Wallace Stegner, now in his 80’s, is still writing. In April 1990, The Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner was published to wide acclaim. In 1987, his tenth novel, Crossing to Safety, was published, 50 years after publication of his first, Remembering Laughter. So far, Stegner has written 31 books, a literary achievement of remarkable proportions.
Stegner has summed up his present situation: “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it, you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it. It’s like a beaver’s teeth. He has to chew or else his jaws lock shut.”
Stegner is, however, well known in several distinct roles: prize-winning novelist (Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, National Book Award for Spectator Bird); founding director of the Stanford University creative writing program which bears his name; biographer, historian, essayist, editor; and conservationist. Stegner is often called an environmentalist who also writes. But he describes himself as a writer who sometimes leaves his desk to act in environmental causes. His respect for the natural environment is central to his character.
Stegner’s writings—both fiction and nonfiction—focus mainly on the West. “I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I’ve got an exaggerated sense of place . . . my personal experiences are all I surely know, and those experiences are very likely to be rooted in places.”
Like most writers, Stegner’s fiction starts from his own experience. But, you can’t “really go out and commit experience in order to write about it. You have to take it after it has happened to you and make some sense out of it. . . . I can’t [think of] anything you can imagine with except the facts of real life, but you don’t have to be restricted by them . . . you break experiences up into pieces, and you put them together in different combinations, . . . and some are real and some are imagined.”
Stegner admits to having blurred the boundaries between history and fiction. “In several historical works I have attempted to enliven history by what seems to me expressions of the kind of fictional truth we’re after.”
Stegner’s most autobiographical work, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, yields insights into the origins of the most important themes of his life and writings—how man relates to his family and to his surrounding environment. He is Bruce, a young boy sharing with his mother his thoughts about growing up.
“People [thought Bruce] . . . were always being looked at as points, and they ought to be looked at as lines. There weren’t any points, it was false to assume that a person ever was anything. He was always becoming something, always changing, always continuous and moving, like the wiggly line on a machine used to measure earthquake shocks. He was always what he was in the beginning, but never exactly what he was; he moved along a line dictated by his heritage and his environment, but he was subject to every sort of variation within the narrow limits of his capabilities.”
From his days as a graduate student onward, Stegner’s line was up and out—achievement building on achievement.
Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 on his grandfather’s farm in Lake Mills, Iowa. He was the son of a rugged father who moved his family all over the West looking for opportunities, and of a mother who, in spite of isolation and loneliness, followed her nesting instincts and created a home wherever the family happened to be.
When Stegner was five, the family moved to Eastend, Saskatchewan, living at first in a derailed dining car. Stegner’s father built a gabled house in the town and a shack on the homestead 40 miles away where they spent their summers growing wheat. Stegner still feels the pull of the land that formed him. “You get imprinted very early. Those savannas, prairies, were where people first became human. There’s certainly something in all the people that I’ve ever known who grew up in short grass country that simplifies the world. I think it’s useful to grow up where people have the dignity of rareness.”
Stegner captures this atmosphere in his nonfiction work, Wolf Willow (1961).
“The plain spreads southward, an ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain. It has its remembered textures: winter wheat heavily headed, scoured and shadowed as if schools of fish move in it; spring wheat with its young seed-rows as precise as combings in a boy’s wet hair; gray-brown summer fallow with the weeds disked under; and grass, the marvelous curly prairie wool, tight to the earth’s skin, straining the wind as the wheat does, but in its own way, secretly.”
. . . The people are “mystical, egocentrical, perhaps poetic . . . but not humble. . . . At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”
Eastend in those days was a frontier. The river was still full of beavers and muskrats. “We were all just turned loose, carrying guns by the time we were eight or nine—22’s and shot guns not bee bee guns. That’s a part of my childhood that I’d just as soon live down because in frontiers like that you just grow up killing things. I suppose half the reason I’m concerned about nature now is that I spoiled enough of it when I was young and ignorant.”
Stegner spent a lot of time living close to nature. He ran a trap line out on the homestead. “I was killing gophers—two dozen a day. Every once in a while, I’d catch something else. A weasel, or a black footed ferret, or a badger. Even hawks on occasion. It’s too lively to let something like that loose. Generally you end up stoning it because you can’t do anything else. I learned quite a lot about animals. By destroying them.”
During those years, Stegner had lots of time to use his imagination. “For one thing, there weren’t very many children in that town. I suppose Eastend had 500 people. There may have been 75 children. We all went to the same Sunday school, the same parties, the same school, which had just four rooms. You didn’t like everybody and they didn’t all like you. But you knew them. You had a sense of society, and sometimes a sense of excitement. It was a new community, and it was just starting. It had all kind of things going on in it. You don’t understand them when you’re growing up in it but sometimes you do later.”
During the summers, his brother Cecil, two years older, worked and lived in town, while he lived with his parents on the homestead helping with the wheat crop. “For a couple of summers,” he says, “I was entirely alone. I hardly saw another kid. In a place that doesn’t have any people at all and no signs of people. No buildings in sight, no trees, no anything; you’re just out on a geometrical disc.” Stegner captured this in a short story, “Bugle Song,” which he later incorporated into Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Stegner describes himself during those Saskatchewan years as a “little savage.” From Big Rock Candy Mountain, the reader also knows he was sickly and small and often fearful of his abusive father. “I grew up hating my weakness and my cowardice and trying to pretend that neither existed.”
He gave no thought to writing then. He never met a writer until after college. “So there wasn’t any literary ambition. I didn’t make up songs or go around chanting into the grass.”
Stegner did write on the air, until he was teased about it and stopped. “I did it in the middle of ball games or anywhere else. I wrote whatever was in my head. I hadn’t any idea what it was. Whatever word came to mind.”
Stegner feels that living in the country was good for developing observational skills. “When there isn’t a lot to catch your eye, you keep looking for things to catch your eye. Ants will get very interesting to you.”
When Stegner was eleven, the family moved to Great Falls, Montana.
“I left Saskatchewan mourning what I had left behind and scared of what we were going toward, and one look at my mother told me she was feeling the same way. . . . I was a nester like my mother; I loved the place I was losing, the place that my living had worn smooth.”
But Great Falls became a turning point, for he now had access to a public library. “It wasn’t until [we moved again to] Salt Lake City, that I began to be a real addict. I would go down to the library two or three times a week to bring away three or four books each time, without any direction.”
Stegner says he “took shelter” in social groups as an adolescent. In Salt Lake City “you could go to the Boy Scouts, or you could go to the Mormon wardhouse [he was not a Mormon], and I was grateful for it because I was a kind of lone particle, and I was looking for something to attach to.”
Since he had skipped the seventh and tenth grades, Stegner graduated from high school at 16, with his older brother Cecil.
“I hadn’t even started to grow. I probably weighed 90 pounds about the time we stood up together on this graduation platform. That could be difficult for [Cecil] . . . I was held to be smarter than he was, but I was such a runt he couldn’t help being ashamed of me. Nevertheless we got on very well, and we were good friends, partly because we were in no sense competitive. He didn’t go on to college. He played semipro baseball and worked in the mines and married early.” Cecil died of pneumonia at 23.
At the University of Utah, Stegner started in economics but, encouraged by an English teacher, changed his major to English in his sophomore year. He graduated from Utah in 1930, and went to the University of Iowa for graduate studies, receiving his Ph. D. in American Literature in 1935. In 1934 he married his wife, Mary, also a graduate student in English, and thus established a relationship that lasts to this day.
At Iowa he started writing in earnest. He had not written for the Utah college paper, partly because he worked 40 hours a week for a linoleum company. He says, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be—maybe make a living selling linoleum . . . I can’t claim I ever had a dedication to the arts. I was going into business but [this was the Depression and] there was no business. I guess I’ve been a kind of weathervane, taking the line of least resistance, going wherever friends who knew better kept pushing me.”
Stegner credits the encouragement from his college professors for making a difference in his writing. “I was patted on the head. It keeps you going. When I was at Iowa, they let you write stories for an M.A. thesis. I didn’t write during the years of my Ph. D. Then I wrote a story and it became a chapter later in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Stegner was paid $25 for the story.
After graduation from Iowa and a semester of teaching at a small college in Illinois, Stegner returned to the University of Utah, where he taught for the next three years.
Stegner likes to tell the story of writing his first novel. He saw the notice of a contest. Since he did not have a class to teach until 10 o’clock, he wrote for two hours every morning until he finished Remembering Laughter.
This first work won the 1937 Little-Brown prize and $2,500. On the strength of it, Stegner quit his teaching job at Utah, and he and Mary bicycled around England and France for a summer. When his prize money was spent, he took the first job offered: instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, he went on to Harvard, where he taught composition for six years as assistant professor. During that time, he wrote On a Darkling Plan (1940), Fire and Ice (1941), and Mormon Country (1942).
Then in 1943, Big Rock Candy Mountain was published. This was the novel that brought Stegner fame and commercial success.
Big Rock Candy Mountain took six years to write. “The whole experience of writing that novel was, in a sense, cathartic, because I had to re-create a lot of my past, and it was a long way past.”
Stegner says he was exorcising his father in the novel. “The dominant figure in your life probably is your father . . . and if he happens himself to be mixed-up, irritable, and frustrated, and to feel himself many times a failure—those things do bounce off the child’s head and leave knots. . . . The effect, I’m sure, of such a dominating and hair-trigger kind of father on many kids is to breed a kind of insecurity which may never be healed. I was probably looking for security.”
Stegner writes in Big Rock Candy Mountain about Bo Mason, modeled after his father:
“He was born with the itch in his bones. . . . He was always telling stories of men who had gone over the hills to some new place and found a land of Canaan, made their pile, got to be big men in the communities they fathered. But the Canaans toward which Bo’s feet had turned had not lived up to their promise. People had been before him. The cream, he said, was gone. He should have lived a hundred years earlier.
“Yet he would never quite grant that all the good places were filled up. There was somewhere, if you knew where to find it, some place where money could be made like drawing water from a well, some Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.”
Stegner’s father committed suicide in 1940, three years before Big Rock Candy Mountain was published. Stegner says he could not have published the book when his father was alive.
Stegner agrees with those who think that the women in his fiction often seem stronger than the men. This stems in part from his relationship with his mother. He says “a lot of it is recollected in something less than tranquility. That was a hard life for a woman—very lonely and isolated and periodically yanked up by the roots.”
Stegner describes his mother as “gentle and affectionate, yet at the same time very durable. . . . She could take the kind of life that she got handed. But it killed her, too. She died at 50, so I never really knew her in my later life.” [Stegner was 24 at the time of his mother’s death.] “We got on very well; I could talk with her endlessly, and did. . . . She had a lot of cultural hungers and a real cultural capacity. She was a reader.”
His mother had not gone beyond the sixth grade; she helped raise her brothers and sisters after her mother died. Stegner says her life was “terribly limited. . . . She never met anyone who had an education or ideas. Nobody who had traveled anywhere. She had to do what a lot of women in the past have had to do—get a vicarious life out of her children.”
In 1944, Stegner took a leave from Harvard for a year and a half to work on One Nation, a book that examines the conditions of racial minorities in the United States. This project, initiated by Look Magazine, was published in 1945.
At the end of this assignment, Stanford University offered Stegner a full professorship. He says, “I came like a nine-inch trout on a copper trolling line. . . . I arrived at Stanford just as the GI students were flooding back, the best students, and the most motivated, that any professor ever had. Many of them were gifted writers. They had so much to say and they had been bottled up for two or three or four years. They were clearly going to have to be handled somewhat differently from the ordinary 18-year-old undergraduate.”
With these students in mind, he drew up a proposal for a writing program—a combination of fellowships, prizes, visiting writers, and short publications. He presented it to Richard Foster Jones, then head of the Stanford English department. When his brother, Dr. E.H. Jones, who had discovered oil on his Texas property, learned about the proposal, he offered funding for five years. The half-millon dollars in the E.H. Jones Endowment paid for the major part of the program for the next 30 years.
The models for the program were Iowa, Harvard, and Bread Loaf near Middlebury, Vermont. Stegner had participated for several years in the two-week Bread Loaf Writers’ summer workshop. There he began his friendships with Bernard De Voto, Robert Frost and others. He says, “It was a nice place but it was a kind of two week bedlam. If it had lasted one day longer, divorces and murders and all kinds of things might have taken place. Two weeks and you just got out in time.”
Over the years, many well-known writers have come through the Stanford creative writing program. Stegner says, “It’s like being a basketball coach with great recruiters. Somehow or other, Stanford is a great recruiter. Good people have come here. They always make the coach look good. Sometimes, someone of quite exceptional quality comes along—like Bob Stone, or Wendell Berry, or Larry McMurtry or Tom McGuane. A lot of American literature got written out of that program by those people and others. I had a sense as they were coming through my class that I was seeing American literature before it was in print.”
Stegner’s teaching was always in conflict with his own writing. “It was hard to write novels while I was teaching because for one thing, I was reading students’ novels. As Frank O’Connor used to say, “When you get more interested in your student’s novel than your own, you’re in trouble.”“
Stegner asked Richard Scowcroft, his former student at the University of Utah, to come from Harvard to assist him with the program. For the next 25 years, Stegner and Scowcroft alternated teaching the writing workshop; Stegner generally took summer and fall quarters off to write himself.
Stegner has said that he thinks literacy and grammar can be taught; he does not believe people can be taught to be imaginative. “You can encourage them to be. But if the spark isn’t there, I don’t think they can be taught to write. The spark is a gift. Character, stamina and other things go into it, too. A lot of it is luck.”
During the 1950’s, Stegner published two collections of short stories as well as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. With his wife, Mary, he edited Great American Short Stories. Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel was published in 1950.
Ten years elapsed before Stegner published another novel, A Shooting Star, in 1961. About this hiatus, Stegner says he was discouraged by the way his books were received, so, he stopped writing novels for a period. A Shooting Star is not a book he is fond of now. “It came dangerously close to being a soap opera,” he says.
Stegner and his wife, Mary, served as West Coast editors for Houghton Mifflin for eight years. He scouted his own Stanford students as possible authors and published his cousin, Tom Heggen, who wrote Mister Roberts.
All the Little Live Things was published in 1967, a story about a retired couple living in Los Altos Hills who become close to a neighbor, a young married woman who is dying of cancer. Stegner still gets letters from readers of this work who have lost a relative or friend to cancer. He was feeling grim when he wrote the novel. “In one year,” he says, “four of our friends died of cancer . . . all relatively young women in their forties.” Stegner says “I knew from the beginning that it was too glum a subject, a downer, unless I could do something with the surface of it to make it look lighter than it was. That’s when I invented Joe Alston [as the narrator]. He’s a composite. The part of him that gave him his profession and something of his exacerbated willful irony was my former agent, Carl Brandt, who was always threatening to write a book called “what I have done for 10 percent.”“
Stegner says that when he moved to Los Altos Hills in 1948, there were a lot of people retiring to California as well as a lot of young people rushing in. “This was right after World War II when the growth in California took place . . . . It made for a rather prickly situation. Some people wanted California to stay a pastoral paradise but others thought “tear up those orchards in Santa Clara valley and plant factories.”” Stegner mixed up these ideas in Joe Alston. “I liked the chance to be crabby if I felt like being and put it in somebody else’s mouth.” Stegner is quick to point out, however, that he is not Joe Alston. “He’s wittier than I. I say that even though I made him. He turns things into wisecracks and recovers from them or dismisses them in ways I can’t. He is also angrier than I am. He gets more emotionally involved and mad about things. About his child [who committed suicide], about the hippie [living] down below, about all kinds of things that draw his wrath, he’s a firecracker. Whereas, I think I boil at a little higher temperature.” Stegner says he was never a frustrated writer like Joe. “I was always in one way or another, able to do what I most wanted to do which was write.”
In All the Little Live Things, Stegner draws on his own experiences, his own sense of place. “I’m writing right off this hill. I’m looking at it out my window as I put it down, and I’m dealing with the problems that a bedroom town like this encounters on its way to becoming a community. I’m looking at the kinds of neighbors we have had, the kinds of people they are, and the kinds of lives they live.”
Stegner published The Sound of Mountain Water in 1969, a collection of personal essays written over a period of more than 20 years. He writes in the Introduction: “. . . if these essays begin in innocence, with a simple-minded love of Western landscapes and Western experience, they move toward the attempt, more systematically made in other books of mine, to understand what it is one loves, what is special or fragile about it, and how far love will take us.”
“One minute I was looking out my study window into the greeny-gold twilight under the live oak, watching a towhee kick up the leaves, and the next I saw that the air beyond the tree was scratched with fine rain. Now the flagstones are shining, the tops of the horizontal oak limbs are dark-wet, there is a growing drip from the dome of the tree above, the towhee’s olive back had melted into umber dusk and gone.”
Stegner retired from Stanford at age 62 in 1971, in part to have full time to devote to his writing and in some part due to the disillusionment of teaching in the 1960’s. It was a demoralizing time for him because the students could not keep their minds on their work. “A lot of the aggressive ones came with answers instead of questions. . . . The undergraduate classes were a shambles. There were all kinds of expression of the repudiation of authority. The University wasn’t replacing the broken windows; we were a plywood university until it all passed.” There were a lot of “serious dedicated [writing students] whose minds were not political at all who wanted to come here and get the most out of a fellowship year and write their book. But they were being shattered and shaken up. So that was one of the principal reasons I resigned. I didn’t want to go on teaching under those circumstances.”
Angle of Repose was published in 1971. The critics thought it was his best, awarding it the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. Stegner said: “It cost me the most in effort and thought. And it comes closest to what I think I understand about the culture I [came] from.”
Angle of Repose grew from Stegner’s study of the life and letters of Mary Halleck Foote, writer and illustrator, who followed her mining-engineer husband west from New York in the 1870’s. In the novel, their travels are re-created by their grandson, Lyman Ward, an historian, who, 100 years later, links their lives to his.
Initially, Stegner considered writing a biography of Mary Halleck Foote, but her story did not interest him enough. “But, I discovered somewhere deep in one of the letters a veiled illusion to her husband’s alcoholism. He was full of disappointments and constant trouble. So I began to see a novel, and I spent another year just reading around in the letters to see what novel I thought was there. And eventually, quite without my inclination or knowledge, it became a kind of second run of The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The nesting woman and the booming man, which is an old western theme.” Stegner says it was “probably in my bones.”
The angle of repose is the angle of rest at around 30 degrees at which loose dirt will stop sliding. “I guess I used that title because it suggested something which was inevitable given certain conditions. You have to find [the angle]. You roll until you make your own slope. Those two people rolled quite a lot and, in a way, never succeeded in making their own slope. But in another way, did. . . . They were still a marriage. They were still bonded mutually, respectfully in their curious, mixed way. And lastingly.”
In the novel, Lyman Ward tells his son, Rodman, that as he goes through his grandmother’s letters and memorabilia, he is writing a book about a marriage.
“What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.”
Here we have again Stegner creating a strong sense of place. Susan Burling Ward writes about the Idaho territory to her friend back east.
“[This] is a place where silence closes about you . . . where a soft, dry wind from great distances hums through the telephone wires and a stage road goes out of sight in one direction and a new railroad track in another. There is not a tree, nothing but sage. As moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens. The wind has magic in it, and the air is full of birds and birdsong . . . . Not a house, windmill, hill—only that jade-gray plain with lilac mountains on every distant horizon.”
Stegner published The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard De Voto in 1973. In his Introduction, he says:
“We were both Westerners by birth and upbringing, novelists by intention, teachers by necessity, and historians by the sheer compulsion of the region that shaped us . . . The same compulsion that made amateur historians of us made us conservationists as well.”
Stegner published a second Joe Alston book, Spectator Bird, in 1976, and it won the National Book Award. By now Joe is almost 70 and, supposedly, is writing a book about his life as literary agent. Mainly, he is going through old albums and letters. A postcard arrives from a woman in Denmark, a one-time romantic interest, causing him to reread his journals of a trip he and his wife had taken to Denmark years before.
Stegner wanted to write a story about crossing the Atlantic on the Stockholm. “I had to write that up and, having written it, I began to cobble on the basis of that. We did live in Denmark for six months so I had a notion of the country. I did run across the trail of a Danish nobleman, a great breeder of horses, who was thrown in jail for incest which struck me as a nice theme, and we did meet Karen Blixen. So I was pulled into the Gothic tale, by a succession of recollections that didn’t come all at once.”
When asked if there is to be a third Joe Allston book, Stegner laughs and says Joe would really be crotchety now.
In 1979, Recapitulation was published. Stegner calls it a “trailer” to The Big Rock Candy Mountain, but more fictionalized. By that time, he did not need a catharsis. In the novel, we find Bruce now a diplomat in his 7O’s, returning to Salt Lake City to attend the funeral of an aunt. During his stay, his memories confront his adolescence and, in particular, his hatred for his father. By looking back, he is able to see things more clearly, in a different light, and come to a sense of acceptance of his past, a reconciliation.
Stegner’s environmental concerns began after World War II. He has written: “Natural things soothe my soul, and I like to help preserve them if possible.” Bernard De Voto urged Stegner to oppose actively a bill that would have divested the government of all its grazing lands. Stegner later joined many other conservationists to support legislation to prohibit construction of dams in national parks. In 1961, Stegner served as assistant to Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, joining the campaign for a wilderness bill.
Stegner wrote at the time:
“It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such a wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs, the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live, can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles . . . they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know . . .”
The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in September 1964, designating nine million acres of wilderness areas on the American public lands. Stegner subsequently became a board member of the Sierra Club, founded the Committee for Green Foothills and has served on the National Parks Advisory Board.
With his son Page, also a novelist and writer about the environment, Stegner published in 1981 a book of essays about wilderness areas in the United States entitled American Places.
Crossing to Safety, Stegner’s latest novel, was published in 1987. It is a story of a 34-year friendship between two couples—Larry and Sally Morgan from the West and Sid and Charity Lang, Easterners—who meet in 1938 as young academics at the University of Wisconsin. Through life’s ups and downs, they remain devoted and loyal and as a final test of friendship, Charity, the most vividly drawn of the four characters, has summoned the Morgans from New Mexico to Vermont to help her die.
Stegner thinks that friendship is not a “notion,” but a “series of acts, a relationship that is constantly changing. Somewhere in the Berkeley Library, the hero of the novel, [Larry Morgan], runs across Henry Adams, who says that “Chaos is a rule of nature, and order a dream of man.” This novel is about the tension between chaos and order, and how friendship is an effort at order.”
Stegner planned to use the words of his friend, Robert Frost, as an epigraph but found in them instead his title:
“I could give all to Time except—except What I myself have held. But why declare The things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There And what I would not part with I have kept.”
Stegner says there is a kind of crossing to safety for each character in the novel. “Every one of these four lives crosses to a different kind of safety. And crosses something different. And takes with him something different.”
Stegner wrote this book on a theme, something he doesn’t ordinarily do. He says, “It’s a portrait of a friendship and I made everybody in the book fit the theme of the friendship.”
Larry Morgan, the narrator, thinks about what friendship is. “Friendship,” he decides, “is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.”
In thinking about the long friendship between the Morgans and the Langs, Larry concludes: “We made plenty of mistakes, but we never tripped anybody to gain an advantage, or took illegal shortcuts when no judge was around. We have all jogged and panted it out the whole way.”
When asked if this novel is as much about marriage as about friendship, Stegner said, “Marriage is a form of friendship. Friendship is a form of marriage. Put it either way. It’s a close, intimate, forgiving relationship.”
The friendship between the women is the more intense. “I know it’s fashionable to suggest there was a lesbian relationship, but there wasn’t. I think friendship can be stronger for not having to cross sexual picket lines.”
Contrasts are a conscious part of the craft of this novel. Stegner says, “I wanted a contrast between a poor boy on the make [Larry Morgan] and one who is essentially born with a gold spoon in his mouth [Sid Lang]. And I had to give the poor boy some way of making it, so I took the easiest way out and made him a writer. Rich, poor, part of the ambiguous nature of friendship—the gratitude and other kind of things which can foul up a friendship and cloud it.”
In the book, the difficult but generous Charity says, “Friends don’t have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is.”
Stegner strikes a balance between his characters. “Larry has what Sid wished he had—a talent for writing. Sid and Charity both in the way of money and advantages and education and so on have what Larry and Sally would like. Sally is a stabler character than any of them but she gets polio.” And in spite of determination and manipulation, Charity doesn’t get what she wants.
Larry Morgan comes at the end to the realization that “Sid Lang best understands that my marriage is as surely built on addiction and dependence as his is.” Sid needed Charity’s domination even as it debilitated him. Larry is tied by the inexorable chains of love to Sally, whose polio is doomed to return at the end of her life. He doubts if he can survive her. Larry also realizes that the affliction of Sally’s polio can be a “rueful blessing. It has made her more than she was; it has let her give me more than she would ever have been able to give me healthy; it has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude.”
Stegner began this book as a memoir, not a novel. “I was just trying to get some friends of ours down where I could understand them. It turned out to be a novel because I invented a whole lot more than I intended. I was going to do this one right straight from life but I can’t do that. I’m not to be trusted with life; I keep inventing it.”
He spent 40 years trying to understand “a lady whom we loved but who was constantly standing people on their ears. There was a Charity. She is dead. But I wanted to get her said. All of her children suffered from her inordinately because she bore down on them. She couldn’t do anything except in her own way.” This included insistence on arranging the details of her own death.
Death is another theme in Crossing to Safety. Larry Morgan says, “. . . if you could forget mortality . . . you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive, as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creature of later eras.”
Stegner says that “biological mortality is the only immortality I believe in. It’s not a full comfort, I don’t suppose, if you’re going to come down to a pound and a half of chemicals that will disperse themselves through a lot of other biology, but still it’s more comforting than total oblivion. Some people I know take great comfort from the notion of the continuity of life.”
Readers of Crossing to Safety are left with many questions. Stegner says, “A novel that doesn’t ask more questions than it can answer isn’t doing its job.”
Wallace Stegner dedicated this novel to his wife Mary. He says that Mary Stegner is tired of being read as the wife in any of his books. But Stegner admits that Mary is like the character of Sally. In the book he writes, “Sally had a part in everything I wrote. She is critic, editor, gadfly, memory bank, typist, she decides when things are good enough to be sent out.” Stegner says that he thinks “that’s also the pattern for any good marriage that I know in which one or the other is a writer. The other one becomes inevitably the prompter, and encourager, the researcher, the assistant, memory bank, and editor.”
In Crossing to Safety, as in his other writing, Stegner beautifully records his reverence for nature.
“Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.”
The Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner (1990) consists of 31 stories previously published in two collections, The Women on the Wall (1950) and The City of the Living (1956), as well as in various reviews and magazines. Some of the stories he later incorporated in his novels (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation) as well as in his non-fiction, Wolf Willow. Stegner has not published a story since 1960. Everything he wanted to write during the last 30 years “somehow wanted to be long.” In his Introduction, Stegner advises the reader “not to trust the details” in his stories but “to trust the feeling.” His stories “are places where I have paused more or less to understand something that happened.”
In the spring of 1990, Wallace Stegner received the lifetime achievement award of the PEN USA Center West. In September of 1990, Stegner was awarded a senior fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of his contribution to the field of American literature.
As Wallace Stegner continues to participate as an environmentalist through his writing (“It All Began with Conservation,” Smithsonian, April 1990) and his speaking engagements (Earth Day 1990 in Palo Alto, California) and to “make sense” of his life through writing fiction, his readers will continue to be nourished by his gifts as well as by his example.
In a fundamental way theatre and prostitution are public and private versions of each other… if either profession were absolutely perfected, the other would vanish.
The extraordinary thing about acting is that life itself is actually used to create artistic results.
It appears that dramatic acting is no longer a proper subject for ethical analysis as it once was. The long anti‐theatrical tradition saw to it that actors were perceived as a self‐damning, morally tainting aspect of society.3 It would be difficult to find anyone who takes such a solemn and humourless stance seriously anymore, and it has basically been reduced to a bewildering aspect of the West's unenlightened past. The first aim of this essay is to claim that, while nowadays acting is perceived as an unproblematic and laudable art form, it still provokes ethical reservations. Such discomfort goes untheorised, not only in the extensive literature on acting by practitioners, but also within contemporary Anglo‐American philosophy of theatre.4 My first objective is to chart the scope and nature of such ethical unease within contexts in which the actor genuinely operates (I). I then offer an explanation through which such an ethical dimension may be understood (II). Two responses to these ethical reservations are then discussed and rejected (III & IV). I then turn to this essay's constructive proposal (V & VI), suggesting that value‐related ambiguity can be a means through which an important and evasive source of the distinctiveness of acting as a performing art can be understood. The essay thus offers an argument in which an ethical thesis and an aesthetic one interlock within the context of embodied performance. My argument's historical dimension consists of the essay's implicit dialogue with anti‐theatrical thought. Yet since this exchange is not my main focus, leads suggesting continuity and discontinuity with this tradition will be mostly limited to the notes.
Common to all the examples I am about to survey, is the manner whereby a performed act transcends the incarnated character and touches the identity of the actor in a manner that evokes ethical questions. The most obvious form of unethical conduct on stage relates to violence. Charlie Chaplin was hit on stage by a more experienced actor, Harry Weldon, who resented Chaplin's growing success, and began using the mock violence of the sequence as a means of channelling real violence.5 Actress Maya Maoz withdrew from acting Desdemona in a Haifa Theatre (1998) production, when partnered by Juliano Mehr‐Kahmis, an overly enthusiastic Othello, who slapped her repeatedly to a degree that required hospitalisation. It is not hard to see in these examples, how the enacted act transcends the fictional characters and reaches the actors, possessing a real interpersonal dimension with a genuine ethical side.
But there are more evasive forms of morally relevant character‐identity slippage. Consider techniques such as ‘emotional recall.’ The actor is meant to summon a real memory in order to recreate a past emotion. Here is an example:
The actress Vera Vasilyeva could not bring herself to cry on stage. She accordingly began recalling the death of her mother when she was supposed to cry, and the tears dropped naturally.6
Should such technique be perceived as a benign tool, or is Vasilyeva cheapening in some sense her relationship to her mother?
A technique called ‘imaginative substitution’ raises similar difficulties: the actor is encouraged to infuse into an enacted situation aspects of a non‐fictional relationship, drawing genuine responses from the imagined scenario. Here is an example:
Jennifer recounted a rehearsal experience in which the director told her to use the image of her own mother ‘hanging from a noose in a corner of the theatre’ as a means of achieving her character's emotional state. She found the personal image painful: ‘That image is in my mind forever. I cannot erase it. And [the director] gave it to me because I did not create that image on my own. He gave it to me.’ She characterised this experience as ‘emotional prostitution’ for which the director served as ‘pimp.’ She noted that she would now refuse to use such an acting technique. However, ‘at the time. .. he was the director, and I was young and inexperienced and. .. I did what he told me.’7
The acting student in this exercise felt used and harmed by the technique offered by her director. To imagine her mother in such a way was somehow felt to be exploitative. But why and in what sense can such imaginative act taint a real relationship?
Such examples assume a conception of ‘Method acting’, in which the actor's success depends upon recreating an inner experience approximating the one the actor attempts to project. There are obviously other approaches to acting, in which projection without inner recreation is being attempted. Yet endorsing non‐Method acting does not make ethical problems disappear. Consider the following anecdote by Marlon Brando, in which he describes being coerced into passionate kissing by an older actress:
The play opened in New England with me playing Tallulah [Bankhead's] young lover… whenever I was onstage with her and the moment approached when I was supposed to kiss her, I couldn't bear it. For some reason, she had a cool mouth and her tongue was especially cold. Onstage, she was forever plunging it into my mouth without so much as a how‐do‐you‐do. It was like an eel trying to slide backward into a hole.8
Brando goes on to describe his anxiety over losing his job (which he did) should he express his discomfort over being kissed in this manner. Apart from exemplifying how fictional role‐playing can metamorphose into an excuse for sexual harassment, the more interesting question relates to Brando's inability to perform kissing. Erotic acting brings out a genuine problem: what happens to kissing and embracing once the usual meanings with which they are traditionally invested are withheld? Is such suspension always possible? Another perception relates to the dependency of the meaning of one's act on another's intentions. Since Tallulah Bankhead was obviously genuinely kissing Brando, regardless of his own ability to charge the kissing with personal meaning, to cooperate with her while aware of her own intentions, constitutes in itself a willingness to be genuinely kissed. The performer, it seems, does not fully control the interpersonal meaning of his acts, and, with or without his consent, their meaning slips through the divide between fictional role and identity.9
A particular paradigm of embodiment is responsible for this clash between moral unease and artistic objectives in relation to erotic gestures in acting. The paradigm—introduced and established throughout modernity and rendered explicit by Julien Offray de la Mettrie—holds that the body is merely an elaborate machine, an organic robot that may be driven according to one's intentions. Contemporary actors have either inherited this paradigm or, when trained in more physically‐oriented systems, seem to limit the self‐shaping capacity of the body to the release of creative energy through somatic modifications.10 Either way, identity‐related implications are left unmentioned. In practice, the result is the same: actors are urged to deflate value‐laden acts such as kissing and embracing into mere value‐neutral bodily operations. Yet actors who believe that their physical actions are unrelated to their identities underestimate the body's substantial participation in self‐shaping. The simplification entailed in this deflation has recently become more obvious, given the thoroughgoing rethinking of the mechanisation of the body within philosophy.11 We are not as free to use our bodies as we thought we were.
Character‐identity percolation in the examples above gives rise to two questions. The first question (which will not be discussed here) is whether there exist moral limits to professionalising aspects of one's identity, whereas the second question (which will) concerns the meaning of ‘cheapening.’
‘Cheapening’—either in relation to memories or to the use of supposedly professionally irrelevant aspects of one's identity—may be broken down into effect‐related abuse and essential abuse. Effect‐related abuse means that the professional act will disrupt one's experience in a non‐professional context. Vasilieva's grief over her mother, say, will be blunted. By contrast, essential abuse consists of a sense of undermining values regardless of possible long‐term harm. When considering effect‐related abuse, virtually everything revolves around subjective sensitivities: If an individual is capable of using his or her tragedy in one context while relating to it deeply in another, no argument or moral claim can be made against such use. Essential abuse differs. It includes a dimension of evaluation that is determined by more than mere subjective sensitivities. Vasilyeva use of her grief may be wrong, regardless of any erosion of her feelings. Here is a proposal regarding why this may be so.
In his Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit claims that a failure to remember often manifests an ethical failure to care.12 What Margalit has in mind is not forgetting the person as such, but forgetting something essential about him or her. His main example is an outcry prompted by a colonel's admission that he could not recall the name of a soldier who died under his command. To lose possession of such a detail was publicly censured as obtuse indifference, a failure to care. While Margalit does not discuss the kind of abuses of memory that acting may involve in some of the examples above, the connection he draws between an ethical failure and a withdrawal from care can, nevertheless, be extended to include these. Vasilyeva's use of her mother's death is not a form of forgetting. It can, however, be perceived as symptomatic of a failure in caring. A similar withdrawal from care holds in relation to visualising close people in degrading, tragic or horrifying circumstances, such as Jennifer's imagining her mother ‘hanging from a noose.’ Some of our relationships involve care, and some acts—mental or embodied—seem to constitute a withdrawal from care. They are therefore potentially unethical.
Care ethicists provide three different accounts of care: emotional, practice‐oriented, and moral. The first emphasises the affective or psychological state of the carer. The second regards caring as on‐going activity, much like a work one is obliged to perform. The third identifies care with a virtue.13 For all three, care involves partiality to particular individuals. Such partiality may involve response to needs (rather than merely concern); a non‐judgemental acceptance of the cared for individual; a willingness to be changed by the other; an identification with another's goals and an attempt to promote them, along with an emotional response to the fulfilment or thwarting of such goals. Empathy (feeling another's pain) and/or sympathy (feeling for another's pain, without actually experiencing it) can also constitute aspects of care. For theorists who regard care as activity or work, caring relationships are not simply emotional givens, but require sustaining and often demand manifesting one's commitment in a repeated way.
Judged from this perspective, an actor's performance may constitute a receding from care (an ‘essential abuse’) in three different ways. First, caring relations involve an awareness of their fragility, and such awareness restricts what may or may not be performed or thought. Embodied imaginative acts can be powerful and unpredictable. Regardless of one's intentions, they can progressively erode caring. The exacerbation of this risk issues from the particular requirement—at least in the theatre—to repeat such enactments over and over again. To embody such acts is to take caring for granted. It amounts to being careless when caution is called for. Even if one's caring will not actually change, by imagining some possibilities, one is nevertheless willing to risk care, which is itself a manifestation of uncaring. Genuine attachment avoids playing risky imaginative games with one's most significant sentiments. Secondly, the imagined content as such seems to violate care because it involves a mental devaluation or a mental disidentification. The imagined scenarios either involve an embodied identification with a state that itself manifests uncaring (for instance, embodying a character who is attracted to someone who is not the actor's own lover), or imagining accidents that a loved one undergoes in order to generate horror or grief for the purpose of art. Caring seems to posit that specific states are of such momentous personal significance that they will either be altogether suppressed, or will only be contemplated with genuine terror. Only a withdrawal from care—a momentary devaluation of some states that should not be devalued; or a stepping out of identification that should not be suspended—would enable the metamorphosis of potentially life‐defining events into tools. Thirdly, care seems to demand exclusiveness. A comment posted in a romantic advice web‐page by a frustrated husband of an actress who performs a nude scene with another actor, exemplifies this:
It's really hard to be the spouse of an actor/actress, and it's never as easy as clichéd phrases like ‘she's going home with you’, or ‘it's just acting’. People saying that have never really felt what it's like to be the spouse of an actor/actress. My wife recently took a lead role in a play that requires her to be naked (full frontal nudity) on stage for about 5–7 minutes with another man who is also fully naked. I am completely uncomfortable with this, but she feels that this opportunity is just too important to pass up. It gives her the opportunity to work with the best director in town at the best theatre in a controversial show, so it will get a lot of press and attention. She believes this will be a springboard to her career. I will never stand in her way and hinder her career, but I am so angry, hurt, depressed, etc. Hundreds of people are going to see my wife naked. That is something that I value very highly. It is so special and private to me. Her nudity is something that I alone get to enjoy as her husband. No more. She sees it as just acting and not a big deal. It's just skin she would say. It's not to me. It's intimacy. I feel betrayed, embarrassed, emasculated. I can hardly sleep, am struggling with anxiety, etc. I HATE that people I know, actor friends of hers that I have met, etc. are going to see my wife naked. It is a horrible horrible feeling. 14
The husband senses in his wife's act a breach of intimacy: something that should remain a private dimension of his marriage is rendered public. His wife's nudity should be reserved for their relationship—not displayed in some indiscriminate way before strangers. Her attempt to trivialise the act by telling him that ‘It's just skin,’ underestimates in his eyes the complex meaning of such a gesture and its implication for both of them. In all three ways—manifesting carelessness, devaluation or ignoring implicit assumptions regarding exclusiveness—acting may constitute a withdrawal from care rather than merely an artistically taxing demand from individuals to reorganise who and what they are.
In a forthcoming book, I discuss the opposite side of this process as well: the manner whereby role‐playing can establish care precisely through reversing the processes pointed out above: creating intimacy rather than endangering it by role‐playing. But it is the danger I am focusing on here, and it is exacerbated by the fact that directors, acting teachers, and authorities on acting may present such withdrawal as a benign feature of the artist's professional vocation, or even a mark of professional dedication. Here is a version of how such a morally loaded process is deflated into a matter of ‘professionalism’ (with an appropriate pacifying joke thrown in). It features in Michael Caine's book on film acting, in a passage devoted to acting love scenes:
I find the way to deal with love scenes is to be extremely professional about the whole thing: this is a job, this is what the two of us happen to have been asked to do—lie in bed naked—and it doesn't matter that we have never met before…. And then there is the problem for the actress; she has to get herself into a frame of mind where she'd be able to let a strange man stroke her bum. But it's all just part of the job, and none of us can afford to be coy about it…15
Caine ends the passage with a joke:
But what makes me laugh is that the only time a director ever demonstrates things to you is in love scenes! Suddenly he feels the need to show you exactly how to hold the actress.
In the context of the discussion above, the joke is less funny. It seems to be part of a vocabulary that professionals learn to depend upon as a means for neutralising disturbing thoughts. Such thoughts concern not only what they do, but also what they permit others to do. In addition, as the examples discussed in this essay should by now accumulatively suggest, such permission is usually granted within the context of non‐symmetric power relations.
Three responses to these largely ignored ethical sides of acting merit discussion. The first (which will be taken up in this section) advocates replacing identity‐based acting techniques with other means, thereby paving the way towards ethical acting. The second and third responses (to be addressed in section IV), both accept the unethical nature of some aspects of acting, but then part company: the second response suggests that potentially unethical acting should nevertheless be used because the artistic payoffs are more important than compromising moral values. The third response regards the unethical potential of some acting methods as inherent to acting as such, but the practical implications it draws from this realisation are neither a defence nor a condemnation of acting as such. The attempt is, rather, to specify the conditions under which acting preserves the dignity of its practitioners as well as the conditions in which it may fail to achieve this.
The first option—criticising techniques that rely on autobiographical material and advocating the adoption of other devices instead—is superficial. Even if the problem were limited to experience‐based acting it would be substantial since Method‐based actor training remains the most dominant form of actor‐training.16 More importantly, self‐implicating acting is not a problem only of methods based on undergoing experiences. We already saw how erotic acting—embracing, kissing, sexual caressing, naked intimacy and mimicking intercourse—may fail to insulate role from identity, regardless of performers actually experiencing anything. But self‐implicating through performance regardless of inwardness can take many other forms: ingesting foods that violate one's religious or moral convictions, being asked to perform acts that one deems immoral (an actor friend of mine participated in a play in which he had to kill a hen in each performance—to which he did not object, though another might), humiliating or being physically humiliated by another character (e.g. Malcolm McDowell's licking another character's shoe in Clockwork Orange)—all exemplify how a sense of self‐tainting can arise with or without an attempt to establish inner experience.
Enacting characters that conform to and enforce gendered, religious, racial or other stereotypes that the actor finds morally objectionable is another potential source for role‐biography breakdown without inner identification with the role. Feminist approaches to theatrical acting have, for example, sought to encourage ideological reservations relating to the embodiment of feminine characters in patriarchal literature.17 A Jewish actor may resent playing Shylock, believing that, even under the most charitable interpretation, the play still fosters anti‐Semitic stereotypes. ‘Being called a nigger in a play is still being called a nigger,’ writes Afro‐American actor David Wiles, exploring his difficulties in performing a racially humiliated black character.18 Called upon to express indignity when his character was addressed as ‘boy,’ Wiles found that he resisted expressing shame when performing for a white audience. Again, experiencing or not racial shame was not the issue for Wiles—projecting shame of/over one's race before whites was, because he sensed it as corroborating and re‐enacting an ideology that he opposes.
Wiles’ experience is related not only to ideology, but also to the capacity of a role to trigger a painful collective memory. Ideological reservations per se (such as a refusal to kill a hen on stage) need not relate to being choreographed into an edgy brush against one's collective history, thereby raising an actor's possible moral obligations to others. An ideologically committed actor for whom racial, gendered or religious discrimination is related to suffering and pain, tightly bonds with a shared community. Such bonding may also surface involuntarily throughout the performance, even in the case of actors who are not necessarily ideologically committed. To momentarily suspend one's convictions in order to portray the opposite ideology is experienced as a withdrawal from care for fellow blacks, fellow women, fellow Jews. If a feminist actress is willing to enact what she considers to be an ideologically regressive role, she may sense that such reveals a lack of commitment on her part, and introduces inappropriate playfulness into sentiments and beliefs that should not be downplayed. She does not sufficiently care for the cause, or for the fact that others, who share her ideological commitment, would not allow such playfulness enter their own embodied acts.19
To conclude: in too many domains of acting, projecting—with or without inner experience—spills onto identity through a performed act's ability to constitute a withdrawal from care.
A second response to the moral dimension that surfaces in some episodes of acting, is to accept the unethical nature of some forms of acting, but to hold that art and aesthetic values are—in the instances that matter to the actor—ultimately more important than moral values. Nietzsche is sometimes interpreted as urging a categorical subordination of existence to aesthetic ideals. An actor may adopt such a stance, attempting to explain away ethical scruples by subscribing to a higher, more binding fidelity to art.
The problem with this solution is that when carefully examined, what superficially appears to be a personal decision regarding the values one abides by, is often revealed to be a complex inter‐subjective act that concerns one's audience and their own values as well. In Rumstick Road, a Wooster Group production from 1978, Spalding Gray was performing as himself in a play dealing with his mother's suicide. The performance included playing audio tapes of recorded conversations between Gray's mother and her therapist. A member of the audience wrote a complaint letter, claiming that he felt ‘cheapened’ and ‘brutalised’ by becoming part of a violation of a stranger's privacy.20 The point is not whether or not Gray should have respected his audience's reservations, but that the decision to allow aesthetic values to trump moral ones does not concern only the performer. Precisely because spectatorship is not passive reception but a form of participation and validation of a creative offering, to suspend moral values or to subordinate them to aesthetic ones is to sometimes make a decision for the audience. One may accept such aggression on the part of the artist, or argue for the necessity to tolerate it as part of an attitude in which art is sometimes tasked with undermining complacency rather than catering to it. But the issue is not whether or not such aggression should be accepted, but to recognise it as such. Decisions of this kind are morally invasive.
In Rumstick Road, the audience is conscious of the living content it is invited to consume as part of an aesthetic offering. But the aggressive nature of such choices by a performer does not depend on the audience’ awareness. Arguably, such aggression is even exacerbated when it is kept clandestine, as in the Vasilyeva example above. By concealing from her audience the psychological mechanisms that dubiously establish the success of her performance, Vasilyeva in effect coerces them to consume a spectacle which, if they fully understood, they may have avoided. The hypothetical nature of the audience's reservation does not morally neutralise the performer's act. If anything, an added dimension of dishonesty infuses this example, which was missing from the in‐your‐face challenge presented by Rumstick Road. Once again, the important point is that the decision of an actress to prioritise aesthetic over ethical values is not always hers to make, since it does not concern her alone.
The same holds for ideologically‐problematic acting, such as the cases mentioned above. Incarnating Jewish characters in plays that are deeply anti‐Semitic in orientation may offend a Jewish audience. To attend the play such an audience is implicitly required to agree to suspend or subordinate ethical values to aesthetic ones. The performer can obviously decide to ignore the values of her audience. But such a choice is different from simplistically thinking that her choices concern only her own values or even only the values of those who are watching her. Indeed, the polemic over public performances of Wagner's music in Israel exemplifies how people who do not even plan to audit a performance, may object to its occurrence on moral grounds. Aesthetic consumption is not value‐neutral, and such consideration should inform the ethics of aesthetic production.
A third possible response is not to focus on the practical question raised by the above analysis—that is, whether or not some forms of actor‐training and technique should be discontinued—but to instead perceive acting's overlapping with the unethical not merely as a problem, but as illuminating the unique nature of acting. Implications resulting from this awareness would relate to perception, understanding, preparation, training and a fuller intake of what some performances demand, both in relation to the performers, and in relation to what the audience is sometimes actually beholding.
Suppose that one accepts rather than resists the idea—relentlessly advanced by its historical opponents—that acting is deeply related to prostitution.21 The more blatant versions of this claim made in the past, were that acting provokes licentiousness, or that brothels and theatres maintain implicit institutional connections.22 Yet at its more interesting moments, the charge was implicated in a psychology of acting: To act is to create a dangerous imaginative space in which actors and their audience are able to suspend expected moral responses. Actors practice and present an undesirable flexibility between identity and embodiment. Acting's enemies went on to say that actors even intentionally select parts that enable them to realise the specific immoral inclination that they cannot manifest in life.23
The previous analysis enables perceiving why the psychology underlying such claims should not be condescendingly dismissed as the product of ‘legions of hard‐shelled, mole‐eyed fanatics,’ and that some of these claims can be recast in contemporary credible moral vocabularies.24 For those who oppose it, prostitution is the giving over of that which should not be given over. It is the act whereby intimate gestures are artificially dissociated from inner meaning and care. Such a process shares acting's invitation to effect a momentary receding from commitments and values with which the performing body is usually associated. If Lee Strasberg's remark quoted in this paper's epigraph captures an ideal of the practice, if he is correct to assert that ‘the extraordinary thing about acting is that life itself is actually used to generate artistic results,’ to act implies a willingness to turn one's life (read: one's structure of caring) into creative material. In the manner of the prostitute, the actor disengages this ‘material’ from the values with which it is usually infused, changing them for values of a different kind. For the courtesan, such values are economic, for the actor—aesthetic. In both practices, a deep substitution takes place. Moreover, the unsmooth nature of such substitution may explain why theatre visionaries such as Kleist, Craig or Shaw have repeatedly dreamed of replacing actors with marionettes: advocating an ideal of acting in which the actor's inner attachments pose no resistance at all, they dreamed of a limitlessly pliable actor who would merge in a frictionless way with the role. We are now positioned to sense the aggressiveness implicit in this ideal: gestures devoid of expected inner meanings are precisely what one recoils from in prostitution.
The point, it should be clearly stated, is not to squarely equate acting with prostitution. Anyone with some familiarity of field work on prostitutes would be alert to the radically different backgrounds, goals, aspirations and the nature of the actual work that separates them from actors, and would be justified to dismiss a full‐fledged identification between them not only as theoretically hyperbolic but also as heartless. The ethical dissonance effected by some contexts of acting is certainly mild when compared with the emotionally deadening violence inherent to many forms of prostitution. At the same time, to argue for an overlap or an analogy is not to argue for identity.
What follows from admitting such overlap between acting and prostitution? In traditional anti‐theatrical thinking the answer is easy: to perceive similarity between acting and prostitution was tantamount to claiming that acting should be avoided by decent individuals. Yet contemporary defences of prostitution invite pausing before committing to this final verdict. Such defences enable recognising a similarity between acting and prostitution without automatically turning this into a ground for accusation, but into a reason for concern, one that needs to be unpacked into detailed practical proposals. Vindicators of sex‐work have been careful to dissociate the secondary harms typically involved in prostitution—substance abuse, violence, exploitation, risk, health hazards, social opprobrium and the personal disempowerment prostitution creates and relies upon—from the commodification of the body as such.25 Transacting in sex, they argue, does not necessarily involve a profound violation of the person (as is maintained by those for whom sexuality is endowed with some sacred status). From this perspective, no damning accusation follows automatically from exposing an overlap between acting and prostitution.
And yet, to present prostitution as a profession like all others risks adopting the same mechanical picture of embodied experience encountered above, for which the connections between values and embodiment are assumed to be fully controllable. The prostitute—the argument suggests—can be a loving wife, leave for a ‘shift’ in which she has merely professional sex with five or six clients. She then returns home to her husband, enjoying loving sex with him later. To dismiss such a scenario as implausible is to sense that the connection between embodied acts and values such as intimacy or pleasure are less open to inventive recreation than the defender of prostitution may suppose. Links of this kind are less flexible and—rightly or wrongly—are typically associated with exclusivity. What is far more likely is that a person who works as a prostitute will be unable to maintain a loving relationship. Her work is, accordingly, no ordinary labour but a practice that inserts a wedge between her body and her values.26 To return to acting, to perceive the actor as someone who is entirely free to recreate the relations between experiences, embodied acts and identity may involve a similar simplification of embodied performance and a similar overestimation of the mind's capacity to determine experiences.
It may be objected that a tough ideal is not necessarily an unattainable one. Who is to say that the loosening of connections between performed acts and ideals, even if it presents a formidable challenge, cannot be ultimately achieved through a psychologically attuned and morally‐sensitive process? One may well imagine that a committed actor would (or even should) be able to perceive a high degree of disembodiment as an artistic objective. Such a ‘total’ actor would try to overcome the limits posed by conventions that place some gestures outside the pale of acting. Consider, for example, scenes such as Paul Dawson ejaculating into his mouth in the 2006 film Shortbus, or requiring actors to enact unsimulated sex scenes in films such as Intimité.27 Indeed, some highly demanding schools of actor‐training seem to aspire precisely to a cultivation of such totality. Extricating acts from values is, in such methods, part of an attempt to actively undermine the actor's identity. Field work conducted by Sabina Krüger on the Catalan group La Fura dels Baus describes, for instance, some highly disturbing exercises that appear to be intentionally calculated to break the limits that define the performers’ own identities.28 Many examples in acting exercises or in theoretical claims made by acting teachers may be found in which the actor is supposed to be remade.29
Regardless of the moral or aesthetic desirability of this ideal, it is doubtful that it can be fully realised. Disengaging acts from the meanings with which they are usually associated is not always achievable by an act of thought or through prolonged practice. This holds true even for highly trained performers who consciously endorse such far‐reaching ideals and are willing to experiment in unorthodox ways with their performing bodies. Richard Schechner's Dionysus in 69 involved, for example, scenes in which experienced performers, who were supposed to be psychologically prepared for avant‐garde theatrical work, caressed audience members and invited them to caress them in turn. The scenes had to be dropped since, according to Schechner, the touching got ‘heavy’ and the actresses ‘felt used, prostituted.’30 Krüger describes an improvisation in which performers were treated as dogs. In that particular exercise, the participants ended up in tears.
What follows from such pain? On the most abstract level: nothing. For the enthusiast the pain may merely serve as a positive symptom: an artistically committed and taxing form of self‐remaking is taking place. But the existence of such pain and the possibility that victimization rather than self‐liberation is taking place, introduces a range of ethical concerns that should be explicitly addressed by whoever undertakes to subject performers or aspiring performers to such methods. Who gets to perform such modification on others? How is the process controlled? When should it be stopped? How and in what way is the actor fully and knowledgably consenting to such self‐recreation? Which mechanisms preserve a performer's right to dissent while undergoing a process in which unreserved consent is being upheld as artistically desired? If acting's overlap with prostitution is being accepted while resisting the idea that this overlap amounts to an accusation, such questions and many others need to be addressed (theoretically, institutionally, legally, and individually).
Nothing in the above analysis precludes the possibility that an actor would develop total flexibility, one in which bodily and imaginative acts of whichever kind could be freely dissociated from identity and given over to the role. In much the same way, nothing blocks a priori the possibility of a non‐damaging form of prostitution, in which the body's sexual use would be fully dissociated from inner meanings in a manner that is not personally crippling (sexual surrogates may exemplify such ability). But in both cases, a hypothetical postulation should not be confused with the reality of the psychological makeup of the individuals one is likely to encounter. As long as complete personal re‐creation is not commonly reached (and I have expressed scepticism regarding this possibility), both performers and their teachers should clarify rather than occlude the moral stakes involved in acting. That way, the process of negotiating boundaries and legitimising them (rather than misconstruing them for uncommitted acting) can be authentically and reflectively undertaken.
In 2004, the Tenth Circuit of the United States court of Appeals discussed the case of Christina Axson‐Flynn, a Mormon acting student who withdrew from an actor training programme at the University of Utah because she would not curse or use god's name in vain. A promising actress who, according to the trial's protocol, received consistently high grades for her work, Axson‐Flynn was nevertheless repeatedly pressurised to either compromise her values or leave the programme. In a meeting initiated by three of her instructors, she was told that she can ‘choose to continue in the programme if you modify your values. If you don't, you can leave.’ She left. She then sued the University of Utah for violating her freedom of speech and free exercise of religion rights under the First Amendment. The district court dismissed both of her charges. But the court of appeals later reversed this decision, ruling in her favour.31
The case offers a rare glimpse into the coercive treatment of moral reservations when these surface within an acting programme, not by a single instructor but by several working together in full support of the programme's coordinator. The careless way in which Axson‐Flynn's reservations were addressed by her teachers also attests to their own simplification of the fraught relations between acting and identity. It evidences their own lack of preparation to handle a rare case of this kind (they probably expected her to grow out of her reservations once her commitment to her art would deepen). Most disturbingly, the case also suggests that acting as an art form misses gifted talents through self‐selection: individuals who may possess a stronger sense of moral limits and who are less hopeful than Axson‐Flynn regarding their ability to receive respect for their values, may be systematically (and prudently) avoiding acting as a career option.
Axson‐Flynn's sense that to lend one's voice to a script is not always morally benign has been articulated before. Unfortunately though, one finds such awareness only in the literature which much contemporary theatre theory has taught us to ridicule. In traditional anti‐theatrical thought, the danger of heresy by appealing to the wrong gods by the very words delivered by the actor was highlighted as a genuine threat.32 Interestingly, sensitivity to such danger may explain why dramatic texts involving potential heresy were sometimes written in a way that preserves the actor from damnation. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus exemplifies this, since many of Faustus’ sentences are written in the third person. The scripted text thus avoids the very real threat of self‐damnation for an Elizabethan actor, who is called upon to invoke Satan or to bargain away his soul.33
Marlowe was a daring author. He did not shy away from touching explosive themes, such as homoeroticism, religious hypocrisy and class mobility. Marlowe was not a prude. He was nevertheless sensitive to the moral and theological dimensions of the identity of those performing his works, writing in a way that respected their limits. Regrettably, such sensitivity seems to have disappeared. Ethical dimensions of acting and actor‐training are never—as far as my reading or my own (limited) participation in actor training reveals—explicitly addressed.34 Virtually all authorities agree that some exercises need to be ‘carefully’ conducted. ‘Responsible’ directors and acting teachers are advised to help the actor cope with the emotionally overwhelming experience exacted by some techniques.35 Maintaining ‘safety’ in rehearsal and performance is another advice one may encounter. Yet the foregoing analysis suggests that the ‘emotionally overwhelming’ issues are sometimes actually symptomatic of a different kind of violation which—regardless of the practical implications—should be patiently understood and articulated through a vocabulary that is currently unavailable in the practice.
Actors are rarely directly presented with the ethical issues of performance, with the manner whereby some forms of acting, training, or rehearsing may relax connections between identity‐related values and their performance. Would‐be actors are therefore unable to reflect and consent to this significant dimension of their profession and training as they undergo it. They are not urged to determine explicitly their own limits, or to understand (before the event), what having or foregoing these limits can actually mean. Worse, the ethical tensions that acting involves may be misrepresented as the voice of uncommitted acting. Such can surface not necessarily as an explicit reproach by a teacher or a director, but by an inner monitoring that the actor cultivates as part of his or her initiation into acting. Would‐be actors may even be presented with the opposite argument—Susan Verducci's—according to which actor‐training (specifically Method training) is able to turn them into morally better human beings by cultivating empathy.36 The idea that throughout this process of amelioration (which no doubt may occur) something of importance may also be taken away is left for them to discover on their own, cope with it as they may.
Acting, I elsewhere argue, is an attempt to embody and explore unrealised possibilities of the self. Acting constitutes a reconfiguration of identity. It offers an alternative way of inhabiting the world that is not merely personally undertaken, but that is momentarily validated and responded to by fellow actors and the audience. But to imaginatively reach out into other possibilities of being may also simultaneously jeopardises one's hold over the single possibility that makes up one's actual identity. It is this very willingness to give up a particular inflexibility, a willingness that non‐actors take for granted, that opens up the interface between acting and unethical experiences. By admitting a dimension of play into one's attachments, feelings and the links between praxis and being, one opens the door to potentially unethical exercises, training, and performance that overlap with the inner structure of prostitution. I have further suggested that these brushes with prostitution are not necessarily abuses of acting. Like prostitution, acting involves a willingness to allow elements of identity to be lent to a role. These can be unproblematic (say, one's moving body or most uses of one's voice), or difficult and self‐implicating (one's sexual gestures or one's nakedness). Either way, in acting the limits of such ‘lending’ become an open question that needs to be repeatedly negotiated both internally and externally.
Hopefully, this analysis would not be construed as attempting to resuscitate a credible version of anti‐theatricality. My aim is, rather, to invite actors and instructors to clarify and state the ethical dimension of what acting sometimes demands. Informed ethical concerns should genuinely shape the choices one makes as a performer. They also ought to guide those who possess power over performers: directors, instructors and writers. In the current context of professional acting, in which art and entertainment are so inextricably bound, in which the overlap between eroticism for its own sake and aesthetic goals is systematically blurred, in which ‘professionalism’ in acting can be taken to entail an unreserved compliance with any external or internal manipulation demanded by any acting coach, it may be utterly futile and naive to attempt to meaningfully introduce ethical concerns. Such pessimism is even more pertinent when one begins factoring in firstly, the extent to which supply and demand are cruelly tipped against performers, both in relation to the fierce competition over slots in prestigious training programmes and later over available work, and, secondly, the uncompromising hierarchic structures in which actors operate, not only in relation to the directors, but also to fellow performers (note how so many of the examples surveyed above—Brando‐Bankhead, Chaplin‐Weldon, Maoz‐Mer—involve junior performers being subjected to violence by far more senior partners). And yet, such defeatism should be resisted by anyone who cares for acting.37