There is more to the stage of life than just learning your lines
Perhaps, like actors and statesmen, we’re turning chunks of information into an improbable whole - and we should simply live it
1. One the most annoying questions you can ask a stage actor is: “How do you learn all your lines?” For actors, learning their lines is the most minimal job requirement, along with “Don’t bump into the furniture”. Actors don’t want you to wonder about lines, they want you to travel with them through time and space, to feel and be moved. But last week before heading to watch Richard III at Maynardville I opened an old paperback copy of the play and looked at all those words crawling down the page, crookbacked, spidery and malign, and all I could think was: “How did he learn them all?”
2. When I was very young my father took me to see Disney’s Snow White in a downtown Durban cinema, one of the grand old movie houses with pinholes of light on the black velvet ceiling to resemble the night sky. I knew they weren’t real stars but I stared up in delight, the way humans used to stare at the real night sky. It made me shiver with wonder. My father held my hand as we watched the movie. My life was perfect, or perhaps it was only that moment. In Maynardville this weekend the wind was strong but it was high, only shaking the tops of the trees. On stage Queen Margaret called down heaven’s curses upon Richard, that “bottled spider”. I was sitting beside two teenaged girls that I have known and loved for a long time, and as the branches whipped we looked up at them and marveled at the power of words to move nature.
3. This is how actors learn their words. If you’re playing Hamlet, you’ll have to learn 1,480 individual lines, not including cues and movements. You can’t learn them one by one, or all at once. Instead actors unconsciously use a cognitive technique that we all possess, inelegantly called “chunking”. To chunk is to bind individual units of information together to form a sequence of meaningful wholes. An invisible through-line links these sequences, stretching them into a narrative, making flow, turning the individual chunks into a seamless whole. Actors don’t usually know it, but when they study a character, reading his words for continuity of personality, they are acquiring his lines. Maybe that’s what all creative endeavour is: chunks of information and experience that make connections and improbably form a whole. Maybe that’s what life is.
4. Abraham Lincoln completed a total of one year of formal schooling. Shakespeare and Robert Burns were his favourite writers. Three days before he was assassinated, boating up the Potomac, he recited from memory some speeches and soliloquys. Macbeth’s words after murdering Duncan affected him so deeply that he repeated them, lingering on the final lines:
“He sleeps well. Treason has done its worst; Not steel nor poison, malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further.”
Lincoln was especially obsessed with Richard III. When sitting for Francis Carpenter’s painting of the signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation, he entertained himself by reciting Richard’s part, and explaining to Carpenter how so many actors get the opening. Richard III is the story of a tyrant who uses stories and lies to seize power, and who is toppled when his English army is defeated by another English army, led by Lord Richmond. Half of Lincoln’s own nation thought he was a tyrant. Propaganda out of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia cast Lincoln as a modern Richard III, taking comfort in Richard’s lines: “A bard of Ireland told me once I should not live long after I saw Richmond.”
In March 1865 Lincoln visited Richmond. Three weeks later during a night at the theatre he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, a celebrated actor famed for his portrayal of Richard III, who leapt from the presidential box onto the stage and stood framed a moment in the footlights, while the audience thought he was part of the play. History records him yelling “Sic semper tyrannus!”, but Booth himself later admitted he fluffed the line and only said the first two words.
5. After Lincoln’s murder John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin – himself a Shakespearean actor – burnt all John’s papers and personal effects. One of the few items that survives is his annotated promptbook for Richard III. There are nervous squiggles in the margin beside the longer speeches. John Wilkes Booth was very anxious about forgetting his lines, and drying on stage with nothing to say.
6. Abraham Lincoln lived in the town of New Salem, Illinois for six years, where he was a postmaster and a boatman and woodchopper and ran a general store. He was hard-working, civic-minded and diligent and while living in New Salem he was elected to his first public office, in the Illinois General Assembly.
His best friend in New Salem was Jack Kelso, who chose to have no job. Jack provided for his family by hunting and fishing. He knew where the best wild plums grew, and where to tap the wild honey in the woods. He never worked a day in his life for pay, but was the first to pick up a shovel if a friend or a neighbour needed help. Jack Kelso liked to drink a drop, but instead of growing truculent, he would recite Shakespeare and Robert Burns. He had entire plays and books of poetry by heart. Before moving to new Salem, Lincoln only read the Bible or improving practical tomes, but Jack opened his heart to language. They were an odd couple: Lincoln the intense idealist, Kelso the genial knight of the woods, walking side by side with the fishing rods to the river, making the woods ring with words.
Biographers of Lincoln have called Jack Kelso a bum, a mooch, a layabout, a socially unproductive Huckleberry Finn. In later life Abraham Lincoln said he admired Jack Kelso more than any man he had ever known. He said: “Jack Kelso was the happiest man in New Salem.”
7. When the girls were much younger we sometimes had conversations about the meaning of life. I told them I wasn’t sure there was a secret to life, but if there is one, it’s in how you live it. “How should you live it?” they asked, looking at me closely. They wouldn’t just accept whatever I said – very often adults say things like “Work hard in school” or “Don’t waste your opportunities” or whatever – but they were curious to know what I thought. They were asking in order to learn about me. I thought about everything I had read and learnt and thought on the matter. “Well,” I said, “I think it depends.”
8. Shortly after watching Richard III at Maynardville I met Alan Committie, who played Richard. I wanted to tell him what an extraordinary performance it was, how physical and subtle, how compelled I was, and how moved. I wanted to tell him that Lincoln would have approved of how he handled the opening. I wanted to talk about that mysterious stardust of charisma that only certain actors and statesmen have. I wanted to thank him for the gift of the experience, but all I could think to say was: “How do you learn all those lines?”