“All the world’s a stage” — Shakespeare
Although it can be said that we are all just actors on the stage of life, that particular take on acting is as a function of lying. This leads to psychological and sociological notions like the front stage and back stage selves of dramaturgy, which are quite valid but irrelevant to the current discussion. While these are interesting topics, that’s not what I’m really talking about here. The split between the persona(s) and the personality exists in everyone, but not everyone is an actor. Acting is far more than a metaphor for life. It’s a finely crafted art, that can take a lifetime to master. Granted, actors do bring characters to life, and both online and in-person personas are kinds of characters that people portray themselves as, but actors are not trying to deceive for the mere sake of it.
Regardless, according to legend, the time-honored tradition of acting can actually be traced all the way back to the very first actor himself. At the very least, that historic moment signified the origin of Western drama. It all began in Ancient Greece when a man named Thespis fully invoked the spirit of Dionysus during what became the very first play in recorded history. Prior to this, theater performers only spoke to the audience, never to each other while on stage. However, that fateful day more than twenty-five centuries ago, Thespis became the first person known to pretend to be someone else on stage. That was the moment that acting was born, when suspension of disbelief started to replace belief in the hearts and minds of the masses. Characters were no longer just described by a chorus of narrators, they were actually being portrayed live in person right in front of the audience. This along with the work of the famous playwright Aristophanes, who made fun of Lampon in the very first lampoon, helped give rise to tragedy and comedy as full blown genres.
Now, although it is true that ceremonies with shamans wearing masks were the first kinds of performance art to do this, these really weren’t actors in the standard sense. Sure, they would occasionally claim to be reenacting specific stories, like creation myths, that purported to reveal the accounts of the gods, but this was altogether different. For one thing, these ritual representations and supplications included deities as members of the audience. Plus, this wasn’t really for entertainment purposes, like a trip to the theater, which did more than just educate. In general, a temple congregation is meant to be made up of an active audience, while a theater crowd is usually meant to be a passive audience, save for more interactive events like seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show surrounded by costume clad fans who sing along with the movie. Either way, it’s all interconnected and interrelated, after all jazz hands did evolve from the orant. That’s why to this very day, you can still find preachers doing both, sometimes even during the same sermon.
The point is that what Thespis really did was to introduce the first principal actor in addition to a chorus, which was already common in ancient times. That is to say, he began his career as a performance artist implementing dithyrambs, which were popular songs about stories from mythology with refrains. So, basically, Thespis was a kind of pagan choir boy before he became the first true actor. Regardless, he revolutionized the entertainment industry, by introducing a new style in which an actor performed the words of individual characters, distinguishing between them with the aid of masks. This may not seem like very much, but it sure has changed everything a great deal. Thespis was also the first person to ever take his show on the road, going on tour to various cities, with all of his costumes and props brought from one theater to another in a horse-drawn wagon. This literally set the stage for acting.
However, the conquest of Roman Catholicism brought about a thousand year decline in Western drama, throughout the full span of the Dark Ages. In contrast to this, Eastern drama has done very well in India throughout much of recorded history, all the way up to the point of Bollywood, due in large part to the retention of Hinduism. Along with this, Sanskrit theater is categorized into rasas such as heroic or erotic, rather than genres like tragedy and comedy, although with very similar themes among plot lines. Furthermore, actors in the East and West were initially both very grand in their gesturing, giving rise to different stylized approaches of overacting. As a result of this, by the end of the 16th century, the first improv troupe began to tour throughout Europe, thus reviving Western drama. I Gelosi was not only the first theater group to do so, it also included actresses on stage for the first time in Western theater. Many generations later, in the 19th century, Konstantin Stanislavski finally introduced “the method”, which quickly became the new standard in most contemporary schools of acting.
The point is that, ever since the advent of acting in the 6th century BCE, thespianism has spread far and wide, in countless different venues, across space and time. As part of this, throughout history, plays have been enacted in numerous conventional settings, along with many rather unconventional ones, as well. This includes everything from classical stages to contemporary parks. In the modern world, we can see actors on stage at one theater, or on screen in another. Movie stars are even brought to us directly through our handheld devices, wherever we may be. Things have really changed over the years. Theater was originally just a series of performances that were created by live actors for a live audience, but now actors can perform for cameras as well. As a result, shows that are filmed in front of a live audience can also be viewed remotely, thus delivering the same performance to different crowds, in different places, at different times, and in different ways.
Whether on screen, or on stage, or anywhere else for that matter, actors are an essential part of a fully functioning democracy, for better or worse. It’s all tied together, including philosophy, tragedy, comedy and democracy, which were all formalized as a means of properly questioning the values and norms of society. Nowadays, college kids take classes that discuss the philosophy of the Matrix or the Simpsons. This is because, more than anything else, society is influenced by pop culture. In this way audiences allow actors to become taste makers and trend setters. Celebrities are often iconic citizens, some even become politicians after being actors, such as Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura, to name but a couple. Of course, a major problem in all of this is that many actors can get a bit confused with the characters they play. Arnold Schwarzenegger was even going to team up with Stan Lee to produce the Governator. The whole point I’m getting at is that the most acclaimed thespians, like Leonardo DiCaprio, are also some of the most influential people on Earth. Just think about how beloved someone like Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman is. In Bruce Almighty, he was even cast as God.
Simply put, humans are hardwired for recognizing names and faces, so the ones we see the most have the greatest power. As the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. This makes the job of 21st century actors that much more important. Sirs Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart have even been knighted by the Queen of England for their abilities as thespians. This is serious business. They aren’t just playing pretend with what they do. Instead, when done properly, acting evokes something that transforms a great actor into who they become while in character. Christian Bale in The Machinist is a perfect example of what I mean by this. Of course, diving too deeply into a character can be just as detrimental as not enough, and sometimes far more so. Little more than a decade ago, Heath Ledger identified with the Joker to such an extent that it drove him crazy. Similarly, a number of childhood stars, like Wil Wheaton, go on to develop mental disorders, for one reason or another, often relating to their career as an actor. More to the point though, just look at how big the Golden Globes and the Oscars are. These are global scale award shows that always make the headlines. On top of that, the release of certain movies and shows is highly anticipated by millions, if not billions, of people worldwide. The fact of the matter is that, culture is very much shaped by scripted narratives, whether we like it or not. Life truly is a reflection and extension of art, and vice versa.
Ultimately, modern musicals like Hamilton and The Book of Mormon can serve as powerful social commentary, as told by talented writers and actors, but really only if they can be made widely available to the general public, not just on Broadway. In old Japan, Noh theater was transformed into Kabuki for that very reason. Plays need to be performed for everyone. This is where modern day philanthropic theater groups like Shakespeare in the Park come in handy, by bringing culture to the masses for free. As such, although it is quite possible, and also very likely, that CGI will soon be completely indistinguishable from live action video, it seems highly unlikely that actors will ever be completely replaced by hyper-realistic cartoon characters that don’t need voice-overs. I’m sure that, long into the future, acting will still be one of the highest paying, most coveted professions in the world. Performance artists, especially actors, but including singers and all the other entertainers, are part of an ongoing tradition that is vital to the human condition. So, as people’s sensibilities change and movies morph into video games in virtual reality, actors will be seen in whole new ways, but they will still pretty much be doing the same old thing. The way I see it, as long as there are people in the world, there will always be actors, from Athens to Hollywood and beyond…
Long live the theater, and praise be to the thespians!!!