of writing are broken. How passive is the voice? How infodumpy is it? How much does it tell rather than show? How purple is the prose?

Now ask yourself why this is. Is it because we’ve evolved as writers, and the modern writer, thanks to our advances in the understanding of language and the arts, is inherently superior? Maybe. On the other hand, it may be that the audience each writer was writing for was different, had different tastes and expectations, and that what they were doing was, at that time, very modern and fashionable.

In other words, what we writers are taking for granted as the proper rules of writing are not immutable—they are influenced by preference and context and whim.

There will come a day in the future when students of acting will look at a performance of Law & Order and laugh because “all the actors do is stand there, reciting lines.” They will be called wooden and dull and will be mocked, because the actors are working hard at keeping everything as minimalistic and natural as possible. But at that point in the future the tastes will have turned to something else—perhaps something grandiose, or stylized and ceremonial.

There will come a day in the future when well-meaning teachers tell writing students to focus more on telling instead of showing, because showing is cheap and vulgar and is a shortcut to conveying emotion… when what really happened is that keeping an audience at arm’s length from a character has become the popular thing to do, and audiences decide they like it. There will probably come a day in the future when what is considered “purple prose” now is used as a standard for the bare minimum of what an author needs to write in order to be “adequately descriptive.”

I am positive that both of the above things will happen, someday. Tastes change. Some day audiences will decide they want something out of their stories that require a different set of skills than what are used to produce the stories now. Perhaps they will want stories that have a more formalized, storytelling feel to them—that might lead to telling becoming more important than showing. Perhaps they will want stories that evoke the feel of poetry—that may give the resulting works a distinctly more purple hue. Just like the transition from urbane, witty plays to more naturalistic, emotion-driven plays, if an audience decides they want another kind of story it will mean adopting another set of tools, or at least re-weighting the importance of some of the tools you already have.

Be prepared to adapt. Know when to show. Know when to tell. Know when the passive voice can be your friend, and when it is your enemy. Choose the right tool for the right story… and when the rules change, don’t be taken by surprise.

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