Gurdjieff International Review

Playing a Role in Life

Peter Brook

In the heart of Gurdjieff’s teachings is one word ‘identification.’ Identification is something very painful for us to recognize. Identification means that at this moment, sitting here, talking to you, I am totally convinced that the person speaking is my real self. This is not true. I am ‘glued.’ Glued to the part I am playing at this moment. I believe totally in the words that I am saying because I am glued to them. For me, they are my words. I believe that this person sitting here is an absolute reality. I am totally identified with this image of ‘me.’

Let’s compare this with the situation of an actor. An actor plays a part. If he or she is really good, all of us watching believe that every fiber of that imaginary person that we are watching is ‘the character.’ Actors, in an extraordinary mysterious way adapt their natural body to the body of the character they are playing. With a bad actor, we see what he or she is trying to show, we see their exaggerations, their clumsiness. The character cannot emerge convincingly because the actor is not free.

I cannot give you a better example of what bad acting is than if I try to pretend that I am the man who is sitting beside me. Watch my amateur attempts! It’s not convincing, not real. I look at this person. I have a clear image of him in my mind. I try to adjust my body to this impression, but I cannot. I am unprepared, undeveloped. I’m glued to another image, myself. I am not free. The actor must be in touch at each moment with every single muscle, with his thought and feeling, so that it is possible for the entire body to become a whole. Only then will the part—in both senses of the word—become completely believable.

So we come to something that is almost impossible to accept as a concept. An actor really acting his part is both so close to his role that he is completely within it and yet distant: involved and not involved at the same time. Somewhere in the organism there is space. And from this free space of freedom come the impulses that bring the character to life. When we watch a glove puppet we see it live, for on the inside, inseparable yet separate, is a guiding hand. Within this paradox is freedom from identification. The actor knows what is going to happen, he plays a part in a play which is already written and he cannot change it. It is the character, not the actor who says with absolute belief ‘I love you, we’ll be together forever,’ knowing full well that in the next scene there is a terrible quarrel, and in the third scene he is killing the person to whom he said ‘I will love you for the rest of my life.’ This means—follow this very carefully—not only do the actors have to enter with everything that they possess into the apparent sincerity of the moment, but they know that, even if in their heart they are longing for the play to change, this is impossible. Nothing can change. An actor playing Oedipus has to make Oedipus’s blindness and the optimism of the character so real that even the audience while knowing the end of the story, is brought to believe that this time, somehow, the tragedy will be avoided. As a human being, the actor longs to change the course of the play. Every fiber in him wishes for there to be a way out. But yet the actor knows that he has to go on playing his role right to the end. And again tomorrow. And again the next day.

Gurdjieff uses the actor as a metaphor to help us to see what a fully developed man could be. This can easily be misunderstood. Being an actor in life, playing a role in life, may seem to mean pretending to be something different from what one really is. This is absurd. At each particular moment, everything is as it is: it cannot be different. The wish to change the present is a projection into the future, which blocks entirely our capacity to live fully the moment itself, in fact to live our lives. However, if one is like an actor—the difference is essential—one is not glued to the action, it unfolds in freedom. In life, I hear some terrible noise outside. I run to the window to see what it is. I run completely absorbed by the sudden movement and the rush of feelings. Is it possible to do the same thing like an actor? That means that the person who is sitting quietly and hearing a cry from outside runs to the window without being a complete slave to reactions. In English, two words help to make this clear: ‘act’ and ‘react.’ All the time, all our lives, we are reacting. I take this glass. This is not a decision. It’s reacting, because the bottle has reminded me that, a moment ago, I said “Would you like some water?” And my neighbour added “We’ll both drink at the same moment!” That thought was an automatic reaction. Glass, thought, idea had already become fixed in me, making three reactions. Now the glass is in my hand and I have the impression that I am my own master. In fact, I am reacting to heat, reacting to thirst and in the way I offer the glass I am reacting to my parents teaching me good manners, so I cannot help being conditioned by a memory that comes from seventy years ago. All our lives are reaction, reaction, reaction. To be able to act is a very great aim. It is the start of a long apprenticeship. It is Work.

So when Gurdjieff used the image of an actor it was not for the purpose of making better theatre. The theatre is just a very useful field of investigation. Gurdjieff called it a ‘reflector of reality.’ And in the reflector we can see certain processes which can help us, as struggling human beings, to understand something more. The immediate question is of inner space. Only in this space can a free central axis exist. What can make this possible? I am tempted to believe in my will-power. But deciding ‘I want to make a free space’ inside myself is not enough. Try for yourself. It won’t work. Something new has to come into the human organism—a finer energy. This is needed, it is essential for it to enter the field of other energies and begin to harmonize and balance their functioning. I cannot say any more about that. Explanations are useless. Inner work is practical. It opens great living questions. This is the starting point of a search that no one can accomplish alone.

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Talk given at the Grotowski Centre Wroclaw, Poland 2004, and reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Copyright © 2007 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2007 Issue, Vol. X (1)
Revision: April 1, 2007