CHARACTER (for Dramatists Magazine)
Think "Nora" or "Willy Loman" or "Hamlet" or "Romeo" or "Big Daddy" or "Ricky Roma" and you are immediately thrown into the specific theatrical reality. That is because ours is a psychological theater, invented long before Freud. For four hundred years, since Shakespeare in fact, we have witnessed the lusts, machinations and anguish of a long parade of individuals. For the Christians and Jews of the Capitalist west, the sense of oneself as an individual has been the ultimate driving force. A succession of kings and presidents, explorers and inventors, "genius" composers, artists and generals has been enpowered by the primacy of the individual.
And so, when we make theater, we make theater about individuals, we make theater about characters.
Theater is a model of the space between our ears. It is populated with the same archtypical personae who populate our imagination. Willy Loman is not about naturalism. Willy Loman is about the way Americans thought about themselves in the late 20th century. This imagined man, imagined by Arthur Miller, struck a chord, and still resonates. His presence in "Death of A Salesman" makes this play great because we know this man. And when I say "know" I mean "know" in a sense of "think" we think this man. When we watch the action of the play, we recognize our own thinking.
I make this almost obvious point because as the academy (the universities and the not-for-profit theaters) urges theater into displays of dissection rather than eventful explosions, there is a growing emphasis on everything but character. Which may mean that a new kind of theater is being born or it may mean that we’re not putting our best foot foreward when we make theater today. Call me old-fashioned, I'm still trying to write theater with characters as engines. I don't really understand nor am I deeply moved by any other kind of theater. (Topical theater, surprise-ending theater, dance theater, spectacle theater, documentary theater, science theater).
So the question naturally comes up, where do these characters come from? Do we go looking for them somewhere? Should we go hang out in subways or AA meetings or debutante balls? Well, you can do that. And you can write a theater "about" something. The pundits love that. Then they can explain to everyone what the play is “about.” That’s why post-show Q & A's are so popular in the regional theaters. Because everyone wants to know what the play is "about." It's a great way of avoiding what a play is.
Do we really need a Q & A about George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" Indeed, who is capable of explaining this amazing play? The very essential nature of Albee’s characters, their ability to push our buttons, is a non-explainable thing. It is the mystery of character, or personality, of being human. I go to the theater to watch actors, humans, make believe they are other humans. To do that creates a mystery within a mystery that is the essences of art.
So – where do characters come from? If you're doing anthropological research, yeah, you might go to the South Sea Islands and watch people and write down everything you see. You might even fashion a little drama for people to watch so they can get an idea of how South Sea Islanders act. But that's not theater. That's not character. That's reportage.
The truly great characters are composite. Just as a bit of sand in an oyster becomes a pearl, life experiences live within the playwright for years before becoming characters. O'Neill, Chekhov, Williams, Albee – all took their deeply felt personal experiences, digested them and reformed them into theatrical constructions. Only then, after these characters were born from within could they step out onto the stage.
Like the electron, which is simultaneously "there" and "not there" at the same time, (an approximate state that is simultaneously energy and mass), the personality is something that changes as it is being observed. The observer has as much to do with what is seen as the observed. Ergo the mystical aspects of character and personality. Ergo the fantastic tension between playwright/actor/audience.
It does you no good as a writer to think you can scientifically create a character. Such a character will have as much life as a robot. It will speak and act, but it will not be alive. Personality, despite the theories of Freud, is not mechanical and it does us no good to think that way, to think we can "deconstruct" the personality. The truth is much more elusive. We cannot parse personality, yet we can know when we are "right on" and when we’re not. Shakespeare is great because he understood personality as deeply as he did. Long before Freud, Shakespeare laid out classic psychological types and states. He simply "knew" character, probably through endless observation.
So how to begin? Simply by making an inventory of the characters who live within you already. And they are there. In fact, there are no "real" characters or personalities in the world. There is only behavior which means nothing outside our interpretation of it. Only when we process what we have experienced are characters born. Within us.
So when looking for character, don't look outside yourself, look within. Here the characters have been ready-made for your picking. Think of someone very important to you. Particularly someone with whom you have an ongoing power struggle. A parent for instance. This person is very well-defined within you. Let's use a Freudian term to describe this inner character. Let's call the inner character the "imago." (I'm not sure if this is exactly what Freud meant when he used the term, but it works.)
I think of the Imago as the little person you have created in your head to represent, say in this case, your father. For your mental needs, this little imago/father holds all the traits you find important about the guy (authority, bossiness, intelligence) and you have left out whatever isn't useful for your mind-play (for example, how Dad feels about the color blue). This imago/father is a distillation. A character who follows the rules you have set for him. He's like a chess piece. He behaves in a particular way and with him you can play out scenarios in your head, play out little plays.
You think you don't do this? Imagine you're back in high school and you're out late with friends. You "know" that you're going to catch hell when you get home at 3 am. How do you know this? Because you have already staged the scene with your imago/father character in your head. You have written it and you have watched it. You know what he's going to do. That's why you’re surprised when you get home and he's asleep. He's not doing what your "play" says he would do.
So begin by grabbing up some of these imagos and put them into play. Create a situation, any situation. Like Pinter has said, "two people in a room." Take your imago/father and your imago/sister and put them in a room together. Get them talking. What makes these people interesting to you will be interesting to any audience. Don't think about what the audience wants, think about what you want from these characters.
When we set the character into a larger context, when we transpose the characteristics of people we know onto people in our play (whether it be the ambition of a king or the petty squabbling of a childless couple) real drama is born. But without the building blocks of true character, the play will never be a great play.
A playwright is successful when he or she has dredged a character up from the depths of his or her soul and presented this character to an audience and the audience in unison exclaims, "Yes, we know that guy!".
© Copyright Eric Bogosian 2006.