Diderot, Organ Donors and the Feeling of Certainty – Acting and Emotions 1

Denis Diderot during his lifetime became guilty of two terribly blasphemous acts. The most blasphemous one was the claim that emotion had to be absent in the play of a good actor. The second most blasphemous one was the denial of the existence of God.

Both of them are, to the disgrace of mankind, still topics of controversy today.

The claim that actors during performance experience or „live through“ the real emotions of the character they perform is so otherworldly, so absolutely hare-brained, that, applying the late Christopher Hitchens` elementary rule or “razor”, this extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence to prove it and as long as simply asserted without any evidence one should not hesitate to dismiss it without any kind of evidence whatsoever.

I could finish here. But as a good haeretic I will of course provide you with some arguments for my position.

One single argument is sufficient to eliminate any doubt about the topic: If actors experienced the real emotions their characters have to go through during the play, nobody would ever want to do the job. People would stare at you with an expression of horror on their face as soon as you would offer them to play the main character in a Hollywood movie. Then they would run. You would have to either pay a lot of money, enslave people or be content with a pool of potential actors who only had the choice between organ donation and acting to gain their living. But this is not what happens. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide give up real career prospects in other fields to invest their time and passion into an activity that most probably will lead nowhere in terms of finance and social status. So one should suspect that acting must be quite pleasureable.

Well, you might say (and I`ve heard that argument often enough to consider it worth mentioning here): „People might enjoy their emotions. Emotions are not such a bad thing. Better emotions than no emotions. It makes you feel alive.“ Well, no. Not every hunch of feeling inside yourself is an emotion. Have you ever in your life experienced real loss, failure or hopelessness? Have you ever had dark times? These are not experiences you want to have. And how disrespectful towards the most existential human experiences of suffering is it to claim that the tiny something you possibly felt when you were on stage is supposed to equal this?

Also, the whole behavioural structure is so completely different that even empirically, simply from observation, no brain scan necessary, one should have difficulties to conclude that performing emotion has anything to do with experiencing real emotions. Imagine somebody going through one of the darkest days of his life, perhaps due to loss of a loved one, being the whole day in pain and despair and at 9 PM finishing the day with a radiating smile, filled up with pride and exclaiming happily: „I completely felt it!“ This is not what happens with real emotions. But it happens all the time to the actors who think their emotions are real. This is not comparing apples to pears, it`s comparing apples to images of superficially apple-resembling figures.

And why don`t you care for inconsistency? Even people who insist on the realness of the emotional experience of the actor would seldomly claim that the experience of physical pain, for example if a character gets shot, looses a leg or gets his head overpoured with liquid gold must be real. So even they would admit that there is the option of „unrealness“ in the work of the actor and at the same time there can be a sort of realness of experience for the audience. This is quite an inconsistent view on the field of acting which should at least sow some doubt on the orthodox claim of the realness of emotions.

So why is this whole idea so persistant? Diderot died 1784, he recognized all the problems that would occur if actors were really engaged in the emotions of their character as soon as so called “naturalistic play”,  the idea that performance should resemble life, entered European stages. Why the heck are we still bothered with this?

There may be some desirability bias playing here. Describing your work like a medieval magician who of course does real magic might sell better than simply saying: We have our tricks.

But I think this isn`t all. There is something even more profound going on. Why can something so easily dismissable intuitively feel so right to so many people? So right, that both audience and actors with their completely different experiences so often agree on it? What do actors experience when they report that they were „in it“ and what is the difference to their experience when they say they weren`t „in it“? What is the strange (perceptional!?!) relationship between the actor performing and the experience of the audience? By what eyes do we see and cognize humans? It seems that people don`t see what really happens, they must see and experience something else, and what they see and experience must be packed into such a strong feeling of certainty that by so many it isn`t questioned. Because were it ever questioned in even five minutes of contemplation, people would immediately have to recognize that something must be wrong with their assumption. So what is going on?