Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Rant, Cant and Tone: The Voice of the Eighteenth-Century Actor and Sarah Siddons

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Rant, Cant and Tone: The Voice of the Eighteenth-Century Actor and Sarah Siddons

Article excerpt

[A] turgid vociferation or effeminate whine, accompanied by the most outrageous and unnatural rants, were mistaken for the best display of the heroic and tender passions. (Wilkes 107)

It is a truism of theatrical history that the acting of the past always seems less life-like and more mannered than acting in the present day. In an early essay, the title of which I have appropriated, John Harold wilson claims that tragic acting in the Restoration period must have been unbearably artificial. From his survey of over four hundred plays, together with later eighteenth-century criticism (such as Thomas wilkes's in my epigraph), wilson concludes that the "Restoration tragedian tended to bellow his passion at the top of his lungs, to make love in a kind of whine, or cant ... and to declaim his lines in a cadenced, musical 'heroic tone'" (592). The evidentiary basis for Wilson's claim is largely the internal evidence from seventeenth-century play scripts that parody, in varying degrees, the seventeenth-century tragic style of vocal delivery. However, the contours of any dramatic performance are open to comic subversion so parodies of the tragic style need to be balanced with other evidence. Wilson stumbles on the paucity of evidence of Restoration audiences' responses to tragic acting: "If their hardy audiences were displeased by such artificiality, they failed to record their complaint" (593). This minor caveat suggests that maybe these audiences were not displeased because the vocal conventions wilson sees as "artificial" were the norm for what Elizabeth Burns calls the "rhetorical conventions" of the time (40-65).

Ranting, canting and toning make an early appearance in Hamlet's advice to the players (3.2.1-45) (2) and then consistently reappear as vocal categories over the next two hundred years. I have begun this discussion, deliberately, in the seventeenth century in order to establish the critical categories that emerged then and which were taken forward into the century following. This, then, is the first of two threads I will pursue in the pages that follow. Ranting, canting and toning should not be dismissed as aberrations of acting in Restoration tragedy that gradually disappeared as the new century progressed; rather, they should be understood in relation to the "rhetorical conventions" of tragic acting that persisted over the long eighteenth century. Before nearly anything else, it was an actor's voice that demonstrated his or her skill as a performer, and audiences were alert to when actors used their voices well or badly.

I am mindful of Robert Hume's warning that if we "insist upon ... indulging in 'must have' claims, then the result is to destroy any real value that theatre history ... can have" (13). There is a critical trajectory that began in the eighteenth century, one that Wilson himself identifies, of increasing realism in acting that eventually leads to Konstantin Stanislavsky and his successors. This, however, reflects what Paul Menzer terms the "Whig" view of theatrical history, a view that "fundamentally misunderstands transhistorical truths about performance: acting does not get better; it gets different. The best acting is 'natural.' Bad acting is not" (28). Wilson employs a well-worn binary, between artificial and "natural" acting, that engages what Menzer terms the "infinite regression" of explaining "one phenomenon by contrast with an earlier phenomenon that will in turn require the same type of explanation" (29). "Bad" tragic actors may have performed as Wilson suggests, but for "good" actors (of which there were many) no audience forbearance was required. Even Wilson allows a "possible exception" for Thomas Betterton whose abilities were extolled by all (598).

Elizabeth Burns argues that an audience interprets a theatrical performance through a combination of its "rhetorical" and "authenticating conventions" (40-121). The "rhetorical conventions" refer to all the material practices used by actors and others involved with a performance to, in the first instance, establish the "rules of the game" that govern the interaction between audience and actors (Burns 40). …

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