Jack Matthews on Actors

Here’s some brief thoughts which Jack Matthews made about actors and the theatre:

Since writing a book on Schopenhauer a few years ago, I often find myself thinking about the dark sentiments voiced by that old philosopher. My thoughts often revolve around his quaint notion that the lives of actors are perfect prescriptions for madness, because every night they must step forth upon a stage and pretend to be other people. Since the gloomy thinker arrived at this idea in the heyday of faculty psychology, long before our “Modern Age of Enlightenment”, he should perhaps be forgiven its crudity; and yet, I find the pronouncement interesting and possessed of an antiquated charm—and even a quirky sort of validity.

As one who has undertaken the writing of plays after years of publishing books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, I think of actors as being among those for whom I most intimately and instinctively write. Actors are, of course, my readers, and they must be shrewd and thorough and capable of finding the oxygen in the language they are given and breathing it in. Later, having memorized my words, they will speak them aloud before an audience, who then become secondary readers, of sorts. I still hold that sentimental old belief in the “magic of theatre,” and I cannot imagine a more intimate communication with others than that in which they will, in all their various and individual ways, give voice to words which I have first heard in silence.

No matter how ephemeral or limited or flawed my plays may prove to be, they will have their moment of truth, of being alive. This is a Pirandellian notion, to be sure; and it deviates from my original faith in being a writer; for part of my mind will forever be wedded to the printed page (I collect old and rare books, and write books about them). Still, it is the words that are primary, after all; and the fact that you are now reading these words gives further testimony to how words can live lives of their own—not only in the environment of the printed page, but in their development and outgrowth into the voices of living people who have taken a sort of benign madness upon themselves in pretending to be people who have no real existence. As playwrights, we are first privileged to know our characters and hear them speak; but as with our biological children, we rejoice to see them grow into their own realities, and speak in voices beyond our hearing.

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