Blogs are notorious for elevating the minutiae of the blogger's life into distended posts. Well, grab a couple of matchsticks for your eyelids, Gladys, because minutiae don't come much more minute than this.
The scene is a checkout queue in my local supermarket. The time is a quiet weekday morning. So quiet, in fact, that few of the lines are open, and the gent in front of me has a full family load of goods ambling towards the till. He asks for help packing his purchases: none is forthcoming. I offer to help: he refuses. I, foolishly, think he's merely being polite (pointless self-denial is the British way), so I offer again. He declines again, rather more forcefully. 'It wasn't an aggressive offer of help, you know,' I say, taken aback. 'Look, I've said no three times now,' he snaps. 'Just leave it.'
Well, I warned you it was minutiae. But there is a point, honest: as I stood there, baffled, oddly chastened and waiting for him to deal with pastas and salads and fancy biscuits, I reflected on how audiences read acting. We go to the theatre and we confidently assign meanings to human behaviour. Sometimes those meanings are diagnostic (he's angry; she's grieving), sometimes they involve a moral judgement (naughty man; nice lady). But although my neighbour and I might disagree about these readings, there is usually a good steer from the performer or production to help us assess the character.
Without context, I realised, we flounder. I had no idea why the man in the queue responded so sharply. Was he painfully shy or furiously self-sufficient? Did he feel that his alpha-masculinity, already severely compromised by shuffling celery on a Thursday morning, was placed under even greater threat when another guy offered assistance? Would he have responded differently to a female shopper? Was he planning to poison his wife with a toxic tagine, and fear that he'd been rumbled? How could I begin to guess?
Or, even more troubling, was I failing to read my own behaviour correctly? Maybe I didn't seem friendly at all, but pushy, or even creepy. Was this a scene about an angry boor spurning a good samaritan, or about a reserved man fending off a meddling loon? Without some establishing scenes involving friends, family, authority figures or a Greek chorus hanging around the frozen goods, it was impossible to know how to read the encounter.
So far, so Thursday. But critics tend to describe characters and performances with just a phrase or a single epithet: recently, I find, I've gone for harried, gorgon, 'a shambles of dubious potential', 'droll-dimpled' ['were his dimples really droll?' asked my editor. Yes, indeedy], 'unglamorous voluptuary' and, I'm afraid to confess, 'a cock with a quiff.' The last was cut, but on grounds of taste rather than its unimpeachable accuracy. All seemed spot-on to me - but how would I sum up the man in the queue? How would I describe myself? How much confidence do we have in our character readings?
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog