Friday, July 20, 2007

Aging and the Optimal Ratio

I've decided that the secret to aging gracefully lies in the judicious exchange of waning nubility for waxing dignity. That is to say, in youth, one’s status and self-assurance may be based on physical attractiveness (i.e., nubility, and whatever the male equivalent is ⎯ not virility, really; and it's a measure of our society's sexist bias that whatever the term is, it is not so ready to hand as "nubility") and a carefree disposition; in old age, clearly, this is not a viable option, so one must stand rather upon the ground of impressive character and personal achievement. But the optimal ratio is, for each person, an elusive, unique and ever changing calculation, in the pursuit of which there are many more opportunities for humiliation than for attracting the admiration of others. Too late and too large a weighting of the first part of the ratio suggests a preposterous vanity; too early and too large a weighting of the second suggests defensive pomposity. It is essentially the same vice applied to different content.

This is why some gain status as they age while others lose it, and it seems to be only a lucky or skillful few who ever manage to maintain a more or less consistently high status throughout life. But, of course, an obsession with “getting the ratio right” is not only neurotic, it deprives one of some of the best chances to be a complete human being. Paradoxically, the most promising creative opportunities offered by life lie not in the straight and narrow path (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors: so what?), but in the ditches along the way---in exploring the humilations, as it were. So a little gracelessness can be a valuable commodity.

Those who play for a living ⎯ i.e., actors, musicians and other artists ⎯ tend to maintain the air of youth longer than those who have surrendered more fully to Freud’s “reality principle.” So we tend to be attracted to such people, at least in a facile way. But what is the price of such attractiveness? “Oh, you silly, silly man,” a distinguished woman blurted out to me after seeing me perform as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ⎯ apparently intending this as praise, for hearing herself afresh in the sight of my quizzical reaction, she suddenly began to compliment the work more precisely. But I suspect that her initial impulsive comment conveyed her most truthful response, and I certainly don’t blame her. When one plays that sort of role, one is consciously choosing to create delight rather than respect, and it would be absurd to complain when one is successful.

Of course, I don't mean to say that in playing that sort of comic role one is acquiring physical attractiveness (if only it were that easy); I mean, rather, that one is performing certain attributes associated with attractive youth --- untrammelled enthusiasm, innocence, suggestibility and unquestioning optimism --- each of which is attractive in itself, but which, collectively, are (however unfortunately) at odds with a dignity becoming to middle age. The incongruity is amusing within the context of a fictional world, but generally repellent in the real one. Still, the ability to meddle with the ratio in this way is probably as valuable a skill for real life as it is essential for the theatre.

Brian Bedford, who has played Malvolio in three different productions at the Stratford Festival

I think of the actors who have played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a character who moves from one sort of overemphasis in the ratio (too much dignity) to the other (too much "nubility"). This lack of self-knowledge makes Malvolo both amusing and contemptible, because he basically moves from one ditch of ludicrousness to the other without ever so much as acknowledging the path that lies in the middle. But each of the actors who has enjoyed a clear success in the role is the sort of person in whose company, offstage, one feels completely at ease. Brian Bedford, for example, is a charming, attractive, dignified man who seems admirably at his ease in any sort of social occasion, managing to also put others at their ease. I suspect this is because of the self-assurance that arises from being a master player of the ratio as opposed to an anxious slave to some fixed notion of what is most appropriate. One gains a greater than average self-knowledge from being so well acquainted with the pitfalls of disproportion and is therefore able to make a liberal but judicious use of the whole of the available path between the ditches.

1 comment:

Gord said...

What about Titania, though? She doesn't seem to consider him an ass, and since she's the only audience he's aware of who's inappropriately nubile?
All the same, I really like the distinction.