Something Wanting: The Actor, the Critic, and Histrionic Skill

By Menzer, Paul | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Something Wanting: The Actor, the Critic, and Histrionic Skill


Menzer, Paul, Shakespeare Studies


"As an actor he left much to be imagined." (The Commercial Appeal, January 7, 1917) (1)

My epigraph telegraphs the concern of this essay, which is with the conception of histrionic "skill" in the vernacular of the commercial theater review. A reductive summary would be to point out that depending upon when it was written, the quote could be either a criticism or a compliment. In this case, the critic meant to denigrate John E. Kellerd's 1917 Macbeth, but the quote frames this brief survey of how "skill" is assessed by the popular press before, during, and after the reigns of Sigmund Freud, Konstantin Stanislavski, and A. C. Bradley. The brevity of this essay necessarily means that its argument is suggestive, rather than exhaustive, since it relies on a ludicrously thin biopsy of examples. The essay nevertheless proposes that assessments of Shakespearean acting in the twenty-first century remain beholden to ideas developed in the nineteenth. Moreover, the durability--even the stagnation--of the terms by which acting skill is diagnosed today is due to the way they mystify not just the actor but the critic as well.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a vocabulary of the interior entered the idiom of the professional theater review. It was, moreover, an idiom that attached accolades to actors who left something to be desired. By the early twentieth century, in other words, the surest way to consecrate an actor was to praise him for producing the epiphenomenon of interiority, which was paradoxically articulated by a discernible absence. Nearly one hundred years after Kellerd's critique, for instance, a review by Geoff Dyer--selected here for its anodyne typicality--protests that Ryan Gosling is "not just a pretty face" but a "serious actor with the knack of conveying inner life with minimum effort." (2) What makes Gosling more than just a pretty boy is his ability to suggest an "inner life," though not in such a way that you might notice it. (That's what the critic is for.) Gosling's wised-up imperturbability promises that he is more than meets the eye.

The idea--by now the thoroughly naturalized commonplace--that exhibiting an inner life is the principal work of the mainstream actor has, however, a discernible historical origin and identifiable intellectual sources. That "inner life" so rapidly became the metric of actorly evaluation says much about the role of the commercial theater review in indoctrinating actors, audiences, and--in a self-fulfilling loop--other reviewers in a language of inferiority, a language so familiar to us that we might fail to register how recent, pervasive, and remarkable it is. In short, the rise of professional theater reviewing in the late nineteenth century, recently well-articulated by Paul Prescott in Reviewing Shakespeare, led to a rapid "norming" of the terms of critical assessment, during which the ideas of Freud, Stanislavsky, and Bradley entered the theatrical vernacular through the vector of commercial journalism, altering and then codifying theatrical training, performance, and above all the terms of assessment of what constitutes actorly skill.

In addition to sharing parallel life spans, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), and A.C. Bradley (1851-1935) share the distinction of having dictated the terms of their own critique. To denounce the path by which Stanislavsky guides actors towards the "inner life" of a character is to submit to an understanding that an inner life--what we call "characterization"--is nevertheless the end of all acting. Similarly, critiques of Freud--at least popular ones--often articulate themselves in Freudian terms. Thus an undergraduate once told me that he did not truck with Freud since Sigmund "just had mommy problems." When your critics condemn you in terms that you taught them, you have already won the argument.

The three men also share in having coined the terms by which we still evaluate acting, terms that are largely a form of popularized psychoanalysis. …

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