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The Art of Acting
... And How to Master It
By David Carter
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2010 David Carter
All rights reserved.
THE HISTORY OF ACTING STYLES AND TECHNIQUES
Surveying what has been written over the ages by actors, dramatists, critics and philosophers, it is clear, from the descriptions, that all acting styles fall somewhere along a continuum between what may loosely be called the Natural and the Artificial. Various other aspects of acting have been given close consideration over the years, according to the concerns of the day, such as gesture, movement, elocution, etc, but most assessments of actors' performances usually attempt to rate them as being somewhere between convincingly realistic or natural and highly stylised and artificial. The terms 'realistic' and 'natural' do not always denote praise; nor do the terms 'stylised' and 'artificial' always denote criticism. It tends to depend on the writer's own preferences and the tastes of the era.
In the following survey the concern has constantly been to focus on the styles of acting encouraged and the techniques employed to attain them. Accounts of actual dramatists and their works, and the modes of theatrical production, are therefore only included where of relevance to understanding the acting styles. For similar reasons, the traditions in some countries are only dealt with cursorily or not at all, relevance to the development of acting theory and styles being always the only criterion. Also, as the purpose of this book is to provide advice to would-be actors in the English-speaking world, and in what may be loosely described as the western theatrical tradition, all consideration of acting traditions in the Far and Near East, and in Africa, India and South America have been excluded, with the occasional exception of allusions by specific exponents of the theory and practice of acting.
THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
Although dramatic performances of some kind doubtless occurred in earlier ages, and most likely among the Egyptians, most accounts of the history of drama and of acting start with reference to the tragic drama of the Greeks developed from the recitation of dithyrambs and ritual choral dances in celebration of the god Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. The very first actor whose name has come down to posterity is Thespis, who is reported to have stepped aside from the choral narration with its leader and impersonated one of the characters in the story being told. Whatever the facts of the matter, his name has been transmuted into an epithet for all those who indulge in dramatic performance: Thespians.
Interesting to note is that, from the very beginning, the art practised by Thespis had its negative critics. Thespis was also a dramatist, and when he brought one of his productions, in which he also acted, to Athens, he was condemned by the lawgiver Solon for his dangerous and deceptive impersonations. The birth of the first known acting performance therefore coincided with that of the first bad review. As was to be the case throughout the subsequent history of theatre, however, the audience knew what it liked, as did the tyrant Pisistratus, who established competitions for dramatic performances. At the first of these, Thespis was crowned the victor. It is interesting that Solon considered acting dangerous and deceptive. As a lawgiver he was doubtless concerned that the audience might be roused by the performance in ways which could disrupt the peace. Acting was also perceived by him as creating an illusion, convincing the audience of something that was not real. From its known beginnings, therefore, realism, or the illusion of it, was considered to be an essential part of acting.
In the further development of acting in Greece, the poet, who was also usually the actor, introduced further roles, performing them all himself, but distinguishing between them by the use of masks. The poet Aeschylus introduced a second actor and thus made the distinction between poet and actor clear. Sophocles added a third actor and the tradition of employing only three actors who each impersonated several characters by the use of masks with a diminished role for the chorus became established.
The acting in this period was undoubtedly stylised and declamatory. With thousands of people gathered in vast amphitheatres, it was obviously important to enable each member of the audience to see the characters and hear the speeches clearly. Apart from the large masks, big, thick-soled boots, known as a 'cothurnus', were worn, to make the actor seem larger than life. The masks also enabled the actors, all men, to impersonate female roles. For performances in such conditions voice training was obviously crucial. Aristotle wrote of the importance of 'the right management of the voice' for the actor, and the actor Demosthenes stressed the need to be 'splendid in voice'. A good grasp of rhythm and timing was necessary, as was the ability to sing. As the costumes, boots and masks were surely very heavy, gestures and movements must have been slow and demonstrative.
The acting styles within the Greek classical period undoubtedly underwent changes over time, which, in essence, prefigured the cycles of change that occurred in later periods and in other cultures. There is evidence for at least three periods in classical Greece, although the periods cannot be sharply distinguished: that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in which the acting was very restrained and formal; the fourth century when actors such as Neoptolemus and Theodorus developed a more natural style; and, finally, the plays of Euripides, which introduced a more realistic depiction of human emotion. There were comic actors, too, throughout these periods, who, as with comedians in all ages, developed a freer, often vulgar style.
The tragedies and comedies developed in Rome were based largely on translations of Greek plays, adapted to Roman contexts. This is true of both the works of the great Roman tragedians, such as Seneca, as well as the comic writers such as Plautus and Terence. The Romans went in for much more spectacular displays than the Greeks, with decorated scenery and also, on occasions, the inclusion of live animals. Most Roman actors had the status of slaves, managed and trained in special troupes, though especially gifted ones could manage to become very wealthy. One such was the renowned Quintus Roscius Gallus (d 62 BC), known generally as Roscius, who eventually gained his freedom and became a personal friend of the writer Cicero. Another actor in the first century, the Greek-born Aesop, was greatly admired for his fiery and emotional performances. A highly declamatory style was most popular with Roman audiences. The Romans did use masks, but it seems that they did not become popular, and the actors were appreciated for their facial expressions and gestures, which seem to have been refined to a highly stylised degree.
The Romans also developed the art of mime to a high degree. A certain Pylades wrote a treatise on mime and founded his own school to put his theories into practice, and many mimes became as famous as the well-known actors of the day.
Roman poets and orators claim to have learned much of their techniques from watching the leading actors, and it is writers such as Cicero (106–43 BC), Quintilian (circa AD 35–95) and Lucian (circa AD 120–200), who have passed on to posterity what accounts are extant of the acting styles of the period. Cicero's De Oratore demonstrates this debt. He noted of Roscius 'how everything is done by him unexceptionably; everything with the utmost grace; everything in such a way as is becoming ...' He also stressed the importance of leaving some passages less clear so that others may become the clearer, a point made, in different words, by many modern actors: '... high excellence and merit in speaking should be attended with some portions of shade and obscurity, that the part on which a stronger light is thrown may seem to stand out, and become more prominent ...' Lucian, while decrying the decline in acting styles, also has positive advice to give. Writing specifically of pantomime, a term said to have been introduced by Italian Greeks, and of acting in general, he called for verisimilitude: '... prince or tyrannicide, pauper or farmer, each must be shown with the peculiarities that belong to him.' He writes elsewhere of '... the pantomime, whose task it is to identify himself with his subject, and make himself part and parcel of the scene that he enacts.' He also provides a vivid and amusing account of the extremes to which overacting may lead. An actor playing the role of Ajax in a state of madness 'so lost control of himself, that one might have been excused for thinking his madness was something more than feigned'. It appears that the illiterate mass considered it all to be great acting, but the more intelligent part of the audience obviously felt disgust at this display, although they concealed their feelings. Lucian praises another actor, who, in a similar role, 'played it with admirable judgement and discretion, and was complimented on his observance of decorum, and of the proper bounds of his art'.
THE MIDDLE AGES
By the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the classical modes of performing tragedy and comedy had degenerated and been changed so much that they were no longer recognisable as such. In Europe as a whole the most popular forms of entertainment were folk dances and various demonstrations of acrobatic skills and juggling. Travelling groups of mimes and conjurors, performing occasionally comic interludes, were common. The nearest they came to acting was in the recitation of narratives about heroic deeds. There was little chance of developing a true histrionic art while the church condemned such groups as disreputable.
Ironically, it was within the church itself that performances of a vaguely theatrical nature were permitted. Simple dramatic structures were developed by the priests chanting Latin dialogue based on stories from the scriptures and these gradually became more complex liturgical dramas. Performances eventually moved from within the church to outside it, with priests being replaced by laymen. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries large groups of amateur actors were performing various biblical stories with all members of their communities taking part in the productions in one way or another, building scenery, making props, etc, very much as is still exemplified today in the dramatic festival at Oberammergau. The so-called morality plays became more allegorical and were influenced by the spread of humanism, with the introduction more and more of comic elements and increasingly realistic acting. These changes happened throughout Europe. In France, Spain, Italy and Germany, religious plays were eventually being performed alongside pure farces, with individual writers now becoming well known for their skills in writing comedy, such as the great Hans Sachs in Germany.
Although acting styles were undoubtedly often crude and naïve, with costumes being colourful rather than historically accurate, there were individual performers who acted sensitively and were able to move their audiences. There are documentary accounts of such performances.
There are some writings extant from the Middle Ages which give advice on acting. One in particular recommends a measured, balanced delivery; the actor should clearly avoid excessive emotion. This advice is to be found in the introductory remarks to one of the oldest known French mystery plays, TheRepresentation of Adam, written sometime in the twelfth century. Though the dialogue was written in Norman French, the remarks, with suggestions also for costumes, scenery and gestures, were in Latin. The actor playing Adam is given the following advice: 'Adam shall be trained well to speak at the right moment, so that he may come neither too soon nor too late. Not only he, but all shall be well practised in speaking calmly, and making gestures appropriate to the things they say ...'
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the groups of amateur actors had gradually been superseded by professionals, who replaced the dramas on religious themes with ones of a more secular nature.
The Elizabethan period
In 1545, King Henry VIII created the post of Master of the Revels, whose role was to organise the entertainment at his court. For some time, this entertainment consisted of various interludes and elaborate allegorical dramas. At the same time, the popularity of bands of strolling players was growing, groups of professional players under the protection of noblemen, performing on village greens and in the yards of inns.
In the short period of four decades, from about 1580 to 1620, two companies of actors in particular became famed for the quality of their performances: the Admiral's Men, who were run by Philip Henshawe, with the actor Edward Alleyn playing the leading roles in the plays of Christopher Marlowe; and the Lord Chamberlain's Company (known after the accession of James I as the King's Majesty's Servants), with the renowned actors William Kemp and Richard Burbage, and a certain actor and poet called William Shakespeare.
Edward Alleyn was admired especially for his mastery of action on the stage, and it seems he developed a very exaggerated style of acting. Although little is known about how Richard Burbage acted, it seems likely that he exemplified the well-balanced style advocated in Hamlet's advice to the Players. The speech (in Act III, scene II) is too well known to quote it in full, but certain phrases could usefully be emphasised as being crucial to the attainment of a measured style: 'Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently', '... beget a temperance that may give it smoothness', 'Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature ...'
Burbage's well-balanced acting was celebrated in an elegy on his death, which has been attributed to the Earl of Pembroke:
How to ye person hee did suit his face, How did his speech become him, and his face Suit with his speech, whilst not a word did fall Without just weight to balance it withall
Another writer, Richard Flecknoe, who probably never actually saw Burbage act, reported that the actor had the ability to completely immerse himself in his role, 'so wholly transforming himself into his part, and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the tiring-house) assum'd himself again until the play was done.'
The actor and writer John Webster (d 1634) is likely to have been the author of the essay entitled 'Character of An Excellent Actor'. For Webster, the actor should be at one with nature, and provide living personalities and not just embodiments of moral concepts, 'for what we see him personate, we think truly done before us' and 'what he doth feignedly that do others essentially'.
In general, it seems that acting in the Elizabethan period was likely to have been stylised rather than realistic in any modern sense. The actor was expected to have excellent projection and control of his voice and not overact for the sake of gaining audience approval.
The Restoration and after
During the Civil War, in 1642, London's theatres were closed. The Puritan government kept them closed until 1660 when the restoration of the monarchy occurred with Charles II's return to the throne. In the same year, the king granted patents to Sir William Davenant (1606–1668), a playwright, and his friend Thomas Killigrew (1612–1683) to set up two playhouses and organise two companies of actors, the Duke of York's Company and the King's Men. These two companies dominated the theatrical scene until 1843. Having spent the years of exile in France, the royal court had developed a taste for the French-style of theatrical performance in the classical mode. The old Elizabethan-style playhouse, open to the elements, was replaced by a proscenium-arch stage with a curtain and scenery, though an extensive apron stage was retained. Performances were dominated by the personalities of the leading actors, and the popular plays of the day were very much written to show off their talents. Some outstanding actors did, however, appear who revived interest in great drama.
From 1660 till 1710 the leading actor of his day was Thomas Betterton, who not only took the main roles in the plays of his contemporaries, Etherege, Congreve and Dryden, but also revived Shakespeare's Hamlet. For his contemporaries, his acting style was dignified and restrained. He was admired for his ability to express feelings with passion but with a controlled use of his voice. He provided intelligent interpretations and was capable of a large variety of characterisations. During this period, too, many women came to prominence on the stage. Betterton's own wife, Mary Saunders, became the first woman to play the main female roles in Shakespeare's plays.
By 1680 the two companies had built new theatres, the Duke of York's Company in Dorset Gardens, and the King's Men in Drury Lane. In 1682 they united into one company using the Drury Lane theatre.
Excerpted from The Art of Acting by David Carter. Copyright © 2010 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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