Not to be that type, but this usage is the opposite of what the philosopher JL Austin meant by “performative,” an almost technical term he applied to a speech act that does what it says. The examples are few and specific: when you say “I swear” in court or “fold” at a poker table, you use documents. You can fold your papers reluctantly or by mistake, but not ironically. Words are deeds.
These different definitions suggest an interesting tension in our understanding of what it is to perform, perhaps especially in a world where we assume that everything is done for show. A show is by definition something fake, worn, artificial, self-conscious. And also, by definition, something authentic, convincing, organic, true.
The illusion they create is not that they really are the ones playing, but rather that, whoever they are, we know them.
In his book “The Method”, which will be published early next year, critic and director Isaac Butler identifies the story of this tension as it applies to acting. Starting in pre-revolutionary Russia, a new approach to theater insisted on truth — as opposed to eloquence, applause, or technical skills — as the highest value in acting. His guru was Konstantinos Stanislavsky. The Russian word perezhivanie, commonly referred to as “experience” and described by Butler as “a state of fusion between actor and character”, was the key to Stanislavsky’s system.
The experience of the character is what the actor explores internally and communicates externally, in such a way that the viewer accepts what he knows is not true. We do not confuse Will Smith with Richard Williams, Kristen Stewart with Diana or Bo Burham with himself, but we do believe them nonetheless.
The arrival of Stanislavski’s teaching in America – where it was proclaimed as a Method by teachers such as Harold Clerman, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and practiced by artists such as Elia Kazan, Marlon de Brando and a Kim Jong Un – realism in theater and film. For the actors, the always elusive, you know-when-you-see-model of realism was not so much faithful imitation as psychological truth. There were different ideas on how this could be achieved, but one basic principle was that the performer’s emotions, memories and impulses were tools to dominate the character.
The Method peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, but the mystery of authenticity remains. In popular culture, the “method” now refers to an extreme commitment to blurring the line between character and self, a kind of total identification that is in many ways the opposite of what Stanislavsky and his American followers argued. It means throwing yourself relentlessly at a character: speaking the dialect 24/7. gaining or losing a lot of weight. embraces the strange behavior. neglecting personal hygiene. Not to find the sources of character within you, but to make yourself, almost literally, in character, to get so far into the show that you no longer play.
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