Reincarnation of the Martyr




Having already attended many plays during his search, Carl found nothing but fake, mechanical acting among the women he observed, soulless porcelain dolls trying to compensate for their lack of ability with over-the-top exuberance, ignoring the vitality of subtlety.  Very few things bothered and bored Carl as much as overacting, of which he had seen more than his fair share on this seemingly perpetual quest for his martyr.  He had finally decided to seek help from one of the actors already cast in his picture, Antonin Artaud, who would portray the kind-hearted monk Massieu. 

Antonin ran the Alfred Jarry Theatre, where he directed and produced the original works of Roger Vitrac, his cofounder.  Antonin was excised from the surrealist movement after refusing to renounce the art of theatre for its bourgeois commercialism and follow his fellow members into French Communism.  In spite of this stance taken against theatre by his former movement, he proceeded to summon the surreal power they no longer believed had a place upon the undeserving stage, proving them all wrong with each and every production at the Alfred Jarry. 

Paris had come to know the Alfred Jarry for the strong surrealist beliefs that Antonin tested on its stage, a matter of fact which at first kept Carl hesitant to request his aid on this quest outside the surreal realm, or inside it, for it was a female master of realism that he sought…but despite artistic affiliation, Carl and his desperation knew that Antonin only cast actors of equal or greater caliber to himself, and so he asked him for the name of the greatest actress ever to grace his stage.  Antonin provided him no name, just a ticket to this comedy at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. 

Strange it seemed that Antonin would send him to a comedy rather than a tragedy to find his martyr, yet there he sat with blind faith combined with less than hopeful expectations remnant from previous disappointments…and as the play went on, all of his pessimistic assumptions were realized.  While silently cursing Antonin’s name, Carl struggled to understand why such a respected artist in whom he trusted for guidance had sent him to such an awful performance.  He studied the faces of the woman on stage, with dwindling hope of finding the face that would be Jeanne’s, and saw nothing but painted faces on parade faking talent. 

Carl had a fascination with the human face, considering it to be an actor’s most important means of conveyance, and that any who could not convey through that alone what they could manage with their whole were no actors at all.  He had developed a new filming technique that, in his foresight, would be used by every director ever to come after him, and this was to be his first time putting it into action, the previously unheard-of idea to shoot almost entirely in close-ups.  Because most of the picture would be fixed on Jeanne’s face within a tight frame, he needed a woman who, without words, could show through her face alone all of the pain and torment of persecution and condemnation.  Such a technique had never before been used in pictures and Carl predicted it would revolutionize the craft forever, that it would do for cinema exactly what he believed Rite of Spring had done for music.

Carl was notorious for his unorthodox methods of bringing the desired performance out of his actors, for doing whatever it took to draw out their character, making sure they gave him exactly what he needed at any and all costs.  Countless were the occasions he had, by his own means, brought a woman to tears because he needed her character to cry and she could not herself manifest the emotion; he had even managed to do the same with a few male actors as well.  Brutal truth was everything to him, and he extracted it from his actors by both natural and unnatural means.  He felt that any artist, whether an actor, painter, poet, sculptor, was not truly an artist unless willing to hand their entire self over to their craft, sacrificing their own well-being if necessary.  Only true artists recognized this as their sworn responsibility, and only ignorant artists were unaware of their peril, as the weight of a masterpiece was always mightier than any burdened shoulders.   He believed a work of art to be far more important than the artist who gives it form, for artists were born and died every day, but what they brought forth while breathing would transcend and live forever; therefore, it was no tragedy in Carl’s eyes for an artist to irreparably sacrifice his or herself for the sake of their work, and was instead the greatest honor they could ever wish to bear.  What greater honor could one wish for than martyrdom?

As the play continued, Carl only grew more disgusted with the women on stage, and so his focus diverted toward one certain astonishing male actor, a bit younger than himself it seemed, and before even noticing that his attention had shifted, Carl was already completely captivated.  He at first wondered if this man was indeed as sensational as he seemed, or if he simply shined in comparison to those around him as would a dandelion in a field of brown, dead grass…but upon closer examination, Carl saw someone who had truly taken time to master the acting craft rather than parading around in the manner of those on stage with him.  In the role of Gavroche, this man’s portrayal was so perfect that Carl forgot why he had attended this play in the first place.  As a disheartened mind finally remembered his purpose that night, Carl sadly realized that the man was of no use to him or his picture.  There were minor male roles to be filled, but these were all nameless parts such as guards, judges, and high priests.  Carl would not dare insult such a talent by offering him anything but a lead role. 

He reached inside his suit coat and produced the cast of characters list, holding it from the bottom with his thumb pressing a crease that let the narrow slip stand without flopping over.  Though he had no present need for this actor, Carl had to find out his name for future reference, as he believed it would be the next great name in theatre.  He squinted and stared at it for a few moments, watching blurry spots of black gradually form legible letters while his eyes adjusted.  Listed down the left side were character names, and down the right side, actors and actresses, with dotted lines running left to right.  The tip of his index finger made a capital L as he ran it down the left side until it pointed at Gavroche, then along the dots leading to the name Mario Falconetti.  Looking up at Mario, Carl was heartbroken at the thought of what art they could have brought forth together if only his name had been Maria instead.

When Carl looked back down at the list, he suddenly felt that he was seeing the impossible for which he had hoped, reading the name lined up with Gavroche no longer as Mario, but as Maria.  He tried in disbelief to focus harder on that last defining letter.  Did it really say Maria Falconetti, or were his hopeful mind and light-deprived eyes playing a game?  His proximity to the stage allowed him a bit of its glow to assist his reading, so he tilted the top of the list forward to let the light grace its surface and saw……Maria Falconetti. 

After a short-lived bliss, Carl looked back up at Gavroche and realized that his joy could only be the result of a typographical error.  It simply could not be, was impossible for a woman to be that perfect in a male role.  Though mistyping a single letter was a simple and honest mistake, Carl cursed the anonymous source of error for, even if only momentarily, raising his hopes as high as the dome in the ceiling.  Carl imagined this ideal, nonexistent Maria, a woman so amazing in her craft that she can play a male part better than any man could ever wish to.  What better woman than that to take on the role of Jeanne d’Arc, the French martyr who acted as a man to fight among an army of men?  Carl always looked to cast those who exhibited in their own life commonalities with the character, but this was far too perfect, far too good to be true.  Carl grieved this hypothetical fallacy, spending the rest of the play’s duration like a woman who had lost an unborn child, mourning the loss of what might have been.



Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face.  It is a land one can never tire of exploring.  There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration.  To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”

–Carl Th. Dreyer Thoughts on My Craft  



The curtain closed and she was Maria again.  Red walls outlined in gold closed in on the audience from both corners of her eyes, compressing the spectators until they were invisible sounds of shuffling through rows and aisles.  Having spent the last two hours as a young man by the name of Gavroche, she gave a sigh of relief as she bid him adieu and welcomed Maria Falconetti back into her being…always glad to reach the end of a performance and step back inside herself after a period of absence.  Her intensity was never matched among those sharing her stage, but casting herself from body and mind to hollow for another was very uncomfortable, almost painful for Maria.  This ability had not been easily attained, but through years of study, and though such intense acting took a lot out of her, it was her art, her soul.   She endured it for the sake of her craft, but was just as frightened by the process as she was obsessed with it. 

The root of Maria’s mastery was the recognition that her craft was not like any other. “An artist of colors, words, stone or sound, has all the time needed to perfect a piece before unveiling it…but an actor’s work is observed as it is being made.  The creation of the piece is the piece itself, and because it is viewed during the creative process, the only way to bring forth a true work of art in performance is to remain alive in character at each and every moment, for there is no such thing as revising a moment passed.”  Cannot revise a moment passed, cannot revise a moment passed, cannot revise a moment passed, always resounded in her head before she stepped on stage, and so each night, the world existing upon it became her only reality. 

Maria feared how far outside herself she ventured while taking on another identity, living and breathing as another person, for she had always felt a sense that with her every performance, a bit of her own identity was lost.  She had spent years shedding layers of herself like a snake night after night, and without the reptile’s benefit of replenishment, she was layer-by-layer losing touch with who she was to begin with…able only to define herself by a series of flawless fallacies.  Maria worried that sooner or later she would peel back her final layer and there would be nothing left, afraid she might one day give such a perfect performance that she will completely lose her true self for good, step out of body and never return.  Could the power of unyielding realism ever be so great that it robs someone of their reality forever?  Though this question haunted her each day, she ultimately knew that each part was a part of her, and even so, she felt it worth the sacrifice if such a thing were to happen; one perfectly true performance at the expense of her identity would be a fair trade, and she would gladly sacrifice herself for the sake of that single character, a part for which she would be remembered far beyond her years.  Such art is priceless, she felt, worth the lives of more than ten of her. 

She often thought of those before her time, martyrs of art and philosophy who had collapsed under the weight of their own brilliance, leaving behind treasures, gifts for which they paid the ultimate price; what an honor it would be for her to do the same, collapse beneath the weight of an overwhelming realism, leaving the world with one priceless performance that would cost her the ability to ever live as Maria again.  The more she thought of it, the less able she was to imagine a greater achievement, almost wishing it, to become a martyr for her craft.  

Backstage, Maria sat in front of her vanity mirror wiping away the dark foundation that was caked upon her skin to prevent her pale face from vanishing beneath the bright stage lights.  Each wipe of the wet cloth revealed to the mirror a small section of her white complexion, as if cleaning a Venetian mask covered with dirt.  Each time Maria saw her reflection, since opening night, she could not help but regret having to sacrifice the hazel hair she had grown since birth, but she nevertheless maintained a man’s length without opposition for the sake of her male character.  The only reminder worse than seeing this absence reflected before her was feeling it in a momentary lapse of memory spent brushing back the air around her shoulders once adorned with her hair.  Wiping the last of the makeup from her fair skin, she saw in the mirror’s reflection a stage hand approaching her from behind, passing by and pushing aside racks of draped costumes on his way. 

Before he could reach her, Maria turned around in acknowledgement, catching the stage hand a bit off guard, as he had not expected her to be watching in the mirror.  “Madame Falconetti, a gentleman in the audience tonight handed this to an usher, who in turn handed it to me.  The gentlemen said to make sure that a ‘Monsieur Mario Falconetti receives it immediately.’”  The stage hand laughed as he gave Maria a note folded in thirds.

“Well I don’t know whether to take that as a testament to my acting or an insult to my femininity,” Maria said, accepting the note with a smile.  “Did the usher at least correct him?” she asked.

“I asked him that same question,” he replied.  “He said it was too marvelous a misunderstanding for him to ruin by clarifying, and he also didn’t bother because the gentleman was clearly referring to you.”  The stage hand left to continue his set-striking duties.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Maria said with a light-hearted sarcasm, “just let him go on thinking I’m a man.”  She unfolded the note and began to read. 



Monsieur Mario Falconetti,

                        I am a filmmaker.  I came here tonight in desperate search of a lead for my next picture, and while I cannot imagine a greater talent than you for the part, it unfortunately calls for a female.  Though we cannot toast to your future performance in my picture, please grace me with your company over a drink in the lobby so we may at least toast to your performance tonight, as such a work of art mustn’t go uncelebrated.   I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to find an actor who has truly mastered his craft.  Since nobody has yet taken notice, I should inform you that your name is misprinted on the cast of characters list.

                        I hope you will join me,

                                                                        Carl Th. Dreyer



Carl sat at the wine bar in the lobby holding a match to his cherry-wood pipe and wondering whether or not who he thought was Mario Falconetti would show up.  Although he was under the impression that circumstances would not allow them to work together, Carl still longed to exchange thoughts on the craft of acting with this artist for whom he had acquired such admiration that night…but with each passing minute it sadly seemed even that was not to be.  Just as he was getting ready to leave, a woman’s voice addressed him from behind.  He turned around to find an outstretched hand so close to his face that he could not make out the blurry presence to which it belonged, and was reminded of his cinematic ability to force attention toward something in the foreground of a shot by blurring out the entire background.  Grabbing the hand gently, he greeted the faceless presence.  Carl often looked at life as if all existence dwelled within a camera’s frame and his eyes were the lens, reminded them of a rack focus shift as the woman before him began to take form after removing her hand from his foreground. 

“It truly is an honor to meet you, Monsieur Dreyer,” she said.

“Well, thank you very much.  It’s always such a joy to come across a connoisseur of great cinema,” Carl replied, taking a few pulls from his pipe, “Particularly my own, not to sound too pretentious or arrogant.”



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