A is for Acting

| March 1, 2014

Hodges, William. Jacques and the Wounded Stag-‘As You Like It’, Act II, Scene I. 1790. Oil on Canvas. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

In Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, Jaques, the work’s seemingly jaded, melancholic figure, discusses the human condition’s inescapable roles—and the consequences thereof:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Having this dark and rather unsettling moment placed in this comedy disrupts the lightheartedness that it fosters. The unavoidability of acting—of being on a “stage” (146)—forces humans to act in accordance with the situation at hand. While pigeonholing man’s roles into merely seven parts suggests Jacques’s ignorance of the multitudinous roles that we all assign ourselves, the fact that he endeavors to uncover how we indeed do perform on many stages in the course of our lives makes this passage extremely significant. However, Jacques’s complete ignorance of what “parts” (149) a woman goes through suggests his patriarchal values—perhaps insinuating that women at this time have more of a static lifestyle than men (something that Austen intimately explores).

At least for myself, especially as a graduate student at Teachers College, I wonder how many veils we wear—in this milieu of ‘intellectuals’—in order to establish and maintain our public identities.

Arboretum, David Byrne’s collection of philosophical (and often humorous) illustrations of life’s myriad interconnections, fosters, at least for myself, immediate introspection and arboreal admiration (I like trees). Through brief sketches of trees, branches, roots, and whatever else he feels like drawing, Byrne labels these figures with words, endeavoring to find connections between anything of which he can think. In the section entitled “Why?,” Byrne explains his philosophy concerning the relationships that he illustrates:

So, extrapolating from Mother Nature, if you can draw a relationship, it can exist. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed—to be a sealed sensible box—it shows us something completely surprising. In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know rather than what we think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if we can get a sense of what we don’t know, we won’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance. (1-2)

The ambiguity of the unknown—something I think every human being reasonably fears—is that which Byrne partially maps out in his depictions. These interconnections are only partial for the reader hopefully creates more as he or she apprehends the import of each illustration, perhaps shedding some light on the perplexity of coping with ambiguity. How might us, as actors, navigate through this nebulosity?

“50. The Performing Arts”

From the four-foot “Foldout” in Arboretum, Byrne, to some extent, explains his intentions behind this illustration:

All business is show business in one way or another. Even bankers, not known for their wild performances, are “playing” the part of a banker. They dress and act the part. Every career requires the appropriate costume and every profession carries itself according to prescribed notions of how each “character” should behave. Most people only play a few parts in their lifetime, but a skilled actor will play dozens. [See Also: 65. Theater of Relationships]

Byrne’s notion that “a skilled actor will play dozens [of roles]” resonates the most with me in that successfully navigating through life’s complexities does necessitate embodying versatility given whatever context in which one finds oneself. While the branches list various occupations, the primary import of this illustration is in the tree’s roots: The words listed therein exemplify the various roles (and the complexities thereof) that one has to assume within whatever chosen occupation. The more adaptable, the more successful. But at what cost of integrity?

65. Theater of Relationships

In his explanation of the theater, strangely similar to Jacques’s terminology, he explores the profound psychological component of all the roles that we assume:

65. Theater of Relationships

[See Also: 50. The Performing Arts]…Likewise, the psychologically convoluted relationships we find ourselves habitually falling into parallel theatrical genres. The cruel satire and biting wit of a love affair at the end of its season and the vicious tragedy that is sibling rivalry are acted out as if they had been scripted. We see ourselves in a comedy or a farce, and behave accordingly to our roles. Most of us use the lines most readily available—borrowing from popular songs or sitcoms—and we apply them in everyday speech as the occasion permits.

Having some kind of script for how we react to everything and everyone unsettles me. The predominantly negative psychological qualities present on each branch are ones that, to some extent, and given the emotional circumstances, we all embody in many of our interactions, under whatever role. While I think there are multitudinous qualities that people embody, these negative ones resonate within all of us for we all experience disquieting situations, the words present beneath the tree, wherein our prescribed script comes to life, and we react to whatever or whomever elicits our response with our negative feelings inasmuch as our positive ones. A push and pull between the two, perhaps.

I do not know if we can ever escape assuming some kind of role. As I write this post, I am a graduate student sharing my ideas with others to read. As I talk to my family and friends, I am the individual who reacts in accordance with whomever I interact. As I go to bed, I am human(?).