Why I Call Myself a Socialist
Is the World Really a Stage?
By Wallace Shawn, Tomdispatch.com
9:35am, February 3, 2011
Contrary to the popular misconception, the actor is not necessarily a specialist in imitating or portraying what he knows about other people. On the contrary, the actor may simply be a person who’s more willing than others to reveal some truths about himself. Interestingly, the actress who, in her own persona, may be gentle, shy, and socially awkward, someone whose hand trembles when pouring a cup of tea for a visiting friend, can convincingly portray an elegant, cruel aristocrat tossing off malicious epigrams in an eighteenth-century chocolate house.
On stage, her hand doesn’t shake when she pours the cup of chocolate, nor does she hesitate when passing along the vilest gossip about her closest friends. The actress’s next-door neighbors, who may not have had the chance to see her perform, might say that the person they know could never have been, under any circumstances, either elegant or cruel. But she knows the truth that in fact she could have been either or both, and when she plays her part, she’s simply showing the audience what she might have been, if she’d in fact been an aristocrat in a chocolate house in the eighteenth century.
We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.
(O)ne can hardly begin to describe the anguish caused by our habit of using our fantasizing capacity in the opposite direction, that is, using it to ascribe negative characteristics to people who, for one reason or another, we’d like to think less of. Sometimes we do this in regard to large groups of people, none of whom we’ve met. But we can even apply our remarkable capacity in relation to individuals or groups whom we know rather well, sometimes simply to make ourselves feel better about things that we happen to have done to them or are planning to do.
You couldn’t exactly say, for example, that Thomas Jefferson had no familiarity with dark-skinned people. His problem was that he couldn’t figure out how to live the life he in fact was living unless he owned these people as slaves. And as it would have been unbearable to him to see himself as so heartless, unjust, and cruel as to keep in bondage people who were just like himself, he ignored the evidence that was in front of his eyes and clung to the fantasy that people from Africa were not his equals.
Well, one could write an entire political history of the human race by simply recounting the exhausting cycle of fantasies which different groups have believed at different times about different other groups. Of course these fantasies were absurd in every case.
The domestic worker runs out of the shop and hurries back toward her job, and once again I see her only as the character she plays. I see a person who works as a servant. And surely that person could never have lived, for example, the life I’ve lived, or been like me — she’s not intelligent enough. She had to be a servant. She was born that way. The hustler surely had to be a hustler, it’s all he could do, the cashier could never have worn beautiful clothes, she could never have been someone who sought out what was beautiful, she could only ever have worn that pink shirt and those green slacks.
So, just as Thomas Jefferson lived in illusion, because he couldn’t face the truth about the slaves that he owned, I, too, put to use every second of my life, like my beating heart, this capacity to fantasize which we’ve all been granted as our dubious birthright. My belief in the performance unfolding before me allows me not to remember those dreadful moments when all of those babies were permanently maimed, and I was spared. The world hurled the infant who became the domestic worker to the bottom of a pit and crippled her for life, and I saw it happen, but I can’t remember it now. And so it seems quite wonderful to me that the world today treats the domestic worker and me with scrupulous equality.
It seems wonderfully right. If I steal a car, I go to jail, and if she steals a car, she goes to jail. If I drive on the highway, I pay a toll, and if she drives on the highway, she pays a toll. We compete on an equal basis for the things we want. If I apply for a job, I take the test, and if she applies for the job, she takes the test. And I go through my life thinking it’s all quite fair.
If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.