Academic journal article About Performance

Portraits of Actors: Elspeth Ballantyne, Julia Blake and the Challenges of Biography

Academic journal article About Performance

Portraits of Actors: Elspeth Ballantyne, Julia Blake and the Challenges of Biography

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Inga Clendinnen describes the process of writing biography as being morally, socially and legally dangerous (2007, n.p.). In my experience of writing biography it is dangerous morally because of the possibility that the subject and his or her circle of friends will be hurt or damaged by revelations, dangerous socially because of the contempt with which biographers are sometimes regarded (even in scholarly communities), and dangerous legally because of the potential for legal problems arising from statements made by the biographer. Mark McKenna sums up another difficulty with the genre, following Ray Monk's acknowledgement of the "inherently untheoretical" character of biography (McKenna 2013, 89). Virginia Woolf articulates the primary problems of writing biography when she refers to the attempt to combine the "granite-like solidity" of "truth" with the "rainbow-like intangibility" of "personality." (1958, 149). Woolf also contends that "the biographer does more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist save the very greatest" (2014, n.p.). Clendinnen accepts Woolf's sense of the "impossibility of biography," and quotes Louis-Ferdinand Celine's view that "we never know anyone's real inside story" (Clendinnen 2007, n.p.), but like Woolf, finds biography a compelling enterprise because of its transformative potential to allow us to "participate in the inner life of another person" (ibid.).

It is this dimension of biography that drives a major study of Australian actors that I am currently conducting with the aim of portraying the lives of individual actors. The primary goal of the study is to analyse the lives and work in theatre of Australian actors who came to maturity in the 1950s and 1960s and have worked in Australia for most or all of their lives. The purpose of the project is to understand the lives and work of these actors through the eyes of the actors themselves, in order to explain their role in creating a distinctive Australian theatre. The study examines actors in live performance, radio, film and television, focusing on the personal, aesthetic, cultural, economic and institutional factors that affected their work. In this essay I explore the process of writing biographical portraits of two of the actors in the study, Elspeth Ballantyne and Julia Blake, and the problems that inhere in the uses of the biographical interview before offering two short accounts of the actors' lives based on the interviews they granted me.

Contemporary biography rests on the expectation of the portrayal of individual subjects with a significant degree of intimacy as well as an understanding of the subject's inner life. The expectation amongst readers of biographies of live subjects especially, is that they will be offered an intimate portrait. Historian Barbara Caine argues that a "sense of closeness" and "the importance of some kind of intimacy" in biography has been accepted since the beginning of the era of modern biography in the eighteenth century (2013, 67). Arguably the emphasis on intimacy has increased in contemporary biography. Yet the extent of intimacy and the way in which it is achieved in biography varies considerably to this day. Caine explores the variations in what she calls "affective distance" practised by biographers over three centuries, observing that for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century biographers assumed that "a person's own account of his or her life was likely to be the most accurate account of it and hence that the closer a biography could be brought to an autobiography, the better" (2013, 68).

The use of the subject's own account of his or her life, in spite of all the problems with accuracy and critical distance that it throws up, offers an effective starting point for interpreting Australian actors' lives as is demonstrated by the two case studies. It is effective because it begins with the subject's own sense of his or her life in terms of its shape, problems, circumstances and defining features. …

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