Acts: Theatre, Philosophy, and the Performing Self, by Tzachi Zamir (University of Michigan), $35/£27.95
The book by Tzachi Zamir, a philosopher who has also studied acting and teaches comparative literature, is a remarkably rich, dense, comprehensive, and breathtakingly insightful book on the experience and nature of the “acts” one undertakes and undergoes as both an actor and as a person in the world outside of theatre. This is a valuable resource that includes rigorous material from the worlds of theatre and other performing arts, performance studies, literature, philosophy, and psychology, but this book is by no means limited to these disciplines in scope. It is written in a style that is accessible to any intelligent reader who wonders about expression, experience, performance and what it means to be, witness, and perform various aspects of our own and others’ selfhood. Acts is not, however, for the faint-of-heart, since it begins with a discussion of theatre art and then ramps up into a candid discussion of acting and role-playing in the worlds of prostitution, pornography, masochism and anorexia.
The overall focus of the book is on how our “acts” in theatre and in our lives affect our personal identities. To fully understand Zamir’s achievement, though, may require the reader to temporarily suspend disbelief and the tendency to judge and criticise before experiencing. I say this because if one constantly stops to ask oneself such things as “But is anorexia really a performed suicidal gesture? Necessarily? In every case?” one misses the chance to think about the world that Zamir is opening up: the world of actors and real persons engaging in role-playing in everyday life. For Zamir the world of acting and role-playing includes many instances where one’s self-identity is enhanced or changed or harmed by activities that often are not successful in maintaining self-preserving boundaries. This is not to say that that this book should not be critiqued in light of ongoing discussions in the fields of research on which Zamir touches. Instead my point here is that the value of this book does not lie in its theoretical content alone. Acts is full of theory but it is also full of the sort of lived truth that first-person experiential accounts provide.
The book is broken down into four parts. Part I, “Life on the Stage,” explores aspects of theatrical practice and experience such as what the actors do as they adopt the attributes of a character in an imaginative way. Zamir says that this sort of acting allows us to amplify our existence by exploring enlarged possibilities for being. He also describes the relationship between the spectator and the actors’ gestures. Part II, “Staging Fictions,” discusses various ways of living more fully through embodied and imaginative engagement with fictional characters. This includes a section on puppetry that provides a metaphor for how actors might think of controlling and infusing an “other” (such as a character) while retaining a control that allows the actor to maintain a separate and unique self.
Part III, “Between Life and Stage,” crosses over from art to life in order to show the continuity and overlap between the two domains. It begins with an exposé of the ethical risks and dangers involved in acting and in directing actors that includes a comparison of professional acting with prostitution. This section includes memorable actors’ memoirs, including one by Marlon Brando that recounts his experience of being sexually harassed by Tallulah Bankhead under the guise of method acting. This section also gives the reader an unflinching view of the lives and experiences of those involved with acting in pornographic films, providing a candid discussion of the ways that porn both is (sometimes) and is not (more often) an expression and amplification of self-identity.
Finally Part IV, “Life as Stage,” explores the transition from what one performs to who one is, discussing the ways of making and re-making the self that take place during acts of masochism (what Zamir calls “theatricalization of love”) and during the self-starvation that takes place in anorexia (what Zamir calls “theatricalization of death”).
By the end of the book the reader is thoroughly exhausted – moved, enlightened, disturbed in some ways, intrigued in others, and left with the sense that his or her scope of understanding and experience had been enlarged and enriched in provocative and not-always-entirely comfortable or pleasurable ways. For theatre-lovers this is a familiar feeling. It’s just how one feels after an experience of good theatre.