acting, the art of the stage



acting, the art of the stage defined in 1939 year

acting, the art of the stage - ACTING, THE ART OF THE STAGE;
acting, the art of the stage - This subject may be studied further tinder such headings as Drama and Theatre, Comedy and Tragedy, and in the biographies of eminent actors and actresses which appear under their respective names.

The origins of the art of acting, like those of drama, are probably to be traced in ritual, associated as that must usually have been with dancing. To this, which from a religious gradually became a communal affair, first pantomime, then recitation or dialogue would be added. Masks were worn by primitive tribes, and masks long kept their place in connexion with the art; early players sometimes copied the appearance and movements of animals—so perhaps arose comic acting—and only by degrees would speech replace mere incantations of magic. Some such outline of development appears warranted by the researches of anthropology and reports as to stage beginnings in the East, but we do not tread relatively firm ground until we reach the classical territory of Greece.

Here, in the festivals from which tragedy and comedy derive, there was a processional or communal element, perpetuated in the chorus. Playwrights began by being dancers who taught the crowd the songs and dances of their craft. Their songs would describe some god's or demi-god's adventures; when the leading man impersonated his hero instead of singing about him, real acting had arrived. The masks used, the choice of superhuman types, and the inevitably lyrical presentment of their passions would make for formality in acting, and give far less scope to characterisation than Comedy, either old or new, and apparently the tragedians intoned their speeches.

Padded in figure, debarred from facial display, raised as on stilts upon the cothurnus, they had to rely almost wholly on voice with audiences that might be ten times as large as ours. Thus the performance of Aeschylus as actor can have been scarcely more than declamatory recitation. More like modern acting may have been that of Polus, reproached with carrying his son's ashes in the role of Electro to stimulate his emotions. The talent of comedians has few Hellenic eulogists, and generally it may be said of the actor that it was in Rome rather than in Greece that he attained his apogee. Roscius, freed slave made senator, genius in comedy, and trainer of Cicero in diction, may rank as prototype of his profession.

In few spheres can history be seen repeating itself more exactly than in that of acting. In the Middle Ages, really a new civilization, it starts again much as in Greece or the East. The first medieval actor was the priest who dramatised his Church's service; and in the miracle plays, until they were given in the streets, the clergy must have monopolised the acting. With their withdrawal, such plays, and also the moralities, became municipal undertakings which guilds shared in managing, and in which citizens represented the characters. Shakespeare, of course, has a skit on these artisan amateurs. Taste took no exception to nakedness where implied in the text, and realism in< scenes of torture and chastisement made the acting of such a serious ordeal.

Clowning folk-comedy passages figured in most miracle plays, and from quite early days seem to have been left to professionals. As the divorce between Church and stage widened and the mysteries passed into the hands of artisans, and from theirs into those of strolling players, the clergy's attitude changed, with the result that before the end of the 16th century interdicts vetoed performances of ecclesiastical plays everywhere. The Church complained of the ignorance of the actors, their lack of fluency or of a decent accent, their tricks of false emphasis and of contradicting the sense of their words by their gestures—a far higher level seems to have been reached in secular plays by Hans Sachs and his tradesmen colleagues in Germany at this time—and so with the discouragement of the civic fraternities the boards were cleared for the advent of the professional.

Acting Raised to an Art

The French farce pla3'ers provided something of the sort. But their methods were coarse, their technique was trivial alongside the work of exponents of the famous Italian comedy of art, improvisers who, to the mere skeleton of a scenario, supplied business and dialogue, and often long tirades or interludes of pantomime. Their parts, it is true, were stock types repeated in play after play. Yet here at last we get acting raised to an art. At their best these men and women studied, experimented, went in for team work, not only employed their voices, faces, memories, and command of feeling, but invented, exercised imagination, collaborated with their author. No wonder their fame spread over Europe, and their vogue, despite the artificiality of characters such as Harlequin and the rest, some of which Moliere was not above borrowing, lasted for generations, though now we discover traces of them only in our puppet shows.

On the English stage talent soon revealed itself with the opportunities afforded by Shakespeare. The man who played Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and Lear in the poet's own lifetime must have satisfied even so severe a critic of acting. We are told that Burbage had a Proteus-like art. Possibly we might have found him too declamatory, for the Elizabethan stage, whatever its structure, was essentially a platform stage, and the appeal of the theatre was, and continued to be, rhetorical and perhaps statuesque rather than, as in our days, pictorial, till the last relic of the apron (or projecting part of the stage between the footlights and line of the curtain) disappeared and the proscenium arch served as frame for a picture. So it was quite easy for a Rosalind to step out of a play and address her audience.

Boys played heroines' parts, women being kept off the English stage longer than from Continental stages; they were popular, and boys' companies at one time threatened to rob the adult actor of a living. But this was effected temporarily, not by them, but by the Puritan. With the Restoration, to the reopened theatres came the actress, scoring at first chiefly as comedienne. Her influence would seem to have bettered the technique of comedy acting, certainly in France well before the close of the 17th century, as we can judge from the account Moliere gives in his Impromptu de Versailles of his conduct of a rehearsal. He bears witness to the care taken about accentuation, character-painting, and ensemble. Nor was the French theatre of this era without its genius, Baron, whose greatest triumphs came after Moliere's death.

Betterton, to turn to England again and go back a little in time, would seem to have had a stiffer style. Authoritative, wonderful in the expression of awe — as Hamlet's in the Ghost scene—full of a rather pompous oratorical power, he gave his time what it asked, dignity, and avoided what it shrank from—anything that jarred on its ideas of good form and deportment. Despite Malone's praise, we can hardly believe Betterton to have shown much imagination or flexibility. It was left to Garrick, despite his quaint dressing of Romeo and Macbeth, to restore naturalism to the stage and replace tumid declamation by insistence on the human element in acting. If he supplied neither romance nor historical colour, his versatility and the suppleness of his diction are unquestionable. Able to carry away his audience equally by the passion of his Lear and the drollery of his Brute, he needs no modern certificate as to his range. It is this which entitles him, rather than a Schroder, to stand as representative actor of his century.

Convention versus Realism

There was much, however, for the stage to learn even after Garrick's reign—greater concern for the subtleties of character, a keener instinct for the picturesque, historical imagination, the ability to suggest what is fanciful and spiritual in art. Between whiles, the old fight goes on between convention and realism. The personality of a Clairon or a Siddons may recommend what is formal in delivery and pose for a time, but there is sure to be reaction. And so we see repeated efforts to return to nature in the methods of a Talma, a Lemaitre and perhaps a Rachel in France, or a Kean and a Macready in England. A Phelps holds on to tradition, while an Irving or a Tree, with a feeling for the pictorial and modern ideas of psychology, interprets familiar characters in a way to lend them novelty and depth. Each age has the woman player who realizes its ideals; thus, with the Anglo-Saxon community the gentle Helen Faucit, the romantic Adelaide Neilson, the virginal Mary Anderson, the buoyant, full-blooded Ada Rehan. Acting, in fact, if it is to keep alive, must be constantly readjusting its technique to catch the tones, gestures, and fashions of contemporary life. But as certainly, it is always being dragged back to artificiality. Great players create a legend which it is the function of the young to destroy, and the task of the latter is rendered all the harder by the accretion of "business" which has settled round well-known parts.

Equipment of the Actor

It is time to ask what is the equipment of the ideal actor. Since he must be a perfect instrument and his body must form no small part of that, he should, unless specialising in comic or eccentric character, be well proportioned, have an agreeable bearing, and possess features which are mobile and can be built up into something like beauty or strength. He should keep himself physically fit, be a fair adept at fencing, have mastered the tricks of make-up, be able to wear clothes of all periods easily, and gesticulate far more freely than is common in English private life: he should have learnt repose, and with it the manipulation of the hand, the carriage of the person, and the art of throwing himself into graceful postures. He should be acquainted with the customs and manners of different eras and know, if only to reject, the traditional glosses on the more famous roles. Pie should own a trained and musical voice, have the gift of memorising, and the adaptability to work in ensemble, to keep inside the stage picture and to form a picturesque part of it. He must have the instinct for phrasing, no less important, as Charles Wyndham showed, in comedy than in poetic drama: he must five the character he plays as much when silent as speaking. Finally, to say nothing of imagination and brains, no bad substitutes for genius, he must have laughter, emotion, and every mood ready at the playwright's call, and even have power to serve as his colleague. Stage dialogue is a shorthand which the actor is expected to translate and expand.

Which is the best histrionic material-a personality that is wax-like, with no strongly marked characteristics or one that is definite and assertive? Should a player be able to merge all that individualises him, or may he adapt the character to fit himself ? In practice we have both types. Irving insisted on making his Shylock romantic, dignified, and sympathetic. Duse rubbed all the hardness off a Magda and gave us Eleanora Duse in every idle. The modern tendency, on the other hand is to suit parts to actors and encourage them in an eternal self-exploitation.

Should players feel their parts? Most English actresses have wept with their heroines; a Coquolin would have regarded emotionalism as part of his technique. Indeed, Coquilin urged that all art is a distortion of nature, so regulated as to be accepted for it. Undoubtedly there is an element of exaggeration in all acting. It involves over-accentuation of gesture—English gesture at least— over-emphasis of speech, and a certain calculated surrender to, or pretence of, feeling. Not a few players, including so fine a comedienne as well as mistress of emotion as Mrs. Kendal, seem to find laughter more difficult to evoke than tears.

Acting may sometimes take away from the author's purpose, but if it has genius it adds something—not easily defined, but dependent on imagination, personal magnetism, instinct. The great actor has intuitions, tones, lightning flashes which pedantry denies at its peril. The critic who wants to claim all credit for the literary artist and reckons the actor as his mere tool or marionette had better sit at home with his own private puppet show, while folk with warmer blood in their veins are thrilled by some modern Salvini or laugh with the newest Nell Gwyn. by F. G. Bettany

The above resume of the art of acting, written for the original edition of this Encyclopaedia, is in every respect admirable, and there is nothing a modern reviser needs to change. It remains unaffected by the little that happened in the art of the theatre between the two Great Wars. The advent of the talking film, which is still in a comparatively early stage, has perhaps robbed the theatre of the necessity for great spectacular productions and brought it back to simpler methods; so that virtuosity and the personal contact of great acting is once more in demand. Under-acting and plays of understatement were typical of the, period, but represented an ephemeral phase. The turmoil of war and the invasion of Great Britain from the air has brought a new audience to the British theatre which, after a spate of film-going, is as ready to be moved by great acting as it is by great musical composition and orchestral interpretation. Under the influence of creative artists, the vitality of great drama is surging upwards again. by Donald Wolfit.

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