Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Theatre: The word become flesh

I watched part of an interview a few nights ago with that great British actor, Peter O’Toole. He revealed himself to be a very thoughtful and intelligent man, not that I had any reason to doubt it. The interview was recorded in 2011, and Peter is now 80 years old. He holds the record for having received the most Academy Award nominations (8) without ever having won one. The interviewer remarked that perhaps the problem was that he had never made a really bad movie, and that people therefore took the high quality of his performances for granted. If he had made a clunker one year, then followed it up the next year with a masterpiece, perhaps he might have won. A passing thought: our failures make our successes look even better.

In the course of the interview, Peter made an interesting remark. Without wishing in any way to be blasphemous or irreverent, he said that he had always felt that in the work of an actor, the word becomes flesh. Words on a page take on life, body, substance, breath, when they are performed by an actor. It seems to me that this is profoundly true. It is why a play can be produced over and over again, in each generation; because a play is not just the words, it is the incarnation of the words, and each “avatar” will be different. Even night after night, with the same actors, it will be different, because what happened in that actor’s life that day will add new flesh to the words. And that is also why an actor can perform the same role again and again. And come back to a role again later in life.

I have always had some difficulty reading the text of a play, although I have loved performing in many (in a purely amateur capacity), and enjoy watching them. Peter O’Toole’s words have now made it clearer to me why that is the case. It is because the words on the page are not the play. The play is the word become flesh on the stage.

This is the only snippet of the interview that I could locate on YouTube. It doesn’t contain the piece to which I refer here, but it is worth a look:


  1. Interesting point, I've never thought of it that way. I love movies, but my grater love is live theatre. I saw my first professional production on a school field trip when I was 8. At 12 some friends and I bought summer season tickets at a local theatre. When something really clicked with me I would go back and see it again. It always had a slightly different feel to it. The actors make a difference, but the audience response also was a factor.

    1. Good point about the audience factor - as actor you really feel that!

  2. Greater. Never type with your left hand while holding a cat in the right, unless you are a lefty.