Jung, the Actor, and the Self

“These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air” –The Tempest

In Bali, traditional actors believe that they can enter a trance and allow spirits to live through their bodies during a performance. Invoking character archetypes, the audience views the actor as the spirit incarnate.

During the turn of the 20th century, Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung began observing his cousin, and alleged medium, Helene Preiswerk. He attended séances where his cousin would fall to the floor in a trance and invoke the voices of their deceased relatives.

Jung wrote his doctoral dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena,” based off these séances. The two aspects that impressed him most were: how real the spirits seemed to her, and how different the personalities were. Jung concluded that these were adult personalities that were developing in her unconscious. In this early dissertation, Jung begins to develop ideas that will become the fundamentals of Jungian psychology: archetypes and the collective unconscious.

Jung described the collective unconscious as universal symbols, archetypes, and primordial instincts that are shared by an entire species. Each human has a blueprint that is unique to its owner that lives deep in our unconscious. In terms of the human psyche, Jung refers to this as Self. All humans share these primordial images and archetypes regardless of nationality, culture, or era they live in.

As you grow, the Self is filtered through social and cultural conditioning. Fear of rejection and abandonment cause you to remove parts of your Self that are unwanted, and create the Ego. When you say “I” or “myself”, you’re referring to the Ego. It is the center of consciousness, whereas the Self is the center of the total personality.

The next layer is what Jung called the Persona.

Persona. Latin. face; appearance; mask used in ancient theatre to denote a character or, more generally, a social role.

Persona is the archetype of conformity, the public image we create of acceptable attitudes and behaviors. It is a mask we show the world to succeed in life, work, and love.

This graph gives a clear depiction of the psyche. For the sake of length, I won’t get into the Shadow or animus, but if you’re interested, you can continue reading more about that here.

Returning to our ancestors, the Shamanic actors of the past, we can look at it through Jung’s psychology. Like his psychic cousin, it’s possible these actors are channeling the unconscious Self, and invoking primordial Archetypes recognizable to all humans.“As above, so below,” is the opening of the Emerald tables. It describes that the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm.

If humans are composed of Self, Ego, and Persona, then the audience viewing a performance is an audience of Self, Egos, and Personas. The question is, as an actor, who do you perform to? If you play to the Personas, you indicate; say the sad lines sad and the happy lines happy; emotions are postured for everyone to see. Performing to the Persona is polite and lacks mystery… you’ll even pause before the punch line so everyone knows exactly when to laugh. But as we can see from the Diagram of the Psyche, playing to Persona doesn’t even break the surface. It’s a safe and ultimately deadly performance.

If you play to the Ego, you’ll enter territory that gets more personal: ironic commentary on who we are; topical and relevant. As an audience we may laugh and cry, and when it’s over, we’ll go out to dinner and forget about it. It reaches our egos, but that’s only defined by our society and the time we live in. It has limited appeal, and will be irrelevant tomorrow.

Now if you play to the Self, to the primordial truth of who we are, then you enter territory that is profoundly personal, honest, and cross cultural. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are about the archetypal forces of the human condition. They’ll always be performed because the bulk of the verse speaks to our Self. Yes, some of his writing is to the Ego (the Touchstone pancake soliloquy), but that’s usually the first to get cut when it’s pared down for modern audiences.

Whenever you perform, think about who you’re performing for: Persona, Ego, or Self.

Taking these Jungian ideas, we can turn it back to the Thespis’ Tree. Here is the complete introduction to the Tree in my first article, but paraphrased: it’s a Kabbalaistic map showing the relationship of the Unknown Muse to the Actor, and how a balance of techniques keeps the channel open.

The Tree may seem like an overly intellectualized idea, but applying the Jung Diagram brings it into the physical world. The tree is separated by three triads: the Soul, Heart, and Body. The Soul Triad deals with the source of creation and the basic primordial archetypes, or Self. The Heart Triad is the manifestation in the form of Melancholy, Buoyancy, and finally culminating in Collective Conscious. This relates to the Ego. In the Body Triad, we see the Heart and Soul manifest into our world with technique and precision, or, Persona.

Instead of looking at the tree as a connection of the Actor to an Abyss, we can use Jung’s theories to view it as the Actor and the Self. Instead of climbing to the top of a mountain and screaming to the Gods, the Actor must instead come to terms to the universal archetypes within our unconscious.

“As above, so below.”
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