Wednesday, March 31, 2010

See no evil

One of the things I've learned from my friend C is that you can't really just read a play. I mean, you can, but you learn so much more about it if you see a production - even a very very bad one - and even if you just have some people sit around and read it aloud. So I was surprised to hear her say today, of what seems to be her favorite play in our syllabus, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, that it's one she'd rather read than see. This surprised me the more as this is the play where I've felt most keenly the need to see (or at least imagine) a staging! What's going on?

I don't think it's that scholar Faustus makes more sense to me - in fact, I find him pretty uninteresting on the page. I feel the need of an actor to make Faustus' combination of bravado, skepticism, joy and blindness work from scene to scene, indeed, from line to line. And there I find I can imagine wonders - well, imagine a gifted actor working wonders. In the production I imagine, Faustus - like us in the audience - doesn't know if his story (and the world) is as Catholicism, Calvinism, Aristotelian tragedy, skepticism or libertinism claims it is. Is he free? Are there second chances? Is hell a fable?

But I need an actual actor (and a production) to show me if Faustus is testing things out, joyriding, feinting, or learning at each point. Two examples. First, when Mephistopheles parades the seven deadly sins before him (in the A version), what is Faustus' body language reaction? Do they attract him or repel him? Are the reactions similar or differ with the vice in question? Does he move toward them or turn away from them? Is he aware of his reactions? A good actor should be able to do all of this and then some, but I'd need to see how he does it to know if I thought it was right. Second, as Faustus approaches the end of his contract, and starts to understand (or think) that hell may be real after all, he tries to save himself through repentance but it fails. Why, how? Does he not believe his own words? Did he think these words would work (like the magic words he thinks brought Mephistopheles to him) and then discovers with horror then terror that they don't? And I'd need an actual production around this (especially the devils, of course), echoing or mocking his progress...

But this doesn't explain why C is content to let the words on the page do all the work. Perhaps she thinks even the most subtle performance will be a flattening, didactic or nihilistic. Or perhaps the big metaphysical questions seem clearer on the page than they would on the stage. Maybe my needing to see a particular actor take it in a particular direction, however subtle, is compatible with a sense that the play's possibilities cannot all be on display in a single production.

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