Contact with another demands that we ask “What drives this person?” It’s not just a question; it’s the question. The process of creating a fully developed character does the service of making the answers more transparent. And it’s why drama as an idea is so powerful as a way to account for what others say. Just as an actor may imagine a “back story” that provides the reasons for their visible acts, so do we all fanaticize back stories to find explanations for the behaviors of those we interact with. In this process, art is the perfect condensation of life.
Literary scholar Bert States approaches the essence of characterization from an unusual but revealing perspective. In his perfectly titled Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, he asks us to consider performers in relation to the occasional live animal who is sometimes written in to a script. It’s a useful juxtaposition because it helps us see what is so essential about the idea of performance.
A dog can learn a set of behaviors that it can do on command. It behaves on cue through a process of simple conditioning. It’s an obvious point, but it’s also a reminder that it doesn’t quite work to describe the dog’s efforts as “acting.” An animal isn’t in the business of constructing a different individual, nor does it consciously perform actions to telegraph what will unfold in the rest of the narrative. Dogs fall below a common measure of higher consciousness measured in a procedure called the “mirror test.” In it, animals are given a temporary facial mark created with a safe dye, then shown a mirror and observed to see if they recognize themselves. Their lack of awareness on the low side of this threshold—common for a dog, but not for a higher functioning ape—doesn’t mean we can’t be enchanted. The famous wire-haired terrier Asta “playing” “Mr. Smith” in Leo McCary’s The Awful Truth (1937) is certainly one of the joys of that film. A running gag in the story is the apparent pact that Mr. Smith has made with his owners: he will hide his face in his paws while they (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) conceal a toy somewhere in the room. Then on cue, he scours the apartment to find it. The fun of his presence comes from being a terrier who, like most pets, wins us over by simply showing up. In comparison with actors who have taken on the personas of another person, a dog is always the same dog. In truth, Asta’s “performance” is mostly a trick finessed into something more by good editing.
The point here is obvious but important. The difference with dogs and other animals is that they don’t have social intentions. They may indeed be imprinted with a social nature. But they cannot fake sociality in the ways that theater and life require. Trainers work to teach dogs to take on broad behaviors that signify certain attitudes: indifference, aggression, an enthusiastic welcome, and so on. But the dog is never really in the game of creating and sustaining an alternate reality. We are the species that gives meaning not only to signs, but symbols. We give significance to elaborate codes far removed from the sensory information that animals process. And we delight in constructing alternate (and often totally false) selves, sometimes relishing the possibilities of a masterful deception. Dogs can deliver fragments of themselves of cue. And they surely aim to please. But what is alien to their nature is the essence of ours.
This human capacity for selective representation of oneself should cast doubt on at least one of the oldest clichés we thoughtlessly foist on each other: the imperative of living a life of “personal authenticity.” This aspiration sits near the top of the Pantheon of most-desired human goals. We savor the idea that there are consistencies of behavior that ostensibly point to some durable mental core. Synonyms for the authentic person are mostly eulogistic: “genuine,” “reliable,” “dependable,” “credible,” and so on. By contrast, no similar bouquets are offered to the consummate role-player. We deny the mastery of numerous selves any public honors. But there are surely times when we recognize the truth: that we exist in multiples, and that—like the actor—an acquired repertoire of roles is a basic life skill. As audiences to each other, we need the other’s familiar persona, even though the reality that we have multiple selves makes the search for intentions all the more difficult.
Adapted from Gary C. Woodward, The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington Books, 2013).