Archetype – the Performer’s Powerful Friend

I have found Michael Chekhov’s use of Archetypes one of the most fascinating elements of his acting technique. By using an archetype as one of your core forces  for the character you can create something different in moments. You can find out which feels right. However, they do need internalising and ‘taming’ before you can use them.

Think of HAMLET …. is he primarily  THE COWARD, THE AVENGER, THE PRINCE, THE REBEL, THE INTELLECTUAL , THE DREAMER,  or any number of others? If you put any of those archetypes as one of the primary engines of the character, (and its important to note the archetype is not all the character is!) you change everything fundamentally in moments, however much these archetypal energies are ‘veiled’ from the audience.

In ‘real’ life, when you are in a particular situation, when you feel a particular response to someone or something overwhelms you… that is when an archetypal energy is in play.  It feels as if you cannot help yourself. There feels like a surrender, a loss of control.  This moment is not necessarily your will driving you, but another more forceful energy. Consider moments where people do something which is bigger than them, when they perhaps rescue someone from a dangerous situation when they have never done this before. It is my experience that there is something else driving the person on, besides Will; something harder to control. This of course also goes for less positive situations where a way of behaving kicks in because of some force inside and we ask ourselves where that energy and behaviour came from? Lest anyone think I am justifying anyone behaving badly here let me assure you I am not. This is not a case of “it wasn’t me my Lord, my archetype did it!”  In the ‘real’ world we need to martial and train our archetypal energies to use them for good. That is our responsibility. Whether you believe in the idea of archetypes in your everyday world is not important; if you can imagine that there are energies like this out there they can create a powerful force in your playing.  

When we go on to look at character we might consider the idea that the Will does not always make the character do something but rather that they are gripped by something else which their will can not control. This means that the audience may understand the character on a deeper unspoken level, rather than simply understanding ‘why’ they act like they do.

For those of you worrying that using archetypes for your character is going to make you behave stereotypically, it is not. First of all, the archetype is not a stereotype which is a more superficial thing altogether. I would say that a stereotype is a kind of caricature or concept, whereas an archetype is a set of energies. What is truly magical and prevents bad acting is that firstly, it is the alchemy of you the performer with the archetype that produces both a very particular and a universal response at the same time. And this I would argue is what every artist is trying to do, touch on the intangible and make it tangible, offering something personal and universal at the same time to your audience, be they online, in a cinema, at home watching tv or in a theatre.

Though it is a grim example, let’s look at MACBETH for instance. He does not need Lady Macbeth to ‘corrupt’ him which is a view often put forward. He is in the grip of what we might call the Devil/Tempter and it is driving him on. It is a force within and without him. The three witches are the first characters we meet; that would back that idea up. They put the seed into him apparently, except one gets the feeling it is actually already there. After all,Macbeth kills people a lot. It is his job. So actually killing someone is not the problem. It is who the potential victim is and breaking the taboo of killing his master and his host which produces the main hurdle. Most importantly, though he knows he is committing a terrible wrong, the force of evil, the archetypal devil drives him on regardless. He allows himself to be a channel for it; he is culpable. For me, the speech, ‘Is this a dagger?….’ is a speech not of resolve but of possession. The Devil/Tempter appears to be strengthening him, but is actually dragging him into darkness. imagine if you decided his forceful archetype was The Assassin, how that might make the speech different.

Declan Drohan and I are running an online workshop on Sunday 20th September  exploring archetype and archetypal atmosphere using as our text The Only Jealousy of Emer email chekhovtpi@gmail.com for further details

2 thoughts on “Archetype – the Performer’s Powerful Friend

  1. Joe Herrera

    A wonderful read Max, filled with great insight into the world of archetype, as as seen through the lens of the Michael Chekhov Technique! Will have to share this blog with my students when we venture into the work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, my friend!!

    Reply

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