A Grammar of Acting

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A Speech of Parts – the Language of an inspired Actor

If theatre is a language, it could conceivably have a stable grammar and strict grammatical rules. But languages evolve, and we who grew up speaking them as our mother tongue are rarely dependent upon an objective understanding of the rules to be functionally literate. Grammar reigns in the realm of the subconscious; in practice, while paying subliminal lip‑service to convention, we would never ascribe these conventions a pre-determining role. Our human creativity is dependent upon rule-breaking, upon tugging and twisting at convention to shape new and unique linguistic constructions.

This paper is non-scientific. It is perhaps no more than an indulgent exploration of word-play. However, the why of why one might make such an exploration, can easily be given a scientific or at least pseudo-scientific rationale. We will here  illuminate the role of the actor, and the perceived role of the actor, through using the terminology of grammar. I will propose that at various occasions there exists a Theatre of the Noun, an Adverbial Theatre, a Verbal Method; I will make a case for a Theatre of the Preposition – and I will speculate as to if any of us are engaged in anything akin to a preverbal, subconscious theatre that must have been our collective pre-language starting point.

I likely risk considerable interjection along the way, but this is a desirable byproduct and by no little co-incidence this linguo-wandering will also serve as a working demonstration of the tools and tactics of the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda. And so we have already arrived at our first tangent. To be brief – the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda champions “issue illumination without inflammation”.  We offer practical theatrical applications based upon studies in non-confrontational therapy, and seek to be a non-allergenic agent for those who for some reason may wish to turn to the theatre as a solution to all their problems. Our approach is not solely mechanical and we stubbornly refuse to abandon Art. In a world where aesthetics habitually yield for politics, we insist upon the necessity of being Poetically Correct.


A central tool of the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda is applied metaphor. This is nothing revolutionary or new; another well-worn example of applied metaphor is theatrical fiction, for example ­- the play. But ’non-toxically’ applied metaphor requires a transparency; an exposed consciousness that undermines fiction. The strategy must be routinely exposed. So, while we gladly admit to using metaphor in a search for truths, everyone is to recognise our ‘propagandic’ as unabashed metaphor bashing; we would never confuse our creations with a re-creation of the truth. Behind the much theatrical waving of elbows, everyone is also to recognise the active element of our fanaticism as we squeeze every last drop of inspiration from the battered corpse of our metaphor. And while this fanatical squeezing itself may appear scientifically rigorous, please note that before we even begin, our approach is built upon an intellectual slight-of-hand:  the entire project is based upon an unverifiable observation — the artistic selection of our metaphor is a highly subjective act. And so your entering into our non-toxic world requires an act of faith. – an acceptance of this grammatic Propaganda as one of many truths.

Your act of faith today, has already begun ­­— I already have you listening, listening as if I have something to say — something interesting even. If I am sufficiently clever, once begun, you shan’t be allowed to come up for air, and as such, all methodology may prove subservient to the vigour of my application. In other words, I warn you, the velocity of my elbow waving may easily seduce some of you. An additional warning ­- our illustrative romp is essentially that of an auto‑vore = one who eats one’s own imagery in order to distil further images. As the not-really-so-great slogan of our Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda movement says :
If you turn a truth up-side-down and shake it, another equal or greater truth may fall out. As honorary non-toxians, you are herewith invited to shake along with me…



We’ll begin our linguistic wrestling match on the subject of the Grammar of Acting, soon, but first two confessions. One is definitely non-nasty: there is a catch in selecting the metaphor in question – the metaphor of language. The metaphor of language seems a universal experience; anyone with the schooling required to monitor this paper will be armed with the intellectual tools to participate. However there is a clear pit-fall — linguocentrism. I am personally seriously handicapped by my Indo-European bias and the grammatical constraints of : noun, verb, conjunction etc. that I am trapped within. I am not a scholar of comparative grammar. I am nominally bilingual, but both my functional languages belong to the same branch of the Indo-European language tree. Indeed they are so close to each other as to mutually create more of a blurring of my vision, than to provide effective points of triangulation. It strikes me that many of us may be in the same boat. My spies tell me that there exist some six thousand languages. Thus, as sure as there must be life in outer space, the different evolutionary paths that these languages have taken must have been compounded through of a myriad of logics, and therefore they possess cultural constructions that defy the Indo-european bias and grammatical constraints of : noun, adverb, preposition etc. As part of this elaborate attempt to show that I’ve nothing up my sleeves; I hereby make an unconditional apology to those who are fortunate to possess an alternative thought-pattern, and who will be progressively growling as my generalisations pile up here on the floor before us. Never the less, I will be so bold as to proceed down my chosen non-universal path of: noun, adjective, preposition etc., because shaking (mining) the metaphor in question can prove seriously illuminating. Again, I choose to continue as if I didn’t know that real linguists actually exist, not because I’m not a scientist, but because I am an actor. I hope you will be so kind as to follow me.


The quick and alert among you are now sitting here and waiting for a treat. I promised just now, two confessions. You got the non-nasty one, it is now time for the non-non-nasty one – I don’t believe in Theatre Historians. I am sorry to have to say this, of course I am an understanding being (some of my best friends are theatre historians); but because my antagonism is profoundly seated in childhood trauma, I think it wise to delve into the deeper reaches of my prejudice before beginning.

To make matters worse, I was raised of all things – a Canadian. Canadians are, or at least were, our own brand of anti-intellectuals. For us this is an understandable extension of our anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist defensiveness. Nowhere perhaps was this more evident and/or more understandable than in the theatre. The anti-colonial Francophones had a relatively accessible solution – no one understood their dialect; they could turn their backs until the rest of the world decided to pay them attention. Anglophonic Canadians had it more difficult, no one even admitted that we possessed a dialect, and as ‘prime export market’ we were stationary targets in the sights of several mighty nations. We had to sail between the Scylla of English self-proclaimed genius and the Charybdis of American we-know-best-how. The Canadian position became one of polite chronic intransigence – “No thank you, we’ll do it ourselves”.

Raised in this culture of anti-intellectual wheel re-inventors, imagine the inherent animosity upon meeting one’s first theatre historian. My personal first-meeting was even worse. A regime shift at the prestigious Theatre Academy, which I as a student blessed with my attendance, had brought about a reform. Without consultation, it was deemed appropriate that actors, who up until then had been told we were apprentice labourers at a trade school, should know something about the what-has-gone-before : ‘some Theatre History wouldn’t hurt ‘em.’ To this day I suspect that this was pure nepotism; someone’s good friend needed a job. But to add injury to insult, the economic refugee in question was, of all things, an American. We didn’t get off on the best foot.

Now, some of you may have pedagogical experience, you might be old hands at it; we acknowledge that it isn’t easy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the young lad, recruited to lead unwilling horses to the water of theatrical history, was a neophyte getting his first shot at lecturing. Perhaps more wrapped up in getting through pages of notes than in the portent of the meeting between two cultures, the poor fellow bravely, though in retrospect unwisely, opened with a risky pedagogical gambit – the nefarious Open Question: ”What was the First Theatre ?”

Like many of us here today I began my career as a promising, though perhaps obnoxious, youth. This First Theatre question piqued my philosophical bent. Conjuring up visions of a primordial campfire, I ventured a typically Canadian improvised anecdote from the world of Zog –our collective DNA-donor. I suggested that one prehistoric evening, Zog the caveman slipped on the smooth ground surrounding his tribal fire and fell off his log. Why, his comrades then unleashed a uniquely human barrage of rhythmic guttural paroxysms, I’ll leave to neuro-philosophers, but subsequent civilisations have identified their response as ‑ mirth denoting laughter. My youthful proposition was that the first theatre occurred the very next evening, when Zog, enticed by memory of this laughter, intentionally slipped in the self-same mud and off his self-same log. I was quite pleased with my vision of the first actor, but I was unfortunately mistaken. Our pained young theatre historian was quick to set me straight: ”No, Bembo, it was the Greeks.”

Since this traumatic experience, I’ve struggled with a polarised view – Theatre Historians are short-sighted caryatids supporting some sanctified museum, while we philosophical theatre practitioners know only too well – that, as did Zog, each individual bears his or her own theatre history to the grave.

With time and maturity, I have of course widened my frame of reference. In some ways, the lecturer at the National Theatre School of Canada was operating within a necessary constraint. It is aesthetically unpleasing if the primordial theatre communication should prove equal to the first cheap laugh; that the first theatre coincided with the first pratfall. Theatre might just fulfil a more noble human function.


And so back to our Grammar of Acting. We are going to use a metaphorical exploration of a perceived evolution of language ( in the Indo-european grammatical idiom ) to cross-illuminate the evolution of the actor’s role and the conscious self-perception of that role. However, a history of consciousness is at least as illusive as a history of theatre. The dawn of human activities such as speaking and/or shamanist ritual cannot be presumed to have occurred in the presence of so conniving or artistically orientated a creature as Our Zog. So, while I admit it is very tempting, and infinitely tidier, to begin with something verifiable (like the Greeks); as an act of penance for my youthful hubris, it is well worth asking this question anew: what indeed was the First Theatre ? and what was the first Language ? Which came first ?

We best try to begin before the beginning. We have to explore if there can be such a thing as pre-verbal, non-conscious theatre. To pursue this hypothetical pre-verbal non-conscious theatre, I’ll lean, all too briefly, upon another perhaps unscientific study. In Bruce Chatwin’s book : SONGLINES, he turns to the oldest know human civilisation, the people who migrated to the shores of Australia some 50,000 years ago. By observing the content of their cultural practices, Chatwin illustrates how human culture demonstratively predates human language. To boil his book down into four sentences: at the time of the European invasion there were approximately 80 distinct tribal languages on the Australian continent. While their languages were mutually unintelligible, neighbouring tribes often shared a common mythology and a common preservation of this mythology in song. These Songlines were onomatopoeic descriptions of a vitally important map of food sources as created by the giant totem animal ancestors. Chatwin argues convincingly, that that which would now be designated cultural activity, must therefore have predated language ( or at least words and grammar.) Meaningful song and dance preceded words and perhaps philosophy.

So let us return to Zog and let him and the Woolly Shamans represent the first theatre. Accepting as we do so, that they and their work existed before speech had evolved from meaningful ritual practice. Is it therefore right to say that this was therefore also before many of the elements of consciousness existed ? The answer to the question: What did they think they were doing, probably cannot be separated from the fact of what they were doing. The Shaman’s work was the fetching of souls – flying in a trance to bring back the spirits of the dead. It must be assumed that that is what they indeed did, independent of the presence or absence of self-consciousness. However, while they knew what they did and perhaps why they did it; it is difficult to imagine that a request for a pronouncement, with the same or similar certainty, as to why they thought they did it, would illicit anything more than a puzzled stare. Similarly, since we cannot explore the first consciousness about acting directly, we cannot pronounce upon whether or not, prior to language, there was an aesthetic of a good or bad art of communing with the spirit world. In a word, without words, we are helplessly lost.


And so, it is finally safe to address the Grammar of Acting as an exploration into the role and the perceived role of acting. What have actor’s through the ages thought they were doing; and what do we modern actors think we are doing ? Our task today is to superimpose our understanding of the relatively self-evident development of language, and its agreed upon grammatical classifications and functions, upon our understanding of the development of the less self-evident consciousness of the acting profession: that, by making this metaphorical projection, we can ascribe qualities to Noun Acting and Verb Acting, Adverb Acting and Preposition Acting. Thus, the functions of the parts of speech become, as it were, a speech of the parts.


Language is built of words, words carry meaning. Some words are tangible, others more abstract. We have thing words, action words, attribute words, words of relation, emphatic and demonstrative words, we have short cuts and generalisations. The evolution of a language is the development of these refinements through an endless precision of intent. A growing list of identifiable phenomena became steadily augmented through human invention. Substances acquired noun names, the possibility of change and movement evolved verb names, an indefinite article demanded the definite article. It was and remains a fascinating process, and while tens of thousands of years of genial human creativity are recorded reflexively in the complexity of human speech itself, the earliest stages challenge (and may defy) the imagination. Many of us may feel profound disappointment at not having been first hand witnesses. Had we been such witnesses, it is infinitely probable that we would have observed that some linguistic functions came first, that language developed in a hierarchy of tangibility. Nouns seem to have preceded adjectives, verbs must have preceded adverbs, idiom is reliant upon the idiosyncratic application of prepositions. I propose that the evolution of the actor’s consciousness proceeded upon similar lines.

However, the genesis of both language and theatre is such that this deep past can only be approached through interpolation. In all practical terms, the existence of pre-verbal non-conscious total theatre, defies my tidy little grammatical model to such a degree that it is safer to temporarily hop over our collective Shamanist past. Nothing seems primitive enough. To bring forth Punch and Judy as artistically backward, or claim that the Gimi Festival of Stone Age Theatre1 is child’s play, belies the advanced social sensitivity these ‘primitives’ display to their audience. So ( with apologies to my younger self ) we’ll start our journey into an actor’s consciousness somewhere in the vicinity of the hegemony of the goddamned Greeks.


Clearly, history beginning concurrent to its documentation is too convenient to be of co‑incidence. It is patently absurd to put a so‑sophisticated Aristophanic comedy on a plinth to represent the starting point for the world of theatre. But let us hammer this square peg into its round hole, to create a point of reference. It may be rather an unsavoury act, requiring considerable chiselling, all for the sake of acquiring some primitive qualities or some qualities of the primitive for our starting point. Are we willing to ascribe the actor’s perception of their role as somehow unsophisticated ( honed as it was in the very presence of the Sophists themselves )? Amidst the verbosity of multi-level gymnastic word-play and the crossfire of satyrical one‑liners, dare we degrade the performing classes to some kind of soulless oration machine, and accept Greek Drama as a glorified puppet theatre with actors as little more than wooden heads ? What did the masked Dionysian cavorting around the epicentre of some marble amphitheatre perceive his/his role to be ?

Self-depreciation has not always been the modus operandi of the acting profession, but if the Greek writers have persuaded us that theirs was a writers’ theatre, how did the contemporary actor’s actor ply his trade ? Humility was, for a time at least, a Greek virtue, so let us ascribe the actor’s perception of their role, not as that of some self-absorbed people’s hero bonehead, but as humble Servants of the Word: – I am the words that Aristophanes paid me to orate; the Actor as voice box – Larynx for Hire.

This Arcadian state may not have sustained itself for long, but picture our noble actor, refusing to be seduced by his growing social importance, and concerned solely with how to go about the practice of his craft. The masks were reportedly heavy, the character changes many, and there were all those choral intrusions. Just maybe, in our desperate need, we have found a stand-in for our Neolithic actor with a genuine tabula rasa mentality. Enter the players…


Paratheatre: Pagent of the Returning Hero
In march the Army, The People, the Vanquished, the Spoils, the Generals, Der Führer. This is Proper Noun Theatre where the order of the procession carries the plot and provides all the syntax the watcher might require. The actor stands forth as the thing in the rôle. In the Theatre of the Proper Noun — I re-present myself. There is no fiction.

Declamatory Amphitheatre: Tales of the Fate of Man
Enter the King, enter the Panting Messenger; the symbol of authority meets the representative of the common man. Role meets role. The actor plays the untransmutable THE. Bearing the weight of an archetypal masked force, he stands forth as the Voice of the societal function. This is also pure Noun Theatre. In the Theatre of the Definite Article — I play the Absolute Truth.

Fable as the indefinite article
As the political environment shifted, theatre works grew a little more offensive in their satire. If the actor had a consciousness, it may well have concerned surviving to play another day.2 A linguistic refinement became the necessary safety factor to differentiate between playing a noun, and playing the noun. Carrying the robes of a king could be dangerous if too many of the audience confused the character with the king. Definite Article Theatre became a Theatre of the Indefinite Article. As it was inappropriate to directly depict concrete potentates; a play of allegory emerged – fable substituted for reportage. The subject of the play became an object, with the actor adamantly maintaining that they played a universal symbol. In the Theatre of the Indefinite Article — I am a fabulous stand-in.

Theatre of the Collective Noun
The Morality Play gathered all and everyone. The plots were decreed by holy writ. The audience’s role was absolute; they were assembled sinners seeking redemption.3 In a pre‑adjective theatre, where personal attributes were not yet reflected in a definitive linguistic structure, Everyman’s individual qualities were conceived of as concrete forces that one met along ones way. The players represented themselves as subjects of the Divine Plan. The Seven Deadly Sins were not depicted through adjective modifiers that took possession of one such as gluttonous, covetous, lecherous, but personified in their own right as Lust, Avarice and Sloth. The actor risked being demonised and allowing him/ herself to be temporarily occupied my supernatural forces. In the Theatre of the Collective Noun — I do penance.

Imperative Acting – Carnival and the Public Party
Among the first linguistic forms that a toddler acquires is the imperative tense: want, give, help. In fact, this aspect of language is already mastered in a pre-verbal phase, where persuasive sound generally elicits the desired effect from the attendant parent. It isn’t subtle, but it is effective. Honourable theatre forms such as the circus, never found reason ( until perhaps recently) to go beyond this infantile ‘Look-at-me’ dramaturgy. And no wonder, the Theatre of the Imperative remains deeply emotionally satisfactory and compelling. We clap our hands in delight, and supply a chorus of primal ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. Nothing still packs in sell-out crowds all around the world, like the age-old imperative plot of: run, hit, score. Its ‘Look-at-me’ mode of accolade and hero-worship, inviting the assembled multitudes into an uniquely active role in the Theatre of the Possessive Pronoun – the actors, the team are MINE. In the Theatre of the Imperativethe actors ‘just do it’.

Interpretative Freedoms
The Dawn of Adjective Acting was perhaps a dramaturgical necessity. As all the good plots had been used up, it became desirable to clothe the great nouns with identifiable human traits. The devil became devilish, the hero heroic. Characters no longer fulfilled their fates, but struggled with them and became: the bad king, the good burgher, the jealous husband, the melancholy Dane. However, such human qualities weren’t playable in themselves. Modifying adjectives were temporary and negotiable states, as such they had to be acquired through intricacy of plot and action. The complex characters of Mad King and Maiden Betrayed demanded individual treatment. The Great Tragedians, alternating between mode heroic and heroic, made their name by being prolific ‘emotors. Though Hamlet’s advice to the Players – ‘forcing their souls so to their whole conceit’ ‑ suggests that the Adjectival Actor could take to the task of illustrating the words and adding colour to the text somewhat too liberally’.

But, which was the horse and which the cart of acting ‘technique’ and brilliant drama ? Did the versatile, literate acting troupe beget Shakespeare, or did the existence of Shakespearian prose demand the development of additional skills ? The more prosaic explanation that the advent of the printed page re-aligned the relationship between text appropriation and rehearsal function has probably much to say about the matter. Rhyme lost a major selling point. The demands of long-term memorisation no longer lulled the actor into a recital of reminiscences, but this new freedom allowed attention to detail and dynamics. Hyperbolic secondary clause could build upon hyperbolic secondary clause. In the Theatre of the Modifying Adjective — I play the poet.

Theatre of Excessive Verbage
Having acquired these rhetorical skills ( and some acoustically benign playhouses ) the actors became adroit at exercising them. We have been struggling with the vestiges ever since.  The Comedy of Manners, whether it be urbane Restoration comedies or the more open-market Commedia dell’Arte, seem to have developed through vast quantities of verbal histrionics. The actor’s task could easily become either that of Master of Declamatory Equilibrium –eloquently illustrating the visionary brilliance of the writer, or that of the vengeful populist subverting stories of the great and powerful through endless anarchistic word-play.
In the Theatre of the Subordinate Clause — I play the
bon mot.

The Theatre of Falsehood
The manifestation of these excessive Baroque qualities reached its pinnacle in the Grand Theatre of Adverbial Melodrama. The matter of the theatre had become as conventional as today’s soap opera; well‑worn nouns carrying out well-worn verbs. While plots became democratic, conflicts became domestic. The playwrights concern was to expose societal hypocrisy, characters revelled in their two-facedness and the conspiratorial aside; nothing was what it seemed. The actor’s attention fell upon the manner of performing the appropriate lie. Actors were to perform suspiciously, innocently, wistfully and knowingly, while at the same time signalling a parallel reality. The actors’ portrayals built liberally upon vocal gymnastics and a magnificent sign-language evolved to transmit the character’s hypocritical innards to the last row4. In the Theatre of the Adverb I provide style.


Theatre of the Predicate Adjective/Adverbial Modifier
Our early understanding of character identification included of course dialect and sosiolect, vocal timbre and coloration, but we have authoritative indication that some alert actors indulged in more than an external application of funny voices, and sought to mirror appropriate emotional states.

The capacity for a line of text to acquire emotional colour became seized upon by writers. ‘Helpful’ stage directions inevitably requested a result-oriented, sentiment-based adverbial approach – “Do it this way.” A random two minute dip into Hedda Gabler, yields a stunning collection of illusive stage directions: more confidential and tuned down, seems somewhat put off, somewhat hesitant, stands quickly and in distress, pleadingly (my translations). While the writer has a clear idea of what he wants, these cryptic requests are of questionable help to the actor. If the actors’ job was to build a consistent reading, they were proffered pre-fabricated solutions to illustrate an inner-workings which in itself remained illusive.

Arguably these commands from the writer could function as signposts, providing indications of a hidden depth in a character’s inner life – but this shortcut quickly proved to be a dead end. The playwright’s eager attempt to pre-determine a desired result short-circuited process. One may as well give the actor line readings. At the same time, even Ibsen couldn’t cram more than one stage direction per line of text. The actors had to do it themselves, and the same philosophical movement that had spawned theatrical realism inspired social realism.

Language itself grew more complex. Perfectly good nouns were transmuted into mutant verbials; descriptive idiomatic phrases became so worn that they could be replaced by a single adverb. Familiarity bred contempt, plain speech opted for euphemism, logic and sarcasm went at it tooth and nail, the specific became the general. A simple, concrete language became in itself oxymoronic. To reflect a society full of inner conflict and contradiction, language demanded complexity and abstraction. Simple concrete acting could no longer be considered a foolproof method.

Whether as a function of increased professionalism or due to philosophical insight into the nature of humankind, the actor’s perception of his/her role gradually changed. The Theatre of the Modified Noun, where one presented the plot and re‑presented the role, became augmented with a penchant for ‘becoming’ the character. Our conscious evaluation of our task as actor required that we were no longer the subject of the play, but its object.5 The action of the play shaped the acting. Our human frailty was more interesting than our superhuman prowess. The theatre acted upon us. The search for truth lay within. In the Theatre of the Subjectthe self-perpetrating star became the innocent victim of circumstances.

Syntactical Research – Between the lines
Perhaps it is as a result of the artificial nature of adverbial acting that actors, if not physically at least mentally, routinely cross out all written stage directions. Actor generated insight is deemed infinitely more valuable than crumbs thrown from the writer’s desk. Stage directions are perceived as an impingement on our interpretative turf. While intended as signposts pointing out deeper understanding of the text, in the wrong hands stage directions become a confusing selection of externals: how on earth can one play ‘judiciously’?

Whether resentful of this intrusion, or covetous of the potential in the writer/director’s interpretative score, actors sought out a method to generate their own ’deeper understanding’ by looking between the lines. As the actor’s attention slowly shifted from matter to manner to motivation, from what to how to why; several strategies evolved in the hunt for identifying relevant emotional states. In their effort to ‘access’ the genesis of the text, actors became sociologists, detectives and neurotics.

The scientific method gave actors the legacy of the why. The dawn of psychoanalysis forced the actor to examine underlying rationale. Actors were to probe their characters in every which way, looking for inner logic and implicit connections. What was being said was indisputedly a function of why it was said. Objective, motivational analysis became the order of the day:  who were these people, what lay behind what they did? Actors acted the why, revealing family secrets and neurosis.

Here we are definitively within the realm of the modern grammarian actor. The detective approach, well applied, is something we still treasure. A pain-staking card-index search through a catalogue of inner impulses falls over an almost neurological motivation that provides a very convincing naturalistic equivalent to the generation of thought. Either through the permission given by wondrous coaching or by pure intuition, inspired actors have consciously invoked subconscious acting. In the Theatre of Motivationthe actor evokes the syntactical options. (Ought we to examine the Theatre of the Speech Defect ?)

The Lure of Hyper-consciousness
Many have straddled this motivational balance successfully; some get stuck. The actor’s conception of their role in the play became to bare all – as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the universal truth revealed by the writer’s subconscious. Refreshing their emotional memory, actors reflected this reminiscence in rapt prosody; significant intonation was to carry character in an orchestration of insinuation and innuendo. This tendency towards acute subjectivity often made the rehearsal/performance process itself rather harrowing. Actors explored the cracks in the syntax, revelling in the subtext. The motivational impetus, which among mortals remains unconscious and submerged, became served up by the Acting Detective as the main course. Was there not a more objective strategy?

The critique of the emotional memory approach was that it faced backwards. Character analysis sent many characters to their analyst. They returned to thrash out a difficult upbringing in public by creating a Haunted Theatre of the Past Tense. Subtext was brought to the surface. That which had been carefully written between the lines, became strip-mined for all-the-world to see.  Characters stood forth as over-exposed, social basket cases without inherent charm or social grace. The audience became a generation of psychoanalysts.


A Verbal Approach : actions, the infinitive, I must
One refinement designed to pull actors out of this regression, was to shift focus from motivation to intention. One’s motivation could remain unconscious. Actors were to act. The actor needn’t be an emotional interpreter, his/her concern was to pursue the action. Bit by bit, the plot was to be analysed for its objectives as stated in active verbs; to guarantee playability these verbs were to be written in the infinitive form, to assure the actor’s commitment the infinitives were to be preceded by ‘I must…’. The advantage of these methods was that the stage became peopled by people who knew what they wanted at any given moment. The disadvantage of this method was that the stage became peopled by people who knew what they wanted at any given moment.

The determined consciousness of actors who ‘must their action’ could allow the theatre to effectively depict a clash of wills. Less fortunately, quite independent of the quality of the impetus they received from their fellow actors, ‘brilliant’ actors surrounded by ‘amateur zombies’ could compensate for the entire production by projecting their well-wrought intentions. The dilemma being that – in daily life we re-act more than we act – and few individuals have such an ironclad, pre-programmed grip on their will. The analytical strategies designed to protect oneself from less than useful direction, and increasingly to survive the hectic technocratic nightmare of the film set, sacrificed a vital human element as each line acquired its finishing touches during the actor’s analytical homework phase.

Rhetoric and figures of Speech
Other actors turned to less literal, more figurative analysis. If the plot wasn’t really within the actor’s life’s experience, it was equally relevant to avoid fiction and anchor oneself within the known universe. Two schools of Simile Acting evolved: the prosaic equivalent and the poetical ‘magic if’. Both proffered the actor a rhetorical stance that re-located the action in a playable metaphorical struggle – this imaginary/real parallel could provide a playing matrix that justified all the obligations within the fiction while including the actor’s subjective reality. Meshing the real and imaginary circumstances provided real responses to non‑real situations by integrating our genuine emotional stage-life as a metaphor for the fictive life. In the Theatre of the Rhetorical If, — the actor again played his or herself.

The Theatre of the Preposition
In, under, between, on, behind, with, for, about, during. Essentially idiomatic, prepositions remain grammatically unstable. They modify verbs but imply different relationships as they change context. Largely unsystematic, they plague second language speakers, and defy translation even from dialect to dialect. Floating between the subject and its objects, they survive without taking a festoon of modifiers. They are infinitely playable.

And so, deep within the Preposition Storm we seemingly tidily approach our Theatre of the Applied Metaphor. Trapped between scenic elements, the self and audience, I am a personification of the metaphor. Sentenced to a life re-creating the preverbal, non-conscious connective tissue that binds our stories, I the actor, inhabit an existential struggle. In the Theatre of the Preposition — I am myself representing humanity. I am subject to the human condition.

Existential Interrogative Theatre of the Preposition
Language is the sum of its component parts. In our little guided tour, the intention is not to examine and reject some of the parts of speech as irrelevant or superfluous. All parts of speech reflect elements that are meaningful agents in the actor’s arsenal. What we have been examining here is the actor’s conscious perception of their task. It would be hopelessly arrogant to assume, since we are approaching the end of this lecture, that through some miracle of faith we have suddenly deduced our way free of generations of misunderstanding. We have come a long way. Perhaps the actor’s wrestling match among the Garden of Prepositions can provide an approximation of the preverbal, non-conscious theatre that we set out in search of. However, it would be recklessly rash to unpack our grammarian baggage too soon. We have yet another linguistic form up our sleeve – historically the theatre has relied upon the statement – full stop. We, because we are unsure as to the relevance of our observations, suggest it may prove prudent, and more scientifically humble, to end each performance with an interrogative question mark:

Can I be this Proper Noun modified by this adjectival attribute intent on fulfilling this infinitive verb in such and such adverbial manner ?” “Do the objects that motivate me under imaginary circumstances provide me with a parallel subjective reality that invokes a subconscious re-action?” “Am I not only the entire sentence, but also the preverbal impulses that evolved from the need to co-operate with others of my species ?”

Am I in, by, under, of ?
Am I for, or before ?
Am I among, during, between, after ?
Am I acting yet ?

Bembo Davies
Bergen, 2002

1 See National Geographic Journal August 1983.

2 A contemporary example of this concern is Natya Chetana, a village-theatre troupe from Orissa, who have re-defined sustainability by touring their theatre on bicycles, thereby facilitating a quick (and multi-linear) getaway if the local landowner chose to exercise his disapproval. (from post-performance anecdote)

3 As guest artist in the Easter Procession through the town of Tolfa, I had the honour of being on successive years an unnamed disciple on his way to the Last Seder, and a Roman centurion crowd controller, in a non-literal enactment of the Easter story where Christ appeared no fewer than four times without disturbing the narrative. Under the priest’s guidance anonymous members of the community chose to walk the traditional route barefoot. The watchful in the community counted the number of male and female feet.

4 According to legend, the actor in world of melodrama was equipped out with a semaphore of poses : back of hand to temple denoted something other than chin on fist. The actor is credited with fulfilling the function of a talking porcelain figure. But again this legend may have been propagated by theatre historians armed with an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ scientific study by the same people who championed phrenology. The categorisation that could be captured on a daguerreotype need not have been an instruction manual for better playing, but merely a classification of perceivable externals. The contemporary inspired actor may have had a considerably different version of their genesis, and could perhaps also reflect upon the technical necessity of pleasing tiers of talkative spectators.

5 Elsewhere in my 1991 monograph The Ungrateful Actor II, I have argued quite reasonably that the actor should insist on being the subject of the play – “If, it is our living performance experience that supports the fiction; each new piece is about us. The ungrateful actor considers him/herself as ‘subject’ of the play. As the play’s subject, we prepare each performance by denying the play’s ‘objective’ goals. The Ungrateful Actor refuses to expose a story, reveal inner truths or signal importance.” This apparent contradiction should not be used against me as it occurred in the context of a discussion of objectivity/subjectivity.


About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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