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Free Artists Of Themselves

Monday, December 14, 2009 Leave a Comment

Rereading Harold Bloom's book on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, I was struck anew by this passage on page 56 regarding the uniqueness of his characters, excerpted here:

"Instead of fitting the role to the play, the post-Marlovian Shakespeare creates personalities who never could be accommodated by their roles: excess marks them not as hyperboles or Marlovian overreachers, but as overflowing spirits, more meaningful than the sum of their actions...characters who are 'free artists of themselves' (Hegel on Shakespeare's personage's), and who can give the impression that they are at work attempting to make their own plays...they give the sense that all plot is arbitrary, whereas personality, however daemonic, is transcendent, and is betrayed primarily by what's within...And they are never reduced to their fates; they are more, much more, than what happens to them"
Bloom goes on to list some of the characters he believes are "free artists of themselves"- Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Lear, Rosalind, Edgar, Falstaff, Macbeth, Cleopatra - and will spend much of the book unpacking this central idea. And though I don't always agree with his particulars, I agree wholeheartedly that some of Shakespeare's characters have a vitality that seems to overwhelm their plays.

What recent characters have that vitality, that overabundance of life, that makes them "free artists of themselves"? Please post your suggestions in the comments, and read on for three suggestions of my own.

I think Meredith in Viral is my most recent example. We only receive hints of her past, but her actions in the present flood our imaginations with the things she might have done. Meredith gives you the feeling you are watching only the final play in a sequence of the many plays of her life. Alternatively amused and repulsed by this latest play she finds herself in, there is an awareness and vitality (ironic for a suicide) that makes her different from the other characters, who while compelling, seem to belong only to one play.

Everett from Rattlers is another: almost from the beginning of his long scene with Ted, he knows he is talking with the likely murderer of his wife; and yet he plays with this man for a long time before revealing what he knows. He is possessed by a relentless self-awareness - he sees through everything, especially himself - and refuses to properly participate in the revenge drama he finds himself in. Instead, like a twisted mirror of Rosalind courting Orlando, Everett disguises what he is, finding a surprising intimacy with his enemy.

Marco in Pretty Theft also seems like he's just left a different play, and will move onto the next after this one. Unlike Joe and Allegra, beautiful creations who belong completely to their play, Marco's negative vitality transcends it; his extreme powers of perception pierce everything but the void in himself.

Allegra meeting Ted seems bizarre; but somehow I can clearly imagine a scene where Meredith, Marco and Everett meet in some dive bar in Texas (and woe to the bartender!) What other recent characters have that kind of play-transcending vitality? Post 'em in the comments!

The reason I'm wondering is I think there's a link between this kind of vitality, and the adaptability of theatre, mentioned in this post:
"The greatest plays are also the most adaptable; there is something in them that allows for so much multiplicity of meaning that they are not bound to their cultural time and place. Each group of audience and artists that plays a play shift the meaning to fit their our own unique needs of the moment, while at the same time engaging with the legacy of past productions."
I think that's especially for true for plays with characters like Rosalind and Everett, Iago and Marco, Meredith and Hamlet. Their sheer size means there will always be room for a new interpretation; we will never quite be done with them, or as Bloom might put it, they will never quite be done with us.

4 comments »

  • Matt A said:  

    Please excuse the fact that not all of my characters are from theatre:

    First, there's a character in Erin Browne's 'Menders,' the man who has been working the wall patrol for years, who belongs on this list. Sorry, Erin, for not remembering his name!

    The man's a storyteller, which mysteriously weaves his worldview and past. I always feel like his grip on the world is firm even as he dashes it before the eyes of his two young students.


    The Maniac in 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist.' The play's just been on my mind lately, and the Maniac is a prime example of a character whose life is much bigger than the play that attempts to confine him. Its by design, of course...thanks for that one, Fo!


    Daniel Plainview in 'There Will Be Blood.' Is it the character or the actor? Either way, this character is so compelling, it makes everything around him seem a little false. Even nature, and rocks.

    Ignatius J. Reilly in 'Confederacy of Dunces.' I never want this to be made into a movie. From the first 30 pages, the reader learns that this character is too big to fit on slim pages. I feel physically assaulted when I read this book. Ignatius is filthy, arrogant, apathetic...but these adjectives aren't enough. They need to be brought to an nth degree. You have to read this book!

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Matt - I love the idea of that character of Erin's and totally buy into him as having an inner life larger than the events of the play, which is fascinating since we know so little about him. How much does mystery play in enlarging what's possible with a role?

    That's a good question about Daniel Plainview, as I was thinking of DDL's role in Gangs of New York in this context, too. He's such a fine actor that it's hard to know. I think Ian McShane in Deadwood is a similar case; well-written, but how much of the transcendent vitality comes from the performer?

    One way I've been thinking about it is this: how much do I want to see another actor in that role? Or is the role so completely defined by that one actor, there's no need for another to play it? If so, I think it may be the performer rather than role itself.

    It may also be part of the literal nature of film that roles lend themselves to definitive performances...but I don't know much about movies, so it's hard to say.

    I hope we get some more comments from this post - I'm really curious if our focus as theatre makers have drifted away from the Hedda Gablers, to ends more magical, whimsical, political, etc. And yet, I think there's something essential in that kind of play transcending character, something we need more of in the theatre now.

  • Matt A said:  

    Oh man, I'm with you. I crave roles like those found in more classical drama. And I'd love to play Lovborg...though I think I'm more of a Tesman.

    Back on Browne: I think that a character about whom little is revealed really depends on the way other characters interact with/speak about him. And in Menders, both 'students' are always talking about their new mentor when he's not there. Besides the work of the actor, the scope of this character's life may depend on reaction as much as a hero does in stage combat.

    And yes, I wan to hear more entries!

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