THE ART OF THEATRE: 9 Character: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

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The Independent Culture
STRINDBERG, in his preface to Miss Julie, launched a famous assault on the notion of character as fixed and finite:

The bourgeois conception of the immutability of the soul became transferred to the stage . . . a character, there, became a man fixed in a mould, who always appeared drunk, or comic, or pathetic, and to establish whom it was only necessary to equip with some physical defect, such as a club-foot, a wooden leg or a red nose, or else some repeated phrase . . . (trs Michael Meyer)

Few wooden legs these days. The modern equivalent is the formative childhood trauma: 'I'll never forget . . .' There follows whatever shaped our hero's personality for evermore: the sight of Grandad in his coffin, a kitten called Spot, you name it. A close runner-up is the fad: collecting old Motown records or liking spinach. This is what's called 'fleshing out': a technique much beloved of script experts and Hollywood producers. Don Siegel, defending a Clint Eastwood vehicle from one such, echoed Strindberg:

the more you describe, analyse and explain a character, the less real he becomes. The trick is to suggest, to try to leave holes, problems, questions . . .

So much for the actor's perennial wail of 'my character wouldn't do that'. We all act out of character all the time, depending on who we're with. Is A with the kids the same as A with the boss? Is B in love the same as B spending Boxing Day with her parents? Hence Edward Bond's reliable rule that each character in a play should meet as many of the other characters as possible. How else can we see them in depth? (To skimp, he adds, is extremely wasteful.)

Rafts and Dreams opens rivetingly. Hetty, Neil and Leo no sooner open their mouths than we believe they exist - ie we want to know more. The descriptions, by the way, are irrelevant. (Such descriptions always are. 'She is so oversized for a woman that she is almost a freak . . . Her sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep with large, firm breasts . . . the map of Ireland is stamped on her face, with its long upper lip and small nose . . .' says Eugene O'Neill at the start of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Come off it, Gene: find someone to act the part, even if she's four foot two.)

So you can forget 'tall and wiry'. The thing that grips you is what - for the moment - defines these three and is shown in action: Hetty's phobic crisis, Neil's lively interest in it. (A bit too lively, given that he's only just met her. What's his problem? We'll find out later.) And Leo is seen in action too. Pentimento-like, his past bleeds through into the present. Before Neil arrived, he knew exactly what Hetty needed: more door-stops. Now he sounds plaintive and insecure. Hetty answers him awkwardly, Neil not at all. Three lives are changing.

Joxer Daly is static. He twitches, he shrugs, he has a catchphrase. He seems on the face of it to be a classic example of the kind of writing Strindberg couldn't stand. But the cliches aren't O'Casey's: they're Joxer's own. Joxer is starving. In the hope of a cup of tea or - extravagant hope - a free egg, he's turned himself into a 'character'. That it's a fake and demeaning view of what people are like is what's so tragic about him, and so evil.

HETTY is 24. She is tall and almost anorexic in her slenderness.

LEO, her husband, is 22. He is tall and wiry. He has 'Hetty' tattooed across the fingers and thumb of one hand.

NEIL is 26. He is bright and slightly portly.

HETTY is nervous and agitated. She breathes in as she speaks.

HETTY: My arm accidentally brushed the door as we came in.

NEIL: Take a deep breath. (HETTY does so again.) What would you normally do?

HETTY: I'd push the door open with my toes.

LEO: The doors are kept ajar for 'er. I mean, that's what I've done. I've put door-stops on.

NEIL: What would you like to do?

HETTY (breathes in): I'd like to wash my hands. And my arm.

LEO: I mean it stops 'er being a prisoner, yer know.

HETTY: I don't like to touch the handles. I am a prisoner.

LEO: I meant of one room.

NEIL: What's your anxiety now?

HETTY: High.

RAFTS AND DREAMS by Robert Holman, Act One, Scene One

JOXER steps cautiously into the room . . . his face is like a bundle of crinkled paper; his eyes have a cunning twinkle; he is spare and loosely built; he has a habit of constantly shrugging his shoulders with a peculiar twitching movement, meant to be ingratiating. His face is invariably ornamented with a grin.

JOXER: It's a terrible thing to be tied to a woman that's always grousin'. I don't know how you stick it - it 'ud put years on me. It's a good job she has to be so often away, for (with a shrug) when the cat's away, the mice can play]

BOYLE (with a commanding and complacent gesture): Pull over to the fire, Joxer, and we'll have a cup 'o tay in a minute.

JOXER: Ah, a cup o' tay's a darlin' thing, a daaarlin' thing - the cup that cheers but doesn't . . .

JOXER's rhapsody is cut short by the sight of JUNO, coming forward and confronting the two cronies. Both are stupefied.

MRS BOYLE (with sweet irony - poking the fire and turning her head to glare at JOXER): Pull over to the fire, Joxer Daly, an' we'll have a cup o' tay in a minute] Are you sure, now, you wouldn't like an egg?

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK by Sean O'Casey, Act One

Next week: Parties

(Photograph omitted)