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Wallace Shawn, Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch

Why I Call Myself a Socialist
Is the World Really a Stage?

By Wallace Shawn

In most reasonably large towns in the United States and Europe, you can find, on some important public square or street, a professional theater. And so, in various quiet neighborhoods in these towns, you can usually also find some rather quiet individuals, the actors who work regularly in that theater, individuals whose daily lives center around lawns and cars and cooking and shopping and occasionally the athletic events of children, but who surprisingly at night put on the robes of kings and wizards, witches and queens, and for their particular community temporarily embody the darkest needs and loftiest hopes of the human species.

The actor's role in the community is quite unlike anyone else's. Businessmen, for example, don't take their clothes off or cry in front of strangers in the course of their work. Actors do.

Contrary to the popular misconception, the actor is not necessarily a specialist in imitating or portraying what he knows about other people. On the contrary, the actor may simply be a person who's more willing than others to reveal some truths about himself. Interestingly, the actress who, in her own persona, may be gentle, shy, and socially awkward, someone whose hand trembles when pouring a cup of tea for a visiting friend, can convincingly portray an elegant, cruel aristocrat tossing off malicious epigrams in an eighteenth-century chocolate house.

On stage, her hand doesn't shake when she pours the cup of chocolate, nor does she hesitate when passing along the vilest gossip about her closest friends. The actress's next-door neighbors, who may not have had the chance to see her perform, might say that the person they know could never have been, under any circumstances, either elegant or cruel. But she knows the truth that in fact she could have been either or both, and when she plays her part, she's simply showing the audience what she might have been, if she'd in fact been an aristocrat in a chocolate house in the eighteenth century.

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there's a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he's playing himself in his daily life, he's playing a part, he's performing, just as he's performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he's on stage performing, he's in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he's disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

Actors are treated as uncanny beings by non-actors because of the strange voyage into themselves that actors habitually make, traveling outside the small territory of traits that are seen by their daily acquaintances as "them." Actors, in contrast, look at non-actors with a certain bewilderment, and secretly think: What an odd life those people lead! Doesn't it get a bit--claustrophobic?

The Haircut Speaks

It's commonly noted that we all come into the world naked. And at the beginning of each day, most of us find ourselves naked once again, in that strange suspended moment before we put on our clothes.

In various religions, priests put on their clothes quite solemnly, according to a ritual. Policemen, soldiers, janitors, and hotel maids get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, go to their locker rooms, remove their clothes, and get dressed again in their respective uniforms. The actor goes to the theater, goes to his dressing room, and puts on his costume. And as he does so, he remembers the character he's going to play -- how the character feels, how the character speaks. The actor, in costume, looks in the mirror, and it all comes back to him.

When the actor steps onto the stage to begin the play, he wants to convince the audience that what they're seeing is not a play, but reality itself. The costume that the actor wears, and the voice, the diction, the accent, the way of speaking that begin to return to the actor when he puts on the costume, are devices designed to set in motion a capacity possessed by every member of the audience, a special human capacity whose existence as part of our genetic makeup is what makes theater possible -- that is, our capacity to believe what we want and need to believe about any person who is not ourself.

Because let's be frank -- other people are not me, and people who are not me will always in a way be alien to me, they will always in a way be strangers to me, and I will never know with any certainty what they're like. So yes, it's possible to believe a fantasy about them.

Now, I've never met my own genes or looked at them under a microscope, but nonetheless I feel I can make some guesses about what they're like. One thing I feel I know is that I'm amazingly responsive to visual cues about other people, and I'm prepared to guess that this is characteristic of our entire species. And this is why people who can afford it spend enormous sums of money on haircuts and clothes. And this is why films, which deal in close-ups, put an enormous amount of attention on makeup and hair. And this is why actors in plays take their costumes very, very seriously.

It's all because people really do believe what visual cues say. A haircut dramatically changes how we see a person. A haircut can say, "I'm intelligent, disciplined, precise, and dynamic." A different haircut can say, "I'm not very bright, I'm sort of a slob, I don't care what happens to me, I don't care what you think of me." There are haircuts that can say, "I find sex an interesting subject, I'm interested in how I look, I'm rather fun, and I think life is great," and there are haircuts that say, "I'm not interested in sex, and I think life is awful."

Clothes work in a different way. While the shape of one's head, as completed by one's hair, describes personality, clothes tell us about a person's role in society. But there's an extraordinary similarity in the speed with which we respond to the cues from haircuts and from clothes and in the strength of our belief that what they're telling us is true. So when the actor comes on stage in the costume of a king, I'm prepared to believe that he is a king.

The actor on stage is living in reality. He knows that there is indeed a king inside him. But he also knows very well that Fate has made him an actor and not actually a king. The audience member looking at the actor on stage steps out of reality and lives in illusion until the curtain comes down.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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