The philosophy of what’s what – and acting Shakespeare too

Here is a very nicely done piece about Hugh Mellor written by Tim Crane ten years ago.

As Tim mentions, one of Hugh’s great passions was the theatre (going to plays with friends of course, but also doing stirling work to secure the future of the ADC theatre, and not least, acting himself). Here he writes something about acting, Role-playing on Stage.

1 thought on “The philosophy of what’s what – and acting Shakespeare too”

  1. I like the Role-playing paper. It makes sense, and it’s an effective counter to facile likening of role-playing in real life to the role-playing done by actors on stage. I wonder what he would make of some of the currently more politically salient uses of that idea and of performance.

    The one part where I’m inclined to disagree is where he says what he thinks actors mean “when they say they try to ‘become’ their characters.” If all actors mean is that they “try to make everything their audience might see and hear of them (within their production’s conventions) credible attributes of their characters”, then it’s rather odd to describe that as ‘becoming their characters’.

    And why is it only what he thinks? He’s acted. He knows actors. What do they say about it? How does method acting fit this picture? There’s a famous story of Laurence Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman — who’d stayed up for 3 days to prepare for playing a character who’d been up for 3 days — “Why don’t you just try acting?” But Hoffman was acting, just going about it in a different way. There are many stories of actors going to great lengths to be like their characters. There are quite a few just about Daniel Day-Lewis.

    That’s not to say such extreme measures are a necessary part of an actor trying to become their character. But they can make it easier to see what the goal might be, even when actors go about it in a different way. It’s more than just trying to make what the audience sees and hears credible (which at last some actors do without trying to become their character).

    I think Mellor’s logic falls down here as well when he writes

    They cannot mean this literally, since it implies both that Richard III (say) is actually on stage wherever and whenever he is being played, and therefore that he could only ever be played by one person, namely himself, which is absurd.


    It is also what enables different actors to play the same characters, similarly interpreted, quite differently.

    Because (1) it’s reasonable to distinguish between the character and the real, historical person (when there even is a real, historical person). I don’t think Mellor explicitly draws this distinction, but it’s implicit in some of what he says, for instance when he says “Olivier’s Richard III was a hunchback because Shakespeare’s play says he is”, not because R III actually was. Also, actors don’t talk of becoming their character only when the character is connected to a real, historical figure; and when there is such a figure, it’s clear that actors don’t mean they’re trying to become that person fully, in mind and body, at the relevant point in that person’s life. That doesn’t mean they aren’t literally trying to become the character.

    And (2) even if actors were trying to become the historical person, that would not mean that person was actually on stage (trying doesn’t mean succeeding), or that only one person could ever play the character (trying still doesn’t mean succeeding, and even if an actor did succeed, that wouldn’t mean no one else could). Nor would it prevent “different actors (playing) the same characters, similarly interpreted, quite differently”.

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