The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.
—Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young
Just outside the doors into work, I steel myself for playing me. If the day is light on classes and commitments, I might be wearing jeans, a collarless shirt, no belt. But if I expect to meet parents, administrators, scary colleagues, or visitors from another school, I put on slacks, a dress shirt, my shiny shoes, and maybe a tie and jacket. The school declares some “Dress-up days,” and those require full armor—a suit, complete with my better black leather belt and even shinier shoes.
I try to costume myself appropriately. These clothes should cover a single personality, but, if I’m honest, I notice a difference arising from changing the way I dress. The same face, the same speech, the same posture, the same gestures, the same approaches honed by years standing or sitting in classes and, still, a difference. I am a version of a version appearing in another episode. The series can’t be cancelled, and, while I sometimes forget I’m acting for a moment, something in me knows.
Method acting assumes people can slip from self-consciousness. Exercising the appropriate will, an actor can stop behaving like him or herself and be someone else. The best performance excavates deep humanity and forms a new person from all that common human clay. You are that person elementally. You are a golem fashioned of basic stuff particular to no one particularly—sense memory, breath, movement and life, a true new human self.
Though some people link method acting and the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, he urged actors to find roles in dress and movement as well as psychology. Some inspiration for Stanislavski’s approach must have come from his own experience. He originally changed his name to separate his acting life from the rest of his life and avoid shaming his upper-crust family. For someone of Stanislavski’s social station, acting was slumming, and he dabbled like a hobbyist for years before becoming professional in his mid-thirties. For Stanislavski, “living a part” required disguise. A drunk, a gypsy, or a vagrant needed proper clothes, and he dressed carefully before venturing to the train station, as he sometimes did, to pretend to be someone else.
According to Stanislavski, being in character means covering who you really are. It requires hard work and discipline—study, not liberation, and training, not magic.
I don’t know Stanislaski’s writing well enough to address its implications—perhaps I misunderstand him altogether—but I wonder what he thought a self is, whether it might be costume all the way in.
I suffer from hyperhidrosis, overactive sweat glands. It sounds comic, but it’s real. My case is not so bad—I don’t have sweaty hands, feet, back, crotch, or chest as some sufferers do—but dark circles form under my arms every workday. Though I only learned the name for my condition recently, I’ve had it since my teens.
You might think that would give me time to get used to it, but you can’t get used to it. Maybe someone else could live with people noticing (and noticing their noticing), but still it’s uncomfortable to wear a wet shirt all day. I feel so uncomfortable I’ve often wished it were socially acceptable to wear Pampers under my arms.
Stress triggers my hyperhydrosis. My hyperhydrosis triggers stress. It’s a perfectly malignant cycle. Sometimes I try to will it away and tell my body to stop sweating, but I can’t pretend past my problem. By ten, I’m soaked, and those circles say my calm is an act. My bodily malfunction announces trouble even if I’m fine, thus self-consciousness never leaves me. I’m not fine.
By eleven, I can’t wait go home to change or find somewhere I can lift my arms without worry and dry out. Even more than that, I want to stop pretending.
Thoreau warns against enterprises that require new clothes, and generally I follow his advice. The periodic trip to my favorite bargain department store creates that familiar question, “Is this something I wear?” I prefer a confident “Yes” and quick escape, but sometimes a second voice nags that being me should include taking chances, exploring, keeping up. I should try to seem fashionable.
When I was younger, I could be many me’s, dress one way on the weekends and another during the week, one way with some friends and another with others, one way for one type of event and another for another. I still make distinctions, but my choices are subtle. I’m so used to dressing like me that only I notice.
Once my brother and I argued over whether someone could be a studied eccentric. He said no because, if “eccentric” meant “unconventional, deviating from customary or usual practice” then the deliberate effort to be eccentric rendered a person anti-conventional, anti-customary, and anti-usual and therefore entirely in the thrall of those attributes. Trying to be eccentric was only switching polarities. The true eccentric, he said, couldn’t help it.
My argument was simpler—when are we not trying?
For years, I’ve been searching for an essay someone told me about. The author, an honors English teacher, kept asking his principal to reassign him to the remedial class and, each time, the principal denied the request saying, “You won’t like it.” Finally, exhausted by the teacher’s persistent request, the principal answered, “Okay, if you insist… but you won’t like it.”
And the experience was just what the principal promised, a disaster. The class couldn’t read anything worth studying and quickly became mired in whether they had pencils, where their books were, whether they could stay awake. The students did little more than tolerate the teacher, gazing at him as they might gaze at his desk.
The teacher began to see himself differently. He had thought his stature matched his skill. He believed he taught exceptional students because he was himself exceptional and discovered instead that he was incompetent, capable of teaching only those who desperately wanted to learn and did most of the work themselves.
However, he was a proud man, and, realizing the principal would soon observe and evaluate his class, he decided to instruct them to discuss Romeo and Juliet from a script. He taught them to raise their hands to established questions in an orchestrated sequence. He kept prop books and spirals on hand. He assigned insightful remarks to each student and rehearsed reading from the text. This performance soon became their main business, and they slowly gained the skill to enact this perfect class.
When evaluation day arrived, the students played their roles brilliantly, without an awkward or suspicious instant. The principal left awed by the magical transformation he’d witnessed. He shook the teacher’s hand too long and too hard. He promised a special citation in the teacher’s personnel file.
You might guess what happened next. When the principal was a sufficient distance down the hall, the class broke into cheers, congratulating the teacher and one another, full of themselves and experiencing a flood of unfamiliar accomplishment. For the first time that year, the teacher felt a success.
If someone out there knows this essay, please send me the author and title. I probably have all the details wrong. The story tunneled into me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I invented it.
Personality is performance, I’m sure of it.
Yet, I’m just as sure my believing so makes me hard to reach, hard to hold, hard to love. I know people who are much more “available,” more spontaneous and unstudied and embraceable. People hug me with trepidation… and not just because my shirt is wet.
I’m not socially awkward. I don’t have a flat affect. I’m not un-charismatic. And, occasionally, people even tell me I’m impressive. Yet, if every person were a day’s weather, my more available friends would be an invitation to sunbathe by the water, and I would be a hard-blue-skied afternoon with a temperature in the low 60’s—nice, agreeable on the street’s sunny side, but not quite warm enough to slow your step or disrobe.
In theatre an actor “breaks the fourth wall” when he or she speaks to the audience and calls attention to a play as artifice. Those moments can be tricky. What does it mean to pretend not to pretend, and what happens to empathy when you admit you’re acting? These moments create discomfort. They send an audience down a what-is-what rabbit hole.
In Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff feigns death to avoid a particularly savage attacker. When he rises later, he defends himself by saying he’s no different from others who have done the same. Because it’s Shakespeare and we have no stage directions, we can’t say for sure, but some scholars speculate Falstaff waves his hand during this speech to take in characters killed in the preceding battle scene. Each is really an actor playing dead as part of the performance. The moment is perfect for Falstaff. His licentiousness knows no bounds. No behavior is forbidden him, and he is just the sort to spoil the play to save himself.
I envy Falstaff. What would happen if I stood up and said, “I am an actor”? What if I confessed unapologetically that I’m not sure what’s under the disguise or whether a real me is there at all? I have the costumes, the props, the play—what else do I have?