Some years ago, a co-worker & I were conjuring up an activity for a group. The hospital unit we worked on had a particularly pronounced number of personalities on it. As social groups are prone to do, in confined spaces, these personalities were becoming more and more into their style of thought, with the predicted conflicts. This reminded us of 1970’s disaster movies. Remember Jaws, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure? These were movies with pronounced characters: the leader, the love interests (male and female), the hysterical woman (rarely a man), the scientist, the joker, the old couple, et al. Parodies of this genre turned the melodramatic form into situation comedies, such as Gilligan’s Island and Lost In Space. Still, the same types of characters were arranged within each disaster scenario and plot sequence.
The activity we presented to the group, was to identify the types of characters in these movies (though we had a list in our head already to draw upon as needed). Then each group member was given the assignment to “cast” their disaster movie with the people in the room, including themselves. We then shared our plots and who would do what. People are usually quite aware of someone else’s style, skills and vulnerabilities. Most were able to give each other feedback about how they would behave in the movie, thereby reflecting how they were behaving on the unit at that time. Yes, we had some leaders, love interests, highly emotional folks, intellectuals, jokers, and old couple types in the room.
Beyond group dynamics, such characterizations have been imbedded into play scripts for centuries. While Shakespeare, or at least his contemporary proponents, like to set him apart from his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights for developing complicated human characters, many scripts from that era rely more on audiences knowing who’s playing what roles in the play. Ben Johnson’s play, Epicene, or The Silent Woman, pulls together such stock characters, as recently produced at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA.
A clue to this style of character selection is their names. Epicene has several characters with defining names: Morose, Mutt, Truewit, Amorous La Foole, Madama Haughty, Cutbeard, etc. The playwrights’ cleverness in selecting names adds to the jokes that will develop from those names. We do this today, mostly in sitcom’s. Deconstruct Archie Bunker from the 1970’s show All in the Family. The rough, grumpy, but amusing father of the family lived up to his name. He was the archway to the home, solid, and unmoving with his keystone. His home was less his castle than his bunker, full of rigid thinking and absurd conclusions based on a limited number of premises about life. Yet, his bunker would withstand the assaults of “modern” ideas from intellectuals and hippies, such as his daughter and her husband, “Meathead”. But, back to Epicene.
A challenge for actors performing this style of script is developing one’s role beyond the cartoon that is good for a few laughs. When there is limited ability to portray someone with whom the audience can identify and empathize, the actors must seek a different technique. I shall discuss two roles, that of Morose (John Harrell) and Truewit (Tim Sailer) from the Blackfriar’s production.
First, the plot revolves around the relationship between the wealthy gentleman, Morose, and his dandy nephew, Dauphine Eugenie, who lives off of his annual stipend from Morose. In order to severe his dependent nephew, Morose intends to marry and bear a son. However, he cannot tolerate noise, and therefore seeks a woman who hardly talks. Such a woman, Epicene, is found and arrangements are made for Morose to meet her. Various friends of Eugenie get involved, including Truewit, who provides the counter-plot as he attempts to manipulate everyone while talking them in circles. Various deceptions occur, and more comical characters converge on Morose’s home for his wedding, creating more and more noise that distracts him. In the end the truth is revealed, with nearly everyone being betrayed in some manner, all of which exposes their deceptions. All are victims and assailants at the same time.
We meet Truewit early in the play, as he joins Eugenie and his friends. Mr. Sailer plays Truewit energetically, moving his medium-build body deftly about the stage in quick motions, always stopping on some pose that precedes or accents his lines. He is ahead of the rest of the characters, driving the plot, though often in the directions contrary to Eugenie’s. He is talking Morose out of getting married, when Eugenie wants him married; then talking Morose into getting married when Morose is wanting the affair terminated. Truewit has to use his quick wit to stay ahead the others, and when in error talking everyone into believing that he was not. Sailer delivers his lines with precision and rapid timing. While physically a similar or smaller build that many of the other characters, he comes off as a large and strong personality (of course credit must be given to physically larger cast members being able to minimize their size to fit their less able roles). To illuminate his presence on stage, Truewit wears a tailored jacket & pants in gold and red. He is one to stand out in a crowd of middling sorts.
In contrast, Morose wants to be as small and unseen as possible. Given that Mr. Harrell is one of the taller cast members, this joke is accentuated by his attempts to disappear while physically dominating the stage. He wears all black, baggy clothes, and a black skull-cap that shows only his face and ears. While Truewit darts about the perimeter of the stage displaying his jests and manipulations, Morose stands, slumped, mostly center front stage, cowering from the onslaughts of Truewit’s barbs, or later the cackling of the ladies who come to revel with Epicene about her wedding. Morose is brooding, but in contrast to his commands that other address him using gestures of their legs, rather than words, he often bellows about his demands to have silence.
Given that this is a play about crosses and double crosses, often the intended recipient of one character’s line is not the one to whom he or she speaks, but someone else across the stage, or behind a door. Both Truewit and Morose telegraph to whom they actually speak by the direction of their eyes. Watching closely, the audience can follow these visual lines of intention to grasp additional humor in double entendres.
A limitation of this style of script is that audience members may not directly identify, and thereby learn from, any of the characters. Who wants to be Morose, cheated out of even being correctly cuckolled? Who wants to be Truewit, full of himself to the point that he does not recognize that he has been manipulated by someone else? Who wants to be the Silent Woman, who turns out to be an imposter? Who wants to be the foppish gentry friends or catty women of the town, who are exposed in their shallow lies and desperate house-lives? However, like those group members “casting” their disaster movie with others in the room, I’m sure that we can name a whole host of family, friends, and acquaintances, whom we would cast for a read through of Epicene, or The Silent Woman. (That ought to take care of anyone wanting to visit me again… what a morose thought…)