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The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 63, No.

251
ISSN 0031-8094

April 2013
doi: 10.1111/1467-9213.12038

Winner of The Philosophical Quarterly Essay Prize 2012

UNETHICAL ACTS
BY TZACHI ZAMIR

Richard Schechner1
The extraordinary thing about acting is that life itself is actually used to create
artistic results.
Lee Strasberg2

It appears that dramatic acting is no longer a proper subject for ethical


analysis as it once was. The long anti-theatrical tradition saw to it that
actors were perceived as a self-damning, morally tainting aspect of society.3 It would be difficult to find anyone who takes such a solemn and
humourless stance seriously anymore, and it has basically been reduced to
a bewildering aspect of the Wests unenlightened past. The first aim of
this essay is to claim that, while nowadays acting is perceived as an unproblematic and laudable art form, it still provokes ethical reservations.
Such discomfort goes untheorised, not only in the extensive literature on
acting by practitioners, but also within contemporary Anglo-American
philosophy of theatre.4 My first objective is to chart the scope and nature
of such ethical unease within contexts in which the actor genuinely operates (I). I then offer an explanation through which such an ethical dimen1

R. Schechner, Environmental Theatre (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973), p. 191.


From Strasberg at the Actors Studio, in T. Cole (ed.), Actors on Acting: The Theories,
Techniques, and Practices of the Great Actors of all Times as Told in Their Own Words (New York:
Crown, 1970), p. 623.
3
J. A. Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
4
D. Davies, Philosophy of the Performing Arts (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); J.R. Hamilton, The Art of Theater (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007); P. Thom, For an Audience:
A Philosophy of the Performing Arts (Philadelphia: Temple UPress, 1993); P. Woodruff, The
Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched (Oxford UPress, 2008).
2

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In a fundamental way theatre and prostitution are public and private versions of
each other if either profession were absolutely perfected, the other would vanish.

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TZACHI ZAMIR

sion may be understood (II). Two responses to these ethical reservations


are then discussed and rejected (III & IV). I then turn to this essays constructive proposal (V & VI), suggesting that value-related ambiguity can
be a means through which an important and evasive source of the distinctiveness of acting as a performing art can be understood. The essay
thus offers an argument in which an ethical thesis and an aesthetic one
interlock within the context of embodied performance. My arguments
historical dimension consists of the essays implicit dialogue with antitheatrical thought. Yet since this exchange is not my main focus, leads
suggesting continuity and discontinuity with this tradition will be mostly
limited to the notes.

Common to all the examples I am about to survey, is the manner


whereby a performed act transcends the incarnated character and
touches the identity of the actor in a manner that evokes ethical questions. The most obvious form of unethical conduct on stage relates to
violence. Charlie Chaplin was hit on stage by a more experienced actor,
Harry Weldon, who resented Chaplins growing success, and began
using the mock violence of the sequence as a means of channelling real
violence.5 Actress Maya Maoz withdrew from acting Desdemona in a
Haifa Theatre (1998) production, when partnered by Juliano MehrKahmis, an overly enthusiastic Othello, who slapped her repeatedly to a
degree that required hospitalisation. It is not hard to see in these examples, how the enacted act transcends the fictional characters and reaches
the actors, possessing a real interpersonal dimension with a genuine ethical side.
But there are more evasive forms of morally relevant character-identity
slippage. Consider techniques such as emotional recall. The actor is
meant to summon a real memory in order to recreate a past emotion.
Here is an example:
The actress Vera Vasilyeva could not bring herself to cry on stage. She accordingly
began recalling the death of her mother when she was supposed to cry, and the
tears dropped naturally.6

C. Chaplin, My Autobiography (London: Bodley Head, 1964), p. 101.


B. Feldman, Three Approaches to the Art of Acting: Stanislavski, Chekhov, Grotowski: Theories &
Exercises (Israel: Safra Publishing House, 2011), p. 85 (my translation).
6

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Should such technique be perceived as a benign tool, or is Vasilyeva


cheapening in some sense her relationship to her mother?
A technique called imaginative substitution raises similar difficulties:
the actor is encouraged to infuse into an enacted situation aspects of a
non-fictional relationship, drawing genuine responses from the imagined
scenario. Here is an example:

The acting student in this exercise felt used and harmed by the technique
offered by her director. To imagine her mother in such a way was somehow felt to be exploitative. But why and in what sense can such imaginative act taint a real relationship?
Such examples assume a conception of Method acting, in which the
actors success depends upon recreating an inner experience approximating
the one the actor attempts to project. There are obviously other approaches
to acting, in which projection without inner recreation is being attempted.
Yet endorsing non-Method acting does not make ethical problems disappear. Consider the following anecdote by Marlon Brando, in which he
describes being coerced into passionate kissing by an older actress:
The play opened in New England with me playing Tallulah [Bankheads] young
lover whenever I was onstage with her and the moment approached when I was
supposed to kiss her, I couldnt bear it. For some reason, she had a cool mouth
and her tongue was especially cold. Onstage, she was forever plunging it into my
mouth without so much as a how-do-you-do. It was like an eel trying to slide backward into a hole.8

Brando goes on to describe his anxiety over losing his job (which he did)
should he express his discomfort over being kissed in this manner. Apart
from exemplifying how fictional role-playing can metamorphose into an
7

S. Burgoyne, K. Poulin and A. Rearden, The Impact of Acting on Student Actors:


Boundary Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress, Theatre Topics, 9.2. (1999), pp. 15779
(here p. 161).
8
M. Brando and R. Lindsey, Brando: Songs my Mother Taught Me (New York: Random
House, 1994), p. 115.
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Jennifer recounted a rehearsal experience in which the director told her to use the
image of her own mother hanging from a noose in a corner of the theatre as a
means of achieving her characters emotional state. She found the personal image
painful: That image is in my mind forever. I cannot erase it. And [the director]
gave it to me because I did not create that image on my own. He gave it to me.
She characterised this experience as emotional prostitution for which the director
served as pimp. She noted that she would now refuse to use such an acting technique. However, at the time. .. he was the director, and I was young and inexperienced and. .. I did what he told me.7

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9
I elsewhere call such acts agent-determining role-playing and distinguish them from
enacted role-playing and pretence. In pretence the state performed is not actually experienced (for example, pretending to be dead). In enacted role-playing the actor undergoes the
enacted state, but the experience is neatly related only to the enacted character (for example, when the character is swimming, the actor too is swimming). In agent-determining roleplaying the role percolates into the performers identity (for example, setting fire to a
national flag on stage). I argue that in acts of this third kind, a state related to a value associated with the performed act exists outside the fiction (a vegetarian required to eat meat
on stage, is actually playing along with the real killing of the animal elsewhere). This is
why some performed acts determine the agent whereas performing villains say, does not.
To lie on stage to a fictional character is unrelated to a genuinely existing state. To be beaten or stripped, by contrast, does.
10
For a detailed exploration of the relationship between acting theory and theories of
the body, see J. R. Roach, The Players Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993). Physically oriented actor-training systems are selective:
while obviously much more attuned to the self-shaping capacities of the body and while
they would resist a view in which the body is mechanised, such theories have said nothing
about the ethical implications that such self-shaping may entail. For such theories, see B.
Merlin, Beyond Stanislavsky: The Psycho-Physical Approach to Actor Training (New York: Routledge, 2001); P.B. Zarrilli and P. Hulton, Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski (London: Routledge, 2009).

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excuse for sexual harassment, the more interesting question relates to


Brandos inability to perform kissing. Erotic acting brings out a genuine
problem: what happens to kissing and embracing once the usual meanings with which they are traditionally invested are withheld? Is such suspension always possible? Another perception relates to the dependency of
the meaning of ones act on anothers intentions. Since Tallulah Bankhead was obviously genuinely kissing Brando, regardless of his own ability
to charge the kissing with personal meaning, to cooperate with her while
aware of her own intentions, constitutes in itself a willingness to be genuinely kissed. The performer, it seems, does not fully control the interpersonal meaning of his acts, and, with or without his consent, their
meaning slips through the divide between fictional role and identity.9
A particular paradigm of embodiment is responsible for this clash
between moral unease and artistic objectives in relation to erotic gestures
in acting. The paradigmintroduced and established throughout modernity and rendered explicit by Julien Offray de la Mettrieholds that the
body is merely an elaborate machine, an organic robot that may be driven according to ones intentions. Contemporary actors have either inherited this paradigm or, when trained in more physically-oriented systems,
seem to limit the self-shaping capacity of the body to the release of creative energy through somatic modifications.10 Either way, identity-related
implications are left unmentioned. In practice, the result is the same:
actors are urged to deflate value-laden acts such as kissing and embracing
into mere value-neutral bodily operations. Yet actors who believe that

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II
In his Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit claims that a failure to remember
often manifests an ethical failure to care.12 What Margalit has in mind is
not forgetting the person as such, but forgetting something essential about
him or her. His main example is an outcry prompted by a colonels
admission that he could not recall the name of a soldier who died under
his command. To lose possession of such a detail was publicly censured
as obtuse indifference, a failure to care. While Margalit does not discuss
the kind of abuses of memory that acting may involve in some of the
11
Within Anglo-American philosophy, such rethinking includes S. Gallagher, How the
Body Shapes the Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005); M. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body:
Aesthetics of Human Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 2007); R. Shusterman, Body
Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (Cambridge UP, 2008). Within Continental philosophy, it may be found in D. Welton (ed.), The Body: Classic and Contemporary
Readings (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999).
12
Published by Harvard UP, 2002.

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their physical actions are unrelated to their identities underestimate the


bodys substantial participation in self-shaping. The simplification entailed
in this deflation has recently become more obvious, given the thoroughgoing rethinking of the mechanisation of the body within philosophy.11
We are not as free to use our bodies as we thought we were.
Character-identity percolation in the examples above gives rise to two
questions. The first question (which will not be discussed here) is whether
there exist moral limits to professionalising aspects of ones identity, whereas
the second question (which will) concerns the meaning of cheapening.
Cheapeningeither in relation to memories or to the use of supposedly professionally irrelevant aspects of ones identitymay be broken
down into effect-related abuse and essential abuse. Effect-related abuse means
that the professional act will disrupt ones experience in a non-professional context. Vasilievas grief over her mother, say, will be blunted. By
contrast, essential abuse consists of a sense of undermining values regardless of possible long-term harm. When considering effect-related abuse,
virtually everything revolves around subjective sensitivities: If an individual is capable of using his or her tragedy in one context while relating to
it deeply in another, no argument or moral claim can be made against
such use. Essential abuse differs. It includes a dimension of evaluation that
is determined by more than mere subjective sensitivities. Vasilyeva use of
her grief may be wrong, regardless of any erosion of her feelings. Here is a
proposal regarding why this may be so.

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13
The primary theorists here include Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Virginia Held and
Michael Slote. For a relatively recent survey of the literature on care, see ch. 2 in V. Held,
The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford UP, 2006).

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examples above, the connection he draws between an ethical failure and


a withdrawal from care can, nevertheless, be extended to include these.
Vasilyevas use of her mothers death is not a form of forgetting. It can,
however, be perceived as symptomatic of a failure in caring. A similar
withdrawal from care holds in relation to visualising close people in
degrading, tragic or horrifying circumstances, such as Jennifers imagining
her mother hanging from a noose. Some of our relationships involve
care, and some actsmental or embodiedseem to constitute a withdrawal from care. They are therefore potentially unethical.
Care ethicists provide three different accounts of care: emotional, practice-oriented, and moral. The first emphasises the affective or psychological
state of the carer. The second regards caring as on-going activity, much
like a work one is obliged to perform. The third identifies care with a virtue.13 For all three, care involves partiality to particular individuals. Such
partiality may involve response to needs (rather than merely concern); a
non-judgemental acceptance of the cared for individual; a willingness to be
changed by the other; an identification with anothers goals and an attempt
to promote them, along with an emotional response to the fulfilment or
thwarting of such goals. Empathy (feeling anothers pain) and/or sympathy
(feeling for anothers pain, without actually experiencing it) can also constitute aspects of care. For theorists who regard care as activity or work, caring relationships are not simply emotional givens, but require sustaining
and often demand manifesting ones commitment in a repeated way.
Judged from this perspective, an actors performance may constitute a
receding from care (an essential abuse) in three different ways. First, caring relations involve an awareness of their fragility, and such awareness
restricts what may or may not be performed or thought. Embodied imaginative acts can be powerful and unpredictable. Regardless of ones intentions, they can progressively erode caring. The exacerbation of this risk
issues from the particular requirementat least in the theatreto repeat
such enactments over and over again. To embody such acts is to take caring for granted. It amounts to being careless when caution is called for.
Even if ones caring will not actually change, by imagining some possibilities, one is nevertheless willing to risk care, which is itself a manifestation of
uncaring. Genuine attachment avoids playing risky imaginative games
with ones most significant sentiments. Secondly, the imagined content as
such seems to violate care because it involves a mental devaluation or a mental
disidentification. The imagined scenarios either involve an embodied identi-

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Its really hard to be the spouse of an actor/actress, and its never as easy as cliched
phrases like shes going home with you, or its just acting. People saying that
have never really felt what its like to be the spouse of an actor/actress. My wife
recently took a lead role in a play that requires her to be naked (full frontal nudity)
on stage for about 57 minutes with another man who is also fully naked. I am
completely uncomfortable with this, but she feels that this opportunity is just too
important to pass up. It gives her the opportunity to work with the best director in
town at the best theatre in a controversial show, so it will get a lot of press and
attention. She believes this will be a springboard to her career. I will never stand
in her way and hinder her career, but I am so angry, hurt, depressed, etc. Hundreds of people are going to see my wife naked. That is something that I value
very highly. It is so special and private to me. Her nudity is something that I alone
get to enjoy as her husband. No more. She sees it as just acting and not a big deal.
Its just skin she would say. Its not to me. Its intimacy. I feel betrayed, embarrassed, emasculated. I can hardly sleep, am struggling with anxiety, etc. I HATE
that people I know, actor friends of hers that I have met, etc. are going to see my
wife naked. It is a horrible horrible feeling. 14

The husband senses in his wifes act a breach of intimacy: something that
should remain a private dimension of his marriage is rendered public. His
wifes nudity should be reserved for their relationshipnot displayed in
some indiscriminate way before strangers. Her attempt to trivialise the act
by telling him that Its just skin, underestimates in his eyes the complex
meaning of such a gesture and its implication for both of them. In all
14

The site is called DearCupid.org, and the entry is from November 28, 2009 under a
question entitled How do husbands/wives of actresses/actors deal with this jealousy? (page
accessed on November 23, 2011). Many other entries in the page discuss similar frustrations
by other partners of actors and actresses, including a relationship that has broken up
because of such issues.
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fication with a state that itself manifests uncaring (for instance, embodying
a character who is attracted to someone who is not the actors own lover),
or imagining accidents that a loved one undergoes in order to generate
horror or grief for the purpose of art. Caring seems to posit that specific
states are of such momentous personal significance that they will either be
altogether suppressed, or will only be contemplated with genuine terror.
Only a withdrawal from carea momentary devaluation of some states
that should not be devalued; or a stepping out of identification that
should not be suspendedwould enable the metamorphosis of potentially
life-defining events into tools. Thirdly, care seems to demand exclusiveness. A comment posted in a romantic advice web-page by a frustrated
husband of an actress who performs a nude scene with another actor,
exemplifies this:

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I find the way to deal with love scenes is to be extremely professional about the
whole thing: this is a job, this is what the two of us happen to have been asked to
dolie in bed nakedand it doesnt matter that we have never met before.
And then there is the problem for the actress; she has to get herself into a frame of
mind where shed be able to let a strange man stroke her bum. But its all just part
of the job, and none of us can afford to be coy about it15

Caine ends the passage with a joke:


But what makes me laugh is that the only time a director ever demonstrates things
to you is in love scenes! Suddenly he feels the need to show you exactly how to
hold the actress.

In the context of the discussion above, the joke is less funny. It seems to
be part of a vocabulary that professionals learn to depend upon as a
means for neutralising disturbing thoughts. Such thoughts concern not
only what they do, but also what they permit others to do. In addition, as
the examples discussed in this essay should by now accumulatively suggest, such permission is usually granted within the context of non-symmetric power relations.

III
Three responses to these largely ignored ethical sides of acting merit discussion. The first (which will be taken up in this section) advocates replacing
15

M. Caine, Acting in Film (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990), p. 94.

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three waysmanifesting carelessness, devaluation or ignoring implicit


assumptions regarding exclusivenessacting may constitute a withdrawal
from care rather than merely an artistically taxing demand from individuals to reorganise who and what they are.
In a forthcoming book, I discuss the opposite side of this process as
well: the manner whereby role-playing can establish care precisely through
reversing the processes pointed out above: creating intimacy rather than
endangering it by role-playing. But it is the danger I am focusing on here,
and it is exacerbated by the fact that directors, acting teachers, and
authorities on acting may present such withdrawal as a benign feature of
the artists professional vocation, or even a mark of professional dedication. Here is a version of how such a morally loaded process is deflated
into a matter of professionalism (with an appropriate pacifying joke
thrown in). It features in Michael Caines book on film acting, in a passage devoted to acting love scenes:

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16
R. Gordon, The Purpose of Playing: Modern Acting Theories in Perspective (Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 3546.
17
Some important work includes E. Aston, Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook (London:
Routledge, 1999); S. Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988); E. Diamond,
Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theatre (London: Routledge, 1997). For a critical
discussion of these contributions, see J. Ellen Gainor, Rethinking Feminism, Stanislavsky
and Performance, Theatre Topics, 12 (2002).

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identity-based acting techniques with other means, thereby paving the way
towards ethical acting. The second and third responses (to be addressed in
section IV), both accept the unethical nature of some aspects of acting, but
then part company: the second response suggests that potentially unethical
acting should nevertheless be used because the artistic payoffs are more
important than compromising moral values. The third response regards the
unethical potential of some acting methods as inherent to acting as such,
but the practical implications it draws from this realisation are neither a
defence nor a condemnation of acting as such. The attempt is, rather, to
specify the conditions under which acting preserves the dignity of its practitioners as well as the conditions in which it may fail to achieve this.
The first optioncriticising techniques that rely on autobiographical
material and advocating the adoption of other devices insteadis superficial. Even if the problem were limited to experience-based acting it would
be substantial since Method-based actor training remains the most dominant form of actor-training.16 More importantly, self-implicating acting is
not a problem only of methods based on undergoing experiences. We
already saw how erotic actingembracing, kissing, sexual caressing,
naked intimacy and mimicking intercoursemay fail to insulate role from
identity, regardless of performers actually experiencing anything. But selfimplicating through performance regardless of inwardness can take many
other forms: ingesting foods that violate ones religious or moral convictions, being asked to perform acts that one deems immoral (an actor
friend of mine participated in a play in which he had to kill a hen in each
performanceto which he did not object, though another might), humiliating or being physically humiliated by another character (e.g. Malcolm
McDowells licking another characters shoe in Clockwork Orange)all
exemplify how a sense of self-tainting can arise with or without an
attempt to establish inner experience.
Enacting characters that conform to and enforce gendered, religious,
racial or other stereotypes that the actor finds morally objectionable is
another potential source for role-biography breakdown without inner
identification with the role. Feminist approaches to theatrical acting have,
for example, sought to encourage ideological reservations relating to the
embodiment of feminine characters in patriarchal literature.17 A Jewish

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18
D. Wiles, Burdens of Representation: The Method and the Audience, in D. Krasner
(ed.) Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future (New York: St. Martins Press, 2000),
p. 175.
19
This co-creative function of the actor in relation to the audience distinguishes the
imaginative resistance unique to acting from other kinds of such resistance discussed in
the literature. The actor may resist imagining states that would prompt others to adopt objectionable attitudes. Additional differences that distinguish the imaginative resistance of actors
from those of, say, readers, relates to the scope and intensity of the imagination required in
acting: detail of imaginative participation, duration and repetition. To ponder whether or
not to read a novel about a lovable Nazi differs from considering an offer to perform such
a role in a play involving a two month rehearsal period and an expected two season run.
The difference is analogous to the one between touring a country with objectionable politics and living and paying taxes in it for several years. (I am grateful to Kendall Walton for
encouraging me to articulate the relationship between my argument and the literature on
the puzzle of imaginative resistance.)

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actor may resent playing Shylock, believing that, even under the most
charitable interpretation, the play still fosters anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Being called a nigger in a play is still being called a nigger, writes AfroAmerican actor David Wiles, exploring his difficulties in performing a
racially humiliated black character.18 Called upon to express indignity
when his character was addressed as boy, Wiles found that he resisted
expressing shame when performing for a white audience. Again, experiencing or not racial shame was not the issue for Wilesprojecting shame
of/over ones race before whites was, because he sensed it as corroborating and re-enacting an ideology that he opposes.
Wiles experience is related not only to ideology, but also to the capacity of a role to trigger a painful collective memory. Ideological reservations
per se (such as a refusal to kill a hen on stage) need not relate to being
choreographed into an edgy brush against ones collective history, thereby
raising an actors possible moral obligations to others. An ideologically
committed actor for whom racial, gendered or religious discrimination is
related to suffering and pain, tightly bonds with a shared community.
Such bonding may also surface involuntarily throughout the performance,
even in the case of actors who are not necessarily ideologically committed. To momentarily suspend ones convictions in order to portray the
opposite ideology is experienced as a withdrawal from care for fellow
blacks, fellow women, fellow Jews. If a feminist actress is willing to enact
what she considers to be an ideologically regressive role, she may sense
that such reveals a lack of commitment on her part, and introduces inappropriate playfulness into sentiments and beliefs that should not be downplayed. She does not sufficiently care for the cause, or for the fact that
others, who share her ideological commitment, would not allow such
playfulness enter their own embodied acts.19

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To conclude: in too many domains of acting, projectingwith or without inner experiencespills onto identity through a performed acts ability to constitute a withdrawal from care.
IV

20
For a discussion of this performance and the controversy it elicited, see S.D. Burch,
Imitation of Life: A Meditation on Victim Art, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, XII
(1997).

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A second response to the moral dimension that surfaces in some episodes


of acting, is to accept the unethical nature of some forms of acting, but to
hold that art and aesthetic values arein the instances that matter to the
actorultimately more important than moral values. Nietzsche is sometimes interpreted as urging a categorical subordination of existence to aesthetic ideals. An actor may adopt such a stance, attempting to explain away
ethical scruples by subscribing to a higher, more binding fidelity to art.
The problem with this solution is that when carefully examined, what
superficially appears to be a personal decision regarding the values one
abides by, is often revealed to be a complex inter-subjective act that concerns ones audience and their own values as well. In Rumstick Road, a
Wooster Group production from 1978, Spalding Gray was performing as
himself in a play dealing with his mothers suicide. The performance
included playing audio tapes of recorded conversations between Grays
mother and her therapist. A member of the audience wrote a complaint
letter, claiming that he felt cheapened and brutalised by becoming part
of a violation of a strangers privacy.20 The point is not whether or not
Gray should have respected his audiences reservations, but that the decision to allow aesthetic values to trump moral ones does not concern only
the performer. Precisely because spectatorship is not passive reception but
a form of participation and validation of a creative offering, to suspend
moral values or to subordinate them to aesthetic ones is to sometimes
make a decision for the audience. One may accept such aggression on the
part of the artist, or argue for the necessity to tolerate it as part of an attitude in which art is sometimes tasked with undermining complacency
rather than catering to it. But the issue is not whether or not such aggression should be accepted, but to recognise it as such. Decisions of this kind
are morally invasive.
In Rumstick Road, the audience is conscious of the living content it is
invited to consume as part of an aesthetic offering. But the aggressive nature of such choices by a performer does not depend on the audience

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V
A third possible response is not to focus on the practical question raised
by the above analysisthat is, whether or not some forms of actor-training and technique should be discontinuedbut to instead perceive actings overlapping with the unethical not merely as a problem, but as
illuminating the unique nature of acting. Implications resulting from this
awareness would relate to perception, understanding, preparation, training and a fuller intake of what some performances demand, both in relation to the performers, and in relation to what the audience is sometimes
actually beholding.
Suppose that one accepts rather than resists the idearelentlessly
advanced by its historical opponentsthat acting is deeply related to
prostitution.21 The more blatant versions of this claim made in the past,
21
For one discussion of the history of the actor/whore overlap, see K. Pullen, Actresses
and Whores: On Stage and in Society (New York: Cambridge UP, 2004).

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awareness. Arguably, such aggression is even exacerbated when it is kept


clandestine, as in the Vasilyeva example above. By concealing from her
audience the psychological mechanisms that dubiously establish the success
of her performance, Vasilyeva in effect coerces them to consume a spectacle which, if they fully understood, they may have avoided. The hypothetical nature of the audiences reservation does not morally neutralise the
performers act. If anything, an added dimension of dishonesty infuses this
example, which was missing from the in-your-face challenge presented by
Rumstick Road. Once again, the important point is that the decision of an
actress to prioritise aesthetic over ethical values is not always hers to make,
since it does not concern her alone.
The same holds for ideologically-problematic acting, such as the cases
mentioned above. Incarnating Jewish characters in plays that are deeply
anti-Semitic in orientation may offend a Jewish audience. To attend the
play such an audience is implicitly required to agree to suspend or subordinate ethical values to aesthetic ones. The performer can obviously decide
to ignore the values of her audience. But such a choice is different from
simplistically thinking that her choices concern only her own values or
even only the values of those who are watching her. Indeed, the polemic
over public performances of Wagners music in Israel exemplifies how people who do not even plan to audit a performance, may object to its occurrence on moral grounds. Aesthetic consumption is not value-neutral, and
such consideration should inform the ethics of aesthetic production.

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22
Then these goodly Pageants being done, every one sorteth to his mate, each bring
another home-ward of their way: then begin they to repeate the lascivious acts and
speeches they have heard, and thereby infect their minde with wicked passions, so that in
their secret conclaves they play the sodomites, or worse (from Green, A Refutation of the
Apology for Actors, (Imprinted at London: By W. White, 1615, p. 61 in EEBO edition).
There are numerous examples of such claims (Prynnes Histrio-Mastrix, a gigantic treatise
against acting published in 1633, devotes entire chapters to the links of theatre with prostitution and fornication). For Rousseaus anti-theatrical arguements that exemplify this critique (along with its own dependency on unsupportable assumptions), see Barish, The
Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 282.
23
In his 1580 A Second and Third Blast of Retreat from Plays and Theaters, Anthony Munday
writes: As for those stagers themselves ask them, if in their laying out of their parts, they
choose not those parts which are most agreeing to their inclination, and that they can best
discharge? And look what every of them doth most delight in, that he can best handle to
the contentment of others. If it be a roisting, bawdy, and lascivious part, wherein are
unseemly speeches, and that they make choice of them as best answering and proper to
their manner of play: may we not say, by how much he exceeds in his gesture, he delights
himself in his part? And by so much it is pleasing to his disposition and nature? If it be his
nature to be a bawdy player, and he delight in such filthy and cursed actions, shall we not
think him in his life to be more disordered, and to abhor virtue? Quoted in T. Pollard,
Shakespeares Theater: A Sourcebook (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 80.
24
Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 2.

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were that acting provokes licentiousness, or that brothels and theatres


maintain implicit institutional connections.22 Yet at its more interesting
moments, the charge was implicated in a psychology of acting: To act is
to create a dangerous imaginative space in which actors and their audience are able to suspend expected moral responses. Actors practice and
present an undesirable flexibility between identity and embodiment. Actings enemies went on to say that actors even intentionally select parts
that enable them to realise the specific immoral inclination that they cannot manifest in life.23
The previous analysis enables perceiving why the psychology underlying such claims should not be condescendingly dismissed as the product
of legions of hard-shelled, mole-eyed fanatics, and that some of these
claims can be recast in contemporary credible moral vocabularies.24 For
those who oppose it, prostitution is the giving over of that which should
not be given over. It is the act whereby intimate gestures are artificially
dissociated from inner meaning and care. Such a process shares actings
invitation to effect a momentary receding from commitments and values
with which the performing body is usually associated. If Lee Strasbergs
remark quoted in this papers epigraph captures an ideal of the practice,
if he is correct to assert that the extraordinary thing about acting is that
life itself is actually used to generate artistic results, to act implies a willingness to turn ones life (read: ones structure of caring) into creative
material. In the manner of the prostitute, the actor disengages this

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25
See, for example, M. Nussbaum, Sex & Social Justice (New York: Oxford UP, 1999),
Chap. 11.

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material from the values with which it is usually infused, changing them
for values of a different kind. For the courtesan, such values are economic, for the actoraesthetic. In both practices, a deep substitution
takes place. Moreover, the unsmooth nature of such substitution may
explain why theatre visionaries such as Kleist, Craig or Shaw have
repeatedly dreamed of replacing actors with marionettes: advocating an
ideal of acting in which the actors inner attachments pose no resistance
at all, they dreamed of a limitlessly pliable actor who would merge in a
frictionless way with the role. We are now positioned to sense the aggressiveness implicit in this ideal: gestures devoid of expected inner meanings
are precisely what one recoils from in prostitution.
The point, it should be clearly stated, is not to squarely equate acting
with prostitution. Anyone with some familiarity of field work on prostitutes
would be alert to the radically different backgrounds, goals, aspirations and
the nature of the actual work that separates them from actors, and would be
justified to dismiss a full-fledged identification between them not only as theoretically hyperbolic but also as heartless. The ethical dissonance effected
by some contexts of acting is certainly mild when compared with the emotionally deadening violence inherent to many forms of prostitution. At the
same time, to argue for an overlap or an analogy is not to argue for identity.
What follows from admitting such overlap between acting and prostitution? In traditional anti-theatrical thinking the answer is easy: to perceive
similarity between acting and prostitution was tantamount to claiming
that acting should be avoided by decent individuals. Yet contemporary
defences of prostitution invite pausing before committing to this final verdict. Such defences enable recognising a similarity between acting and
prostitution without automatically turning this into a ground for accusation,
but into a reason for concern, one that needs to be unpacked into
detailed practical proposals. Vindicators of sex-work have been careful to
dissociate the secondary harms typically involved in prostitutionsubstance abuse, violence, exploitation, risk, health hazards, social opprobrium and the personal disempowerment prostitution creates and relies
uponfrom the commodification of the body as such.25 Transacting in
sex, they argue, does not necessarily involve a profound violation of the
person (as is maintained by those for whom sexuality is endowed with
some sacred status). From this perspective, no damning accusation follows
automatically from exposing an overlap between acting and prostitution.

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26
Note that the point is unrelated to defending or attacking sex work. A psychologically
sensitive defence of sex-work should recognise and respond to the likelihood of prostitutions ability to remake those who practise it. The prostitutes capacity to experience intimacy is likely to be strongly undermined. Crippling its practitioner in a progressive
manner, sex work cannot be fairly compared with other unappealing jobs, since in other
occupations such linkage between values and acts remains largely unaffected.
27
J.M. Cameron, Shortbus, in Film Index International (USA: Safeword Productions
LLC, Process, Fortissimo Films, Q Television, 2006). C. Patrice, Intimite, (France:
Telema, Le Studio Canal+, 2000). A similar demand is apparently made of actors in Lars
von Triers forthcoming The Nymphomaniac.

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And yet, to present prostitution as a profession like all others risks adopting the same mechanical picture of embodied experience encountered
above, for which the connections between values and embodiment are
assumed to be fully controllable. The prostitutethe argument suggests
can be a loving wife, leave for a shift in which she has merely professional
sex with five or six clients. She then returns home to her husband, enjoying
loving sex with him later. To dismiss such a scenario as implausible is to
sense that the connection between embodied acts and values such as intimacy or pleasure are less open to inventive recreation than the defender of
prostitution may suppose. Links of this kind are less flexible andrightly or
wronglyare typically associated with exclusivity. What is far more likely is
that a person who works as a prostitute will be unable to maintain a loving
relationship. Her work is, accordingly, no ordinary labour but a practice
that inserts a wedge between her body and her values.26 To return to acting, to perceive the actor as someone who is entirely free to recreate the
relations between experiences, embodied acts and identity may involve a
similar simplification of embodied performance and a similar overestimation of the minds capacity to determine experiences.
It may be objected that a tough ideal is not necessarily an unattainable
one. Who is to say that the loosening of connections between performed
acts and ideals, even if it presents a formidable challenge, cannot be ultimately achieved through a psychologically attuned and morally-sensitive
process? One may well imagine that a committed actor would (or even
should) be able to perceive a high degree of disembodiment as an artistic
objective. Such a total actor would try to overcome the limits posed by
conventions that place some gestures outside the pale of acting. Consider,
for example, scenes such as Paul Dawson ejaculating into his mouth in
the 2006 film Shortbus, or requiring actors to enact unsimulated sex scenes
in films such as Intimite.27 Indeed, some highly demanding schools of
actor-training seem to aspire precisely to a cultivation of such totality.
Extricating acts from values is, in such methods, part of an attempt to
actively undermine the actors identity. Field work conducted by Sabina

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28
S. Kr
uger, Die Evokation der Monster: Grenz und Schwellenerfahrung als Probenverfahren bei La Fura Dels Baus, in M. Hinz and J. Roselt (eds), Chaos und Konzept: Proben
und Probieren im Theater (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2011).
29
In Kr
ugers article, the ideal of breaking the will of the actor is cited as an explicit
objective of actor-training by Bernd Stegemann, a professor at the Ernst Busch Academy
of Dramatic Arts in Berlin (ibid., p. 283). In a film documenting the progress of four students in this academy over seven years, one of the four, Prodromos Antoniadis, complains
repeatedly that he feels that teachers are attempting to break him as a person (Veiel
Andreas, Die Spielw
utigen, in Film Index International (Germany: Journal-Film Klaus Volkenborn, 2004). Many of Schechners exercises, for example, those relating to nakedness,
are motivated by far-reaching goals of remaking the performer (Schechner, Environmental
Theatre., ch. 3). Grotowski invites his actor to spiritually dissect and sacrifice himself, identifying and removing inner blocks and thereby offering himself up as a gift (J. Grotowski,
Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), pp. 335).
30
Schechner, Environmental Theatre, p. 42, 117.

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Kr
uger on the Catalan group La Fura dels Baus describes, for instance,
some highly disturbing exercises that appear to be intentionally calculated
to break the limits that define the performers own identities.28 Many
examples in acting exercises or in theoretical claims made by acting
teachers may be found in which the actor is supposed to be remade.29
Regardless of the moral or aesthetic desirability of this ideal, it is
doubtful that it can be fully realised. Disengaging acts from the meanings
with which they are usually associated is not always achievable by an act
of thought or through prolonged practice. This holds true even for highly
trained performers who consciously endorse such far-reaching ideals and
are willing to experiment in unorthodox ways with their performing
bodies. Richard Schechners Dionysus in 69 involved, for example, scenes
in which experienced performers, who were supposed to be psychologically prepared for avant-garde theatrical work, caressed audience members and invited them to caress them in turn. The scenes had to be
dropped since, according to Schechner, the touching got heavy and the
actresses felt used, prostituted.30 Kr
uger describes an improvisation in
which performers were treated as dogs. In that particular exercise, the
participants ended up in tears.
What follows from such pain? On the most abstract level: nothing. For
the enthusiast the pain may merely serve as a positive symptom: an artistically committed and taxing form of self-remaking is taking place. But the
existence of such pain and the possibility that victimization rather than
self-liberation is taking place, introduces a range of ethical concerns that
should be explicitly addressed by whoever undertakes to subject performers or aspiring performers to such methods. Who gets to perform such
modification on others? How is the process controlled? When should it be
stopped? How and in what way is the actor fully and knowledgably consenting to such self-recreation? Which mechanisms preserve a performers

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VI
In 2004, the Tenth Circuit of the United States court of Appeals discussed the case of Christina Axson-Flynn, a Mormon acting student
who withdrew from an actor training programme at the University of
Utah because she would not curse or use gods name in vain. A promising actress who, according to the trials protocol, received consistently
high grades for her work, Axson-Flynn was nevertheless repeatedly pressurised to either compromise her values or leave the programme. In a
meeting initiated by three of her instructors, she was told that she can
choose to continue in the programme if you modify your values. If you
dont, you can leave. She left. She then sued the University of Utah
for violating her freedom of speech and free exercise of religion rights
under the First Amendment. The district court dismissed both of her
charges. But the court of appeals later reversed this decision, ruling in
her favour.31
31

Axson-Flynn v. Johnson,(2004), United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

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right to dissent while undergoing a process in which unreserved consent is


being upheld as artistically desired? If actings overlap with prostitution is
being accepted while resisting the idea that this overlap amounts to an accusation, such questions and many others need to be addressed (theoretically,
institutionally, legally, and individually).
Nothing in the above analysis precludes the possibility that an actor
would develop total flexibility, one in which bodily and imaginative acts
of whichever kind could be freely dissociated from identity and given
over to the role. In much the same way, nothing blocks a priori the
possibility of a non-damaging form of prostitution, in which the bodys
sexual use would be fully dissociated from inner meanings in a manner
that is not personally crippling (sexual surrogates may exemplify such
ability). But in both cases, a hypothetical postulation should not be confused with the reality of the psychological makeup of the individuals
one is likely to encounter. As long as complete personal re-creation is
not commonly reached (and I have expressed scepticism regarding this
possibility), both performers and their teachers should clarify rather than
occlude the moral stakes involved in acting. That way, the process of
negotiating boundaries and legitimising them (rather than misconstruing
them for uncommitted acting) can be authentically and reflectively
undertaken.

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32

In 1587 William Rankin wrote in his A Mirror of Monsters: Players, when they take
upon them the persons of heathen men, imagining themselves (to vainglory in the wrath of
God) to be the men whose persons they present; wherein calling upon Mahomet, by swearing by the temples of idolatry dedicated to idols, by calling on Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and
other such petty gods, they most wickedly rob God of his honor, and blaspheme the virtue
of his heavenly power. Quoted in Pollard, Shakespeares Theater p. 132.
33
For a discussion of the problematic relationship between potentially self-damning
speech-acts in the play, see S. Andrew, How to Do Things with Demons: Conjuring Performatives in Doctor Faustus, Theatre Journal, 61 (2009).
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The case offers a rare glimpse into the coercive treatment of moral reservations when these surface within an acting programme, not by a single
instructor but by several working together in full support of the programmes coordinator. The careless way in which Axson-Flynns reservations were addressed by her teachers also attests to their own
simplification of the fraught relations between acting and identity. It evidences their own lack of preparation to handle a rare case of this kind
(they probably expected her to grow out of her reservations once her
commitment to her art would deepen). Most disturbingly, the case also
suggests that acting as an art form misses gifted talents through self-selection: individuals who may possess a stronger sense of moral limits and
who are less hopeful than Axson-Flynn regarding their ability to receive
respect for their values, may be systematically (and prudently) avoiding
acting as a career option.
Axson-Flynns sense that to lend ones voice to a script is not always
morally benign has been articulated before. Unfortunately though, one
finds such awareness only in the literature which much contemporary
theatre theory has taught us to ridicule. In traditional anti-theatrical
thought, the danger of heresy by appealing to the wrong gods by the
very words delivered by the actor was highlighted as a genuine threat.32
Interestingly, sensitivity to such danger may explain why dramatic texts
involving potential heresy were sometimes written in a way that preserves the actor from damnation. Marlowes Dr. Faustus exemplifies this,
since many of Faustus sentences are written in the third person. The
scripted text thus avoids the very real threat of self-damnation for an
Elizabethan actor, who is called upon to invoke Satan or to bargain
away his soul.33
Marlowe was a daring author. He did not shy away from touching
explosive themes, such as homoeroticism, religious hypocrisy and class
mobility. Marlowe was not a prude. He was nevertheless sensitive to
the moral and theological dimensions of the identity of those performing his works, writing in a way that respected their limits. Regrettably,
such sensitivity seems to have disappeared. Ethical dimensions of acting

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34
Theatre studies obviously include work that attempts to conceive of the theatrical
interaction in ethical terms. Writings on ancient Greek theatre do this as a matter of
course. For contemporary versions, see J. Erickson, The Face and the Possibility of an
Ethics of Performance, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 13 (1999); A. Rayner, The
Audience: Subjectivity, Community and the Ethics of Listening, Journal of Dramatic Theory
and Criticism, 7 (1993). Thematic work on the interface between theatre and ethics exists too,
see for example, D.N. Ridout, Theatre and Ethics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Nevertheless, these studies do not address the ethics of acting as such.
35
See S. Burgoyne, K. Poulin, and A. Rearden, The Impact of Acting on Student
Actors: Boundary Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress, Theatre Topics, 9 (1999). Their
paper also refers to an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation by L. Tust-Gunn, entitled A Mirror to
Nature: The Theatre Actors Relationship to Character and Use of Roles for Self-Exploration (California
School of Professional Psychology, 1995) which I have been unable to consult, but that
according to Burgoyne et al., seems to likewise focus on the emotionally taxing aspects of
some self-based acting techniques. An earlier article by Burgoyne called attention to the
lack of an ethical dimension in theatre practice, a lack brought home to her in her own
experience as director, see S.D. Burgoyne, A Crucible for Actors: Questions of Directorial
Ethics, Theatre Topics, 1 (1991).

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and actor-training are neveras far as my reading or my own (limited) participation in actor training revealsexplicitly addressed.34 Virtually all authorities agree that some exercises need to be carefully
conducted. Responsible directors and acting teachers are advised to
help the actor cope with the emotionally overwhelming experience
exacted by some techniques.35 Maintaining safety in rehearsal and
performance is another advice one may encounter. Yet the foregoing
analysis suggests that the emotionally overwhelming issues are sometimes actually symptomatic of a different kind of violation which
regardless of the practical implicationsshould be patiently understood
and articulated through a vocabulary that is currently unavailable in
the practice.
Actors are rarely directly presented with the ethical issues of performance, with the manner whereby some forms of acting, training, or
rehearsing may relax connections between identity-related values and
their performance. Would-be actors are therefore unable to reflect and
consent to this significant dimension of their profession and training as
they undergo it. They are not urged to determine explicitly their own limits, or to understand (before the event), what having or foregoing these
limits can actually mean. Worse, the ethical tensions that acting involves
may be misrepresented as the voice of uncommitted acting. Such can surface not necessarily as an explicit reproach by a teacher or a director, but
by an inner monitoring that the actor cultivates as part of his or her initiation into acting. Would-be actors may even be presented with the opposite argumentSusan Verduccisaccording to which actor-training
(specifically Method training) is able to turn them into morally better

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36
S. Verducci, A Moral Method? Thoughts on Cultivating Empathy through Method
Acting, Journal of Moral Education, 29 (2000). Verducci situates her work in relation to others
(Joe Winston and Jonathan Levy) who advance similar claims on behalf of moral edification through acting. Note that the idea that becoming through performing can be harnessed to positive and not just negative ends in relation to theatre, has been raised in older
defences of the theatre and acting as well, and even by opponents. Prynnes attack includes
two examples of actors who were so cynical that they were willing to jokingly undergo baptism on stage, and as a result, became devout Christians (W. Prynne, Histrio-mastix, 1633
ed., London: Printed by Allde, Mathewes, Cotes and Iones for Sparke, part I, Act 5 scene
5, pp. 1189 in EEBO edition).

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human beings by cultivating empathy.36 The idea that throughout this


process of amelioration (which no doubt may occur) something of importance may also be taken away is left for them to discover on their own, cope
with it as they may.
Acting, I elsewhere argue, is an attempt to embody and explore unrealised possibilities of the self. Acting constitutes a reconfiguration of identity. It offers an alternative way of inhabiting the world that is not merely
personally undertaken, but that is momentarily validated and responded
to by fellow actors and the audience. But to imaginatively reach out into
other possibilities of being may also simultaneously jeopardises ones hold
over the single possibility that makes up ones actual identity. It is this
very willingness to give up a particular inflexibility, a willingness that nonactors take for granted, that opens up the interface between acting and
unethical experiences. By admitting a dimension of play into ones attachments, feelings and the links between praxis and being, one opens the
door to potentially unethical exercises, training, and performance that
overlap with the inner structure of prostitution. I have further suggested
that these brushes with prostitution are not necessarily abuses of acting.
Like prostitution, acting involves a willingness to allow elements of identity to be lent to a role. These can be unproblematic (say, ones moving
body or most uses of ones voice), or difficult and self-implicating (ones
sexual gestures or ones nakedness). Either way, in acting the limits of
such lending become an open question that needs to be repeatedly
negotiated both internally and externally.
Hopefully, this analysis would not be construed as attempting to resuscitate a credible version of anti-theatricality. My aim is, rather, to invite
actors and instructors to clarify and state the ethical dimension of what
acting sometimes demands. Informed ethical concerns should genuinely
shape the choices one makes as a performer. They also ought to guide
those who possess power over performers: directors, instructors and writers. In the current context of professional acting, in which art and entertainment are so inextricably bound, in which the overlap between

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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

37
Helpful comments, counter-arguments, corrections and insightful leads for this essay
were provided by David Heyd, Talia Trainin and auditors of its presentation at The British Society of Aesthetics 2012 meeting, as well as by participants in a workshop of the CISSC at Concordia University. I am grateful to all.

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eroticism for its own sake and aesthetic goals is systematically blurred, in
which professionalism in acting can be taken to entail an unreserved
compliance with any external or internal manipulation demanded by any
acting coach, it may be utterly futile and naive to attempt to meaningfully
introduce ethical concerns. Such pessimism is even more pertinent when
one begins factoring in firstly, the extent to which supply and demand
are cruelly tipped against performers, both in relation to the fierce competition over slots in prestigious training programmes and later over available work, and, secondly, the uncompromising hierarchic structures in
which actors operate, not only in relation to the directors, but also to fellow performers (note how so many of the examples surveyed above
Brando-Bankhead, Chaplin-Weldon, Maoz-Merinvolve junior performers being subjected to violence by far more senior partners). And yet, such
defeatism should be resisted by anyone who cares for acting.37