The Purpose of Playing: Modern Acting Theories in Perspective / Edition 1

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The Purpose of Playing provides the first in-depth introduction to modern critical acting, enabling students, teachers, and professionals to comprehend the different aesthetic possibilities available to today’s actors. The book presents a comparative survey of the major approaches to Western acting since the nineteenth century, their historical evolution, and their relationship to one another. Author Robert Gordon explores six categories of acting: realistic approaches to characterization (Stanislavski, Vakhtangov, Strasberg, Chekhov); the actor as a scenographic instrument (Appia, Craig, Meyerhold); improvisation and games (Copeau, Saint-Denis, Laban, Lecoq); political theater (Brecht, Boal); exploration of the self and other (Artaud, Grotowski); and performance as cultural exchange (Brook, Barba). The synthesis of these principal theories of dramatic performance in a single text offers practitioners the knowledge they need to contextualize their own practice within the wider field of performance, while encouraging theorists and scholars to be more sensitive to the material realities of artistic practice.
“This analysis of major movements and figures from the early nineteenth century to the present is clear, thorough, and penetrating, and its scope across periods, countries, and styles is impressive.”
            --Xerxes Mehta, University of Maryland-Baltimore County
Robert Gordon is Reader in Drama, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472068876
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2006
  • Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 730,830
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Modern Acting Theories in Perspective
By Robert Gordon

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09887-3

Chapter One

Nineteenth-Century Acting

In order to recognize and describe modern acting, we need to know something about the types and traditions of performance from which it emerged and against which it defined itself as new. Whatever claims about the realism of nineteenth-century acting were made in its own time, the performance of a nineteenth-century actor-even in a naturalistic play-would today appear somewhat artificial or stylized. This may be partly attributed to changes in the manners and fashions of social behavior between that period and the present, and partly to the difference between nineteenth-century conventions of theatrical representation and our own.

Conventions of Performance

Pictorial Realism

One of the features of nineteenth-century theater that rendered styles of acting different from those of today was a convention of pictorialism that could be seen at its most striking in the histrionic storms of Gothic melodrama and Romantic verse drama in the first half of the century and at its most subtle in the domestic "teacup and saucer" realism of the productions of Tom Robertson's plays at the Prince of Wales Theatre between 1867 and 1885. As managers and scene painters becameprogressively more adept at creating two-dimensional scenic illusions of three-dimensional reality, so actors learned to exploit the staging principles of proscenium-arch trompe l'oeil as an expression of the underlying materialism that had motivated its development. The tendency toward realism in acting therefore represented both a shift from an idealist to a materialist view of human nature and a response to the changing architectonics of proscenium-arch staging. Acting was pictorial in the sense of being oriented out front to an audience who viewed it within the pictorial frame of the proscenium arch, and increasingly realistic in its representation of the material features of human behavior. Such changes were in turn motivated by Western culture's increasingly materialist conception of the physical universe.

The nineteenth-century tradition of pictorial realism in scenography can be seen to have originated four centuries earlier in Italian Renaissance theater. This in turn gave rise to Continental opera and ballet and also exerted a powerful influence on Inigo Jones's scenic elaboration of the English court masque in the first three decades of the seventeenth century. The principle of two-dimensional, changeable scenery within a picture-frame stage gradually transformed the courtyard theater of the Renaissance according to the logic of two-dimensional pictorialism that led inevitably (given the technological possibilities of moving pictures) to the cinema.

The dominance of these conventions of pictorial realism was to be observed at their most archaeologically insistent in the productions of Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre during the 1850s and at their most convincingly domestic in the realist productions of Tom Robertson's plays. The development of gas and electric lighting systems and the introduction of the box set equipped theaters with the technology that would promote the development of naturalistic staging until well into the twentieth century. Naturalistic staging principles began to emerge from the coherent historicism of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen's ensemble productions during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and could be seen fully-fledged in the intimate productions of Antoine's Théâtre Libre in the 1880s and 1890s. Individual actors at the Théâtre Libre (including Antoine himself) were vastly superior to those employed by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen so that the acting matched the naturalistic coherence of the mise-en-scène.

The advent of naturalistic drama, however, exposed an incipient tension between the terms pictorialism and realism that nineteenth-century conventions had masked. The orientation of the picture-frame stage toward the audience encouraged the performer to act directly to and for the audience. However realistically he may have portrayed characters in action, his aim was to move the audience to laughter or tears. In one respect, prenaturalistic acting concentrated on presenting the character's feelings or temperamental attitudes to the audience in the most direct and affecting manner. Eyewitness accounts of great actors such as Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Tommaso Salvini, and others testify to the powerful effect on the audience of their portrayal of intense emotions. While the savoring of intense feelings may have been peculiarly characteristic of Romantic theater, there is no doubt that the actor's ability to affect an audience through a vivid display of feeling-or humor, in comedy and farce-was a persistent feature of nineteenth-century European theater.

Mid-nineteenth-century acting in Britain, France, and Italy was realistic in the sense of developing increasingly sophisticated approaches to the accurate portrayal of symptomatic details of human behavior on stage, but it was nonetheless rhetorical in its aim of illustrating or acting out the thoughts and feelings of the characters so as to affect the spectator. This rhetorical aspect of acting could be traced back to the sixteenth century. The tradition had been successively modified as the visual dimension of theater gradually assumed preeminence over the aural, to the point in the late eighteenth century when the pictorial qualities of acting and scenic spectacle may have predominated over the vocal and rhetorical, more particularly in vast metropolitan theaters that housed audiences of above three thousand.

Goethe's "Rules for Actors" (1803), written as a summation of the principles of the Weimar Court Theatre that he directed between 1791 and 1817, represent an exceptional instance of the survival of a neoclassical theatrical aesthetic in an epoch of nineteenth-century Romantic art. The widespread adoption of Goethe's rules made their influence so pervasive in Germany that even at the end of the century, naturalistic directors such as Otto Brahm had difficulty in persuading actors to relinquish them.

Goethe's rules represented a compromise between the earlier rhetorical approach and the visual logic of the picture-frame stage. The style aimed at was a refined and elegant formalism. Speech was intended to be well modulated and varied, but never arbitrarily emotional: "The art of the actor is made up of speech and bodily movement.... As in music the correct, precise, and pure striking of each single tone is the foundation of all further artistic execution, so in the art of the actor the clean and perfect pronunciation of each word is the basis of all higher recitation and declamation.... By recitation is understood a delivery which ... lies midway between cold, quiet speech and highly excited speech. The auditor must always feel that ... the speech is objective."

Goethe's rules for recitation and declamation were informed by an underlying principle of decorum. He emphasized beauty of vocal tone, precision, standardization of dialect, slight variations of tone and tempo, moderation of feeling, and musicality, but advised against either "monotony" or "singing." His rules of visual composition strike a present-day theatergoer as equally prescriptive and even more formalistic:

First, the player must reflect that he must not only imitate Nature, but must also present her ideally, and that therefore his presentation must unite the true with the beautiful. Hence each part of the body must be completely in his control so that he can make use of each member for the desired expression, freely, harmoniously, and gracefully. Let the position of the body be erect, the chest up, the upper half of the arms to the elbows close to the body, the head turned slightly towards the person to whom one is speaking, yet so slightly that three-quarters of the face is always turned towards the audience. For the actor must constantly remember that he is on the stage for the sake of the public. Accordingly, it is mistaken for the actors to play to each other as if no third person were present; they should never play in profile, nor turn their backs to the audience.... The theatre is to be regarded much as a figureless tableau to which the actor adds the figures.

Goethe's prescriptions constitute the most overt and extreme formulation of the pictorial principle in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century theater. A full consciousness of the audience was a definitive feature of such acting, which required the actor to perform with a degree of self-consciousness that seemed to preclude any spontaneous feeling. Strange though some of his neoclassical prescriptions may now appear, Goethe did have a coherent grasp of the architectural logic of the proscenium arch stage. He also rationalized clearly the terms of the actor-audience relationship that were dictated by it, in the period before the advent of gas and electric lighting permitted the complete separation of the lit stage and darkened auditorium.

Less prescriptively, a term applied by the French Romantic actor Francois-Joseph Talma-l'optique du théâtre-was later employed by the English critic George Henry Lewes in his accounts of nineteenth-century performances to explain the sense of proportion and decorum that guides actors in translating their nervous impulses into "symbols" that would be communicated effectively on the picture-frame stage.

The Logic of Realism

Strictly speaking, the logic of realism dictates that the actor should not act out the character or allow the character to act out the narrative. The actor as impersonator should become wholly immersed in the character, ceasing to show him to the audience in the type of approach perfected by David Garrick, but merely behave as the character. The technical conventions of stage naturalism required the actor to disappear behind the character. The advent of naturalism necessitated the elaboration of a technique that would enable actors to portray stage characters without demonstrating their temperament to the audience.

Realism of representation was also consonant with the new materialism that motivated the development of science, from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Zola's use of the term "physiological man" to describe the subject of naturalistic drama directly expressed the Darwinist biological science that became the philosophical template for early naturalist drama. The new, slice-of-life drama required the actor to be both analyst and exhibitor of behavior. Clearly there could be no place in such a theater for acting that attempted to appeal directly to the spectator's moral judgment by means of rhetoric or to his feelings by means of a display of emotion. The terms of Zola's naturalism required the actor to perform as though completely unaware of the existence of an audience, presenting a fragment of the character's physiological existence as a series of symptoms that exposed his social and biological history.

The Influence of Diderot's Paradoxe

Sensibility versus Physical Technique

In The Player's Passion, Joseph Roach has demonstrated that the nineteenth-century discourse of acting was dominated by the perspective and terminology of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. The paradox of the actor was identified by Diderot in the opposition of sensibility and premeditated physical technique. This was analogous to the paradoxical spectatorial relationship between pictorialism, through which scenic spectacle directly affected the spectator via the senses and emotions, and realism, which was a principle of representation that determined the treatment of the subject matter of drama according to Enlightenment standards of scientific objectivity. Diderot's Paradoxe sur le comédien (written 1773, published 1830) brought into focus late-eighteenth-century arguments about acting to create a paradigmatic text for nineteenth-century acting theorists and practitioners. Throughout the century, French and English actors both wittingly and unwittingly restated Diderot's opposition of sensibility and technique. The French actor Constant Coquelin's L'art et le comédien (1880) was directly informed by Diderot. Coquelin's book in turn prompted one of the two major English studies in the period, the critic William Archer's survey of actors' views on their art, published as Masks or Faces (1888).

Diderot was concerned to discover whether great acting was produced by the exercise of "sensibility," through which the actor feels the emotions of the role he is playing, or by the mechanical application of an external technique, by means of which the actor's intelligence exercises control over his corporeal instrument. Like David Garrick, who was commonly regarded as the greatest European actor of the eighteenth century, most late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-century actors would not commit themselves to one side of the argument, preferring to describe acting as a combination of both sensibility and physical technique. Diderot eventually decided that great acting was produced by the exercise of technique alone: "extreme sensibility makes middling actors.... in complete absence of sensibility is the possibility of a sublime actor." For Diderot, the paradigmatic example of the actor who affected the audience through the intelligent exercise of physical technique was Garrick: "Garrick will put his head between two folding doors, and in the course of five or six seconds his expression will change successively from wild delight to temperate pleasure, from this to tranquility, from tranquility to surprise, from surprise to blank astonishment, from that to sorrow, from sorrow to the air of one overwhelmed, from that to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and thence will go up again to the point where he started. Can his soul have experienced all these feelings, and played this kind of scale in concert with his face? I don't believe it, nor do you."

According to Roach, Diderot anticipated the ideas of nineteenth-century nerve physiology; in analyzing the technique of the eighteenth-century actor, he observed that it was the spectator who should be moved by the acting, and not the performer. In this respect, he not only described the actual working methods of eighteenth-century actors, but seems also to have anticipated the practice of the majority of actors in the next century. His description of the actor manipulating his face, voice, and body on behalf of the dramatist represented an early model of Edward Gordon Craig's conception of the actor as Über-marionette. His insight into the kinesthetic effect on the spectator of the physical signs of the performance was more than a century in advance of the biomechanical theories of Meyerhold, Stanislavski's method of physical actions, the notion of the kinesthetic qualities of performance in the work of Laban and Michael Chekhov, and the influential notion of the performance score adumbrated by Grotowski and Barba:

[W]hat of those touching and sorrowful accents that are drawn from the very depths of a mother's heart and that shake the whole being? Are these not the result of true feeling? ... most certainly not. The proof is that they are all planned; that they are part of a system of declamation; that, raised or lowered by the twentieth part of the quarter of a tone, they would ring false ... that to hit the right mark once, they have been practiced a hundred times; ... the actor has listened over and over again to his own voice. At the very moment when he touches your heart he is listening to his own voice; his talent depends, not as you think, upon feeling but upon rendering so exactly the outward signs of feeling, that you fall into the trap. He has rehearsed to himself every note of his passion. He has learnt before a mirror every particle of his despair.... The broken voice, the half-uttered words, the stifled or prolonged notes of agony, the trembling limbs, the fainting, the bursts of fury-all this is pure mimicry, lessons carefully learned ... which leaves him, luckily for the poet, the spectator and himself, a full freedom of mind.


Excerpted from THE PURPOSE OF PLAYING by Robert Gordon Copyright © 2006 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Nineteenth-century acting 8
Ch. 2 Acting as psychological truth : Stanislavski's legacy 37
Ch. 3 The actor as scenographic instrument 89
Ch. 4 The legacy of Jacques Copeau 121
Ch. 5 Michel Saint-Denis and the English tradition 141
Ch. 6 British approaches to the teaching of speech and movement 169
Ch. 7 Improvisation and games for devising and for performer training 191
Ch. 8 Brechtian theater as political praxis 221
Ch. 9 Augusto Boal and the theater of the oppressed 259
Ch. 10 Antonin Artaud, the actor's body, and the space of performance 274
Ch. 11 Jerzy Grotowski 286
Ch. 12 From personal encounter to cultural exchange : the theaters of Peter Brook 310
Ch. 13 Performance as cultural exchange : Eugenio Barba and theater anthropology 333
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