Sunday 2 June 2024

Faking It

There is a mythical story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, who co-starred in Marathon Man. At some stage of the filming the plot required Hoffman to be exhausted from sleeplessness. So Hoffman stayed awake for three nights until he was exhausted – and ready for filming. Olivier is reputed to have asked, ‘Have you ever thought of acting?’

There is a profound misunderstanding in this malicious anecdote about the nature of acting. A false opposition of technique (faking it) and method (living it), of trained Olivier versus literalist Hoffman. Acting is like literature in this respect. We read a book. We cry over the fate of its characters. We know the characters are not real. This is the theme of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: their fate is assigned by Stoppard’s title and Shakespeare’s antecedent play. They are fictions without back stories, they are without free will. Yet they have the illusion of free will – illustrated by the boat that takes them to England and their deaths. On the boat, they are free to walk around, to choose their movements, direct their actions – but they cannot alter the course of the boat or their destiny. Guildenstern reflects that the nails grow after death – an emblem of their situation. When they look for their pasts, they discover they are effectively non-existent. Is Hamlet their friend? Guildenstern tells Rosencrantz: ‘You only have their word for it.’
Craig Raine, Heartbreak (London: Atlantic Books, 2010), pp. 114-115.