TLS Online November 15, 2017
Laurence Olivier in Costume at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre
Laurence Olivier in Costume at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre
Photo by Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Stage fright and existential panic


It was reported recently that the actor Robert Glenister had “frozen” on stage while appearing in the current West End production of David Mamet’s rapid-fire play Glengarry Glen Ross. Apparently the evening was halted for thirty minutes before a fellow actor appeared to announce that an understudy would be taking over the role for the rest of the performance.

I’m not an actor, only an occasional theatre critic, but my sympathies are immediate, total and painfully personal. Whose wouldn’t be? Whatever Glenister was going through – stage fright, drying – must have been a nightmare. Indeed it’s the stuff that nightmares are made on.  Who hasn’t had that terrible dream of losing one’s words, one’s whole way, before speaking in public on however intimate an occasion –  a wedding reception, for instance, a funeral eulogy, a retirement do, or (to bring it even closer to home) an undergraduate lecture or conference paper. Even when one is not required to come up with one’s own words (a short well-chosen poem can often ease the burden), the existential panic remains.  It’s no accident that one familiar and entirely unfunny version of the dream involves being seen naked from the waist down. Exposed, found out, the awful truth discovered.

And sometimes, now and again, that terrible dream does come true. There you are, up there alone, no breath, no saliva, the thud of a heart that doesn’t seem yours, the empty mind coupled with the most acute self-consciousness imaginable. An unforgettable loss of memory.

But is the stage fright endured by the professional actor different from the nerves that we all fear? Is it a question of kind or simply of degree?  Does it matter if you’re pretending to be someone else as well as finding it difficult to be yourself? Does it matter whether it’s your own or someone else’s words that you’ve inexplicably forgotten or somehow can’t push out of your mouth?

Nicholas Ridout, who treated the subject with great subtlety in his book Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (2006), thinks that widespread recognition of a condition known as stage fright is linked with the development of modern theatre itself. He notes three determining factors: the idea of the unconscious (as developed by the actor /director/ theoretician Constantin Stanislavski as well as by Freud), theatrical naturalism (the supposedly scientific scrutiny encouraged by “fourth wall” techniques) and the glaring technological innovation of electric light. All three helped produce what Stanislavki and others identified as the sense of “being alone in public” .

Ridout writes comprehensively about “the everyday life of the modern theatre”:

This narcissism of the recently elevated public personality, whose intimacies are public property, who is isolated in the visibility of the electric light, who simulates the involuntary disclosure of the emotion through the reanimation of his own; these conditions lay the foundation for the eruption of the phenomenon of stage fright, particularly with the related emergence of new theatrical forms in which this very experience (of the self in modernity) also starts to become both the subject matter and the central form of dramatic expression.

Are there any clinical accounts of stage fright before the nineteenth century? It’s hard to think of any. Modern celebrity certainly plays its part and we are especially fascinated when the sufferer is also a supremely talented performer. Laurence Olivier, who endured what he called, rather oddly, a feeling like having a baby before going on, is a famous example. If it could happen to Olivier, then surely it could happen to anyone? Or perhaps we should reverse that idea and say that the depth of the fear is somehow a measure of the greatness of the individual achievement as well as of the aspirations of the profession as a whole? And yet, stage fright seems to be quite indiscriminate as to the scale and the importance of the event. Stephen Fry, another celebrated victim, has expressed his own amazement that someone who had appeared without too much difficulty in front of an audience of thousands at Wembley arena should have found himself overcome with paralyzing dread within the relatively comforting dimensions of the Albery theatre.

Ridout thinks that the problem, though notably modern in its reported occurrence, is at heart to do with the nature of mimesis itself. “On stage you can’t copy”, he says, “You have to be there. As. Concretely as. And that’s the way with mimesis: not just a copy but a new thing. A thing like the other thing. Whatever you do on stage you are making something. Even if you fail, you make a failure, you make a flop: you make show of yourself. And it is in the confusion of this making, in the movement from one self to another, that all the trouble bubbles up.”

Ridout isn’t even prepared to rest there. He wants to know if there is some correlation between theatre and an underlying truth about human consciousness. This involves him in investigating and eventually repudiating raw Freudian psychoanalysis (a symptom of modernity rather than its explanation, a metaphorical system like many others) and turning to Julia Kristeva’s notion of “abjection”. Theatre is “abject” in that it pretends to cover an abyss of meaninglessness with its fictions. No wonder that when theatre collapses in on itself the sense of alienation is so overwhelming. ‘‘Where it first seemed that stage fright was the experience of abjection in the theatre”, concludes Ridout, ‘‘we now find that it is the experience of the abjection of the theatre”.  In terms of everyday theatre practice I think this means that when actors glimpse the theatrical abyss, time stops. That’s what is so terrifying, so ‘‘freezing”.

As a theatre critic, I’ve sometimes tried to persuade actors that my occupation has a good deal in common with theirs: we both work nights, are required to entertain or at least to hold the attention of a public, we are both likely to experience tension as the curtain goes up. The actors invariably remain unimpressed and rightly so. Even when deadlines loom, we writers have a crucial margin of time, we can delete, rethink, revise, can actually change our minds in the act of composition. Although both are overseen – writers have their readers, actors their audience – and both are heavily involved in questions of identity – even critics have their personae, actors their roles –  the circumstances of creation are fundamentally different.  Writer’s block, which might sound like an equivalent of stage fright, is, more often than not, merely the fear of a block rather than the thing itself. Given time it will go away. Not for us the inescapably real-time nature of our professional responsibilities. Stage fright is the sacrificial price that actors pay on behalf of the rest of us. We should feel grateful not to have to suffer that public risk for a living.

John Stokes is Emeritus Professor of Modern British Literature at King’s College London