Actors and Acting

  • Michael Robinson
Part of the Artificial Intelligence and Society book series (HCS)


Midway through Klaus Mann’s Mephisto one of the novel’s supernumeraries finally gets a purchase on its central figure: ‘I think I have his number’, he exclaims, ‘He’s always lying and he never lies. He believes in everything and he believes in nothing. He is an actor.’1 The context makes this definition all the more disquieting since it describes an actor justly celebrated for his performance as Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, who is in turn a character based on the great German actor and director, Gustaf Gründgens, a chameleon-like figure whose ability at assuming whatever role was required of him enabled him to move with apparent conviction from the left-wing agitational theatre of Germany in the 1920s to the directorship of the Berlin Staatstheater, where he survived the Third Reich. Indeed, so ably did Gründgens survive that in 1959, Bertolt Brecht invited him to direct the premiere of his play St Joan of the Stockyards. This quotation serves as well as any as an approach to the nature of the actor’s skill, on which Diderot deliberated with such provoking insight in Le Paradoxe sur le comédien of 1773. It helps define the actor, while both testifying to his demonstrable skill and suggesting some of the disturbing paradoxes to which his figure gives rise. In what follows I shall explore some variations on this theme, with the contributions of Lars Gustafsson and Chris Bigsby in mind, primarily through the medium of a fragmentary babel or collage of other voices.


Practical Philosophy Bodily Emotion Royal Theatre Lionel Trilling Trilling Call 
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  1. 1.
    Klaus Mann, Mephisto (Harmondsworth, 1983), p. 130.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Trilling argues this point in his essay on the theatricals at Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in The Opposing Self 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1980), pp 181–202.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Ernest Legouvé, Histoire Morale de la femme, 6th ed. (Paris, 1874), p. 345.Google Scholar
  4. 22.
    Toby Cole and Helen Chinoy, eds., Actors on Acting (New York, 1949), p. 134. My emphasis.Google Scholar
  5. 33.
    Cited in Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, The Secret Art of the Performer (London, 1991), p. 143.Google Scholar
  6. 34.
    Edward Gordon Craig (London, 1930), pp 73–78.Google Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag London Limited 1995

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  • Michael Robinson

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