Backstage Acting

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • July 07, 2008

Word has it that during the filming of I am Sam, Sean Penn stayed in character, playing a man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old even when he wasn’t on camera.

“Character is how you act when no one is watching,” my mom used to say. You find out who you really are after you take a bow and the lights fade out, and you’re alone in the dark behind the curtain. Yet we are applause-cravers by nature; we want to be seen performing well but unseen when we do badly. We save our best dancing for the stage. Because without an audience, why bother? And so character becomes a mere prop for our act.

It’s encouraging, therefore, to see some who strive not to break character, even outside the spotlight.

In Character, a young journal published by the John Templeton Foundation and edited by Charlotte Hays, aims to cultivate character qualities like Modesty, Thrift, Loyalty, and Creativity. Its mission is “to illuminate the nature and power of the everyday virtues, and how these virtues shape our vision of the good life.” Each journal issue contemplates one virtue, but doesn’t do so in dreamy abstractions or sermons. Rather, the articles look at virtues “from different perspectives, bringing together scholars and journalists versed in public policy, the humanities, religion, and the sciences.” The end result is a pearl of a journal, a well-designed, creative, thoughtful collection of writings on backstage performance.

The most recent issue is on Compassion. It includes an article by Charlotte Allen on “compassion fatigue” that causes doctors to feel drained from spending themselves in care for others. Allen contrasts the popular notion of coping with burnout—recharging the emotions—with the ethical mandate—caring for patients with the “ethos of the detached service behind the traditional Hippocratic Oath.”

In addition, the issue includes a science perspective about the neurons behind human sympathy, as well as a challenge to biographers to bring compassion to their text when writing about badly-behaved subjects.

For NAS, In Character represents an apt remembrance of the original meaning of higher education. Peter Wood, in a recent issue of Academic Questions, asks, “Is higher education higher in the moral sense?” He fears not:

As America embraces it liberationist and diversiphilic paths toward moral enlightenment, and as we move more and more often in the calculus of utilitarian educational outcomes in which moral improvement is abandoned as a feasible project, we stand to lose our basic knowledge of how to integrate the improvement of character with the acquisition of knowledge.

Can an academic education translate to a moral education? James B. Murphy, professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote that academe inherently calls its disciples to virtue, specifically intellectual integrity and wisdom. But all the time we read and hear about professors who plagiarize; administrators who lie; students who swindle their way into Ivy Leagues; and presidents who take the cowardly way out of sticky situations.

This is why we should pay attention to In Character’s delicate study of virtue. If we are ever to recall the university (and the nation) to the pursuit of truth, we must seek its moral uplift.

Disciplined as the scientist peering through the microscope, yet whimsical as the artist painting free-form on the canvas, In Character bids us to live everyday life as if others were watching. The title of the journal suggests, as does Jaques in As You Like It, that “All the world’s a stage.” In that sense, we are never truly out of character, even when we’d prefer to excuse our shortcomings by saying “that’s not the real me.” In Character is a timely summons to face up to our own impostures. We look forward to more issues of the journal and hope it succeeds in causing some shivers in the haunts of academe where the pursuit of good character has so often been displaced by conjuring of mere identity.

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