That Old Saw: Early Modern Acting and the Infinite Regress
Menzer, Paul, Shakespeare Bulletin
Speak the speech, I pray you," Hamlet tells the player, "trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town cryer spoke my lines" (3.2.1-2). (1) Turning from elocution to execution, Hamlet continues, "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus" (1.4). Most editors girdle "thus" in commas, a typographical hiccup indicating that, here, an action suits the word. For 400 years, this moment of textual apnea has guaranteed the play's modernity by gesturing towards an archaic playing style:
BURBAGE: "thus" BETTERTON: "thus" GARRICK: "thus" KEMBLE: "thus" KEAN: "thus" BOOTH: "thus" BERNHARDT: "thus" BARRYMORE: "thus"
Gielgud, Olivier, Kline, Fiennes: "thus, thus, thus, thus," ad Branagh, ad infinitum. If it is true, as Tyrone Guthrie claimed, that, "Hamlet is always going on somewhere," then in accent variable and gesture indeterminate somewhere a player is always offering a kinetic description of what constitutes precisely too much air sawing (72).
Richard Burbage's unrecoverable semaphore at "thus" signifies the stubborn invisibility of the actors who gave William Shakespeare's words first flesh. Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet--a scene sufficiently memorable to earn its own shorthand, "The Advice to the Players"--has been many things to many critics: a winking bit of theatrical in-joking; a Donation echo on the purpose of playing; and an exemplary instance of the happy "variety" that distinguished Hamlet to Samuel Coleridge and Dr. Johnson. (2) Most durably, Hamlet's advice has provided scholars a tantalizing glimpse into the style of playing on the Elizabethan stage. "Tantalizing" because for all Hamlet says, he does not say much: in short, 'Not too much; not too little; I know what I like.' Undeterred by thin evidence, scholars have persistently characterized Elizabethan and Jacobean playing in terms predictable--"formal" or "natural"; "rhetorical" or "naturalistic"--and those less so: "presentational" or "ceremonial." (3) Lacking substantive graphical or textual witness, scholars have turned to rhetorical manuals, oratorical tradition, and bald speculation to recover playing methods in the age of Shakespeare. (4) For the longstanding attempt to exhume the Elizabethan actor, Hamlet's advice to the players presents something like forensic evidence.
Most critical discussions of actors and acting on the Elizabethan stage are not even wrong. The terms in which the debate is conducted simply do not mean anything. We never know exactly what we are talking about when we talk about acting. One critic bewails the lack of "comparative evidence, in the form of iconographic or objective critical descriptions, which could tell us how a given actor or company did in fact present particular scenes or moments in plays" (Marker 95). Should an "objective" account one day ascend from a dusty Bodleian volume, it probably would not illuminate the discussion. Witnesses rarely tell us anything about acting because the witnesses usually say the same thing: 'Not too much; not too little; we know what we like.'
For 400 years, Hamlet's advice to the players has been more closely heeded by critics than by players, enabling a paradigm for scholarly work on acting that depends on false binaries to replace the elusive "objective criticism." Hamlet's advice has advanced a Whig history of mimetic style, a history that promotes the plays and players of the Shakespearean theatre as the triumphant fluorescence of sophisticated art over the crudities of the past. Such criticism fundamentally misunderstands trans-historical truths about performance: acting does not get better; it gets different. The best acting is "natural." Bad acting is not. It has always been thus.
Hamlet's advice is therefore a necessary point of departure to ask what precisely was at stake at moments of intra-dramatic acting critiques. In what follows, I argue that we are mistaken if we assume that acting circa 1600 became more "naturalistic" or "realistic" compared to older bombastic styles, although that is precisely what the actors would wish us to believe. Acting critiques in Hamlet and elsewhere deliberately fostered "naturalism" as a rhetorical/physical effect at the expense of the past. If acting critiques respond to anything, they respond to the hyper-competitive world of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. That is, acting critiques do not tell us much about acting, but they do relay an anxiety about a commercial problem: in a burgeoning industry, how does one actor---or one company--distinguish himself from his competitors? Not by developing a more naturalistic style, as I argue below, but by deploying a familiar binary of artifice and nature.
This argument challenges that familiar binary: to talk about early modern acting in terms of "artifice" and "naturalism" is to pursue an infinite regression--the explanation of one phenomenon by contrast with an earlier phenomenon that will in turn require the same type of explanation. In these terms, one can never arrive at the "natural." This argument engages a number of critics and theatre historians, but it differs most sharply from the conclusions of those who detect a new naturalism of playing at the turn of the sixteenth century. While the "natural" versus "artificial" debate has quieted, critics of every stripe continue to imagine that Shakespeare's plays were presented with an unprecedented degree of realism. Andrew Gurr maintains, in a representative quote, that the period witnessed the dawn of "realistic characterization" (Shakespearean Stage 100). Many arguments cite the emergence of the noun "personation" to credit the period with a naturalization of playing style. I read "personation" rather as a term that helped sanitize the taint surrounding "imitation" and "mimicry." While "personation" clearly developed as a commendatory adjective, no contemporary use supports the argument that it indicated a groundbreaking degree of emotional realism. For instance, Sir Henry Herbert wrote in 1632, "In the play of The Ball, written by Sherley, and acted by the Queen's players, ther were divers personated so naturally, both of the lords and others of the court, that I took it ill" (Bawcutt 177). It is evident in this characteristic use that the term indicates that to "personate [...] naturally" was to cunningly imitate others, a use that undermines the unreflective use of "naturalism" to denote a playing style. More importantly, as I develop in full later, Gurr and others depend upon an unsustainable relationship between the artificial and the natural. The durability of this position is understandable, however, given that the period's plays, players, and playwrights themselves labored to produce that binary.
While I question the orthodoxy that the early seventeenth century saw an increase in naturalistic acting, I do not deny that the period's playwrights evinced an acute attention to the histrionic arts and a heightened awareness of players' capacities and limits. I maintain that such moments, however--too often sealed in "meta-theatrical" shrink-wrap signal merely that the stage developed conventions to promote the illusion of naturalism. Players and playwrights retailed the binary of artificial versus natural to authenticate their own playing, employing the rhetoric of the infinite regress to legitimize contemporary acting style.
As a conceptual category, "naturalism" has long been thought the desired end of well-tempered acting. We might assume that Richard Burbage manifested the "temperance" he urged on the First Player by mirroring "nature." By 1660, however, Hamlet's speeches were too intemperate for William Davenant. For Betterton's performances in the Restoration theatre, Davenant cut, altered, and chivvied the verse toward the "natural" fluidity of heroic couplets. (5) In the eighteenth-century, David Garrick shed real tears as the prince of Denmark, sparking encomiums to this "child of nature" who had single-handedly reformed the stage. (6) In the 1800s Kean and Irving pursued an erratic style of disjointed thought and feeling punctuated by the bolts of inspiration highly valued by Romantic individualism (Hapgood 17-42; Rosenberg, Masks 97). (7) John Gielgud's thoroughly modern young man of the 1920s gave way to Olivier's Freudian brooding in his 1948 film (Hapgood 64-71; Rosenberg, Masks 118-54). Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of Hamlet shows Hamlet and Ophelia entwined athwart an unmade bed, which apparently reflects "contemporary sensibility," as Russell Jackson explained, "because we want this relationship to be as serious as possible" (Branagh 177).
In fact, in interviews anticipating the release of his Henry V--unapologetically marketed as a corrective to the "formalism" of Olivier's 1944 film--Branagh expressed his belief that Shakespeare needed to be kept "alive and discussed and real." For example, "there would be no declamatory acting" in the film, and he celebrated the fact that the cast, "made the language sound utterly real" (Raymond, 10, 11, 20). If Kenneth Branagh enjoys the average life span of a western male, he will live long enough to hear the laughter of school children at the "over the top," "artificial," "melodramatic" acting in his 1989 film.
And so it goes, with naturalism ever on the advance. Yet "naturalism" can only be defined by what it is not. Hamlet did not need to tell the Globe audience what was natural: it was they; they were it. Naturalism exists at a vanishing point, to which acting is thought inevitably to progress but can by definition never arrive. In these terms, early modern acting is "explained" by contrast to the medieval theatre of Herod and Termagant. In fact, Hamlet invokes stage tyrants from previous generations as admonitory models of excess. He does so, however, to remind his audience of his own comparative temperance. After all, the extant instructions to the actors called to perform the twelfth-century French mystery play Representation of Adam command that, "all shall be well practiced in speaking calmly, and making gestures appropriate to the things they say [...]" (Mantzius 2: 9-10). A York order of 1476 invites "the most cunning discreet and able players" to be brought before the mayor at Lent (Smith, York Plays xxxiv). Just a few years before Shakespeare's birth, the Italian actor-manager Leone di Somi wrote that, "in all [the actor] has to observe and imitate the natural manner of the persons whom he represents" (Nicoll 250). Hamlet's directive that acting be suitable, discreet, and appropriate is hardly a revolutionary call to reform the stage, but a sententious reiteration of an old saw: not too much, not too little. ... To be sure, the tailor or tanner playing Herod in Coventry in the middle of the sixteenth century gave a sophisticated, "natural" performance--if he gave a good one. He gave a "natural" performance because he gave a "conventional" performance. (8) Because that is what "natural" means in this context. One searches the annals of pre-modern drama in vain for a recorded enjoinder that a player act "artificially" or "excessively."
While the ardor of the debate over early modern acting has cooled--Peter Holland notes, "the fiercer 'formalists' have recanted" no satisfactory conception of early modern acting has arisen to take its place (Redmond 61). In his book The Player's Passion, Joseph Roach asserts that misdiagnoses of acting styles can be explained by a particular critical blind spot: "the tiresome debate over the relative formalism or naturalism of seventeenth-century acting style can be traced to the disinclination of both sides to understand the historic links between acting, rhetoric, and ancient physiological doctrines" (30). One can briefly sketch a cartoon of this "tiresome debate." In PMLA, in 1939, Alfred Harbage prosecuted Harley Granville-Barker for his defense of naturalism in Elizabethan acting (685-708). (9) Largely on the basis of early modern rhetorical manuals, Harbage built a case for what he described as "formalism" in the presentation of drama on the Elizabethan stage. In 1954, again in PMLA, Marvin Rosenberg countered the argument with a plea for "natural acting" (915-27). In the years between and since, theatre historians and performance critics have built platforms upon the frustratingly thin evidence--witnesses to performance, epitaphs to actors, defenses and critiques of stage playing, and scripted references to acting style. Other critics have offered terms less dogmatic--because less comprehensible--than "formal" and "naturalistic." Bernard Beckerman suggested "ceremonial" (129) while J. L. Styan offered "presentational" (45). Beckerman's and Styan's terms did not catch on--not least because they are no more descriptive than the terms "formal" or "natural"--but the two should be credited with escaping a debate hemmed by binaries. Because naturalism can only be defined in the negative, acting critiques on stage--not least Hamlet's--always position "nature" against some extreme, always distinguish between hackneyed, archaic, exaggerated acting on one hand--thus--and subtle, sophisticated performance technologies on the other. Not only must these binaries be false--more trope than truth--but also they tell us nothing, in fact, about the way early modern actors shaped and presented the human body on stage.
The ulterior binary lurking beneath the "tiresome debate" is "now/ then," the rhetoric of the infinite regress. This temporal model enables critics to script fictions of progress. Unconsciously shaped in terms of biological development, such narratives read change as progress and difference as development. Some years ago, O. B. Hardison noted that English drama in the sixteenth century was particularly susceptible to evolutionary treatment, as it appeared to have "developed in relative isolation from outside influences, and its development appeared to be continuous--the sort of gradual, incremental growth demanded by biologists in the days when natura non facit saltus was considered an essential evolutionary postulate" (4). In this scenario, as Hardison observes, Elizabethan drama arises from its native medieval soil; flourishes in the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson; decays in the Carolinian period before expiring in 1642.
To an extent, this evolutionary myth is the master narrative underlying investigations of chronological change in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. This narrative of progress is the answer assumed before the "data are discovered, and this serves as an unconscious criterion for selection and interpretation" (Hardison 9). Changes in theatrical convention must, according to this script, denote growth and progress. In 1910, Percy Simpson could assert of the dumb show that, "with the advance of playwriting, it naturally disappeared" (2:251). Of double plots, John Gross could confidently ask, "would any dramatist writing in the relatively primitive era of the 1570s have had the skill to sustain a sophisticated double plot?" (17). For Marvin Rosenberg, the stern warning Hamlet gives the clown among the players demonstrated that "the popular native tradition of drama [...] runs up against the later, more sophisticated form" (Masks 555). In these arguments, later always trumps sooner; Burbage's acting must be more sophisticated than the Coventry tanner, not least because Shakespeare tells us so.
Even so expert a commentator as Andrew Gurr relies upon the infinite regression model. In the most influential work upon Shakespearean staging, Gurr reminds his reader that convention always governs theatrical practice. As he demurs, however, he describes a convention that seems "less than natural today"; elsewhere, he describes a discarded convention--the aside in this case--as a "relic of the less sophisticated days that developed into a useful and more naturalistic convention of thinking aloud [...]" (Shakespearean Stage 103). Why is "thinking aloud" more naturalistic than an aside? Why is the aside, with its proto-Brechtian alienation of the audience, not more "sophisticated" than a soliloquy? Because the aside held the stage at a temporally earlier position than the soliloquy (and would of course return to favor in early Restoration drama, where it would give way in turn to presumably more "natural" conventions).
This (mis)application of an evolutionary model particularly obtains to discussions of acting. A valuable collection of acting commentary across the ages offers a blushless summary of performers in the early modern period:
In the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Massinger, and others, actors were introduced as characters, and the intricacies of acting provided images for their poetry [...]. In this atmosphere Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and later Joseph Taylor (1586-1652) and John Lowin (1576-1658) perfected histrionic art, won high praise, became wealthy, and raised the position of the actor from disgrace to honor. They heralded the entrance of the great names of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Cole and Chinoy 78)
Onward and upward with the arts. More sober brows differ only in the degrees of their enthusiasm for the triumphal acting of the Shakespearean stage. Shakespeare "sophisticated" the traditional revenge tragedy by, "capitalizing on a deepening in acting styles that had moved from impersonation to 'personation'" (Hapgood 9). As Marvin Rosenberg puts it in PMLA in 1954, "acting must have shared with drama its progress toward artistic maturity, and the increasing power to communicate valid experience" (924). Andrew Gurr alleges that the introduction of "natural acting," "playing a part 'to the life'," or "personation" demonstrates an increasing emphasis on "realistic characterization" by 1600 (Shakespearean Stage 100). If we understand "histrionic art" to be on the march toward an ever-receding "maturity," however, we overlook a more intriguing process at work.
On a stage that fretted over the signifying distance between interior passion and exterior expression--"Seems, madam?'--acting critiques of imitation, exaggeration, and physical archaism position the body of the actor delivering the critique as the genuine article. By deriding the acting of previous generations, playwrights "naturalize" the bodies onstage in a process of continual supercession. In a perverted lineal drama, the inauthentic gives birth to the authentic; Termagant begets the child of nature. This dialectic should be familiar to students of early modern drama from new historicists and cultural materialists who applied the model of subversion and containment to explain--among very many things--the regulation and licensing by the monarchy of plays that often seem to undermine its status, a coterminous move might be alleged in the contemporary print trade, which retailed a discourse of piracy to legitimate (and sell) "unique perfect copies." (10) When playwrights have players disparage the past, they deploy a temporal canard to legitimate the performances of contemporary actors. The subversion/containment model, however, does not adequately explain temporal change. Acting is not a medium of mechanical reproduction, but a practice of mimetic innovation. Actors employ a suite of oral, gestural, and expressionistic habits that an audience must be able to "read" but that must also always change to remain "authentic." Players create the illusion of naturalism by constantly distancing their own playing from actors of the recent past--the infinite regress in practice--whose methods are "unnatural" by dint of being not now, but then. Read in these terms, acting critiques on the early modern stage do not reflect a progression towards natural style--or an improvement in any terms--but rather assert an arbitrary but useful expressionistic divorce from the past.
The proliferation and concentration of plays, players, and playhouses in London in the late sixteenth century produced an intensely competitive environment, as companies jockeyed for market share. This commercial context must provide the backdrop for any discussion of early modern playing styles. Indeed, intra-dramatic acting critiques signal an awareness of a crowded playing field and a resulting self-consciousness about technique. An examination of two key terms--"personation" and "mimick"--will help us better understand the pressures to which acting critiques responded.
Early modern condemnations of acting are remarkably consistent, targeting imitation as well as outsized gesture and frequently conflating the two. (11) John Marston's Antonio's Revenge gives a boy player a characteristic cut:
would'st have me turn rank mad, Or wring my face with mimick action; Stampe, curse, weepe, rage, & then my bosom strike? Away, tis apish action, player like. (1.5)
Marston's boy condemns both "mimick" or "apish" action and violent gesture, action all-too-obviously "player like" (though, zoologists inform us, apes rarely ape). In fact, acting critiques such as these position "imitation" and "player-like" as apposite terms. The modish "personation"--upon which depends so much of Gurr's and others' position--crept into vogue around 1600. The term does not point to any pre-Stanislavskian notion of internalized or inhabited emotion, however, but seems to describe salutary imitation. As such, it usefully assuaged the ambivalence the period expressed towards physical mimicry, condemned as servile on one hand but as often employed in pedagogical contexts on the other. As a means of exchanging and circulating cultural information about bodily habit, imitation had its decided uses. Far from denoting an innovation in style, "personation"--as opposed to apishness or mimicry--positions the critiquing actor against his rivals. I "personate"; they "imitate."
At any rate, there is certainly no evidence that this term indicates a "relatively new art of characterization" (Gurr, Shakespearean Stage 103). The word "personation" itself suggests an originary source of a performance, as does its modern cognate "impersonation," pointing towards rather than away from imitation. While Marston and his contemporaries may have derided "apish" action, Thomas Wright invited orators to "looke upon other men appasionate [...] and keepe the manner corrected with a prudent mediocritie: and this the best may be marked in stageplaiers, who act excellently," adding, "they that imitate best, act best" (179). Inescapably, the mere act of "re-presentation" hints at the explicitly duplicitous property of playacting. (A "true representation" may be as self-nullifying a term as the First Folio's promise to present an "originall copy.") "Whom do you personate?" Alberto asks in the Induction to Antonio and Mellida (1599). While playwrights condemn "mimick action," Thomas Heywood famously praises an actor for personating "as though he were the man personated" (Chambers 4: 251); the revelatory "as though" points up the fundamentally imitative habit of "playing a part to the life." In A Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soule of Man (written 1625, published 15 years later), Edward Reynolds likens men who know their desires to be base but cannot control them to "the Stage-Player, whose Knowledge is expresse and cleare enough, but the things which it is conversant about, are not personall and particular to those men, but belonging unto others, whom they personate" (71). To "personate," in Reynolds's use, is not to express an internalized "Knowledge" but to give clear expression to that which belongs "unto others." Reynolds is not explicitly concerned with acting, but for this early modern writer "personation" is a locution that denotes imitation. As Michael Hattaway astutely notes, "the word did not at that period lose the connotations it derived from its etymology (from the Latin persona, a mask) of the generic and the feigned" (78). Bruce Smith has argued, in fact, that Shakespeare's use of the adjective "personal" always carries a "sense of 'person' as a body," for "per-sona or 'through sounding'" implies the mask worn by actors on the stage (9). In short, "personation" is an honorific, "mimick" a pejorative, but they distinguish acting by degrees, not by kind.
We can better understand the unease that "imitation" raised in the period by examining its roots. To mimic is to "exercise the profession of a mime or buffoon" (a telling apposition) (OED, 1.a); miming is "ludicrously diminutive or insignificant compared with the reality imitated" (OED, 3.a); mime is "ludicrous imitation" (OED, 1.b). These definitions stress reductive and ridiculous diminution, but they also, in the repetition of "ludicrous," reveal the ludic roots of imitation. In an apposite contemporary use, Donald Lupton, in a slim 1632 "character" of London, denigrates players, for "All their care is to be like Apes, to imitate and expresse other mens actions in their own persons" (82). Mimicry, imitation, or even apish action, however, are inescapable parts of the essential technology of playing. (Jean-Luc Godard recently groused that, "actors today just imitate other actors" [sec. 6; 53]; actors should protest that that is what they are paid to do.)
In addition, mimicry and imitation were frequently derided in the Renaissance by those sustaining a suspicion of the visual arts whatsoever. John Webster, for instance, complained of, "Anticke gesticulations, dances, and other Mimicke postures, devised onely for the vulgar, who are better delighted with that which pleaseth the eye, than contenteth the eare" (Bevington 44). While most early modern playwrights thought of their work as verbal--echoing the Poetics' devaluation of spectacle to plot--neoplatonists valued sight as man's most noble and spiritual sense. David Bevington argues that, "the paragone debate [...] more or less resulted in a draw" (9). Nevertheless, "imitation" and "mimicry" registered a distaste and suspicion for the sensuous and possibly idolatrous purpose of visual representation. Playwrights imported "imitation" and "mimicry" from this debate as pejorative buzzwords for inadequate playing.
Acting critiques disassociate "imitative" behavior from good acting, then, not because imitation is anathema to skilled acting (or because naturalistic characterization had finally trumped the artificial playing of the past) but because imitation is so vitally a part of playing. Disavowals of imitation disguise this embarrassingly undignified aspect of the actor's art. Hamlet complains of actors who "imitate humanity so abominably" (3.2.31), referring either to the way humanity is being imitated or the fact that it is being imitated at all. The ambivalence affirms what it means to deny, however: rank imitation is a necessary part of what players do. The emergence of the word "personation" worked to allay acting's uncomfortably close relationship with mimicry.
The paradox for players and playwrights who mean to re-present authenticity (an always already doomed endeavor) and distance their own acting from that of their peers is that they must employ the discourse they decry. After all, Hamlet's dilemma, as Katharine Eisaman Maus describes it, is not that his sighs and suits do not denote him truly but that they might not: "Even reliable indicators or symptoms of his distress become suspect, simply because they are defined as indicators and symptoms" (1). For an art dependant on the derivable meanings of external physical habits, the unreliability of "indicators or symptoms" of genuine distress or grief or joy or fear constitutes a true dilemma. As Michael Schoenfeldt has it, "[...] the real mystery is not to announce that one has 'that within that passeth show,' but rather to try to manifest what is within through whatever resources one's culture makes available" (2).
One of the "resources" the stage made available to playwrights is the condemnation of inferior playing. In other words, one way to announce that one has "that within that passeth show" is to denigrate the way other actors might attempt to surpass show. Staged criticism of imitation is a preemptive strike in which defensiveness shills as attack. Once lampooned by Dekker as taking "mad Hieronimo's part, to get service among the mimics," Ben Jonson offers a number of instructions to the boy players of Cynthia's Revels, among them an enjoinder not to play "with a dead imitation" (1.3). Jonson's conjoining of "dead" with "imitation" yields, perhaps, a key to unlocking the distaste the term gathers from players and playwrights. To imitate is to give away agency, to play with inanimate duplication rather than self-generated expression. Playwrights and players buffet "imitation" to construct an affect of the self, an affect of agency. This tack authenticates the body of the actor/critic by adding somatic self-consciousness to the dramatic equation. This solution to the problem alleged above is rhetorical, a strategic deployment of a purely notional "naturalism." The body had an answer to the problem as well, and the body's answer is modification, duplication with a difference. This requires and initiates the variation and change in bodily presentation we know to have taken place over time but do not have an adequate vocabulary to understand.
Acting did, does, and must change, as actors constantly and necessarily update--though do not improve upon--expressive habits, which not only authenticates the actors' bodies but simultaneously creates a useful archaism. Tomas Thomkis's 1602 student play Lingua contains a stage direction that indicates that Phantastes, "acts it after the old kinde of Pantomimick action," which accesses a recognizably old-fashioned performance mode that will, presumably, authenticate the surrounding actors whose playing looks "authentic" by contrast with the "old kinde" (Hattaway 76). The deliberate deployment of archaic style is the body's version of the infinite regress: the actor employs an outmoded but recognizable presentational style against which contemporary acting looks "natural."
In addition to the deployment of recognizably archaic styles, playwrights take aim at actorly behavior deemed too evidently histrionic, those who, according to Jonson, "over-act in beaten satin" (Induction 45). In a familiar move, Marston's boy actor quoted at the outset of this section criticizes extreme gestural comportment: "would'st have me turn rank mad [...] Stampe, curse, weepe, rage, & then my bosom strike?" (1. 5). The "stalking" and "stamping" player was a near commonplace. The anonymous author of The Puritan (1606) lampooned the "stalking, stamping player [who] will raise a tempest with his tongue, and thunder with his heels" (Armstrong 192). In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare similarly refers to the "strutting player whose conceit / Lies in his hamstring, and doth think it rich / To hear the wooden dialogue and sound / Twixt his stretched footing and the scaffoldage" (1.3.153-56). In Sophonisba, Marston will again have a character proclaim, ironically, when moved to passion, "I should now [...] stampe the patient earth / Cleave my streachd cheeks with sound, speake from all sense / But loud and full of players eloquence" (4.1). (12) Hamlet will famously cry out against "strutting" and "bellowing" in addition to the vague injunction not to saw the air "too much."
Gestures, body movements, inflections, and vocal modalities could be criticized as "player-like"--and even "artificiall" as in Chapman's The Widow's Tears from 1605: "This straine of mourning with Sepulcher, like an over-doing actor, affects grosly, and is indeede so farr forct from the life, that it bewraies it selfe to be altogether artificiall" (4.1). In these few quotes, we hear playwrights opening the regress between "artificiall" action and personation. The distinction, we may be sure, is not qualitative but rather a deliberate assertion of the "natural" at the expense of the vaguely identified "over-doing actor." As before, however, the articulation of naturalism here in the negative reveals the term to be an empty one. Playwrights can invoke a range of habits and mannerisms--stamping, bellowing, strutting, excessive air sawing--deemed too demonstratively extreme, which therefore read as feigned, "player like," and most importantly, insincere.
For playwrights, the capital is not just in condemning archaic playing--and not, decidedly, in drawing our attention to the increasing sophistication of acting on the early modern stage--but in providing their players with a means to express authenticity. By the 1600s playwrights urgently assert the idea that authentic expressionistic habits were those least conventionally player-like. This notion threatens to undo itself, for it enforces a continuous supercession of acting convention lest expressionistic modes grow too conventional, hence too self-evidently mimetic, and thus too "player-like." Arguably, the success of the professional theatre industry in London during the late sixteenth century produced this unintended consequence. While the emergent industry efficiently broadcasted the "citational process" upon which acting depends, the multiplying reiterations of mimetic convention eroded the illusion of authenticity, hastening stylistic adaptation. (13) While it has been routinely accepted that this stylistic supercession denotes a maturation or sophistication, I would argue instead that stylistic change is the necessary condition of a stage growing somatically and thematically self-conscious about its own craft.
In the title of a 1967 article, Andrew Gurr asked, "Who Strutted and Bellowed?" He quoted Thomas Carew, who criticized a Blackfriars audience that hissed a play of Davenant's in 1629. After attacking actors at the Red Bull and Cockpit, Carew praised the Blackfriars actors, that "true brood of Actors, that alone / Keepe naturall unstrayn'd Action in her throne." On the strength of this quote and other critics, Gurr concluded that, "[t]here is no doubt that two distinct kinds of acting did exist among the adult companies in the early seventeenth century." He refers to these two styles as, of course, "credible" and "exaggerated" ("Who Strutted?" 95, 102). (14) I would agree with him, but suggest that the two types of acting were, as always, "good" and "bad"; the durable terms "natural" and "artificial" are simply misleading euphemisms.
Gurr ultimately answered the question of his title with one name: Edward Alleyn. I would answer, probably nobody. The players who putatively strutted and fretted were a company of straw men. Actors mirror nature by magnifying the past, exaggerating its characteristics. Acting critiques then position the physical excesses of "overdoing" actors in antipathy to players who control and limit their bodies. This does not, in the end, signal a sea change in acting style, certainly not a sophistication, but instead responds to the commercial problem of representing authenticity on the early modern stage. (Mis)reading scriptural acting critiques as indices of technical innovation casts a romantic glow of progress over historical change, giving to history the kind of shape that Karl Popper years ago critiqued in The Poverty of Historicism. (Mis)reading intra-dramatic acting critiques as lampoons of inept playing de-historicizes the commercial pressures of the competitive playing field of late sixteenth century London and fundamentally misconstrues the scant evidence we have of what early modern players did on stage.
(1) All quotations of Shakespeare come from the Norton Shakespeare.
(2) Andrew Gurr reads Hamlet's criticism as directed at Edward Alleyn in "Who Strutted and Bellowed" (95-102).
(3) The standard argument is rehearsed well by Hattaway (72-78). For various uses of "formal," "natural," "rhetorical," and "naturalistic" see also Joseph, Harrison, Bradbrook, passim; Evans (82-92); and Thomson in his On Actors and Acting (3-15). The argument for a "presentational" style belongs to J. L. Styan (45); "ceremonial" is Bernard Beckerman's coinage (129).
(4) "Graphical" evidence is nearly non-existent. De Witt's second-hand sketch depicts an actor making a broad, sweeping gesture (an air saw?) with his arm. Of Henry Peacham's earlier sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus, Peter Thomson makes reference to, "the full-arm sweep of Titus's gesture (formal?) and the much more ragged right arm of Aaron (natural?)" (Shakespeare's Theatre, 120). Surely, though, both sketches conform to pictorial, not theatrical, decorum; the ill-drawn figures' gestures indicate nothing more than that they are actors. While Thomson cites the "formal arrangement" of the figures in Peacham's sketch, their disposition must answer pictorial, perspectival, or framing demands, not staging exigencies.
(5) For accounts of Betterton's and Davenant's Hamlet, see Glick (17-37), Buell (5-13), and Hapgood (10-17).
(6) David Garrick's well-documented "reformation" of the stage is beyond the ken of this essay. His astonishing success was, however, largely credited to an innovative style that determinedly broke with the past. The adjective used most often to characterize his playing was, of course, "natural," though few actors worked harder in preparation of his roles. The phrase "child of nature" is lifted from a poem in the Dublin Journal (14 June 1746) that heralds Garrick's appearance for a season in that city. The verse reads in full:
Tell me thou informing pow'r Tell me where the difference lies Twixt the actor of an hour And of life. The Dame replies In the force, the fire, the feature Usher'd from a feeling heart Garrick is the child of Nature Mankind only acts the part. (Stone, Jr., 50)
(7) For more reviews of Kean's and Irving's respective performances, see Mander, Hillebrand, and Hughes, passim.
(8) Howard Felperin makes a fine distinction that complicates this argument. He writes that, "to do Termagant at all is to overdo Termagant, for such roles as Termagant and Herod are written out of a homiletic rather than a mimetic conception of drama, no matter how they were actually performed" (46).
(9) For the argument that prompted Harbage's response, see Barker (xiv).
(10) Douglas Brooks's 2001 From Playhouse to Printhouse explores the print trade and the ways in which printers employed piracy to "authenticate" their editions.
(11) As argued above--and below--"outsized" is an arbitrary but useful coordinate in a binary.
(12) There are many references to this stamping. Consider that an actor at the Globe, for instance, was standing over nearly 6,000 square feet of empty space. A good hard stamp would produce a pretty resonant thump; how could a player resist, standing on the biggest drum in England?
(13) The term "citational process" is Susanne Scholz's (9). She employs Judith Buffer's model of "performativity," by which identify formation is inscribed and reinscribed by the repeated display of an array of attributes, dress, behavior, and decorum that fulfills and sustains the viewer's expectations. See Butler, passim.
(14) Martin White notes that plays of the period "frequently utilise the analogy between over-acting and insincerity" (80).
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Publication information: Article title: That Old Saw: Early Modern Acting and the Infinite Regress. Contributors: Menzer, Paul - Author. Journal title: Shakespeare Bulletin. Volume: 22. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2004. Page number: 27+. © 2009 Johns Hopkins University Press. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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