The seven ages of acting

There are so many good stories about John Gielgud, that I shouldn't be surprised that I am unable to rediscover where I read this one.

I'm quite sure I didn't invent it.

He was to play Angelo in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." No longer in the full flush of youth, he had chosen to wear a long blond wig for the part. Everyone else involved in the play felt instinctively that this was a big mistake. But no one plucked up enough gall to tell the great man himself.

Finally, though, news of the wig's absurdity did reach his ears. And then, on stage one day for rehearsal, he suddenly swept the wig off his head, tossed it into the wings and exclaimed (with his inimitably precise enunciation): "Farewell, my youth!"

He then proceeded to play the part boldly and baldly ... and afterward made no attempt to hide his pate.

Many, or most, actors, female and male, do have to deal with the process of gear-shifting through the "seven ages" of man - from childhood prodigy to precocious adolescent, from young adult lead to middle-aged character and from there to the status of "veteran" and "vintage."

Dramatically speaking, it's all part of a rich, varying pattern, all grist for the acting mill. The great ones find ways of turning these stages to their advantage and often blossom into a splendid, if crusty, ripeness.

If you wander around the dim corridors of stage and screen, you soon discover that comedian George Burns had no monopoly on making hay long after the sun usually goes down on less extraordinary and inventive careers.

But what about us amateurs?

When I signed up for my drama class, we were all told to attend an introductory get-together one evening. We were to read a favorite poem and then be sorted into one of three classes: beginners, intermediate, advanced. Held up in traffic, I arrived late. The classroom was already packed to the gunwales with, to my eyes, kids just out of school.

It had been decades since I had felt even a tinge of that strangely unnerving sense of trepidation that surfaces on your first day at a new school or even your initiation as a new member of a team. I could guess that many in the room were undergoing an experience of that kind. One young woman had even brought her mother along for support.

Seeing yourself as others see you is not an easy art form. Year by year we don't automatically feel older. So why would we appear older? On the other hand, gray hair can be odd or subtle in its effect on others.

When I finally got to meet one of the tutors, she was interested to learn that I had not acted for more than 20 years. Why did I want to start again now? she asked, as if she couldn't think of a reason. Why not?

Suppose she'd asked the same question of one of the youngsters present. He or she may not have done any acting before and was now, at age 23, fascinated with new prospects. But then she wouldn't ask them the same question, would she, even though they had done no acting for a period equal to my hiatus?

So, a touch mischievously, I replied that I'd just like to have another bash at it before I was dead. Her grin suggested she sensed my irony. After all, to me I'm in my prime. I have under my belt experiences that ought to make me a far better actor than I was in my ignorant youth.

Which of the three classes, she asked, did I think would suit me?

"Well, I've never done an acting class before, so I should imagine beginners would be best."

"I think," she said, "I'll put you in the advanced class."

I was rather pleased.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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