Monday, November 28, 2011

Meet the R&D: The Illusive Truth, or Peter Sellers is a Funny Man

Today's post is from Jon Kern, one of the playwrights in our R&D Group. The writers in the group are contributing posts that will give insight into their processes: what they're thinking about, what material they're working with, how their research is informing their writing. For more info about the R&D Group, Jon, or his project, please click here, and without further ado, here's Jon's post!

The nature of beginning a new play is that you start to see it everywhere. The nature of me when reworking an older play is that I look for any chance to distract myself. So when I was researching a scene for Tapefaces: Legend of a Kung Fu Master – Season1 DVD [click this for a disturbing photo], I hopped away from clips of Dick Cavett to land on an interview between Peter Sellers and Michael Parkinson from 1974. Toward the end of the interview, between an Inspector Clouseau blooper reel and some goofy non-sequitur about a bad British performer, was a moment of personal reflection.

At around the 2:40 mark, Parkinson asks Sellers, “You’ve had fairly sort of turbulent, mixed-up, uh, private life throughout—throughout your career, haven’t you? Are you kind of happier now then you’ve been at other points in your career?” And Sellers obliges by talking about his failed marriages, holding himself accountable without revealing too much detail, any pointed analysis lost in an ellipsis and a wave of his hand. In this moment, the actor stops looking to the audience, and the impression is given that he’s searching himself for a square view of his past. And I was captivated imagining this as honest.

The project I’m working is a look at how people deal with compulsive behavior, particularly internet addiction. What I’m really curious to explore though is how people become honest with themselves. I don’t think honesty comes naturally. I don’t know when human beings first realized they can construct their own identities, but I expect that as soon as groups had leaders, some clown in that group figured out how to impersonate a leader. Without breaking out my old sociology syllabi, it’s taken as a pretty evident fact now that we create our identities as much if not more often as we be ourselves. Even the idea of acting natural is a frequently performed posture.

Understanding the constructed quality of self-presentation doesn’t stop us for searching for something unconstructed. I’m pretty obsessed wondering if there is something in humanity that is like what Georg Simmel called “an unknowable core.” Compulsive behavior I imagine forces a reckoning with at least the uncontrolled aspect of personality. This in turn leads people to be very honest about their faults, their past, while perhaps never truly putting that past behind them.

Peter Sellers himself represents this question. He represents in a fairly generic “Behind the Music” kind of way. A drug addict. A self-destructive personal life. An early death. A diagnosis – heart attack – related to his addiction. An actor. An actor whose best performance likely came in a movie where he played a man with no personality [Being There].

The Parkinson interview is a part of Sellers legend as a man with no self. Sellers initially refused to go on in front of audience and camera. He apparently was gripped with stage fright. When told he must by Parkison because everything for the interview was already ready, Sellers replied, “I can’t do me!” Parkison, in what sounds like a showbiz-y pro thing to say, retorted, ““Look – I don’t care WHO you come on as – just so long as you COME ON.”

So Sellers came on as an antic WWII German soldier. Watch Part I of the interview. He’s the one shouting in the heavy coat and helmet.

Then Sellers does his striptease out of that character only to step into another amusing bit as a crappy magician. When he finally sits down, it’s supposedly as Peter Sellers.  But this “Peter Sellers” is still mostly a prepared routine. At the end of Part I [beginning at the 8:10 mark], he launches into “an old actor’s story” voicing the old actor – Warrington Minge - who is trying to cash a check. When he comes to the mention of the check, Sellers unbuttons his left breast pocket and pulls out a slip of paper the size of a check. He had walked on stage with his props prepared. This, like so much else in the interview, is just another set piece.

Only when I concentrated on writing this blog post, really looking at what I had selected for inspiration, did I start to doubt that the moment I first saw held any honesty. Sellers answers Parkinson’s question about his happiness with an immediate “Yes.” He performs the role of the penitent ex-husband, confessing that his relationship troubles are “maybe—probably due to the fact I’m impossible to live with.” Is this a reckoning with himself or just the proper line to play the part?

There’s a moment in the first part of the interview [the 4:00 mark] when Parkinson asks about Seller’s father. Just the mention of the word “father” causes Sellers to take his only real sustained silence. Perhaps that expression at 4:02 is the most penetrating insight to be gained from this interview.

Ultimately, understanding our motives may come down to fairly prosaic tropes. My interest in the play I’m working on is less why people behave compulsively but what does a person do once she learns why she behaves compulsively. Certainly, in the case of internet addiction, the source of the compulsion is difficult to avoid and still remain in this century. [Google “hermit” and you can find suggestions on where to go to be alone.]

In my obsession with “an unknowable core” I have told myself, when I’ve remembered my own thoughts, that our labors to overcome a lack of understanding of ourselves only serve as proof that this core must exist. That lack equals the existence of the inviolate unknowable. We struggle with our ignorance as a way to learn about ourselves and what we really come to know is the struggle.

I want to learn how in knowing that struggle at least, we can gather pieces to form an impression of who we are. And when we look at this jigsawed portrait, we can tell ourselves, much as Sellers tries to convince before launching into a captivating apocryphal joke about a musician friend, “This is . . . probably true—probably based on fact.”

UNRELATED ADDENDUM: Over the weekend, I went to a wedding in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Moravian College is located and where the heart of the U.S. steel industry used to be located. Walking to the chapel, I passed by an Occupy Bethlehem encampment, a handful of tents cluster in a small patch of grass by the Bethlehem Area Public Library. Unfortunately, I was running late to the wedding. It makes me wonder, Internet: what is the most obscure town where the Occupy movement has set up camp?

Post by Jon Kern

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