Performance Journal: Performing the Layers

In a rehearsal this week I articulated to myself a sense of the layering of objectives. In one of the final scenes in The Elephant Man, Treves discovers Mrs. Kendal revealing herself to Merrick in his room. Treves banishes her from the hospital and, losing all the emotional ground he’s previously covered with Merrick, tells him he cannot have or enjoy this gift she’s given him.

After Merrick receives an unexpected visit from Ross (his former manager for a touring freak show), Treves is found in Merrick’s room reading about anesthetics. Merrick asks several spiritual questions of Treves, and rather than answering, he tells stories and talks around the topic. As we rehearsed the beginning of the scene, the air grew thick between the actor playing Merrick and I. It soon became evident to me that Treves was there for an underlying reason: to eventually let the looming question land – why did he send Mrs. Kendal away?

Closer to the surface, Treves must avoid revealing himself to Merrick via humor and sarcasm. The convincing objective is simple: to get him to leave you alone and not to open yourself to him. The underlying objective, or the subconscious layer is almost the opposite: to begin the inevitable conversation. Lower still, once the inevitable conversation has begun, the overarching objective is to reach some sort of closure and to indeed open yourself to Merrick.

The lower layers are not played like the upper, more urgent ones, but they intimately inform them. Without the desire to finally be open to Merrick, because he sees so much of himself in him and subconsciously knows he will learn about himself through him, he would not have the information to, in effect, desire the exact opposite: to avoid the encounter with the truth. Treves encounters an Oedipal dialectic within himself at this juncture. The more he avoids the truth about himself, the more he searches for it, and out of this he must destroy what he sees.

Brecht asks the actor to define their intentions as well as the character’s through which they articulate that intention. To me, the deeper layers are as much my objectives as a person performing onstage as they are the objectives informing and fuelling the less abstract objectives in within the upper layers.

While inherently different, Brechtian and Aristotelian forms of tragedy converge here. For the performer, there is an ultimate search for the truth about them within the character and in that is the heart of tragedy.

More on this later…

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