Fools and Charlatans

I like some of David Mamet’s plays and movies more (The Spanish Prisoner is really underrated) and some of them less, but his essays are well worth your time. If you have a free hour or two, I very much recommend True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the ActorIt’s ostensibly a book of advice for would-be professional actors, and you can argue about whether following his dictums produces good acting or just “Mamet movie”-style acting, but it has a great deal of broader insight. For example:

Business is Business

The prospectors of the Old West were in the mining business whether they knew it or not because they enjoyed the life of the outdoors. None of us is going to take it with us when we go, and all of us are going to go;  and the prospectors, had you put them in a room which  had billions of dollars of gold in it, and told them the  gold was theirs, would they have been happy or sad? Or  had they been given everything that that billion dollars  could buy, would they have been content, or would they  have longed to be back in the wilds with their burro, so  to speak?

It’s the same with the quest for fame and recognition. Certainly the drive for them is real. But let us exercise a bit of philosophy.

We’d all like to be thought well of, to do noble things, to do great things, and to be respected. But is it worthy of respect to act in a manner we ourselves feel trivial, exploitative, demeaning, or sordid? How can  that command the respect of Others; and would we value the approval of someone who is taken in by behavior which we know to be shoddy, grasping, and mercantile?

And yet our truly noble desire to do good work, to  contribute to the community, becomes warped into an  empty quest for something which we call success—that quest where many of you and many of your peers will squander your youth, your simplicity and whatever you may have of talent—that quest in which you might be sitting for literally years in the outside offices of some casting agent begging for a role in a trivial manipulative piece of what is finally advertising and may not even be entertaining advertising at that.

An actor friend of mine moved to LA. and did not work for three or four years. One day I asked how he was, and he told me he was angry, as he had just spent the day waiting to audition for a walk-on in a car-crash movie.

“Why don’t you come back east,” I said, “and work in the theatre.”

“Hey,” he said, “this is where the work is.”  He was a fine, respected, working actor. He situated himself in the midst of those he despised and chose to suffer their displeasure.

Do you desire the good opinion of these people? Are not these the same people you told me yesterday were fools and charlatans? Do you then desire the good opinion of fools and charlatans? That is the question asked by Epictetus.

And so we might ask ourselves, you and I, what is character? Someone says character is the external life of the person onstage, the way that that person moves or stands or holds a handkerchief, or their mannerisms.

But that person onstage is you. It is not a construct you are free to amend or mold. It’s you. It is your character which you take onstage.

When I was teaching, I would sometimes rebuke myself for not wheedling my way into Wall Street, or a doctoral program in something or other, or medical or law school, or something, anything, other than a middle-school classroom. But I’d remind myself of that line, “Are not these the same people you told me yesterday were fools and charlatans? Do you then desire the good opinion of fools and charlatans?” 

I desired the good opinion of other teachers I respected, and I taught until I had achieved that for a few years, and more importantly my own good opinion about my work, which remained elusive but which at last brought me some peace.

Some teachers (and more administrators) are of course indeed fools and charlatans, and many bankers and professors and doctors and lawyers are not. And everyone has to eat, and if we are lucky, can contribute to our family’s support and comfort. There is no shame in working for the bread of those we love. But being honest with ourselves about whose good opinion we desire, and not castigating ourselves for never finding that which we never truly sought, remains very good advice.

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