If your life were a play, could someone play you better?

by Amanda Beth PeeryHamlet

Many articles have been written about the greatest Hamlet actors of all time and what they brought to the role. One such article, a 2014 New York Times piece, describes John Gielgud's 1930s Hamlet as “melodious and intellectual” while Laurence Olivier played “an expressly physical Hamlet of quicksilver mood changes and Freudian motivation.” Not only did the two actors interpret Hamlet differently, but with the same lines and the same minimal stage directions, Gielgud and Olivier created different characters.

What if an actor could play your life? By speaking the “lines” with a different inflection, or moving differently around a room, what kind of character could they create? Could they play your life more truly or beautifully than you?

I wonder how the subjects of biopics feel watching the movies about their lives. How would it feel to see an actor (probably more attractive, more glamorous than you) recreating pivotal scenes and dramatic conversations from your past? In a biopic, the script is different than the exact words you said, but even so, I wonder if you would feel a strange kind of doubling. Would your memories begin to merge with the scenes in the movie? Is it possible that the movie scenes could feel truer than the memories of real experiences? If the lead actor played a scene with more empathy or beauty than the way it was in life, would you wish you could go back in time and act, in that circumstance, more like the actor?

One purpose of a biopic is “for both artist and spectator to discover what it would be like to be this person, or to be a certain type of person” writes Dennis Bingham, a film scholar. On the other side, can the subject of the biopic, watching the movie, discover what it would be like if they were a different type of person?

Beyond the biopic, there is still the question of whether another person could play your own whole life better than you, speaking all of your lines and doing all of your actions. They would interpret your life differently than you do, emphasizing different parts of the things you say and inhabiting the world in a slightly different way. In this way, they would draw out different aspects of your character, or create a different character altogether.

In a play, it is not only actors who interpret characters, but also audiences. If Laurence Olivier had played Hamlet in front of an audience in Shakespeare's time, they would have seen his Hamlet very differently than we do now, and not only for obvious reasons, like the fact that his acting would have been very different than other actors of the day. They would also interpret his Hamlet differently because the narratives of life, the stories we tell about our choices and actions, have changed since the early seventeenth century. Olivier's interpretation of the Hamlet belonged to a narrative that did not exist in Shakespeare's England. For example, his understanding of Freudian motivations would have changed the emphasis of certain parts of the play. Maybe, if he had played the role in the early seventeenth century exactly like he played it in his own time, he would have brought a new type of narrative into being.

Our narratives about our lives influence our inflections and gestures and change how people see us. But beyond narratives, each person we interact with interprets us differently, understanding our words and actions through their own reservoir of connotations and past experiences. If we believe, for a moment, that each person's interpretation of us is a version of us, then there are myriad versions of us in the world. If actors were to play our lives, there would be as many versions of them (acting as us) in the world, too.

* * *

I asked an actor friend if he ever thinks about someone else playing him, in the play of his life, and he said that it would be inconceivable because someone with different thoughts would never say and do the exact things he does. This brings up an good point: if we think about other people playing our lives, it matters whether those people are doing so knowingly, as actors, or if they believe they are us.

In Jorge Luis Borges' story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote,” a twentieth-century French writer tries to recreate Don Quixote, writing the exact same text as Cervantes himself without remembering or looking at the original. “His admirable ambition was to create a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” To do this, rather than trying to recreate Cervantes' experiences, to live Cervantes' life, and therefore to be inspired to write exactly the same text, he decides to continue to be Pierre Menard and “[come] to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” In other words, despite having different thoughts and experiences than Cervantes, he would come to the exact words of Cervantes, although using those words differently, self-consciously writing in seventeenth-century Spanish.

In the story, Pierre Menard produces a “fragmentary Quixote.” Although, in my thought experiment, someone else would be living our lives, while Borges' Menard specifically and intentionally does not live Cervantes' life, the two cases are only slightly different. If the person living your life believes it is their own life, the underlying question is the same: whether two people with different thoughts can come to the same words, the same movements in thought (or in their physical body).

One way to solve this problem is to imagine, for the sake of the thought experiment, that we live in a playwright's universe, where our words and “stage directions” are determined in advance, whether or not we believe we have free will. If this were the case, we would be as interchangeable as actors in a part. But that is not to say that every actor would play the role equally well.

The New York Time article about great Hamlet actors quotes Laurence Olivier saying, of John Barrymore, “it seemed to me that he breathed life into the character.” Olivier was heavily influenced by Barrymore. His Hamlet would have been different if Barrymore never played the role.

Someone else could probably play each of us better than we play ourselves—with more warmth or more compassion. Someone could play us more interestingly, adding depth and shadings to our words. Someone could probably even play us more honestly than we play ourselves, expressing our emotions with less artifice and removing some of the layers between our hearts and the world. If we could watch these “performances,” we would learn different possible ways of living. I wonder if this would change us. If we could pause our lives and watch someone else play out the day we lived yesterday, would we live differently tomorrow?

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