The summer I turned 17, I took summer classes at my local technical college so that I could graduate early from high school. I had to format my computer the other day and pull some old files from a backup. I found a really old backup CD with some text files on it. This was one of those files. It was my final paper for my Utopian Sci-Fi Lit class. It was about the story “Who Am I This Time?”
Interestingly enough, last year I found, much to my delight, that Christopher Walken had starred in a movie adaptation of “Who am I this Time?” that was very well done.
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I have chosen to do my final paper on the story, Who Am I This Time? In this story, Harry seemed to have no personality outside of the roles that he played. And when he was done playing his roles, he would go back to being a clerk at the hardware store as if nothing had happened. This concept was taken to the extreme with Harry, since he seemed to have no roles that belonged solely to him and that were independent of literary works. But Is Harry really so different from you and I? I believe that, like Harry, each of us wears a variety of masks and plays a variety of roles in our day to day lives, sometimes without being fully conscious of the transition between these roles. I also believe that we actually need this versatility to be able to interact with all of the different types of people we meet every day.
Each of us has more than one role to play in day-to-day life. We are teachers, students, parents, children, friends, acquaintances, significant others, employees, employers, business contacts, and a variety of other roles. Each of these roles requires a different type of behavior from us. Since We must be able to make these transactions quickly and with ease, it becomes second nature to most people. We can talk about sports with acquaintances, even if we don’t especially care about sports. We can talk about homework with our teachers and classmates, even if our minds and interests are occupied elsewhere. We can talk to someone with different opinions than we have and not get into fistfights because we can bite our tongues and be courteous to others and be none the worse for it. If not for these ‘masks’ that we wear, a lot of misunderstandings might occur. If we couldn’t interact with people that are not like us, we would miss out on many things. Different perspectives, business deals, and even friends are gained by slipping in and out of roles.
Of course, not everyone wears these masks. There are some people in the world who don’t understand how to make the transition between roles. Still others do not care to play these different roles most of the time. Some people are very set in their ways. They are convinced that their ways are the right ways. And if they are right, then why should they play a role just to make someone else comfortable? The rest of us must play roles in order to get along with these people.
One might wonder, then, which way is better? Should we step into different roles when we meet different people, trying to accommodate them and make them comfortable? Or do we say the heck with it and let them think whatever they want to about us? I don’t think that there is necessarily a right or wrong way to interact with the people around us. However, if you have ever studied Sociology, you will know that Sociologists go out of their way to make sure that no one feels alienated or different. From the sociological viewpoint then, playing these roles is a necessary part of life, and perfectly natural.
Which category, then, did Harry fall into? The fact that he never seemed to be conscious that he was playing a role when he was acting is what made him such a superb actor. When he was on stage, he was charismatic and full of life. He could do anything and be anyone, and people loved him. But when the curtain went down, he would slip quietly out the back door, and Monday morning would again find him quiet and bland, working his job and saying very little. Harry seemed to be playing both sides of the fence. When he was acting, he was superb at slipping in and out of roles at a moments notice and being believable. However, outside of the plays, he was either too shy to speak to people, or perhaps he simply had nothing at all to say to them. He hadn’t mastered the day to day nuances of interpersonal human interaction. He couldn’t make small talk about the weather or sports or anything else with other people. Perhaps he just didn’t know how to.
How, then, is it possible that he slipped so easily into the well-defined roles provided by literature? I believe that it was for precisely that reason- the roles provided by the plays were well-defined. They were clearly mapped out for him ahead of time by other people who had mastered the nuances of human interaction. He didn’t have to learn how to do it himself, since he could open any book that he wanted and be anyone that he wanted. And when Helene came along, with the same problem (or should we say talent?) that Harry possessed, is it any wonder that they got along so well? Now, each had someone else to read the other lines of the story. All in all, I don’t think that it was unhealthy. There are many people in the world who have not mastered the art of playing roles. There are many people who have. Whether or not it is unhealthy is a matter of personal perspective. But whether you realize it or not, you unconsciously play different roles every day when you interact with other people.