“The histrionic truth is in the natural lie.”

I finally finished reading a long poem by Robert Browning that has so many twists and turns I won’t try to give the story away, but I will share some excerpts about acting. The speaker is contemplating love, for more than one woman, while enjoying a fair with music and dancing and “stage-play, the honest cheating.” I think his analogy between acting and cheating on your wife is a little unfair to actors, but he does hint at the difference between acting and lying and the search for truth in a performance.

“Actors! We also act, but only they inscribe
Their style and title so, and preface, only they,
Performance with ‘A lie is all we do or say.’

Mistake his false for true, one minute, – there’s an end
Of the admiration! Truth, we grieve at or rejoice:
‘Tis only falsehood, plain in gesture, look and voice,
That brings the praise desired, since profit comes thereby.
The histrionic truth is in the natural lie.

Each has a false outside, whereby a truth is forced
To issue from within: truth, falsehood, are divorced
By the excepted eye, at the rare season, for
The happy moment. Life means – learning to abhor
The false, and love the true, truth treasured snatch by snatch,
Waifs counted at their worth. And when with strays they match
I’ the parti-coloured world, – when, under foul, shines fair,
And truth, displayed i’ the point, flashed from everywhere
I’ the circle, manifest to soul, though hid from sense,
And no obstruction more affects this confidence, –
When faith is ripe for sight, – why, reasonably, then
Comes the great clearing-up. Wait threescore years and ten!

Therefore I prize stage-play, the honest cheating; thence
The impulse pricked, when fife and drum bade Fair commence,
To bid you trip and skip, link arm in arm with me,
Like husband and like wife, and so together see
The tumbling-troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage
Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.”

– Robert Browning, Fifine at the Fair

It’s a little galling to find these lofty words in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, for me at least. I tend toward concrete thinking, and here the irony runs deeper than the sentiment I think. But this is the writer’s curse, to find his gift for word play more prized than his own mind, to be drawn into the grubby clerical work of contract negotiation in all paying gigs, finessing the social contracts in the name of wit and taste like a lawyer in drag. Art is political, and the great danger in trusting art’s politics stems from the voracity of authors for the good things in life, and their relentless self-righteousness in the pursuit of self-serving ends. Is a nod to the irony of a situation conferring moral authority on artists any apology at all? In this case the apologia is by turns preening, disingenuous and glib. But I like this passage well enough. When his narrator isn’t congratulating himself on being himself, he can be pretty compelling. And here he allows the possibility that the actor is more honest than his audience. This, I think, would be the right aspiration for actors – to excel in discovering the truth. The twist is that their parts are written, and finding the truth in a lie is the trick to selling it.

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Filed under Acting, Poetry

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