Preparing for Death

It’s just over a year since I played Quasimodo – so I feel it’s high time I wrote something about that.

Actors ranking their own performances is a pretty distorted and nauseating business. Nonetheless, I consider Quasimodo the best performance I’ve so far foisted on the world. I hope I’ll surpass it in the future; there’s otherwise little point in carrying on at this craft. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to realise that the reason Quasimodo worked was because it brimmed with personal resonance; a prism for that which effects and affects me. Really great actors are men (or women) of the moment: those happy few who perfectly suit – or, better yet, challenge – the dramatic requirements of their age. Each generation turns out only a handful of great actors (and let’s be honest: in this brave new world of digital encapsulation, there are many much-admired performers whose reputations won’t hold up). For mere mortals, it’s not within our power to bestride our age, Colossus-like. But there’s nothing to prevent us locating the ‘moment’ within ourselves – by finding the role that sounds most deeply within our souls. If I’ve ever found that, it was with Quasimodo: a part that started an echo that went on and on and on. I am not all Quasimodo – not by any stretch – but I certainly think that Quasimodo was all me.

The most obvious connection is purely physical: I am a hunchback myself. It still feels odd to write such a thing. Is that because the condition itself is uncommon or that the subject remains taboo?

In answer to the first, I can’t believe the condition is as uncommon as is generally assumed. To start with, a hunch is nothing as gruesome as it sounds. Only rarely is it an Elephant Man-like heaping of agitated flesh. Most often (and certainly in my case), it’s an unshakeable stiffness of spine; an exaggeration of a curve which is entirely natural. To be perfectly honest, I imagine that most kyphosis sufferers are undiagnosed – or simply find it more trouble than it’s worth to speak out on their condition. How many dentists or accountants or teachers really need to step outside the kyphosis closet? As an actor, of course, your body is your work – so it’s strange (or perhaps all too understandable) that so few actors are open and honest about it. As far as I’m aware, my spine has never lost me a role. Indeed, like other physical peculiarities – facial hair, extremes of weight, especially picturesque scars – it’s probably made me more ideally suited to many roles. Certainly the grotesque and macabre characters that I enjoy best.

As a person, kyphosis is a pretty rotten condition. As an actor, though, I’ve never considered it a particular disadvantage. The world has no doubt lost my Romeo. The world is remarkably fortunate. Too many young actors get suckered into trying to stay pretty, pert, and often, unintentionally, deeply uninteresting. Reality has always pressed down on me too forcibly, and always in making a mockery of my spine. But at least it’s spared me the humiliation of discovering that a straight-backed James Swanton would make for an almost equally pompous, drippy and ungainly Romeo.

As for the taboo surrounding kyphosis, I’m sure that’s connected with this prevailing climate of hush-hush embarrassment. You don’t have too many role models for this sort of deformity. If you do, they’re invariably negative, at least on the surface – mirror images of the hunchbacked old man staring at the young lovers in certain versions of the tarot (a fascinating read, that article). Quasimodo wasn’t real, of course. Yet historical figures are generally useless. Like the fabled Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral, Pepin the Hunchback is a man defined by his deformity. Moving into the present, I was recently ticked off to find that Richard III’s excavated skeleton bore signs of scoliosis – not kyphosis at all. Damn! What a loss. On review, I suppose the best kyphotic role models are those who don’t draw attention to their impairment. Which is precisely why they’re not known in the first place.

Despite all this, though, Quasimodo was no public airing of my neuroses. If anything, it was testament to my grandiose inability to make the connection. I performed the character without giving the least thought to my spine, except as some vague qualification for impersonating the character, as some vague arbiter of difference. Only afterwards came the medical appointments and the exercise routines and the feelings of crossness and confusion. My mind is so sneaky in other respects – but when it comes to personal truths I am often blinded to the most trouncingly obvious links between things. The first time I fell in love, I was in love for at least six months before I realised I was. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time absorbed in writings like this, I’m appallingly slow on self-knowledge.

OCD can sometimes force my mind into action; I wrote at great length on the subject here, so I won’t go over too much old ground. Just recently, my mind has recently been flicking between my spine and my teeth. It’s an uncompromising dual struggle of ‘I must get these damned teeth straightened’ (they’ve relapsed a bit after some arduous orthodontic work) and the ultimately more pressing ‘ah, but you should probably do something with that dreadful back’. It’s a preposterous situation – in which, ultimately, nothing gets done. No doubt if there was a war on, I’d be bothering myself with that instead.

These are first-world problems. But then, they also link to a universal problem. I’ve flattered myself that my lot is similar to Stephen Fry’s ‘bent nose’ theory of the British monarchy: ‘The trouble with doing a thing for cosmetic reasons is that one always ends up with a cosmetic result – and cosmetic results, as we know from inspecting rich American women, are ludicrous, embarrassing and horrific.’ But I know, deep down, that that’s not it at all.

Mortality is at the root of it. Of that I am certain. I stare at my back and I stare at death. Shades of Andrew Marvell:

But at my back I always hear,
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

This is an expansive (somewhat petulant) statement, so it bears development.

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I’ve long revered the classic horror film. What separates it from the modern horror film is the actor’s contribution – the dying phenomenon of the horror star. And I’m convinced that what the great horror stars did was to prepare us for death. In their performances, they offered up reflections of death – but, in doing so, they made death bearable. Lon Chaney’s Erik, the title menace in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), was the character that first drew me to acting. In the best sense possible, the character is the essence of theatre. The character is also obsessively steeped in death. Erik bears the face of a skeleton, earning him the carnival epithet of ‘the living corpse’. Chaney’s self-applied makeup is unsurpassed: a monolithic memento mori; a nightmarish concoction of tragic clown, Anton Phibes and post-op Michael Jackson. Erik even sleeps in a coffin, which gives rise to a gloriously melodramatic intertitle: ‘It keeps me reminded of that other dreamless sleep that cures all ills – forever!’ I think now of Ray Bradbury’s words on Chaney, which sees actor and character overlap:

Chaney died when I was ten years old. It was the end of the world. I thought at the time that if death could die – and he personified death – if death could die, I wasn’t safe. So his death threatened me. It was the first real outside death in my life that was a terrible event.

Funnily enough, the most famous of Chaney’s other characterisations was Quasimodo – in the 1923 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think playing Quasimodo inevitably brings you back to death. Quasimodo is so much a part of the cathedral that he becomes the cathedral (a vital personal maxim when I rehearsed the character). And the cathedral is a theatre that exalts death into life – whether in stone gargoyles, plaster saints or the blood-charged wine of the Eucharist.

A survey of horror cinema turns up countless reflections of death. There’s the reluctant ‘king of horror’ Christopher Lee – a distant ancestor of Pepin the Hunchback, incidentally, who was Charlemagne’s oldest son. Lee is no hunchback, but due to advanced age (ninety-one this year) he has lost a few inches of his formidable six foot five figure. Where teeth are concerned, Lee possesses some splendidly crooked gnashers – always has, a very strange grace note for the screen’s most prolific Count Dracula (wonder at his lower teeth in the close-up on ‘this was a Dracula indeed!’). Lee’s Dracula always returned from the dead. Indeed, it’s much fun recalling the ludicrous ways he was killed off from 1958 to 1973: burned by the sun (Dracula), drowned in a moat (Dracula: Prince of Darkness), impaled on a giant crucifix (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), falling from a balcony in a deconsecrated church (Taste the Blood of Dracula), struck by lightning (Scars of Dracula), collapsed into a pit of stakes (Dracula AD 1972) and pricked by a hawthorn hedge (The Satanic Rites of Dracula). But these stupid, stupid deaths came with the vital disclaimer that Dracula would always return. Even after Lee had left the Hammer fold, Dracula returned in the guise of John Forbes-Robertson for 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

In life, Lee also seems immortal: the living statesman – however reluctant – for a bygone age of screen horror. On receiving his knighthood, Lee privately said that Peter Cushing should have received the honour. Despite his outward protestations, Lee is aware of his legacy. It is a fine and mighty one.

There’s one other moment that warrants mention: Boris Karloff’s Monster, reaching for the watchtower skylight in Frankenstein (1931). It’s an unforgettable, breathtaking scene, and embodies the sublime verticality – the ascent to the heavens – that I also consider integral to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Karloff’s leading lady Mae Clarke had this to say on the scene:

It was like when we die, the beatific vision, which makes people understand the words: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ears heard, the glories that God has prepared for those who love Him.’

Horror cinema rarely broaches theatre directly. There are a few outstanding exceptions – usually involving Vincent Price, the most eminently theatrical of horror stars. But in what ways does theatre broach death? How is theatre like death?

Well, it ends – and it doesn’t come back. Yet in that ending, it secures a kind of immortality. There’s that wonderfully eloquent phrase from Prospero in The Tempest: ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. Theatre provides a graceful rounding off: the closure that life, with its infinitely tangled and troubled partings, constantly pulls against. The close of a performance is steeped in formality: the lighting changing, the players bowing, the audience clapping, the curtains closing. These trappings endow the chaos of the drama with order. They provide a bearable closure, a perfect closure – and, if the drama wasn’t much good to start with, a very welcome closure. Enacting the death of Quasimodo was no bereavement. It was catharsis, plain and simple.

Death is no doubt a preoccupation of mine. The working titles I have for my one-man Frankenstein and DraculaFrankenstein’s Fate and Dracula’s Death – also prioritise mortality. But I think it’s theatre, drama, storytelling – in whatever form it might take – that makes it all okay.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

One response to “Preparing for Death

  1. I really like this blog, James. It reveals a lot about you. I noticed how much your spine curved in ‘In the Penal Colony.’ It disturbed me (in terms of me wanting to say ‘Stand up straight!) but it also worked well in terms of the character (as it works well with all your characters.) I thought it was just the fact that you’re very tall, but you really have kyphosis? I didn’t know you had a physically contorted spine. It must be very uncomfortable. It’s odd how your physicality works so well with the kind of characters you like to play (and seem to be cast in consistently.) I also love how connected you are to Phantom. That made me smile.

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