Friday, March 20, 2009

On Theater and Virtue

“Art does not stand wholly on the side of the mind...but making, which is the very essence of art, is brought to bear in the body and through it.”

-Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts

Of the arts of the beautiful, Theater, particularly acting, is the most accessible to self-mastery. By self-mastery, we mean a sense of full possession or command, a sense of full knowledge of the capacities and proper utilization of the self—in both mind and body. This mastery should already imply the proper use of the possessed faculties, meaning, in the context of art as virtue, these mastered strengths of both body and mind should not be used other than its purpose—to create something beautiful. Therefore a mastery of the art of acting is distorted and abused when used to con or deceive people in real life.

By accessible, we mean that in the very nature of the art itself, it is required of the artist to have a certain grasp of these faculties. In order for the artist to be successful in producing this particular form, he will have to surrender to the prerequisites. Although both the mind and the body are required in producing art as Gilson concludes, there are varying levels of involvement of either aspect: “the role played by the mind depends more or less upon the art involved, playing a greater role in architecture and poetry, and a lesser one in sculpture and in the execution of musical compositions.” (12) In acting, the role of the mind and the body plays an equal role, and the mastery of both is crucial in the success of the art production.

The craft of the actor entails rigorous training of both aspects to succeed in the mounting of a stage play. First, a training of the body to make it malleable to assume gestures, postures, and manners that do not naturally belong to the actor but belongs to a fictitious character created by the dramatist. Several books have been written that prescribe a series of exercises to condition the body for this task. During rehearsals and even before shows actors perform physical warm-up exercises, breathing exercises, and vocal exercises to achieve a certain level of malleability and agility. After all, this is the first contact of theater with the audience. The body of the actor is what they first perceive amongst the myriad of elements arranged by the dramatist.

An equal training of the mind is required. Actors portray characters who have personalities created by the playwright. The actor must either assume or “borrow” the soul of the character to achieve an effect of believability, or he must use his own personality to commandeer his body to “deceive” the audience that he is another person. The two techniques are employed to achieve this: internalization and externalization. In internalization, the memory and emotions are trained to be called at will so that actors can use them to provide psychological realism. In externalization, the psychosomatic character of acting is capitalized, training the mind to be in full control and awareness of the self so that it can dictate externalities to the body. In either case, there is a need to forge the soul of the actor for it to either assume a new personality or portray one.

This kind of self-mastery is also present, however in a lesser degree, in dance. Because of the psychosomatic nature of the performing arts, a certain degree of training of both human aspects will always be required. The same physical training is undergone by the dancer except for the need to exercise the voice. More importance is given to the training of the body in this art for the same reason that the body is the first point of contact with the audience. There are no characters being portrayed in this art except maybe in ballets that have stories or interpretative dances that portray scenes and characters. Still, the portrayal of these characters is not as important as the grace of movement itself. The characters portrayed, if any, are merely secondary to the actual dance. Nevertheless, a mastery of the mind is required to achieve that same sense of awareness and control to direct the movements of the body with grace.

It is even lesser in the performance of music. Gilson admits that the body plays an important role in the playing of an instrument—dexterity mostly for instruments like the piano, violin and guitar. The training of the soul is less intellectual and more emotional in this case as with virtuoso players who draw energy and vitality in their playing from their passion and emotions.

The equal need for both body and mind to be mastered simultaneously lessens in the other arts. It is more intellectual in the case of poetry and architecture and more physical in painting and statuary as Gilson noted. It is in theater, among the arts of the beautiful, that we find this kind of need for equal mastery in both body and soul.

This prerequisite addresses Diderot’s complaint that “one never becomes an actor for the love of virtue.” (260) If by virtue we mean the excellence and perfection of a thing, and human virtues are that which brings man to excellence and perfection, then the mastery of body and soul is in itself a virtue or at the very least, a precondition to virtue. Diderot questions the actor’s intention and purpose for getting into acting. However, we have shown how tedious and straining it is to become a well-trained actor. Knowing these prerequisites, what else would one’s motivation be to become an actor? Even if he did not know these requirements before he committed himself to it, his training and formation in rehearsals would make it clear to him what it takes to be an actor.

Diderot may have his biases based on his milieu of theater. His conclusions were drawn from the attitudes of actors during his time: “What leads to their infatuation with the stage? The lack of education, poverty and libertinage. The theater is an expedient, never a choice.” (259) Of Diderot’s concerns, libertinage might be the only one left that is applicable. Lack of education may be discounted because theater, in the present, has become an art form that is accessible only to the elite and educated. Theater in the Philippines can only be accessed through schools and universities. Surveying the struggling theater companies at large, the form and content of our theater productions require its artists and audiences to have some level of education. There are very few community-based theater companies existing that cater to the uneducated and the masses. And in the case of these community-based theater groups, the actors will have to undergo some sort of education before they can participate in the production of a stage play.

Poverty, in fact, is more of a deterrent to the stage rather than an attraction. In the case at least of theater groups in our country, theater doesn’t pay much. A lot of our respected theater actors need to resort to appearing on TV commercials or soap operas to subsidize their real passion. Acting on stage pays very little some even consider it as a hobby rather than a profession. You will have to have some level of financial stability or you will have to be prepared to starve to embrace acting as a profession.

Libertinage is a valid concern of Diderot and there are a million cases to prove it. Theater, in the point of view of the audience, is very actor-centered. Gilson spends most of his chapter on theater on the actor and concludes that “it is the artist in him [the actor] whom we applaud.” (277) The actor is the first contact and on whom the audience anchors their relationship to the art with. Rarely is a stage production applauded for lighting and design, sound, production, directing, and script by ordinary watchers. Almost always, the first and most appreciated is the actor’s performance. The danger lies here. Inasmuch as acting provides a venue for the actor’s self-mastery, his ego might resurface at the sound of the applause. There is a tendency for the actor to take upon himself the excellence of the entire production where he, albeit crucial to the entirety, is only a small part in the artistic collaboration of the theater troupe. This, however, is only the gate to libertinage or the bohemian lifestyle and not necessarily the cause of it. The actor becomes the star and center of attention. If this gets into his head, this becomes the start of overindulgence. The actor starts to become a diva. He starts to think he deserves to be treated in a special way because of the difficulty of his craft. He starts to reward himself by indulging in sex, drugs, and alcohol, which he later justifies as a means to feed his passion and art. His virtue deteriorates to vice. The proof of this is no secret to everyone. Just turn on the TV and catch the Sunday afternoon entertainment news special.

Despite the proofs and actual cases of libertinage and immorality of the superstar actor, this cannot be attributed to the art of acting or of theater. There is no direct causal relationship between the two. Furthermore, theater alone cannot be blamed for this attitude. Libertinage and the bohemian mentality are not exclusive to theater. We know of painters, poets, sculptors and musicians who practice this lifestyle.

Still, Diderot should not be easily dismissed. Despite the fact that no causal relationship can be established between the art and this lifestyle, it is still a prevailing perception that artists—especially theater people—are bohemians and libertines. If we have established that engaging one’s self in the mastery of the craft of acting brings one to self-mastery, how come the opposite occurs to the point that it has become a cliché? This is a subject that merits investigation and contemplation.

To delve into this means we have to attempt to answer or, at the very least, speculate “what leads to their infatuation with the stage?” Instead of making a survey of actors and their attraction to theater, let us look at what is most attractive in the art of theater which naturally draws artists to participate in its production. By looking at the virtues of theater we will be able to understand whether these attractive traits are somehow related, causally or indirectly, in the creation of the perception of actors as libertines. But more than finding the cause of this perceived cliché, this investigation aims more to understand if and how theater is an art form that preconditions the artist to virtue. Necessarily, we will see whether the other arts of the beautiful form the artist in a similar manner and in what degrees of formation.

In calming Diderot’s anxiety, this infatuation with the stage must be seen in the perspective of the art itself and not from the point of view of the participant. This is necessary to illustrate the universal characteristics of theater present in all eras. This will avoid any biases in circumstances of history which was present in Diderot’s analysis of this predicament.

There are three characteristics of theater that may be the cause of this infatuation: its collaborative nature, its formative nature, and its illusory nature.

Theater necessarily requires more than one artist for a stage play to be mounted. Statuary, Painting, Poetry and Dance require only a single artist. Music may need but not necessarily require two—the composer and the performer—but they can be the same person most of the time because music cannot just be written but must be performed and heard. The closest to theater is architecture. Although the design and conceptualization springs from the architect, he requires engineers, carpenters, masons, painters, decorators, etc. to fashion the imagined space into real space. The same is true with theater. A stage production requires a director, production designer, sound designer, lighting director, scorer and actors. The main difference between the two arts is the nature of collaboration between the participants. In architecture, the participants contribute to the mounting of the building as workers and not as artists. Their main objective is the proper execution of the designs in so far as they are functional. This may not be true for the designers and decorators. But for the carpenters, masons, painters and other craftsmen involved, their main objective is not that of creating something beautiful but of something functional. Therefore, the collaborators of architecture produce in the service of function and not for beauty. The collaborators of theater, on the other hand, produce in the service of beauty. All members of the production team work to create something beautiful as envisioned by the dramatist.

However, it may be argued that the engineer, despite the scientific and mathematical nature of his work, dedicates his science in the service of beauty conceived by the architect. It may also be argued that in an inspired construction team, everyone, may fulfill their functions in the service of beauty. This therefore becomes an argument of intention which cannot be scrutinized.

What becomes definitive therefore is the creative input. Creative input, insofar as each participant fashions something beautiful, an artwork in itself, as a contribution to the entire work, becomes the differentiating factor in the nature of collaboration in these two arts. The collaborators in architecture provide services in fashioning what is in the mind of the architect. The workers become extensions of the artist. The carpenters, masons, painters, and engineers become the architect’s hands. In theater, each collaborator is an artist. The scorer produces a piece of music that is in itself, an art. The production designer acts like an architect, sculptor, and painter in fashioning colors, sets, spaces—beautiful things on their own. The actor has his own craft, a performance that may be akin to dancing, using his own body as material. The lighting director illuminates more than just as something aid the perception of the play but in presenting the play beautifully. The creative inputs of these artists are legitimate artworks individually, albeit subsumed in the singular vision of beauty by the dramatist.

This room for creativity in the art of theater becomes attractive to the actor. He is able to practice his art without totally losing it in the grand design of the whole, while at the same time, he becomes intrinsically part of a singular work of beauty. What is most attractive in this type of collaboration is the way each artist feeds off from the other artists surrounding him. The actor draws his stage reality from the space provided by the designer. The designer draws his arrangement from the narrative of the playwright and blocking of the director. The scorer is inspired by the dramatic beats of the actors. The lighting director draws from the space and movement on stage, and so on. The interaction between the artists in this art is so intimate that people who are involved in it develop real relationships of artists and friends. This is why most production companies stick together until the next project. This is not the case in architecture.

The formative nature of theater in the craft of acting was discussed earlier but only to illustrate theater’s accessibility to self-mastery. Acting requires the training of both mind and body to succeed in the portrayal of a role. All the other arts involved in the theater production aid this portrayal—illumination, dramatic scoring, realism or fantasy in space. When the actor takes center stage, the elements converge and aids in the phenomenon called the suspension of disbelief by the audience. But all these complementary arts are useless if the actor is untrained in both mind and body. This manner of formation of body and mind becomes one of the attractions of the art of theater. The actor needs to involve his entire being to participate in this creation. This is only metaphorical in the other arts. When we say that painting, poetry, or music consumes the artist’s entire being in its production, this means that though both body and soul are involved in its entirety, either body or soul takes the lead. As Gilson mentioned, it is more intellectual in the other arts, and more physical in some. This opportunity to master the self equally in the two aspects present in theater is a step closer to perfecting the self—closer to virtue. What is there unattractive in self-mastery?

The phenomenon of suspension of disbelief is the last cause for infatuation with theater. This is present in both the stage and cinema. In stage, the aim is to displace the audience from their actual reality and invite them to witness another universe. The simulation of life allows the audience to escape from their own lives and enjoy the show. It is larger in scale in cinema because literally, the screen is larger than life. The illusion of reality of the alternate universe the audience is witnessing is the primary attraction of this art. For its participants, especially the actors, this too becomes an escape, even just for the duration of the play. There is a sense of dispossession of the self in this craft, allowing the actor to move according to an alternate grand design fashioned by the dramatist. This dispossession attracts the actor not just in the sense that he has an escape from reality, but because he becomes a participant in the illusion. There is a negative connotation in this “escape” implying that there is something unattractive in real life. But this escape should be seen in the light of the nature of theater. It is not just an escape because everyone who participates in it—both artist and audience—know that reality is merely suspended. The infatuation may arise from the knowledge that as artists, they too are capable of calling to life another reality. This thrill of creation is also present in all of the arts. But it is more evident and closer to life in theater. May it be a realistic drama or an absurd comedy, the internal universe of the play has its own unity, its own life.

These three characteristics of theater are what causes the infatuation of the artists with the stage as opposed to what Diderot enumerated which may have been very specific only to his time. These three also address his conclusion that no one desires to be an actor for the love of virtue.

All three aspects of theater address the issue of virtue. St. Augustine describes virtue as the habit that is consonant with our nature. Habits are repeated good human acts. St. Thomas Aquinas defines it as “habitus operativus bonus,” an operative habit that is essentially good. The three aspects of theater provides the venue for self-mastery so that the actor can commit to habits and virtue. The collaborative aspect of theater allows the artists to hone their social nature. The formative aspect enables the artist to train his concupiscence. The illusory aspect allows the artist to practice the virtue of art.

In order for collaboration to succeed, the artist must surrender his ego and perform his art in the context of the single vision provided by the dramatist. It is in theater where true conversations between artists occur. They have a healthy discussion and clash of ideas to bring out the beauty of the single vision of the dramatist. There is nothing more hostile than a room full of artists. Each artist has his own vision and his own manner of producing art. In theater, all the artists must come to a convergence and agreement in order for the beauty of the play to come out. This requires a proper exercise of social skills and interaction. If the single vision is achieved as we give our applause at the end of the production, we can say that the artists were successful in acting according to their social nature. They have improved in the aspect of their social dimension.

The rigorous training of body and mind provides for the harnessing of the concupiscence. Rehearsals are habit-forming. Theater rehearsals require a strict adherence to time, a level of consistency in performance, and a quality of execution that can only be achieved through constant practice. Repetition is intrinsic in theater. A single show cannot be successful without the repetitive methodology of running lines, walking through the acting space, and training of the body and voice. Similarly, good habits are formed in this manner.

In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defines art as “the right reason about certain works to be made.” (Question 57, Article 3) He proves in this article that art is a virtue of the operative type. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia defines virtue as “the habit superadded to a faculty of the soul, disposing it to elicit with readiness acts conformable to our rational nature.” Virtue has its root in the same Latin word that signifies man—vir. This implies that virtue is the strength assimilated by man so that he can act according to his nature, so that he can become more of a man, in other words, to perfect himself. This quality has a stronger connotation in its Filipino translation. Virtue is “birtud” both in Tagalog and Bisaya signifying power and strength. Therefore, art is a power and strength of the will (and of the intellect) to produce something that is beautiful.

The third aspect of theater, illusion and the inducement of the suspension of disbelief, is where the virtue of art is practiced. All the artists in a theater production muster all creativity and strength to produce their individual art works in order to converge with the others in the creation of one beautiful thing. The goal is to mount an alternate reality, something worthy of the audience’s surrender of their disbelief, something that will be pleasurable to them. In creating the illusion, the artist does not deceive the audience but comes into a sort of social contract with them, that what they are about to witness is an alternative universe which has a unity and truth within itself that may stir something in their souls. Because of theater’s illusory nature, it is inevitable that universal themes will be derived from the show which will have bearing in the sensibilities of the audiences. More importantly, each artist is obliged to perform with “the right reason about” the play is to be made. In order for the whole to come out as beautiful, each artist must practice the proper way of producing their art works. Art as virtue is in fact already present in the first two aspects earlier mentioned. Collaboration and rigorous rehearsals are the only proper way of executing a stage play.

It seems that there is nothing in theater that merits Diderot’s scruple. All that is attractive to theater for the artist seem to be more conducive to virtue than anything else. Still, the question of the cliché persists. If the art of theater is so conducive to virtue, why is it still a persisting perception that actors are libertines? Where in the entire process of self-mastery and habit formation was theater wanting?

I would say that there is none. Earlier we have established that there is no causal relationship between libertinage and the art itself. Diderot was mistaken. Theater cannot be solely responsible for the deterioration of the actor. The other fine arts as well, cannot be responsible for the moral degeneration of some artists in other fields. If this question is being asked of artists, shouldn’t it be asked of athletes as well and of scientists? If their fields have their own avenues for habit and virtues, why then, do their practitioners fail? The answer is complex and is not the concern of this treatise. Suffice it to say that the arts never caused it, in fact, the arts provide the venue for the opposite.

The artist, in principle, should become the paragon of virtue because it necessitates him to perfect himself every time he creates art. We have illustrated how it is possible most especially in theater. However, the artist’s life does not consist merely of the creation of art. He has other human dimensions to attend to. Whichever aspect of his life affects him to the negative is not our concern as long as we have proven that art has nothing to do with it.