[To my Lily]
Don’t accept the roles that society foists on you. Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience. Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define it for you. Incorporate dramatic devices into your public gestures and actions your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.
The character you seem to have been born with is not necessarily who you are; beyond the characteristics you have inherited, your parents, your friends, and your peers have helped to shape your personality. The Promethean task of the powerful is to take control of the process, to stop allowing others that ability to limit and mold them. Remake yourself into a character of power. Working on yourself like clay should be one of your greatest and most pleasurable life tasks. It makes you in essence an artist—an artist creating yourself.
In fact, the idea of self—creation comes from the world of art. For thousands of years, only kings and the highest courtiers had the freedom to shape their public image and determine their own identity. Similarly, only kings and the wealthiest lords could contemplate their own image in art, and consciously alter it. The rest of mankind played the limited role that society demanded of them, and had little self-consciousness.
A shift in this condition can be detected in Velézquez’s painting : La Marinas, made in 1656. The artist appears at the left of the canvas, standing before a painting that he is in the process of creating. but that has its back to us-we cannot see it. Beside him stands a princess, her attendants, and one of the court dwarves, all watching him work. The people posing for the painting are not directly visible, but we can see them in tiny reflections in a mirror on the back wall-the king and queen of Spain, who must be sitting
somewhere in the foreground, outside the picture.
The painting represents a dramatic change in the dynamics of power and the ability to determine one’s own position in society. For Velazquez, the artist, is far more prominently positioned than the king and queen. In a sense he is more powerful than they are, since he is clearly the one controlling the image-their image. Velazquez no longer saw himself as the slavish, dependent artist. He had remade himself into a man of power. And indeed the first people other than aristocrats to play openly with their image in Western society were artists and writers, and later on dandies and bohemians. Today the concept of self-creation has slowly filtered down to the rest of society, and has become an ideal to aspire to. Like Velazquez, you must demand for yourself the power to determine your position in the painting, and to create your own image.
The first step in the process of self—creation is self-consciousness being aware of yourself as an actor and taking control of your appearance and emotions. As Diderot said, the bad actor is the one who is always sincere. People who wear their hearts on their sleeves out in society are tiresome and embarrassing. Their sincerity notwithstanding, it is hard to take them seriously. Those who cry in public may temporarily elicit sympathy, but sympathy soon turns to scorn and irritation at their self-obsessiveness- they are crying to get attention, we feel, and a malicious part of us wants to deny them the satisfaction. Good actors control themselves better. They can play sincere and heartfelt, can affect a tear and a compassionate look at will, but they don’t have to feel it. They externalize emotion in a form that others can understand. Method acting is fatal in the real world. No ruler or leader could possibly play the part if all of the emotions he showed had to be real. So learn self-control. Adopt the plasticity of the actor, who can mold his or her face to the emotion required. The second step in the process of self-creation is a Variation on the George Sand strategy: the creation of a memorable character, one that compels attention, that stands out above the other players on the stage. This was the game Abraham Lincoln played. The homespun, common country man, he knew, was a kind of president that America had never had but would delight in electing. Although many of these qualifies came naturally to him, he played them up-the hat and clothes, the beard. (No president before him had worn a beard.) Lincoln was also the first president to use photographs to spread his image, helping to create the icon of the “homespun president.”
Good drama, however, needs more than an interesting appearance, or a single stand-out moment. Drama takes place over time-it is an unfolding event Rhythm and timing are critical. One of the most important elements in the rhythm of drama is suspense. Houdini for instance, could sometimes complete his escape acts in seconds – but he drew them out to minutes, to make the audience sweat. The key to keeping the audience on the edge of their seats is letting events unfold slowly, then speeding them up at the right moment, according to a pattern and tempo that you control. Great rulers from Napoleon to Mao Tseturig have used theatrical timing to surprise and divert their public.
Remember that overacting can be counterproductive—it is another way of spending too much effort trying to attract attention. The actor Richard Burton discovered early in his career that by standing totally still onstage, he drew attention to himself and away from the other actors. It is less what you do that matters, clearly, than how you do it—your gracefulness and imposing stillness on the social stage count for more than overdoing your part and moving around too much. Finally: Learn to play many roles, to be whatever the moment requires. Adapt your mask to the situation-be protean in the faces you wear. Bismarck played this game to perfection: To a liberal he was a liberal, to a hawk he was a hawk. He could not be grasped, and what cannot be grasped cannot be consumed.