“You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid.”
So says Dorian Gray to the actress Sibyl Vane. His concern is that since their love has blossomed, her Ophelia has lost its emotional core, its danger, its truth – the very source of contentment in her life has stunted the inner life of her character, the catalyst for their courtship.
Now, Wilde had a lot of different points to make on the nature of beauty and intellect, of temptation and morality, but the portrait of the troubled creative is as old as time itself. Must our writing, our directing, our acting be fuelled by the desire for a change in our lives? Can we only interpret the darkest secrets of the soul if we are staring into the abyss ourselves?
I am a person who has always tried to protect himself from such emotional hardships. As human beings we are led by instinct, by the animalistic fight for preservation, and, without even realising it, we constantly block negative forces from entering our lives. Sometimes it can be more convenient to ignore something than to allow it past our subconscious. It is in our genes: we are hardwired for survival.
For a regrettably large stretch of my training, I resisted the extreme states of emotion demanded by the material I explored at drama school. It’s hard as a young person unsure of your own identity to share yourself completely in a performance, and though Oscar Wilde may insist that an artist’s role is to create beauty, while lending nothing of their own life to it, acting is an incredibly personal endeavor and it can take the span of an entire career to demolish these self policing barriers and face the truth.
The sad thing was, that to explore and to share the beautiful and the ugly qualities of the human experience is the whole reason I ever wanted to act. Watching my peers make seemingly effortless discoveries in the rehearsal room, like Dorian pursuing his sweetheart, I felt the capacity to be profoundly moved, but somehow couldn’t translate it into my own travails. I started to think that I was too mollycoddled to understand these complex and alien emotions. I was twenty years old and the worst thing that had happened to me was having my heart broken at the age of sixteen, and even then that only led to some bloody awful poetry and a handful of three chord ballads – what did I know about the lowest depths of the soul?
Though we share their instincts, empathy is the divine gift that separates us from the animals. Since the genesis of the Greek tragedy we have always needed that cathartic, collective experience of feeling another’s pain – it puts our own experiences in perspective and in our physical, guttural reactions, it makes us feel alive. Do we need to have killed our fathers and slept with our mothers, though, to comprehend the plight of Oedipus?
When I came to understand that this sense of empathy was the most vital tool an actor can possess, everything changed for me. Our generation is living in a smaller world, with every resource at our fingertips. They may mean the world to us, but the worries we have about our relationships, our finances and our own sense of self worth are first world problems; they are insignificant in the scheme of things. What we do have, however, is the capacity to embody any state in the canon of human experience, but that takes courage, humility and imagination.
There’s no point in denying that I am extremely blessed with good friends, a fiancée and a beautiful daughter, as well as having a shot at the career that I love, but far from dampening my emotional drive, I feel this contentment in my personal life only spurs me on to tackle work further from my comfort zone. The next challenge, the next opportunity to grow and to learn, to stretch myself. The next leap of faith.
Perhaps Sibyl Vane was distracted by her new-found love and her work suffered, or perhaps she never had any real talent beyond the superficial in the first place. More likely, perhaps Gray’s reaction says a lot more about his own obsession with aesthetics and his warped version of truth than anything else.
Image by Phil Shirley.