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[whitespace] 'The Sea Gull'
My God, It's Enormous!: Noel True and Thomas J. Ryan get a glimpse of the titular monster in Chekhov's 'The Sea Gull.'

Show Your Self

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's tagline for this season is 'The Egos Have Landed.' But it's more than just a catchy phrase. Freud's theory of the ego is a handy map to the self-indulgent world of theater.

By Christina Waters

IN THE BEGINNING was the ego. Or at least it looks that way, considering the dizzying variety of needs, tantrums, demands, stamping of feet and other attention-getting ploys that seem to define our all-too-human condition. The father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, taught that the ego is a defense mechanism designed to keep our various urges in gear. But obviously some of our egos have run amok.

Everybody wants what they want. But some of us have more bombastic ways of asserting those wants than others. These individuals are referred to in the vernacular as "egotistical," or as having a "big ego." How is it, you may have wondered, that human bodies are roughly the same size while egos range from miniscule to the size of Lake Superior? Hmmm. Was it an accident that I chose Lake Superior--instead of, say, Michigan--out of my metaphorical hat? Probably not, since most of us have secretly suspected that the egocentric also feel superior to the rest of us. Why else would they insist upon getting their way? Why would they dream up convoluted and dramatic ways of getting our attention? Does the person with a large ego really walk on water? Well, their mothers sure as hell think they do, and that's exactly where the problem probably began.

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Oversized Egos Through History: From Julius Caesar to Michael Jackson.

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Large egos like these stir up large emotions--as this season's Shakespeare Santa Cruz Festival is ready to prove. This year's tagline is "The Egos Have Landed," and indeed they do, right on schedule. In Coriolanus, Rome's arrogant, brilliant general rises to powerful political office on the tide of his recent victory. Unfortunately, this honor forces the haughty hero to pit his pride against the unwashed masses of Rome. There's a reason why this rarely performed work by Shakespeare turns out to be a tragedy; egos always threaten to spin out of control in the quest for fame.

Likewise, Chekhov's fictional actress Arkadina infuses The Sea Gull with her self-absorbed demands for great celebrity and all its indulgent paraphernalia. The diva's equally self-absorbed son tries to win her attention with a play he's written just for her. She hates it. His ego is shattered.

Then, of course, in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, the overbearing ego of Sir John Falstaff fuels a completely unrealistic lust for wealth. The wealthy and merry wives however, have plans for the corpulent Falstaff and his inflated expectations.

'Merry Wives of Windsor'
Look Out Behind You, Theo! It's Christine! Theodore Swetz is blissfully ignorant of his impending doom in 'Merry Wives of Windsor.'

Acting! Genius! Thank you!

In the world of theater, however, the ego is always in season. Still, when we complain that actors have "big egos" we may be confusing the ego--which, according to Freud, we all develop as we discover our identity separate from the mother--with the sheer chutzpah, bravura and nerve required to strut and fret an hour or two upon the stage in front of hundreds of people. While having a "big ego" in the sense of being a "showoff" can be a social liability in the everyday world, it is without doubt the key to success as an actor. That larger-than-life sense of confidence in one's abilities is what allows actors to cast aside "self-consciousness" and play to the crowd.

By unfurling our egos, we can step outside our insecurities, concerns, limitations, and become this fabricated "alter ego." Dramatists are the actors' codependents in this performance pact; they script new identities for actors to inhabit and bring to life, identities in which they can lose their fears, transform their desires and unleash behavior forbidden in the "real world." In noting that all the world was a stage and that we each were actors, Shakespeare anticipated Jean-Paul Sartre's observation that we never exist apart from some role or other. To a large extent we are the role we play, whether we do it on a stage or in a bedroom.

We bring our ego, our internal stage manager, to the task of negotiating between our desires (the id) and our moral compass (the superego). As Freud first formulated it, the ego--the "I" or "me"--is the psychic regulator, mission control so to speak, attempting to juggle our instincts and craft something like a consistent personality to guide our actions and responses.

In the actor, this personality has itself adopted an even larger persona. Engaged by the core self--Freud's ego--as a sort of PR agent, the skillfully crafted persona is the face we show to the public, the "self" we wish others to see. Actors are literally playing a role, letting go of their own identity and adopting the behavior of their dramatic character; e.g., Paul Whitworth becomes Richard III. The better they are, the more we believe in the character they portray.

But if psychology is right, actors are simply more honest about what we all do as we act out our pattern of social gestures. Sartre said that we are all playing roles in adopting the trappings of our chosen professions, the identity we display to the world. The role of "soldier" or "sex object" or "bureaucrat" or "student"--each of these comes with rules and requirements, even costumes and behaviors, by which we can define ourselves and (more importantly) by which others can recognize who we "are." As the father of Existentialism also noted, we often come to identify with our roles to such an extent, as with such manic talents as Peter Sellers and Robin Williams, that we no longer exist except within the role. Actors aren't the only ones guilty of having inflated egos, i.e,. a larger-than-life sense of their own importance. Others too seem to believe their own press releases and take life by storm, to the delight or disgust of those around them. Divas and dictators, sex symbols and saviors--often the self-absorbed egotist can become a mover and shaker of the immediate landscape.

It has become part of our collective folk wisdom to contend that actors, writers, directors -- all artists -- need to exercise their egos in order to keep them big and strong. And that's why they practice their art. Shakespeare's ego was exercised by an even older motivating force. He needed the money.

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From the July 10-17, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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