Grotesque Thoughts

In my short time as an actor, I’ve become a near-constant apologist for the grotesque. The word ‘apologist’ here is vital. Those actors who dabble in the grotesque are in for a strangely bipolar experience. The majority of the time, the grotesque will be damned, spurned and rejected, roundly dismissed as attention-seeking and shallow: upstagers, hams and charlatans all. The grotesque actor is not, and never will be, a ‘fashionable’ actor. But now and again, the grotesque will be praised to high heaven. By trial, they will hit upon something very rich and entirely unique. I believe that these are special moments indeed. I’m frequently dismayed at the lack of ambition in actors. Too often, it seems sufficient to give one solid performance after another, with no connecting thread. There’s no wider tapestry of meaning; no canvas to splash a wild and colourful paint across. Technique and polish will forever provide the ‘how?’ of acting. But it is each actor’s solemn duty to find their ‘why?’ – a ‘why?’ that differs for every single actor. And rightly so.

Persistently, I’ve discovered my ‘why?’ of acting in the grotesque. Anyone who’s seen me blasting on at full pelt will have some idea what I’m driving at here. Of course, my performances aren’t perfect – not by any means. However, equipped with that clearer ‘why?’, it is my hope that they may get steadily closer to that point.

How to define the grotesque more precisely is something to which we’ll return. What follows represents my present thinking on the subject: five basic principles that underlie the grotesque as I understand it. If they convey one iota of my passion for this unique performance art, then they have done their job splendidly.

1. THE IMPERATIVE OF EXPRESSION: The grotesque is only useful when expressive. Expressive for being heightened, and thus sharpened; good melodrama rather than bad. Only certain actors are inherently grotesque. The beautiful actor is almost never a grotesque. It is, however, always possible to become a grotesque actor. It is something that can be matured into. Age, for this reason, is an inescapably grotesque state. In one sense, the grotesque is a natural state; beauty, as a striving against impossible odds, is admirable yet superficial. We live in a very particular age, obsessed with an even more particular beauty. It is an unhealthy cult. And it continues to drive people dementedly unhappy, which nothing associated with acting should do. We cannot strive successfully to be more beautiful than we are. All humans are in a state of decay; after the short bloom of adolescence, it is the pattern to which life must conform. Better by far, if one is striving for something – and acting is always about striving, always about satisfying some need, some want – to strive for the grotesque. It is only age’s natural pattern, slightly accelerated. We all become wrinkled and hunched; we all become gentle parodies of ourselves. We all empty our heads of irrelevant details and, if we’re lucky, fill them up with wisdom. Manner and mannerisms both, accrued over an entire lifetime. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes particularly brilliantly of ‘the full granaries of the past’:

From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

So clutch at your walking stick and doff your flat cap with pride. By invoking the grotesque, you are also invoking, consciously or unconsciously, the myriad complexities of age. This requires an act of supreme imagination. But once there, you will be mining a quarry of incredible heightened expression.

2. THE IMPERATIVE OF CONTEXT: What type of part are you playing? Grotesque characters tend to be rather small. Take Shakespeare, for example: Macbeth has its Porter; Titus Andronicus has its Clown. It is the Comedies that teem with grotesques: the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing; the prostitutes in Pericles; the playmakers in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s a very limited time for these characters to make their special impact. Whilst they shouldn’t overbalance the whole, they do call for a certain attack: a much greater energy; a heightened style to the conception and execution, almost passing into sketch comedy; a dash of vividness, colour and relish. Dickens’s Public Reading ‘Bardell and Pickwick’, one insane character after another, is a fairly pure example of this.

It’s possible to argue whether such characters should be played as knowingly grotesque. For some, the word conjures up those ghastly scenarios in which comic characters derive lip-smacking, parading pleasure from their oddities. But this is unjust. The difficulty with Shakespeare’s Comedies (and even ‘Bardell and Pickwick’) is primarily one of language. This difficulty shouldn’t be ignored, no matter how pure the reasoning; rather, it should be faced head-on. A production that attempts to derive humour from the text alone will always fall short. But the grotesque can very often bestow an extra-textual grace on a character. Shakespeare himself offers a contextual key – so broad and so subtle that it seems extra-textual. As shown above, Shakespeare’s grotesques tend to form collectives: groups of people striving for a common aim. Their struggle is to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, to prove themselves competent, whether as thespians, peacekeepers, voluptuaries or classicists. The characters don’t trumpet on about this; never does Dogberry or Verges state ‘My! I really must do a better job of holding up these laws in Messina! And whoops-a-daisy! Look what mistakes I’m making!’ These characters are comic in their dread-inability to own up to their incompetence. So are we all comic; so goes the human condition. In the Comedies, Shakespeare created some very basic situations, often heart-rendingly funny and painful, to which we can all relate, regardless of language barriers. The grotesque energises these characters: it diverts an audience’s attention from a tricksy language to the purity and poignancy of the situation.

But Shakespeare makes the pattern apparent even when he isolates his grotesques. Peter in Romeo and Juliet is pretending to be a servant; Elbow in Measure for Measure is pretending to be (again) a policeman. The characters themselves are acting, which again justifies the grotesque approach. There is something deeply touching in these vulnerable creatures, limited forever by the very texts in which they reside, and yet always striving to better themselves and do their duty. This has much to do with why I find the marginal characters in Romeo and Juliet more affecting than the leads. It’s certainly why one’s heart soars when Dogberry, through no brilliance of his own, actually manages to save the day. They are beautiful in their inability to escape their absurdity, like the grotesques of Alice in Wonderland. That’s Shakespeare for you.

A grotesque will occasionally be thrust into the lead: Richard III, for example. The interesting thing about such parts is that they’re often not played grotesque at all. This makes sense. Grotesque actors rarely play the lead; beautiful actors much more often play the lead; beautiful actors rarely stake their vanity on the unremittingly grotesque (when they do, it’s often terrific). However: they are rare grotesque feasts, and always better for being played in a grotesque way. The humanity emerges from the grotesque; not the other way round. Again, it comes down to basic situations, exquisite in their pain: Quasimodo beseeching Esmeralda to see him as beautiful. The reverse of this – the odd grotesque flash amidst a sea of mundanity – is as contrived as can be. An indulgent dressing-up. Who, after all, would choose such a lot? The true grotesque is irretrievably so. Richard III may seduce Lady Anne, but he can’t erase the blot on his soul. His end is tragic from the get-go.

3. TRANSFORMATION IS CENTRAL: I’ve argued at great length elsewhere that transformation is key to acting – to how I perceive and relate to it, at any rate. An element of transformation is indispensable to the grotesque performance. Just how that transformation manifests is variable, though. It may be that the part is a transformation from the ground up; a reconstitution of the actor’s flesh. The results are often otherworldly: Lon Chaney as the Phantom, Laurence Olivier as Othello, Charles Laughton in almost any given part, but most strikingly the Hunchback. It may be that the transformation is lexical. I think to Richard III again, whose metamorphoses in the play-text far exceed any amount of Antony Sher crutch-vaulting or Simon Russell Beale toad-scurrying.

Possibly the purest grotesque performance is one where transformation is presented as a part of the drama. For this reason, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may rank as the ultimate grotesque. The normality (Jekyll) is the basis, the ground-level – but the grotesque (Hyde) is the splendid chemical explosion, the performance’s fulfilment and summit. Countless film actors – John Barrymore (also a legendary Richard III), Fredric March, Spencer Tracy and Christopher Lee, to name a few – have provided a Hyde of magnificent power. A Hyde that relates to their Jekyll, but overwhelms it too – just as Robert Louis Stevenson prescribed. Indeed, the Victorian actor Richard Mansfield was so convincing in his transformations to Hyde that he became a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. A compliment grim but great. We may consider Hyde the dark counterpart to the joys of grotesque transformation:

This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life. And this again, that that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.

‘Caged in his flesh’ is very fine: the grotesque actor must offer constant such flashes. There is an inescapable bravura thrill in a transformation-based performance. The bravura is often (but not always) inescapable for a grotesque actor. Many actors recoil from the bravura, this acting that looks like acting, on the basis that it’s audience exhortation. Cheap tricks, childish, self-adulatory; actor’s theatre. Yes, it is actor’s theatre (genius phrase, that), but it is not self-indulgence: because audiences, by and large, enjoy acting that looks like acting. And this is because an audience vicariously lives out the thrill of the transformation. So often in this life do we long to transform from what we are; such is the impetus for almost any meaningful action; such is alarmingly Stanislavskian. Yet our inhibitions prevent the transformation’s occurrence. As such, we delight in indulging it – in the ‘safe’ context of a drama. By now, it should be clear this is a few steps beyond ‘disguise’ – another insult pelted timelessly at the grotesque actor.

4. BETTER TO GO TOO FAR: It’s universally declaimed in rehearsal rooms that it’s much easier to reduce a huge performance than to heighten a meek and quiet performance. I agree, but not for the reasons that many would. I believe that going too far is absolutely vital for expanding yourself as an actor. This isn’t too different to Michael Chekhov’s oft-quoted psychological gesture: in reaching your character’s furthest limits, you enable yourself to play them at every level. The warm-ups I find most helpful are those that stretch my instrument as far as possible. No, I probably won’t speak at my highest register in that play – but I could. It’s unlikely, I’ll admit, that I’ll clench and unclench my face with such violent fury – but I can and might. Possibility! Restoring possibility! Glorious freedom, glorious liberation – the only release from the rehearsal room tyranny of self-consciousness: flushed cheeks, palpitating heart, and a perpetual shortness of breath. This is the way ahead to attempting something remarkable. Rather than giving a coarse and unwatchable performance, it becomes possible to paint in the grotesque with infinite grace and delicacy. This is the finest grotesque creation.

But even grotesque failures are at least worthy of respect. Seeing the effort in an actor’s performance is, I think, admirable. Bela Lugosi and Kenneth Williams never gave less than their best in often appalling dreck, thus doing their audiences the most gracious service: delivering a performance better than the script (the extra-textual again). Those who scoff at such actors tend to advocate underplaying. Almost by definition, underplaying suggests that there are greater heights to aspire to (thus the ‘under-‘ prefix). But to suggest that there’s a one-hundred percent level that actors’ performances can reach – where they are utterly entrenched in their character and have supreme command of it – is a complacent nonsense. That’s the type of acting that can be counted a failure: the type where the actor feels they’ve nothing left to learn. As ever, the naturalistic camp tries to rubbish this aspect of the grotesque armoury – ‘I can see the wheels turning round’ is the common complaint. Personally, I like to see wheels turning round. That’s surely the point in watching an actor, provided we see the wheels of the character’s thoughts rather than the actor’s. Good melodrama again: the externalisation of emotional impulses. It’s safe to say you won’t see anything turning round in all but the most skilled of underplayers, such as Paul Scofield. Scofield was the least grotesque actor of the twentieth century. Mere mortals require a different route: go too far, always.

5. PAINTERLY UGLINESS: This is a short point; the point of the grotesque as I understand it, and a running theme in the four points above. The language of visual art has peppered this essay. So it seems appropriate to end with Charles Laughton’s great comment on the actor as painter:

Great acting is like painting. In the great masters of fine art one can see and recognise the small gesture of a finger, the turn of a head, the vitriolic stare, the glazed eye, the pompous mouth, the back bending under a fearful load. In every swerve and stroke of a painter’s brush, there is an abundance of life. Great artists reveal the god in man; and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation. Not imitation – that is merely caricature – and any fool can be a mimic! But creation is a secret. The better – the truer – the creation, the more it will resemble a great painter’s immortal work.

The god in man. A grotesque performance is never genuinely repellent or repulsive. It is a representation of those states; repulsion and horror translated into art. German Expressionism is rife with such examples. Take Conrad Veidt’s Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu, even Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang in Metropolis. There is a strange beauty to Cesare, gawky and tapered – not for nothing is he the cinematic twin of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Count Orlok is terrifying, but hardly disgusting – it is the plague-rats that repel us, not Schreck’s dust-encrusted Renaissance gargoyle. And Rotwang is the standard Expressionist makeup of black-and-white, blessed with a manic visage that rises to its expressive challenge. The mechanical hand adds an authorising touch, illuminating the grotesque as man-made man. At its best, the grotesque will always make that which is ugly beautiful.

How would I paint the grotesque? I should think it would be a small sort of person, hampered and burdened by existence, and yet striving and striving – courageously, heroically, most of all stupidly – for that which will raise them up to heaven. It strikes me that the grotesque is a choice for life. So too is it a choice for life in art. Not to present the waxen or the polished or the monumental. But to create people of flesh and blood: quivering, malleable, sensuous.

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