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Friday, 29 February 2008

Mirror, mirror on the wall

The one-man/woman show has been around for a while, one actor playing a host of different characters. Whoopi Goldberg has done it in the states, Dorothy Paul has been doing it in Scotland for years and Joyce Grenfell was famous for her monologues and character pieces. (I wonder why no men jump to mind.) If one actor can play several characters what about several actors playing the one character?

It was John Baker's review of the film I'm Not There that started me thinking about this. I've not seen it but I will get round to it. What I've read in reviews and seen in clips has done nothing to discourage me. What's caught the media's attention is the fact that the director uses a selection of actors including an actress (or is that female actor these days?) to play one of the Dylan parts and a damn good Bob Dylan Cate Blanchett makes, too, from the clips I've seen.


Not surprisingly, of course, it has been done before. At this very moment I have a copy of Todd Solondz's Palindromes sitting with a bundle of other DVDs ready to watch. The plot concerns Aviva, a 13 year-old girl (who is played by 8 different actors of varying ages, races, body types and genders). Aviva wants to have a baby because they're cute but she doesn't understand the implications.

In Star Trek: Nemesis we have a popular science fiction staple, the clone. The difference here is that rather than using special effects (as in Multiplicity) a separate actor is used to play the clone Shinzon who forces Picard to review the course his life has taken.

In Fight Club and Identity fractured personalities are also represented by multiple actors.


In Michael Boyd's stage adaptation of Janice Galloway's The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, he decided to use three actresses to play aspects of the central character, the mentally ill Joy. (It is important to note that Joy does not have a split personality). It was on in Glasgow a few years back but I'd not read the book at that point and let it slip by; still kicking myself for that one. The book doesn't do this but I would be fascinated to see how it plays out on stage.

In Three Tall Women, Edward Albee (best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ) has three characters: A, B and C who all represent the same woman. This play takes place in the bedroom of a sick and forgetful old woman (A). In the first act she is cared for by a middle-aged companion (B) and visited by a young woman (C) sent by the lawyer to settle some financial affairs. At the end of the first act, A suffers a stroke that leaves her on the edge of death. In the second act a mannequin of A lies in the bed allowing A to join B and C on-stage in discussing events in their mutual life and how one became the other – for they are all the same woman at different stages of her life.

In Sweet Sue by A R Gurney Junior, two actresses portray the same character, Susan Wetherell, a successful designer of greeting cards who falls for the handsome, 22 year-old Jake. The character of Jake, like that of Susan, is played by two actors who interact with the two Susans in an "emotionally tumultuous roundelay" whose outcome – do they or don't they consummate their love? – is left frustratingly unclear at the end of the play.

This is also is the central device of Peter Nichols's Passion Play:

Passion Play is not satisfied with the traditional triangle: it needs a pentagon. That sounds like a pretty unwieldy geometric configuration, but in Mr. Nichols’s hands it’s a piece of cake. He adds two characters, or at least two actors, to the mix, in the persons of Jim and Nell. They function largely as James’s and Eleanor’s alter egos, but we’re never quite sure exactly who or what they are. When they first appear, they are dressed like their alternate selves and can be seen and heard only by them. Through them we learn what is going on in the minds of the two protagonists. But little by little they gain more independence, wearing different clothes from James and Eleanor and actually filling in for them, i.e. Nell has a scene with James and Jim with Eleanor. -Theatre Reviews Limited


The finest example I can think of is, of course, Dr Who, a character who doesn't die but regenerates and, because of the way the show interprets quantum physics, in episodes like 'The Two Doctors', 'The Three Doctors' and ultimately 'The Five Doctors' the writers bend the laws of time and space to get various combinations of the doctors to work together. I loved the episodette during Comic Relief last year where the tenth Doctor and the fifth Doctor got to interact even if it was only for ten minutes – wonderful!

In The Cloning of Joanna May, a 1992 television mini serial adapted from the novel by Fay Weldon, a wealthy, self-centred monster loses the woman he loves, but determines to re-create her. He has a number of clones developed (each played by a different actress), and sits back while they grow to maturity, unknown to each other, in a wide variety of circumstances. He then invites them all to a gathering and announces that he will be picking one of them as his bride.


Discounting the use of alternate realities, time travelling and clones which, to be fair, are unique individuals, the most common way literature enables a character to come face-to-face with themselves or a version of themselves is in the form of a doppelgänger, a recurrent motif in Gothic and horror literature.

In mythology doppelgängers are a projection forged from the real counterpart's own will and soul. It will manifest itself before its real counterpart first, and announce its intentions. The ideal time for a doppelgänger to appear is during the new moon, when the real counterpart does not cast a shadow. They are not automatically bad, often merely mischievous; theoretically when one chooses to listen to one's conscience, they may be dealing with their doppelgänger, unrealized and trapped within the shadow.

In literature when the doppelgänger does appear it acts as a kind of alter ego to the protagonist, often representing, literally embodying, a side of the person which is normally suppressed. The most obvious commentary on the dual nature of Man has to be the 'relationship' that develops between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde even though they can never interact directly.

In The Double, a novella by Dostoevsky, a man is losing his mind – he is haunted by a look-alike who eventually usurps his position. The novella tells the story of a minor government official, Golyadkin, whose life crumbles to pieces following the sudden appearance of a literal facsimile of his self. This double attempts to destroy Golyadkin's good name and claim the position of both in the Russian bureaucracy and within the social circle inhabited by "Golyadkin Senior" as he comes to be known.

A similar position is taken in the short story William Wilson by Edgar Allen Poe. In this story the protagonist, William Wilson, runs into a man who looks exactly like him (also named William Wilson) at university. The narrator quickly becomes jealous of this double. Apart from looking like him his doppelgänger can do everything better than he can. On the outside Wilson pretends to be best friends with his double, but the fact is, he's envious of him and his frustration finally spills over when he cheats in a simple game just to beat him. This act foreshadows the resolution of the conflict in which he finally murders the doppelgänger. This story is interesting in that it is the protagonist who becomes the 'evil twin' rather than simply having to confront the personification of his dark side. The same happens in Nabokov's early novel Despair in which the narrator Hermann, murders Felix, his exact mirror double.

In A Scanner Darkly where we are presented with a typically Philidickian twist: Fred, an undercover narcotics agent is investigating a drug ring in which he is known as 'Bob Arctor'. To maintain his cover Fred starts taking more and more of a mind-altering and highly addictive drug called Substance D. Eventually Fred no longer sees 'Arctor' as a character he is playing and reports 'himself' to his superiors.

A more extreme example still can be found in Solaris where the character of Snow as he appears in the book is actually the doppelgänger having murdered the original Snow when he attacked him; the replacement becomes deranged trying to come to terms with the concept of having killed 'himself'.

These examples are explicit. Many instances of doppelgängers are more subtle. For example, in the poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', several critics have suggested that the Lady of Castle Hautdesert and Morgan are ultimately two aspects of the same character, rather like Bertilak and the Green Knight. The question of which character is the 'real' one may not be answerable in either case.

Considered purely on a metaphorical level then, the term doppelgänger most often applies to worthy adversaries: The Headless Horseman to Ichabod Crane, Professor Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, Rā's al Ghūl to Batman and so on.

I have another thought about doppelgängers. I think the characters we authors invent provide us with an opportunity to look into that other mirror, the one that doesn't cast a reflection. Frankenstein's monster is frequently cited as an example of a doppelgänger. The two are often confused, the monster frequently being called 'Frankenstein' too. The big question is who, in this case, really is the 'evil twin'?

My characters aren't always the nicest of people. I make them do things I never would. I live vicariously through them. Not all my stories get finished. Several times I've put pen to paper and not been able to face what's looking up at me from the page. In my current novel, with which, for the record, I am still struggling, I have three characters, a daughter, the memory of her dead father and a woman her father befriended late in life who acts as his daughter's doppelgänger being someone who represents the road not taken. The daughter is very similar to her father but what she can't understand is how he could have become involved with someone so different. What she has to face is that a side of her father with which she was unfamiliar was attracted to this woman and now she finds herself also drawn to her, if only as a means to get to know her father better. So often doppelgängers get presented as bad but I don't see any of these characters as bad. The daughter is different from her father's friend; different is not bad.

I have no doubt you will have heard fiction writing being referred to as "thinly veiled biography" and some of it is, but I think, more often than people imagine, it's actually a place where alternative histories are worked out on paper. I'd be curious to hear what other writers have to say on this.


Anonymous said...

Hello to a fellow from the UK. Although I’m a Sassenach, I’ve spent many happy months in Scotland, because my sister has lived near Fraserburgh for the past 30+ years.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. Writing certainly provides us with a mechanism to play the courageous explorer, investigating aspects of our own psyche, all the while carefully ensuring our physical body remains at a safe distance;-)

Jim Murdoch said...

I've only been to Fraserburgh once and it was dreich the day I was there but I loved the accent. I found some blue lemonade for the kids too. Didn't taste any different but they were impressed for about ten seconds.

Ken Armstrong said...

'Philadephia Here I Come' by Brian Friel has two aspects of the same character on stage - Gar Private and Gar Public.

It is a very effective ploy.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Ken, and always nice to see a new face. I have to say I was quite surprised once I began researching this how many examples there were.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting points... I'm fascinated with the concept of multiple selves within one whole. I've read alot of the books you mentioned, but I'll have to check out the films.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Life’s Covers, it's a subject that interests me too how we can be a different person depending on who we're with. The best way I can understand it is that certain people bring certain things out of us, e.g. you put water in a kettle and it boils, put it in a freezer and it becomes ice but it never stops being water.

Dave King said...

Having myself been tagged to write a six-word memoir, I am passing on the compliment, hoping you join the challenge.

The game is an interesting twist on a challenge Earnest Hemingway was once offered. He bet $10 that he could sum up his life story in six words. He wrote: For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Here are the rules:

* Write your own six word memoir
* Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like
* Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere
* Tag five more blogs with links
* And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

My apologies if you are in any way inconvenienced by this tag.

Details at World Class Poetry

Dave - Pics and Poems

Conda Douglas said...

Your post reminds me of a talk by Saul Bellow I attended years ago when someone asked how he wrote so well about characters so different from himself and he replied, "All my characters are me, who else could they be?"

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Conda, and the more I read about how writers work the more I'm puzzled by those who dig their heels in and say that it's not firmly rooted in their own life experience even if it isn't out-and-out biography. The odds are no one but you will ever know where you've plucked that image from or what you've done with it when you've got it on the page.

I do love the idea of splitting a character in two but it's not as easy as it sounds especially when you're used to suppressing (if not actually repressing) that side to yourself. I think that is why I'm finding writing this new book so hard because it's a kind of anti-biography, what didn't happen, what I didn't do, what I can't imagine doing or being. And changing gender only makes it harder despite the fact I'm fairly in touch with my feminine side.

Lauren K Davis Photography said...

I'm doing a project on doppelgangers/alter egos and I was wondering if you know of any mythological stories or folklore dealing strictly with that subject.

Jim Murdoch said...

B, the doppelgänger in mythology is quite common but it's really more of a mystical figure. I decided not to dwell on this aspect in my article but there are plenty of options. You might want to look up Fæcce and Vardøger in Wikipedia for starters and well as the main article on Doppelgängers.

There are a considerable number of books to reference at The Double and the Doppelgänger.

I found a news thread that highlights two books in particular:

HALLAM, Clifford Barry. “The Double as Incomplete Self: Studies in Poe, Melville, and Conrad.” [GGI: 22-78].

ROGERS, Robert. A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature. [GGI: 2289].

The thread says: "Clifford Hallam traces the original sources of this concept to the oldest folk tales and myths, including "Egyptian narrative," "ancient Babylonian" folklore, and the Bible; and Robert Rogers finds evidence of the theme in Norse mythology, Samoan culture, and the timeless oral traditions of the Huron Indians, Aborigines and the natives of Southern Celedes-as well as Chinese cosmology."

There's an interesting wee article on NEPHELE: Doppelganger Goddess you might want to check out too.

The Double As The "Unseen" Of Culture: Toward A Definition Of Doppelganger is also worth having a look at.

I did have a load of stuff when I first researched this topic but it's all been deleted now I'm afraid. Hope the above is a start for you.

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