The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture

The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture

by Paul Goring


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ISBN-13: 9780521103206
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2008
Pages: 236
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Paul Goring is Senior Lecturer in British Literature and Culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

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The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture
Cambridge University Press
0521845092 - The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture by - Paul Goring


Moving bodies and cultural history

On 29 October 1746, the printer and novelist Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) wrote a long letter to his friend Aaron Hill (1685–1750), a man of broad interests spanning commerce, trees, English wine, literature, and, of particular relevance here, the theatre and acting techniques. Richardson was in the midst of the composition of Clarissa (1747–8), the first volumes of which would be published the next year, and he responded to Hill's comments on a draft of part of the novel and discussed matters relating to Clarissa's characters.1 Towards the end of the letter he described his reactions to reading a work by Hill, a didactic verse essay entitled The Art of Acting, which he had agreed to print: Last Sunday I attempted to read it not as a Printer; and was not aware, that I should be so mechanically, as I may truly say, affected by it: I endeavoured to follow you in your wonderful Description of the Force of Acting, in the Passion of Joy, Sorrow, Fear, Anger, &c. And my whole Frame, so nervously affected before, was shaken by it: I found, in short, such Tremors, such Startings, that I was unable to go thro' it; and must reserve the Attempting it again, till your Oak Tincture (but just enter'd upon) has fortify'd the too relaxed, unmuscled Muscles, and braced those unbraced Nerves, which I have so long complained of, and so shall hope to find a Cure, and the Proof of it, from the same beneficent Hand.2 It is not absolutely clear what Richardson intends when he writes that he 'endeavoured to follow' Hill in his account of how the 'passions' should be performed on stage. Does he mean that he tried to 'follow' Hill's argument and instructions in an intellectual sense? Or is he suggesting that he went some way towards actually acting out the signs of the emotions as described in the poem? Or is he referring to a type of reading practice that falls somewhere between these two senses of 'follow'? Whichever way we understand Richardson's approach to the poem, his letter to Hill provides a telling account of real emotional transport arising in response to a representation of the human body performing signs of emotional transport. Richardson's sabbatical reading of The Art of Acting, he claims, has provoked in him a state of nervousness of such intensity that any further dealings with the work must be postponed until he has prepared himself with some bracing tincture.3 A work advancing a theory of acting has affected him to the extent that he feels physically weakened and ill – and he is by no means shy about reporting this to Hill. Indeed, Richardson seems almost to savour his nervousness, dwelling upon it in a lengthy self-diagnosis, which serves both as an assertion of his delicate condition and as a compliment to the captivating power of Hill's writing. Unexpectedly for Richardson, The Art of Acting inspires from him an eloquent performance of his own sensitivity, which in turn, through his epistolary telling, becomes a further image of bodily performance serving the benefit of both authors.

We are, of course, well used to the idea that representations – using literary or other media – can produce powerful emotional effects in their consumers. Since at least the time of Aristotle, who analysed the process in his Poetics, the arousal of emotion has been recognised as one of the fundamental functions that works of the imagination serve for their communities of readers, spectators, or auditors. So it may be that Richardson's response to The Art of Acting appears intense but ultimately unexceptional. However, what I believe is remarkable about Richardson's act of reading is the fact that he is not moved by the dramatisation or depiction of an affecting object or series of events – that would be the more traditional manner in which literary representations arouse emotion. Rather Richardson is moved in response to an account of the bodily characteristics of moved people, as constructed by Aaron Hill. The indices of emotion precede the emotion; the signifiers produce the internally felt signifieds. As when a car is pushed to make the engine turn, the attention to external movement here spurs the inner emotions into life. To understand the nature of Richardson's reading more fully – and this will be useful for seeing the implications of this petite histoire that I want to explore further – it will be helpful to look briefly at the material he had before him.

Richardson's copy of Hill's The Art of Acting was one in a succession of several different versions of the work. From a verse prologue of 1733 to an expansive prose 'Essay on the Art of Acting', posthumously published in 1753, Hill's literary treatment of acting techniques underwent considerable transformation and revision.4 The 1746 version, read and printed by Richardson, approached the subject in something over four hundred lines of verse plus an explanatory dedication. Hill developed and refined his theory as he revised the work, but the various versions none the less have several key aspirations in common: to advertise affecting acting as a socially beneficial force, to provide a taxonomic analysis of 'the passions' and their bodily signs, and to describe ways in which the actor might summon up these signs in performance. In the 1746 version, Hill recommends that in order to be emotive an actor should:

Print the ideal Pathos, on the Brain:
Feel the Thought's Image on the Eyeball roll;
Behind That Window sits th'attentive Soul:
Wing'd, at her Beck, th'obedient Muscles fly,
Bent, or relaxing, to the varied Eye:
Press'd, moderate, lenient, Voice's organ'd Sound,
To Each felt Impulse, tones the tunefull Round:
Form'd to the Nerves, concurring Mein partakes, –
So, the mov'd Actor Moves – and Passion Shakes.5Working through the curlicues of Hill's poetic style, we find the nub of the argument: bodily expression should be produced as a direct mechanical consequence of the actor's mental identification with a particular 'passion' – the eighteenth-century term for which the modern near-equivalent is 'emotion'. Hill advances an acting technique in which the performer should attempt to feel the emotions which the fictional character would feel in the various situations engineered by the playwright – a technique akin to that famously promoted much later by the Russian actor and producer Konstantin Stanislavsky and also by later 'method actors'. But while Hill promotes such an internalised technique, he is at the same time partly prescriptive when it comes to illustrating the bodily signs that feelings actually produce. In The Art of Acting he addresses various passions individually and anatomises their bodily symptoms in detail. Here, for example, is Hill's analysis of fear – one of the passions Richardson singles out for mention in his letter:

Fear is elusive Sorrow, shunning Pain;
Active – yet, stop'd – it dims the doubtful Brain;
Spirit snatch'd inward, stagnating, by Dread,
Slow, through the Limbs, crawls cold, the living Lead:
Form'd to the Look that moulds th'Assumer's Face,
His Joints catch Tremblings, – Life's moist Strings unbrace;
This Road, and That, – th'alarmful Passion tries,
Halts, in the Motion – flutters, in the Eyes;
Checks the clipt Accent's hesitative Way,
And, on th'evasive Muscles, hangs Delay.6So while Hill sees the proper way of 'acting the passions' as a 'natural' process requiring no imitation of conventional gestures, he also goes to considerable lengths in supplying descriptions of those gestures which should be within the capable actor's repertoire. Indeed, the bulk of the poem is devoted to detailed representations showing how particular passions should be rendered legible on a body's surface. There is, then, a certain methodological tension in The Art of Acting, as Hill invites his trainee actors to follow not only their imagined emotions but also his own illustrations of moved bodies moving.

Hill became influential as an acting theorist, but he was seldom admired as a writer. The author of A Letter to David Garrick (1769) indeed reflected upon how Voltaire's plays could please even 'in the pitiful translations of an Aaron Hill' – Hill is not merely deemed to be a bad writer here, but has become a typifier of bad writing.7 So Richardson's praise of Hill's 'wonderful Description of the Force of Acting' may have gone against the grain of conventional opinion regarding Hill's literary capabilities, but if we credit Richardson's account of his distress, his admiration is clearly an apt secondary response to his own experience with The Art of Acting. Through encounter with Hill's words, Richardson apparently set off a transformation of his own body by fictional models of variously affected bodies; consciously or unconsciously, he was allowing himself to be moved in response to Hill's representations of abstract but emotionally shaken bodies, and this form of reading produced his own intense transport and weakness. As Richardson suggests, he was a long-term sufferer of nervous disorders – he had been a regular patient of Dr George Cheyne (1671–1743), the popular physician to the gentry and author of the medical classic The English Malady (1733) – so when he came to read The Art of Acting, he was bringing to the work an emotional condition that he and his doctor would have recognised as already acutely susceptible.8 It is nevertheless a testimony to the effectiveness of Hill's poem – albeit written to its author, who would be flattered and encouraged by the report – that Richardson should describe such a degree of inner turmoil. It is, as I have suggested, a turmoil prompted not by descriptions of objects or events that might normally induce 'Joy, Sorrow, Fear, Anger, &c.', but rather by 'following' representations of the bodily states seen to be the natural, somatic consequences of these passions. The Art of Acting describes nothing joyous or sorrowful, but rather displays what Hill sees – and partially constructs through his writing – as the physical effects of joy and sorrow. Yet paradoxically, by encountering these effects through reading, Richardson is able to discover in himself the real passions that cause them.

What, then, is the significance of this intense record of a moved body? What is the relationship between this episode and cultural history – a relationship implied by the first subheading in this introduction? The implications of the episode for this study can be broken down into three interrelated points:

(1) Firstly, the episode exemplifies what I see as a preoccupation in British culture of this period with the human body as an eloquent object, whose eloquence arises from the performance of an inscribed system of gestures and expressions. This preoccupation is manifest in various eighteenth-century projects which, at some level, were engaged in training the body – in shaping and directing ways in which bodies, both male and female, should appear in public. Efforts to mould bodily eloquence are apparent, with varying degrees of explicitness, within an array of eighteenth- century social and cultural arenas, and this book explores particularly oratory, acting, and the reading of sentimental fiction as activities around which vigorous discourse concerning the spectacle of the body in public was generated. These cultural sites are connected by their engagements in body matters, and I have found it useful in writing about their shared preoccupations to apply 'elocutionary discourse' as a short-hand tectorial label to denote the general enterprise of eighteenth-century thinking and writing about bodies as expressive, eloquent objects.

(2) The episode also has a more abstract significance in that it vividly displays a body performing on the boundaries of nature and culture. The letter provides a glimpse of the organic, pulsating mass of Richardson's flesh interacting with a cultural system – a historically specific style of acting – and indeed serving as a textual space upon which marks of that cultural system are represented. The eloquence of Richardson's body, and of the bodies implicated within 'elocutionary discourse' more generally, can thus be seen to extend beyond the display of individual emotional transport so as to become indirectly expressive of the cultural circumstances of the somatic utterance. In this way, Richardson's performance illustrates a basic premise of this study (and of much other recent writing on 'the body'): that human bodies have textual potential and malleability.

(3) The third significance of the episode is a synthesis of the two previous points: the episode is suggestive of the particular cultural work that was advanced by 'elocutionary discourse' through the textual medium of the body. The eighteenth century is typically seen as a period in which British society was radically transformed so as to witness a 'birth of polite society', and I shall argue in what follows that the body served as an important (and problematic) textual space for the symbolic inscription of politeness and for the 'working out' of what it meant to be 'polite'. The body image presented by Richardson is, in many ways, innovative – or at least it participates in a discourse which was developing in Britain at the time. Attesting to his weakness and nervous trembling, Richardson gladly advances – or even trumpets – a self-image which is notably unheroic (in traditional, classical terms). Such nervous, emotional bodies – or, to use the adjective emerging during the period, such 'sentimental' bodies – held, for a time, significant cultural authority as components within the developing signatory system of politeness, and an aim of this study is to demonstrate how 'elocutionary discourse' functioned as a crucible within which such body images were fashioned.9These three general points underlie each of the chapters which follow, and it is worth while exploring them in turn and in greater detail.

Eighteenth-century 'elocutionary discourse'

The manner in which a body should appear and behave in public was clearly a major concern in eighteenth-century Britain. Efforts to codify somatic protocols mark numerous enterprises of the period which, in different ways, attempted to shape public conduct, and which, in the process, generated a mass of printed materials addressing the topic. To remain briefly in the area in which I began, The Art of Acting must be seen as just one amongst many acting manuals and other similar works related to the development of stage practice. Indeed, the literature directed to the training of actors constitutes a significant sub-genre of Enlightenment publishing in itself. In numerous works such as Charles Gildon's The Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton … Wherein The Action and Utterance of the Stage, Bar, and Pulpit, are distinctly consider'd (1710), Samuel Foote's A Treatise on the Passions, So far as they regard the Stage (1747), John Hill's The Actor; Or, A Treatise on the Art of Playing (1750; revised 1755), and Roger Pickering's Reflections upon Theatrical Expression in Tragedy (1760), different systems of acting – revealing different systems of understanding the body's capacity for eloquence – were theorised, developed, refined, and recommended for application on the stage.

This literature on theatrical performance was far from confined to a specialist market of actors. Acting manuals often appeared under a highly marketable gloss, such as the verse form used by Aaron Hill or by the anonymous author of the Edinburgh-published An Essay on the Stage, or the Art of Acting: A Poem (1754). In Gildon's Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton, the appealing guise of a biography of an outstandingly popular actor was used in order to sell an acting manual. Shorter pieces on acting reached wide readerships through the popular and affordable outlet of periodical publication, and journals devoted particularly to theatrical matters, such as The Prompter (1734–6) or the Theatrical Monitor (1767–8), included acting styles among the topics they addressed. Acting, furthermore, attracted the interest of now-canonical writers of fiction such as Henry Fielding (1707–54) and Laurence Sterne (1713–68), who used their works as platforms for digressions on performance techniques.10 For a non-acting readership, a discourse on performance theory could serve as an authoritative basis for judging actors; it could feed into the development of an individual's 'refined taste', a claim upon which constituted an important strand of eighteenth-century polite identity.11 Hill's The Art of Acting, for example, is offered in part as a work which will 'quicken the Delight of Audiences' by qualifying them to 'form a Judgement of the Actors, in their Good, or Bad, Performances'.12

Eighteenth-century histories and memoirs of the theatre – a genre which became increasingly popular from mid century as the theatre grew in respectability – also addressed acting techniques in their accounts of the theatre's most successful performers. William Rufus Chetwood's A General History of the Stage, from its Origin in Greece down to the present Time (1749) included, as its subtitle promised, Memoirs of most of the principal Performers that have appeared on the English and Irish Stage for these last Fifty Years. Chetwood had worked as a prompter at the Drury Lane theatre and so had been well placed for making the close observations of acting styles that inform his expansive catalogue of performers. In A General View of the Stage (1759), Thomas Wilkes similarly offered detailed descriptions of the gestures and expressions employed by leading actors in particular roles.13 The poet Charles Churchill made his reputation with a work on acting styles: his satirical, mock-heroic The Rosciad (1761) depicted a parade of contemporary actors, dissecting their styles and treating most with witty scorn. The poem's immediate popular success is a compelling testimony to the widespread interest that the subject of actors and acting could attract.14

Eighteenth-century stage practice is, of course, by no means uncharted territory. Following early accounts like that of Chetwood, the history of the period's acting has rarely been neglected, and modern eighteenth-century studies have been well served by scholarship from Alan S. Downer's fine article of 1943 to more recent work such as the monumental A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800 (1973–93).15 What such scholarship has not fully addressed, however, is the cultural work invested in stage practice, and I hope here to cast new light upon eighteenth-century debates over performance styles by considering them in relation to the contemporary emergence of notions of 'politeness'. The bodies of actors, I shall argue, became invested with the potential to symbolise politeness and to propagate its modes of expression, and consequently they were enlisted as civilising tools in both the legitimisation of the theatres and the nurturing of polite culture more broadly.16 And this potential in theatrical performance will be brought into relief through its examination alongside a more shaded area of eighteenth-century culture – namely, oratory.

Eighteenth-century oratory has received only minimal attention from modern scholars, and yet it was a craft of immense cultural and political significance in Britain, and it attracted a similar kind of scrutiny and textual production to acting. Indeed, several of the manuals on acting were based on works originally written for the field of oratory – Charles Gildon, for example, borrowed extensively from an influential Essay Upon the Action of an Orator (1702?) when writing his Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton. This may explain Gildon's emphasis upon male actors, for where oratory is concerned, elocutionary discourse is focused primarily upon the training of male bodies. Writers on oratory were engaged, sometimes self-consciously, in a reconstruction of the forms of public conduct that could be understood as appropriate to masculinity, and by encouraging the use of affective delivery, they were elevating emotionalism as a means of empowerment for men in their public roles.17 The reach of affective oratory was intended to embrace both men and women as spectators, but the role allotted to women here was more passive than in the fields of stagecraft or the novel, where the signifying potential of female bodies could be explored, and where women occupied a greater creative role as actresses and authors. It is to 'gentlemen', though, that tracts on oratory are addressed, as they offer to show the way to 'speaking well in public' – in fact, by conveying that skill, they are teaching one of the means by which men could lay claim to a gentlemanly status.

The need or desire to 'speak well in public' was addressed in numerous publications. In the century and a half between John Bulwer's pre-Interregnum Chirologia; or, The Naturall Language of the Hand (1644) and Gilbert Austin's Chironomia; or, a Treatise on Rhetorical delivery: comprehending many precepts, both ancient and modern, for the proper regulation of the voice, the countenance and gesture (1806), there appeared a rash of works offering advice to public speakers at the bar, in the senate, and particularly, in the pulpit.18 And importantly, this advice was directed not only to what public speakers should say – the matter to be included in a speech or sermon, compositional structure, and so forth – but also to how they should say it, often including instructions on the finer points of expression and bodily gesture.

As with the instructional works on acting, public-speaking guides appeared in many formats, from cheap pamphlets, like the anonymous Some Rules for Speaking and Action (1715), to luxury items like John Ward's weighty, two-volume A System of Oratory (1759). Occupying the middle ground of this market were many slim volumes – John Mason's sixpenny, thirty-nine-page An Essay on Elocution; or, Pronunciation (1748), for example – and numerous other single-volume works. Most elocutionary works were written in prose, but verse forms were sometimes employed, as in the

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Table of Contents

Preface; Introduction; 1. Spectacular passions: eighteenth-century oratory and the reform of eloquence; 2. Bodies on the borders of politeness: 'Orator Henley', Methodist enthusiasm and polite literature; 3. Thomas Sheridan: forging the British body; 4. The art of acting: mid-century stagecraft and the broadcast of feeling; 5. Polite reading: sentimental fiction and the performance of response; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index.

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