I can’t sleep again — something about mirrors and the shock of the Harlequin as he vanishes into one, suddenly invisible, and, as the Angel of Death, prepares to go back out into the real world. That’s when I wake up. It’s time for me to get back to my own real world of Commedia, where me and the Harlequin live, a world on Stage, established before me by troubadours and bards and the singers who remembered by heart the Iliad and the Odyssey and Gilgamesh and Job — a place by the fire, where we listen in terror about the fragility of the known world. Man is a creature who has to sleep for a third of his life; this is so he can plug in and recharge and go on with his hunter/gatherer existence or death — a strange fact on the face of it.
I walk down the hall of my home, from the bedroom to to my office, my hands held in front of me like a cartoon mouse, out of fear of walking into something in the dark. The electricity is off. I have come to tell you, dear Reader, what you already know, which is that we die as we must, not necessarily in the dark, and, in the meantime, are bound to experience, and to observe, a process of decay beyond our control, i.e., the dying of ourselves as we die. The current doesn’t stop, but does it flow in another direction, Up and Down? Like steam? In my present state, as you can imagine, I have no idea, and the whole problem of re-charging from the air by breathing is also suddenly baffling, but, of course, as necessary for life as having water to drink and a place to sleep at night.
I cannot tell, as my awareness is puny, but I do think the rest of you, like me, want something to eat and a place to sleep and someone to love you and your picture on the internet, and your awareness is as puny as mine — but we all share the Harlequin’s question, which is a serious one — it’s a question concerning the mercilessness of Time. Not a question, a battle, a War, even, with the Nature of Life.
So I mean to ask: does this current flow as one, but in two directions, like electricity, making the whole pulse of life?, and what does that have to do with the practice of the fine art of making Theater? Of another current, say, one coming from above to the stage? When I have a moment on stage of truthfulness and expression, of Being, even, have I beaten the motherfucker for a moment? Anyway, that’s the question.
(The “motherfucker” here being everything arrayed against us, like the galaxy itself? No, gravity itself? No. Bodies in proximity? No. The endless, boundless dark.)
And so I make a beginning here, to serve the Good, with the hope of being sincere and honest and true to myself — a tall task as I am already, like most of you, a very flawed man with a head full of habitual lies, half-truths, and delusions — you, too, might recognize yourselves with the same afflictions, I don’t know, but at the same time, there are certain aesthetic rules we must all obey, as theatre folk, the paramount one of which is — the Stage speaks, not you.
Thank G-d (Here, I must explain, and not be cute, that in Jewish tradition, the Name of G-d is not expressed), I have a way to explain, to begin, by introducing our Hero, the ancient Harlequin, known everywhere as either a hard dick or a soft dick (in any case, a Dick), depending on the routine, his trouble on the stage, his friends and enemies, people in the house, his relationships, and so on. She loves him or she loves him not. At any rate, he is forlorn and alone.
Primary Elements for Harlequin Performances: A direct approach to the audience, including appropriate eye-contact, with no pretense of a fourth wall, as in Vaudeville. Minimal reliance on spectacular trickery coming from mediums other than Theater, such as movies; no re-doing movies as plays; judicious use of projection. Lots of music and light and costumes, easy entrances and exits. Juxtaposition. Acrobatics, as in China. Singing and dancing, as on Broadway. Minimal movement, small facial expressions and gesture, lots of makeup, also as in China.
A subsidiary rule, I’ll just mention it here, is to stand straight, feet square, and don’t move unless you have to, don’t make a sound, and do not whimper. That way, when the clown makes a vertical leap, landing on his feet, it makes an impression. Otherwise you have actors walking around doing things as they talk. Sometimes they run or shoot guns. Most of the time, this has nothing to do with Theater – though I can think of exceptions — it is behavior, masquerading as acting, or performance.
The Harlequin stands there and takes his punishment. Like a true Vaudevillian, his eyes and ears are tuned to the audience. He is one step ahead of you. His mind is on the stage, and on the vibe of the audience, and aware of his obligation to be there in the general – but keen — awareness of the room just a moment before you do. He knows that the stage will speak through him, if only he is true, and will save him from being killed by you, the audience, should you catch up to him, only because he is needed for his living, i.e., the next performance and the one after that. He “kills” them or they “Kill” him. The audience knows all this as well – they know the rules and the outcome — and they restrain themselves properly, and even appreciate the chance to experience themselves as men, applauding and shouting and showing their love for this inferior being, the Harlequin, who bears that high responsibility; i.e. of being ahead of them instinctively, body and soul, despite his so-called lower caste.
In fact, the urge to murder the poor guy is right there under the surface, where the butts hit the seats.
This is not quite the opposite of the Roman circus where murder was the rule and forgiveness, the exception; for, still, The Harlequin must pay for his Life on Stage.
He pays with his sense of timing, which cannot be taught. It can only be encouraged,
or asked for, over and over again. This sounds melodramatic to an extreme, so I should explain: the Harlequin is vulnerable by virtue of his total availability to inspection without the cover of behavior – his act is prescribed within his awareness alone. He has props and a costume, and friends in collusion, but he is not pretending to be natural and normal, unless he is making a joke on himself.
It’s not the contemporary actor’s fault, not entirely, that he knows nothing about timing, because that’s not what he’s been taught. At any rate, in most of the jobs he gets he will be edited, and he/she may or may not be in the Shot. What is he taught? He is taught basic naturalism: walk and talk normally or the audience will hate you. They can’t kill you, after all, you’re on a screen. You’re not there in person. Like I think I said, Timing can’t be taught anyway, you have it or don’t, it’s a talent, but it is an aspect of a whole sensibility, which I call here the sensibility of the Harlequin.
The true Harlequin is still, and if he takes a step on stage, he knows it is ten times more important than walking to the store. Indeed, it is so consequential, that, when he walks, something in the Land of Theater somewhere dies. For the same reason, he chooses his words carefully, for he is, at heart, a poet. No words can be wasted, and he understands that the essence of his art is in his suffering expressed by language.
Not his language, the Playwright’s.
Nowadays, mainly, the Actor’s material that he is asked to exploit, or explain, is inferior to his intelligence, so he lies, i.e. he covers up the weakness of the language – it’s banality and sentimentality, etc. – conversation squared, plus the prerequisite emotional outburst. He’s been taught, as an actor, to make up for, to convince the audience in the face of, the poor prose of the Authors (TV writers and producers, for the most part). Good acting in this sphere is the imitation of the usual emotional reactions accompanied by the usual behavior. Of course, the author is excused from the beginning by a lack of intelligence in the producers, who are, of course, interested in protecting their own ignorance and stupidity, or, at the very least, concealing it in the name of Commerce (May they all Die). That is, if you want to sell a lot of something, you’d best be available and accessible to the most ignorant, the most stupid, of audiences, as well as the smart people out there who are merely killing time.
The ally of the Harlequin in this conflict is his knowledge of the songs, new and old, and of world literature in general. He is connected to the Bards of old. He is familiar with the linguistic verities, e.g. — that language is also music. He knows who William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett are and has read the plays of Shakespeare and has studied ancient Greek Tragedy. He knows meter and rhyme and where the accent is and how to keep the beat; and he knows how to breathe so he can say a long sentence without losing his force.
The Harlequin doesn’t blame the audience, even though it’s their fault. It would interrupt his integrity. But it is the audience’s fault, in the end, because that’s what they want: To see nice-looking people acting like everything is okay, no problem, if they can just get on and off the stage approved by a sense of familiar authenticity. “And so what, if I’m lusted for, admired for, my physical attributes?,” thinks the Actor, “After all, that’s what they brought me in for — Sex.” And they’re not all wrong, of course, it’s Desire afloat in the theater air, Desire harnessed to a higher goal, the goal of Catharsis, that the Theater allows. And I don’t need to know much more about this whole thing than that: “How can I please the almost always lustful majority so I can make a decent living?” Nice curves help, and Youth, and a pleasing manner, and the company, the physical presence of the audience, some of whom are good-looking.
Let’s think about Timing again. Timing is an aspect of Awareness. When to wait, when to speak, when to move. So, already we’re in another realm, the realm of Awareness itself. What could be more demanding than the sensibility required for exact timing in the vertical presence of the gods, supported by the attention of the Audience? Nothing gives greater satisfaction for the Harlequin then a moment like that, of exact, precise timing, rewarded by a laugh or a sigh from above and below.
I say “Above” not knowing much about it other than its uncanny existence in a true theatrical experience of awe, pity and terror — to refer again to the old Greek, Aristotle — that I have in fact experienced at times in my own long life in the Theater.
“If there was a formula about this,” says the Harlequin, “I’d be a rich man, as there are such men in the world, but I will offer this: Be in your own body and don’t say anything without being aware of the consequences of speech in the real world. Everyone is in a ‘naturalistic’ trance. Why? Because of the movies and television and our own tendencies to act like shit-heads with automatic rights that we have not earned.”
(A moment there of temper from the Harlequin, defending his Way. He bows and apologizes.)
Never mind, but now we discover a raising of the stakes in the Theater Arts to an Emergency level. Is that what they are taught – these students of Theatrical Awareness in front of an Audience? – No. They are taught Behavior, and how to find emotional reactions to naturalistic discomforts, like I said, because they don’t know what else to say, these con-artists called Acting teachers. So, you have to drink coffee while you tell your wife you are going to kill her, or eat a banana, whatever. We have all seen it: actors behaving as if they know what they are doing in that so familiar way we all have of acting like we know what we are doing.
We don’t. We can barely notice the smallest of our manifestations. We don’t act like we know what we are doing, and we don’t know what we are doing, in the best of circumstances — let’s say, like my daughter’s future wedding – we rely, as we must, on Habit and Tradition.
To begin with, Habit. All the things we do repetitively and routinely and without which we wouldn’t know what to do, and which for the most part serves us well – like driving a car, kissing the wife, etc. – until it becomes psychopathic or an addiction. From the point of view of the Harlequin, all of these habits and routines are material for his act, colors for his palate. In seeing him, we see something of ourselves, of the struggle, as I’ve been saying, to know my manifestations. To my surprise, I fall on my ass or turn into a bug. In the way of the Harlequin, note that these little things are isolated, separated out, so that they are visible in the light of the Stage.
Tradition. For a Jew, like me, it means my immortality and the survival of the race.
That and the blood from father and mother to son. The way of the Book and the Genome. Ways of life, the holidays, the seasons. A communal season, a season of solitude. She does this, I do that. It’s such a comfort, really, how else can I know? My Father and his Father’s Father – what a true comfort. We are the same, and we are connected. We have a common ancestry and a common way. In the Yiddish theater, for example, a tendency to be emotionally “over the top.” The worst is expected, and then it happens. The best is expected, and lo and behold, it happens, too.
It’s only when wrenches are thrown into the expectations, that the Harlequin finds an opening. Things go wrong, unknown levels are revealed, contradictions stab his heart.
There I am, in the theater, working at a cue or thinking about a line, and feeling at home, at rest, with a neutral, non-aggressive religion, Judaism, being a question of race and affection and honor. Solidarity. My choice of expression, however, is that of the Theater Arts. I think that’s okay for mortals like us. I am a Man of the Theater, as one luminary I knew once, I forget his name now, affirmed.
Tradition provides a foundation, but the Harlequin knows that we can see neither the Past nor the Future, no matter how hard we wish or we try. Most of the time we think or sense that we can – we wish it to be true, but there’s all the ugly, unpredictable, accidental, stuff that goes on – and fast — that there’s no way to get a handle on what we call the Present, or Reality, let alone the past or the future. It’s a blur. We need the Theatre to show us something real -– not the naturalistic, realistic, etc., but something closer to the Truth, an experience of the here and now, which includes the levels and contradictions that I spoke of earlier.
Also, that is not to say, as some of you are now thinking, that this excludes marriage, romance, job, family, religion, the Seven Deadly Sins, public order, or anything else. We are talking about the Way of the Harlequin, not the subject matter of the performance, which in his case is unpredictable at any rate. He might throw back the tomato you throw at him, or eat it.
Where is the truth to be found then? The Harlequin says, “It is in language. And in movement.” Live. In Performance. In the contrasts of light and dark, heat and cold,
high and low.
But not only in language, not only in contrast or juxtaposition – also in the stillness and intelligence of the Actor. This is what drove the Master, Antonin Artaud, to despair – the stupidity of text and the lack of meaning, plus the corresponding fatuous stupidity in the actors. It could make anyone mad, this comedy of pretension and imitation. Let’s have life on the stage, at last, finally, an antidote to the banality and futility of Real Life.
But I rush ahead. Let’s take things one at a time: Language, primarily — it is Sound, as in Music, or a song; and secondly, it carries the weight of Meaningfulness. It is not conversation. It has nothing to do with ordinary speech. Thirdly, it is Heard. What does that mean? It means a certain verticality, wherein what is uttered is full of resonance, like the creation or destruction of the world as we know it. Mainly, it is heard by the Audience. It is heard from the Stage. The Audience has created the wiring, the means of transmission, to the Infinite, the Unknowable, or whatever you want to call it, the Vast Unknown, Dark-Mattered, Flying in the Face of Reason Universe; again, what Aristotle called, Catharsis.
Now, you’re thinking that I’m some kind of idiot and of course you are right, I am Mr. Theatre Idiot Number fourteen hundred and one, who thinks he knows what he is talking about. Never mind. Let’s take number fourteen hundred and two, the Actor. He doesn’t have to be a good-looking guy who all the spinsters and wives in the audience can fantasize about – no – he must be intelligent and aware of his situation, i. e. that he is a Dying Animal with the fortunate (or unfortunate) faculty of intelligence, finding himself in the throes of the suffering of the dying, so dear to Artaud’s suffering heart!
He must not move unless he is aware, as in his speech, of movement – he must not move unless he is aware of his movement. What a challenge that is to all the actors trained as they are to move as if they move like automatons! Not even like automatons, imagistic imitations! With no suffering, no consequence! “No consequence” means, no joke, without meaning, no cause, no effect, and so on, just an image on a screen, meaningless and hypnotic.
So thank G-d for the Living Stage, where what you say can get you killed, where you must be Aware of Consequence every single moment you are there! Eh? Those of you who know, know. The rest of you think I’m a Radical or a Dervish.
We come now to the Director. First of all, he is the Playwright. Both of these terms, “Playwright” and “Director” need to be defined, and I will now define them from the point of view of the Way of the Harlequin. From the point of view of our Mr. Harlequin, the Director is the personage who informs him of what works and does not work; what tumbles, leaps, jumps, attitudes, and postures that serve the Greater Purpose, and what not. In other words, he doesn’t exist, for before our Mr. Harlequin, was another Mr. Harlequin, and before him, yet another, and they learned through the passage of genes and the practice of clowning, the nature of the craft, and its possible mastery. This they learned from the ages of 3 to 5, until they learned enough to know this ancient theatrical practice to the point of Individuality. By Individuality, I mean Mr. Harlequin’s idea of the unity of sound and movement, dedication of the Soul, a sense of Mastery on the stage.
So, already we’re in another pot of boiling water: what do we mean by craft, and what by soul, and furthermore, we were defining Playwright and Director, and, to go even further, we are saying that the Director’s role is of conventional formation and is a made up, i.e. pretend, activity, based on the mistakes of his relatives, and the role of the Director must be filled, in these modern times, as they were in the Old Days, by another kind of Master, i.e. the Playwright, who hears and understands, as he writes, the sound and music of the Stage.
Could you follow that?
The choice of cues, levels, lighting, casting, so-called blocking, “arcs,” etc., is the responsibility of the playwright. After the show is formed, well, then they can do with they want, these students from Yale and the Actor’s Studio.
(The Harlequin says he needs no stinking director and playwrights are allowed one audition with the Maestro. He learned everything he learned from his father, and his wife can give him all the criticism he requires. Playwrights may provide story and song and direction, if they have any.) A real playwright knows what he is talking about because his Maestro’s daughter gave a special smile to the Maestro.
But a real playwright hears his language from the stage and sees his actors on the stage. He sees and hears as he writes, and he has learned from his own studies and practice, how to start from the page and, through an organic process that he knows in his bones – how to get from the page to performance. I’m so glad I got that said, even as I know that hardly anyone knows what I’m talking about, even the aficionados at Yale and Harvard, let alone those past masters at Oxford and Cambridge, and I would affirm, dear Reader, that they know less than I do. And I can go further to expound, because of the pre-eminence of the Word in the Theatrical mode, the necessity of the Director to be the Playwright, and vice versa: the director is actually the playwright.
I say this with great affection for the actors and actresses I have met over the years (especially the actresses), my heart truly goes out to you — I do understand and I understand immediately – how you have been told and talked to and bullshitted and taught that the the truth on the stage is not true but a fake, a representation of another reality more “true” than the thing itself. In fact, the stage is the way to another reality, toward what Aristotle termed, again, “Catharsis.” Not a situation but a change of Being. I have known this since I was a teenager in the coldest precincts of Brownsville, Brooklyn, alone by myself, in the winter of all winters, that of a lonely 11 year old in the wilds of Brooklyn, in 1951.
Aside from that, a man and woman freezing to death, in the context of a mass murder of man, woman and child freezing to death, made a lasting impression. And, as I said before, if you don’t like it, go fuck yourself with a frying pan. (I say this with Righteous Anger at the treatment of my people within living memory.) To make a long story short: “What’s happening on stage is not a representation of something else, it’s what’s happening.”
A good playwright, and I (egomaniac or not) count myself among them, knows exactly when his characters are to speak and when to move, and he casts a person in his play whom he knows, and who knows that the actor knows me and also knows that he is in front of a live audience and that therefore he must be alert to the movements and sighs of them and the quickness of awareness that occurs in a living, “wild” Audience and that I will not lie. And this is a Master, perhaps even on television, where timing is taken, sometimes, to the fine artistic sense that it surely deserves: when to wait, when to speak, and how to enjoy the Silence.
The “Director” is a personage invented by Academic or Commercial institutions, inured by their education and predilections, to avoid the truth of theatrical confrontation, i. e., the thing or situation depicted and acted out that resounds as itself and not some second hand version of it that must be filtered first by this ersatz middleman hired to make things palatable for the paying audience, and not only that, feel good about paying the price for culture and seeing celebrities showing their tits and guys with big crotches prancing hither and thither, maintaing a crude masculinity, as fake as a chameleon in serious danger of being eaten by a frog.
I say that the Director is not only obsolete, I say that he had no place in this particular art-world in the first place. He is a shill, at best, for investors, and has a role — to laugh and clap and make noises when the audience doesn’t know what else to do, moments of extreme suffering — I have myself often endured this peculiar suffering in this theatrical life of mine that goes back now for almost 50 years.
Now, for the Playwright: No one gives a shit about your stupid family life: all our family lives are stupid because we grow up in a stupid culture. More stupid?, less stupid?, it doesn’t matter. Left wing stupid, right wing stupid, it doesn’t matter. Stupid matters. Another family drama, another cancer fatality, will mean shit in this vast universe of incomprehensible colliding forces.
Usually the so-called Director fails at this awareness, lost as he is in conversation with some ingenue backstage, or worrying about the least common denominator, i.e,
the “marks” in the audience.
So what is left to us? Like I said, the great lucidity and range of the English language, and an intimate understanding of what movement means on stage, and how one manages the congruence of the two, and finally, a concordance of music and timing which, done with finesse, artfully, are extreme pleasures for an intelligent, sensitive human being.
I have to ask myself, “What is it all for?” I mean, what’s the point? Fame and glory, for sure, plus a living, if you’re lucky. Even thinking anyone cares about what I think is a risk – hubris, or pride. The point, or the purpose, is to experience contact between levels of meaning. Catharsis. But there’s also the experience of working toward a goal, trusting one’s own intuition and knowledge, and putting it to the test.
Contrast and juxtaposition are the essence of theatrical Art – that and the proper accompanying linguistic music, which is not just fuck you and your grandmother, as everybody knows, but something else entirely, plus the appropriate use of space. What certain people call “blocking,” (This is a word I hate almost as much as “arc.”)
I also hate the following: Interpretation, Characterization, and Psychology. All of these are the province of the Playwright, and no one else. You will object: What about the Art of the Actor? That’s why the title of this little essay is, The Way of the Harlequin – he, i.e., the Harlequin, knows he’s not the writer, only the instrument.
And he is proud to serve, because without him, there is no Stage Presence.
The Art of the Actor, says the Harlequin, is to stay out of the way and be on Time. It also helps if he has talent and speaks well, and has a sense of empathy for the horrors of the human condition. But he is not the playwright, and the playwright doesn’t need him as a surrogate. He is the connection, on Stage, between levels of meaning. He represents the Life of the Stage. His role is not to imitate some other person, real or imagined, but to transmit, like a transformer, certain energies that come from above and below, and, of course, from the attention, as Peter Brook puts it (Director though he is), the attention of the Audience, which is a kind of electricity. And he must faithfully represent the language and art of the Playwright.
(What Balls! )
So I have to finally come across with what I mean by the Stage: The place where the Word (Logos) finds embodiment. That is, the defined (Sacred) space, in which is enacted a linguistic representation of real forces. In this model, the Playwright, as it were, is the medium, or transmitter – through him, as with Euripides, etc., came the lamentation, the form and the architecture of a quasi-religious, or necessary, ritualized art form: Necessary for a connection to be made between levels of meaning.
I like an actor who knows what’s what with an audience. That is, he knows what time it is, where they’re at, and so on. His performance is never the same twice. Each audience is an animal to be tamed.
Opposed to this, you have the whole idea of the actor’s Inner life and all that Actor’s Studio type of naturalistic, self-important, emotions such as anger, fear, rage, self-pity, etc. which is completely boring on the stage, in my opinion. And he aims for the Subconscious, because it is less debased, depending, therefore, on timing and meaningful language.
Actors must know that The Stage speaks through him. He is not the stage, himself. This is not to denigrate his Art; rather, it enhances and ennobles it, implying, as it does, that Life has meaning, and is not a banal, merely absurd, event in an unforgiving universe, relentlessly killing its living, haphazard artifices.
This doesn’t count in most of America, including L.A., where people don’t go to the theater unless there’s a live movie star in it, no matter who directed it or how fine it is. The next best thing is dead movie star or a waxen one.
When the Lights, the electricity, go out – there I am, in search of a theater. This is not so much a business as it is a necessary activity for the social life of people (whatever that means in this land of Malls), a way of bringing levels of meaning to bear on Experience, which goes by in a sleep, in a trance.
So, picture me, a little old Jewish guy, a lover of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, finding his way in the dark with Yortzeit candles for his dead mother. At some point I stumble and weep, for what is missing is the ancient words of the Prayer for the Dead, bequeathed to me by my ancestry, and a sense of a far away audience, moaning like conscience itself, and expecting a word of, if not meaning, then of some kind of linguistic closure, and maybe a battery charge.
I don’t know. I’d rather tell a sly dirty joke and slink off into the wings, my pride intact — but it’s not enough. It’s never enough.
It’s not enough because you have to say more – you have to rise to the lamentation of Medea or the crazed Orestes – moments of understanding transmitted violently through the ancient Greek Proscenium Door, with a Chorus in support.
And yet, the understanding of language as essential to Theatrical Art has almost been lost. We wander about on a grey plain full of ghosts and photographs of celebrities, hoping to bump into an old wise man, like Oedipus, finding his way in the dark, and showing us, blindly, the Way forward, maybe toward a sense of the Present Moment.
His Way, the Way of the Harlequin, is not the way of Sense Memory or other ersatz formulas made up by the Actor’s Studio and other gents, presented as they are by career development agencies and imitation, but the Way of the Moment, as this moment as it’s happening, and the struggle to meet it head on, and breathe.
We’ll call it the Way of the Harlequin.