Possession; on stage and off it.

Good actors, declared Sir Richard Eyre, speaking last week at The Guild of Psychotherapists annual lecture, have to be possessed by the characters they are playing.  They have to immerse themselves in their character’s world, feel what it is like to be them, experience the passion and then act it out. It is impossible for an actor to experience the same degree of emotion every night.  They would be emotionally and physically shattered by it. Having just seen Fiona Shaw in a matinee of Brecht’s, Mother Courage, I observed how much that performance had taken out of her, but as the run continues, she like all good actors will distance herself from it; express the passion but not be overwhelmed by it.  Judi Dench, according to Eyre, exhibits the perfect balance. She allows herself to become possessed by the role but maintains an observing eye.  Actors are people who imitate others. They great pretenders, experts at the arts of deception and seduction, but they have live in the real world too. 

Richard Eyre summed up the qualities of good actors.  They must be conscious of themselves but not self conscious.  They must be narcissistic on stage, but humble off it, they must live the role but then forget it.  They must have a perfect balance of good sense and warmth, rationalism and emotion.  They must captivate their audience, but then become anonymous. They must create empathy in people’s minds and leave.  They should feel the part, but never try to go beyond the feeling.

Courage is essential to a good actor, death to a bad one.  Actors must present a buoyancy of spirit even though their heart may be breaking.  Eyre described finding Ralph Richardson looking glum after rehearsal. He asked him why. He replied ‘Oh dear boy, I just learnt today that my brother has burnt to death, but’, he added thoughtfully, ‘there’s one consolation; it can’t happen again.’ 

Actors must learn to contain their emotions, avoid being too worried about their performance, work as a team and but never imagine they are the play. It’s a route that runs close to madness. The psychotic actor, seduced by celebrity and fame, can imagine that they are the stage, upon which others play out their emotions.   

It seems to me that acting is not too different to psychotherapy.  The effective  psychotherapist enters the clients world sufficiently to set up a confident and trusting therapeutic relationship  They have to understand, empathise and be compassionate, yet maintain a detachment. It’s a delicate balance that cannot be prescribed, only felt. The quality of any therapy depends on the quality of that engagement. Like the actor in relationship with the character, the therapist must maintain an observing, intelligent mind. They must not descend into their client’s abyss, they must remain on the brink, in communication, connected, yet able to see the possibilities of freedom. There is no redemption, no rescue, if both get lost.

But doesn’t the same principle apply to all relationships?  We are, after all, social creatures. We need to engage with other people but we must not become them. The joy of human relationships is that we bring our independent selves to any relationship, creating the possibility of insight, growth and the joy of discovery. Merger may seem like stability, security, but it’s stagnation.  We mustn’t seek to confine others with bonds of obligation and dependancy. 

But what of falling in love; that wonderful delusion of discovering ourselves in the other?  Therein lies a madness; a suspension of reality in the service of the dreadful seduction of the feeling.  People can fall in love with falling in love and often do. They can be completely lost in the abyss unless they maintain the observing eye of the director that can see how the play could work out. But what would happen if they fell in love with the director?     

And what about actors who play the same character for years on the radio or in television soap operas?  Norman Painter, who played Phil Archer, died last week aged 86. Three days previously, he had recorded an episode for November. He had said he wanted to die in the role. So had he become Phil Archer?. Therapy too can go on forever. The patient may get out of the abyss into the therapist’s safe house, only to find herself unable to leave. Many couples persuade themselves and others that they are in love forever. So why can this seem so boring?  Have I just become an old cynic?      

Afterwards, finding Sir Richard alone with a glass of wine, I explored the idea that  directors combine the characteristics of therapists and actors.  They work with the company as well as the play, coaxing the correcting nuance out of the actors, calming their insecurities, interpreting plot and character.  In this God-like status, I added, warming to my argument, was there not a danger that they could become the stage, upon which others play out their emotions, like the charismatic conductor of a symphony orchestra?  Perhaps I had gone too far. Eyre looked alarmed. He replied, somewhat huffily, that he never analysed what he was doing; it was intuitive.  In any case, the director is not the stage. The plays the stage.  A-ah!  I could have pursued this, but at that point, some ‘lovies’ came to the rescue and I departed, stage left!


Sir Thomas Beecham was immensely narcissistic, but he recognized the knowledge and talent of his musicians and did not attempted to impose his will  on the orchestra, merely guide it.