Constantin Stanisklavski’s system of acting and Sigmund Freud’s theories on psychology have had a transformative effect on performances in modern theatre and film. One tenet that has been born out of them is the oft-repeated idea that actors need to be their character’s best advocate. I’ve heard another version of this philosophy – that actors must like their character. But what does it even mean to like your character? Actors interpret this idea in a myriad of ways.
Though there is helpful wisdom at the heart of this idea, I’ve seen actors who cling to it get into trouble when the play requires their character to be the bad guy. I was once in a play where a young character was killed, and though the circumstances were ambiguous, the text made it clear who had committed the murder. Since the murder didn’t occur on stage, the actor playing the murderer argued for a more positive situation. His character couldn’t have possibly killed the child out of malicious intent — “It must have been an accident.” This actor refused to play the bad guy.
I once saw a production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling in which the actor playing De Flores gave the most earnest performance I’d ever seen in the role, with a strong sense of De Flores being wronged by the world, and merely misunderstood. But De Flores is a villain. He mentally and physically violates a woman and he kills and mutilates a man. He is an extremely smart character who successfully, and constantly, manipulates those around him. To play De Flores as heartfelt and earnest is to unbalance the entire play. It also robs the audience of the perverse joy we feel in these plays when the villain succeeds.
Having to like your character makes sense through our current lens of psychological realism. Human beings are complicated and don’t fall into easy boxes of “good” and “bad.” Within the classical theatre, however, characters often do fall into those boxes. And while psychological realism can absolutely be applied to great success in the plays of the English early modern stage, actors have to be aware of the traditions out of which their characters comes.
The plays of the English early modern theatre were born out of the medieval morality plays and must be understood in the way they deviate and borrow from that earlier theatrical era. Medieval morality plays traded in stock characters with a set of personified virtues and vices seeking to win control over an Everyman character. These characters represent abstract qualities rather than distinct individuals.This convention made its way into early Elizabethan plays, such as The Three Ladies of London, where the names of the title characters are Lucre (greed), Love, and Conscience.
The most famous of the medieval stock characters is, of course, Vice. Morality plays used vice figures in different ways over the period. Some plays had multiple vice characters, with specific names, such as Lust-Liking or The Seven Deadly Sins. Other plays had one overarching vice character, sometimes simply called Vice. The Vice character often spoke directly to the audience in soliloquies. Many vice characters were also entertaining or comic, so audiences would enjoy watching the character scheme and manipulate. You can see the direct descendant of Vice, and the apotheosis of the character type, in Shakespeare’s Richard III.
I spent a lot of time thinking about villainy as I was preparing to direct John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. In fact, my first rehearsal comments to the cast and production team centered around the notion of villainy. In this Carolinian tragedy, though Vasques is arguably the main villain of the piece, the play is filled with them. In contrast with the modern performance advice to like your character, I asked all the actors to embrace villainy.
In John Ford’s gruesome tragedy, siblings Giovanni and Annabella commit what is seen as a universal horror: incest. Even Vasques, Soranzo’s amoral servant, is taken aback when she learns the news: “Her own brother? O horrible!” Though almost all the characters are aghast at the news of Giovanni and Annabella’s sexual relationship, none of them are without blame. Vasques arranges torture and murder; Soranzo seduces and abandons a lover; Hippolita commits adultery and hopes for her husband’s death; Grimaldi and Hippolita each seek to poison Soranzo; and Richardetto’s selfish actions lead to the death of an innocent victim.
Ford fills his play with unrepentant characters, leaving the audience to question who is the true villain of the piece. The Cardinal wraps up the play pointing the finger squarely at Annabella: “Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ‘’Tis pity she’s a whore?’” But Annabella’s sexual activities were consensual and faithful. The Cardinal moralizes, but we’ve already seen him mishandle justice on behalf of a relative and seize the property and goods of Giovanni and Annabella’s family in order to enrichen the church. Like the rest of the characters, the Cardinal has a compromised ability to judge right from wrong.
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore builds on the form of the Jacobean revenge tragedy and includes not one but five revenge plots. As such the body count at the end of the play is high, and the gruesome tragedy of the play becomes all the more delicious and effective for the audience when the actors are willing to be bad.
– Charlene V. Smith, BST Producing Artistic Director