Monday, January 16, 2012

Listening is All

One of the motifs that returns again and again in these “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interviews is listening. Most recently, the interviews with Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, and Juliette Binoch. Listening is all, listening is everything.

The first time I heard that it surprised me. And then became utterly obvious. I am, after all, a musician. To perform music, you must listen to your fellow performers. And it makes no difference whether the performance is more or less fully notated on a score or there is no score at all. In either case you MUST listen to your fellow performers.

For that matter, you must listen to yourself as well. The point of practice and preparation, in a sense, is that that, in performance, you play your instrument, sing, speak, by intending to HEAR something. The muscular stuff is subordinated to what you hear.

Now, I suppose I don’t have anything very specific in mind when I’m wishing that literary critics listen to actors talking about their craft. The thing is, if you take that actor talk seriously you have to accept that there is a deep and subtle process involved in simply speaking the words “as they are written.” And coming to grips with that process, whatever it is, is what we must do as critics.

And it is precisely what WE EVADE when we look for meaning. Whatever actors may think about if and when they think about meaning, they cannot be thinking about THAT when they’re listening to another actor, or actors, and summoning their lines in response to what they’re hearing.

That is, this actor talk is a way to get some sense of a process involved in simply and only speaking the words as they’re written. No hidden meanings required. The only other way to get that sense is to go more deeply into the cognitive sciences than, as far as I can tell, any of the literary cognitivists have been able or willing to go. You have to think, explicitly, formally or almost so, about computational process.

Ideally, both avenues. That is, if I could dictate the ideal undergraduate training for someone who wants to study literature at the graduate level, that training would include both a performance component, e.g. take acting classes and participate in performances (or music), and a deep cognitive science component, where you learn about computational cognition, and perhaps even do a bit of programming. Those two things are, obviously, very different. But someone who has done both has at least a ghost of a chance of understanding that ‘the text’ is something real, and something that we must learn to describe.

The idea is to foster useful intuitions. As things stand now, there are now useful intuitions. Just some version of signs pointing to signs pointing to signs in a godalmightlybuttfuckdaisychain of arbitrary signification. Those intuitions have failed.

Getting back to acting . . . 1) What does it mean to speak preset words immediately and spontaneously in response to someone who is speaking present words to you? 2) Recall that Shakespeare is at the canonical heart of the English-language literary tradition. He didn’t write novels to be read in the comfort of an armchair. He wrote scripts to be performed on the stage by actors he knew, and knew well. 3) What about novels, that aren’t written to be performed? What’s the process there?


  1. Narrative magic can almost take you out of your body, out of the room in which you are reading. Shakeseaperian physicality has the opposite effect. It amplifies and compresses, the vowels and consonants never disappear, even when the words take you elsewhere.

  2. That is where the sounds of the words cast a magic spell.

  3. I just have to add that our father truly embodied his voice. In his speech everyday and in his story reading. And all those supper time discussions about his golf game! RIP Dad.

  4. You are listening in a very particular way. Adrian makes the point well here and relates it to wider differences
    in approach you see between doing lit. crit. and being on-stage.

  5. Thanks for the posts I enjoyed them.

    I also strayed across this that made me smile in a review of Adrian's book.

    "It is economically convenient to treat drama as literature, and to think that it can be adequately studied as part of a literary curriculum. It is not literature, nor can it be taught as such. To believe it can is like believing you can teach surgery by taking a general course in biology."

    Tyrone Guthrie