Holding the Mirror up to Nature: Method Acting and the Production of a New Reality

Francesca Wodtke

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the fist and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. [Hamlet, III.iii. 16-23]

Hamlet's advice to the actors is to create something so real, that both Claudius and Gertrude see themselves within the roles presented on the stage. That is his hope, and that's what occurs later on in the play. The show is so convincing in its emulation of reality that the King becomes immersed within it, seeing himself in the role, and thus leading to the climax of the scene: his startled rising, "frighted with false fire," and his frantic calls for light and the dispersal of the courtiers and players alike. The players in Shakespeare's Hamlet, are striving to simulate reality, to produce a play so real that it becomes real. Perhaps the dumb show is the reality and the actions of the King and Gertrude are simply mirror images of what occurs. After all, we never witness Claudius killing his brother. Is the image presented in the dumb show such a powerful illusion that it becomes reality in itself?

Have you ever watched a play, or indeed a film, which is so real that you have to open your eyes and blink at the end to shake yourself back into the mode of reality? Ever seen a role played in a piece of theatre that is so convincing, you forget that it's your favorite actor? Ever watched an actor play a role in a television series that becomes so normalized and so regular, that their real person adopts the persona of the character and their acting name is forever lost to the name of the character in the show? Ever thought that this simulation of reality might possibly be an alteration of reality in itself? Perhaps when we strive to simulate reality, the ultimate effect is to generate a new reality. As an actress, I strive to generate a new reality. I like the idea of method acting. I like the idea that if I appear angry on the stage, it is because I am genuinely angry within. Nothing can be worse than being forced to witness false acting: acting which in a sense, preserves original reality and does not allow it to be replaced by the simulated world of the characters in the play, thus altering the reality that we know.

And isn't reality what occurs when the actor employs the technique of method acting? Or is that just simulation? The actor must play the role of a disabled man in a wheel chair, so he spends six months in a wheel chair, his legs going into atrophy, his arms stronger than they have ever been in his life. He experiences sympathy and people look down upon him (both literally and figuratively). After his six months, has the actor really become disabled? Baudrillard writes "To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have" [Simulacra & Simulation, p. 3]. Littré takes this further to say, "Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. [But] Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms." By finding his role through method acting, the actor must, by definition, develop some of the symptoms of the disabled character that he plays. Thus, simulation becomes reality, or it replaces reality, which in a sense makes reality not void, but different, altered, fresh and new.

I like Baudrillard's ideas regarding simulation. More often than not, we strive to achieve simulation in life: photographs as a copy of real places and real times, copies of paintings, postcards, posters as an emulation of the real thing, actions which portray us as what we want to be rather than what we really are, leading to a simulated persona. However, I think Baudrillard fails in his claims that simulation has replaced reality, for once this has occurred, it surely follows that the simulation becomes reality in itself. A photograph of the Mona Lisa, may not carry the aura of the actual painting, but it is still in itself an new embodiment of the painting. It does not pretend to be the real painting, but it exists in reality, as a copy of the original: no more, no less.

Actors on the stage, particularly method actors, strive to simulate, and by doing so, create a new reality. A reality for the audience, and a reality for themselves. Their simulation or reflection of reality in the mirror, produces a new, altered version of reality, but just because it is a reflection, it is no less real. So Baudrillard, get things straight: surely one who creates simulation is one who creates a new reality, just as one who develops fake symptoms, creates real symptoms.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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