The Heat from the Story Fire

As I’ve said before, I’m a Shakespeare fan. I mean that literally: I feel the same mix of affection and excitement that I do for James Bond, Star Trek, Godzilla and Dracula. I obsess over the minutia, watch my favorite “episodes” (plays) over and over, and collect things that have meaning for me as a fan.

Shakespearean Actor PreparesAnd although I’m no scholar, I love reading scholarly stuff. Lately I’ve been working my way through A Shakespearean Actor Prepares, by director Adrian Brine and actor Michael York. All the intellectual dissection in the world, to me, doesn’t stack up to the thoughts of the people who have to get out there in public and bring these things to life.

And on page 278, I ran across this brilliant description of how actors should approach playing supporting characters:

Let us imagine the central action of the play (Macbeth’s regicide, or Antony’s obsession with the Queen of Egypt) as a great fire: It scorches the people involved, but even those standing far off feel the heat on their faces, and are upset by it…The actor needs to look around not for a “character” to play, but for an emotional reaction toward the central action, or the “fire.”

Think about the movie Jaws. Every single scene, whether on the ocean or in Chief Brody’s kitchen, is ultimately about the shark. The shark is the fire, and it scorches our three heroes (and utterly consumes one). But Mayor Vaughn and Ellen Brody also get singed, and beyond them, the citizens of Amity Island all feel the heat.

Quint being consumed by the story's "fire."

Quint being consumed by the “fire” in Jaws.

There’s a personal irony in this observation, too. For over twenty years, when I’m having trouble getting into the right mind-set to write, I’ve recited this, the opening lines of Henry V:

Oh, for a muse of fire
That would ascend the brightest heaven
Of Invention.

So I’d like to think I knew this implicitly, even if I couldn’t describe it with such eloquence. But I can’t swear to it. If I went back and reread my books, I’m sure I’d find many examples of supporting characters totally divorced from the central “fire” of the story. But going forward, I’ll know to look for that fire, and figure out who gets singed, who gets burned, and who gets consumed.


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