by Jim Murchison
Great literature requires some sort of dilemma that needs resolution. Conflict is often integral to an audience feeling connected or involved. Most often the conflict is between characters on a stage and what they speak of is not to be taken at face value. The underlying subtext is what is most interesting. The layer of intrigue in performing an internal conflict where the conflict is within the character himself as he struggles to maintain his own sanity is incredibly dynamic.
I have seen a few plays recently that delved into this area. In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) dealt in a mostly humorous way the treatment of feminine hysteria through mechanical stimulation. The Secret Mask dealt with recovering from the memory and motor skill loss after a severe stroke and how that helped strengthen and reinforce lost family relationships. Sometimes mad is contained in the title and often the point is that the madness that we refer to is in the world around us and not nearly so much as the ones that we label mad. In The Madwoman of Chaillot, Aurelia is more naïve than mad and it is the uncaring money hungry world that truly is oppressive and mad. Interestingly, the wisest character in the play is a man that gives it all up to be a ragpicker so that he may enjoy life on his own terms.
If you tell an actor that his role is full of psychological action, tragic depths, he will immediately begin to contort himself
How to play madness is an interesting question. Sometimes an actor gets the opportunity to go at it full tilt, if they are performing Sweeney Todd or any number of characters in Marat\Sade or playing in a melodrama. More often than not though that very thin line is most effective when played with subtlety that underlines the fragility of the human psyche and how none of us has a distinct definition of what sanity is at all.
Constantin Stanislavski had an idea of how to play moments of insanity that would intrigue and provoke us to examine the lines of the rational and irrational. In My Life in Art he wrote, “If you tell an actor that his role is full of psychological action, tragic depths, he will immediately begin to contort himself, exaggerate his passion, 'tear it to tatters', dig around in his soul and do violence to his feelings. But if you give him some simple, physical problem to solve and wrap it up in interesting, affecting conditions, he will set about carrying it out without alarming himself or even thinking.” It is great advice to a director or an actor.
Theatre first and foremost should always entertain, but if it does so in a way that sheds light on the human condition and broadens the boundaries of our own minds and how we judge others then it can transcend into greatness.
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