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Playwrighting: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (Part II)

August 28, 2012

The essence of drama, says Aristotle, “is an imitation not of people but of actions and life. [. . .] So the actions performed and the story are the end (telos) of a tragedy, and the end is the greatest of all things” (Poetics 1450a.18-20).

So, character or action? Do we do things because we are a certain way? Or are we a certain way because we act like it? “If you love me, keep my commandments,” says Jesus. Lex orandi, lex credendi, said the Reformers. The law of prayer is the law of belief. Or, in contemporary terms, you are what you do. If you act like you love someone, denying yourself to to bless them, you will soon find that you really do love that person, says Lewis.

Faith without works is dead, says James. A character’s very life is formed by action and he can only live in, by, and through action, just as we live and move and have our being in the same Spirit who first moved over the face of the deep. When a character seems “flat” or “boring,” it’s because he is dead. And the only dead characters we want to see on stage are the ones who got that way through some clear action.

Action forms character.

The opposite can and has been argued, but ultimately I think the idea of action forming character is more fascinating than the current paradigm, which places the emphasis on character. Action-oriented plays and characters are also more interesting to write and watch. The character-oriented question, “What or who is this character?” conjures vague, ethereal answers like “determined” or “spunky.” But the action-oriented question brings you a fully-drawn character (literally). “What has this character done and experienced that he would make this or that decision?”

But is action really the telos of drama? Obviously Aristotle would say so. But I beg to differ.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. cleithart permalink
    September 2, 2012 9:35 PM

    How does that change the game for the actor? It’s hard to act out the results of someone else’s life, whereas it’s comparatively easy to act out an emotion or “character trait.”

    • September 2, 2012 11:01 PM

      I don’t know. But, I think the idea of incorporating action into character is not acting out the results of someone’s life so much as it’s deepening your understanding of the emotion you intend to convey. I also have suspicions that this might be an important difference between method and classical acting.

      Not that I really know that much about either.

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