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The Drama
The Art of Acting
by Irving, Henry


I have chosen as the subject of the address with which I have the honor to inaugurate for the second time the Session of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, "The Art of Acting." I have done so, in the first instance, because I take it for granted that when you bestow on any man the honor of asking him to deliver the inaugural address, it is your wish to hear him speak of the subject with which he is best acquainted; and the Art of Acting is the subject to which my life has been devoted. I have another reason also which, though it may, so far as you are concerned, be personal to those of my calling, I think it well to put before you. It is that there may be, from the point of view of an actor distinguished by your favor, some sort of official utterance on the subject. There are some irresponsible writers who have of late tried to excite controversy by assertions, generally false and always misleading, as to the stage and those devoted to the arts connected with it. Some of these writers go so far as to assert that Acting is not an Art at all; and though we must not take such wild assertions quite seriously, I think it well to place on record at least a polite denial of their accuracy. It would not, of course, be seemly to merely take so grave an occasion as the present as an opportunity for such a controversy, but as I am dealing with the subject before you, I think it better to place you in full knowledge of the circumstances. It does not do, of course, to pay too much attention to ephemeral writings, any more than to creatures of the mist and the swamp and the night. But even the buzzing of the midge, though the insect may be harmless compared with its more poison-laden fellows, can divert the mind from more important things. To disregard entirely the world of ephemera, and their several actions and effects were to deny the entirety of the scheme of creation.

I take it for granted that in addressing you on the subject of the Art of Acting I am not, prima facie, encountering set prejudices; for had you despised the Art which I represent I should not have had the honor of appearing before you to-day. You will, I trust, on your part, bear this in mind, and I shall, on my part, never forget that you are members of a Philosophical Institution, the very root and basis of whose work is to inquire into the heart of things with the purpose of discovering why such as come under your notice are thus or thus.

The subject of my address is a very vast one, and is, I assure you, worthy of a careful study. Writers such as Voltaire, Schlegel, Goethe, Lessing, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, and Schiller, have not disdained to treat it with that seriousness which Art specially demands—which anything in life requires whose purpose is not immediate and imperative. For my own part I can only bring you the experience of more than thirty years of hard and earnest work. Out of wide experience let me point out that there are many degrees of merit, both of aim, of endeavor, and of execution in acting, as in all things. I want you to think of acting at its best—as it may be, as it can be, as it has been, and is—and as it shall be, whilst it be followed by men and women of strong and earnest purpose. I do not for a moment wish you to believe that only Shakespeare and the great writers are worthy of being played, and that all those efforts that in centuries have gathered themselves round great names are worthy of your praise. In the House of Art are many mansions where men may strive worthily and live cleanly lives. All Art is worthy, and can be seriously considered, so long as the intention be good and the efforts to achieve success be conducted with seemliness. And let me here say, that of all the arts none requires greater intention than the art of acting. Throughout it is necessary to do something, and that something cannot fittingly be left to chance, or the unknown inspiration of a moment. I say "unknown," for if known, then the intention is to reproduce, and the success of the effort can be in nowise due to chance. It may be, of course, that in moments of passionate excitement the mind grasps some new idea, or the nervous tension suggests to the mechanical parts of the body some new form of expression; but such are accidents which belong to the great scheme of life, and not to this art, or any art, alone. You all know the story of the painter who, in despair at not being able to carry out the intention of his imagination, dashed his brush at the imperfect canvas, and with the scattering paint produced by chance the very effect which his brush guided by his skill alone, had failed to achieve. The actor's business is primarily to reproduce the ideas of the author's brain, to give them form, and substance, and color, and life, so that those who behold the action of a play may, so far as can be effected, be lured into the fleeting belief that they behold reality. Macready, who was an earnest student, defined the art of the actor "to fathom the depths of character, to trace its latent motives, to feel its finest quivering of emotion, is to comprehend the thoughts that are hidden under words, and thus possess one's-self of the actual mind of the individual man"; and Talma spoke of it as "the union of grandeur without pomp, and nature without triviality"; whilst Shakespeare wrote, "the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

This effort to reproduce man in his moods is no mere trick of fancy carried into execution. It is a part of the character of a strong nation, and has a wider bearing on national life than perhaps unthinking people are aware. Mr. Froude, in his survey of early England, gives it a special place; and I venture to quote his words, for they carry with them, not only their own lesson, but the authority of a great name in historical research.

"No genius can dispense with experience; the aberrations of power, unguided or ill-guided, are ever in proportion to its intensity, and life is not long enough to recover from inevitable mistakes. Noble conceptions already existing, and a noble school of execution which will launch mind and hand at once upon their true courses, are indispensable to transcendent excellence; and Shakespeare's plays were as much the offspring of the long generations who had pioneered his road for him, as the discoveries of Newton were the offspring of those of Copernicus.

"No great general ever arose out of a nation of cowards; no great statesman or philosopher out of a nation of fools; no great artist out of a nation of materialists; no great drama, except when the drama was the possession of the people. Acting was the especial amusement of the English, from the palace to the village green. It was the result and expression of their strong, tranquil possession of their lives, of their thorough power over themselves, and power over circumstances. They were troubled with no subjective speculations; no social problems vexed them with which they were unable to deal; and in the exuberance of vigor and spirit, they were able, in the strict and literal sense of the word, to play with the materials of life." So says Mr. Froude.

In the face of this statement of fact set forth gravely in its place in the history of our land, what becomes of such bold assertions as are sometimes made regarding the place of the drama being but a poor one, since the efforts of the actor are but mimetic and ephemeral, that they pass away as a tale that is told? All art is mimetic; and even life itself, the highest and last gift of God to His people, is fleeting. Marble crumbles, and the very names of great cities become buried in the dust of ages. Who then would dare to arrogate to any art an unchanging place in the scheme of the world's development, or would condemn it because its efforts fade and pass? Nay, more; has even the tale that is told no significance in after years? Can such not stir, when it is worth the telling, the hearts of men, to whom it comes as an echo from the past? Have not those tales remained most vital and most widely known which are told and told again and again, face to face and heart to heart, when the teller and the listener are adding, down the ages, strength to the current of a mighty thought or a mighty deed and its record?

Surely the record that lives in the minds of men is still a record, though it be not graven on brass or wrought in marble. And it were a poor conception of the value of any art, if, in considering it, we were to keep our eyes fixed on some dark spot, some imperfection, and shut our eyes to its aim, its power, its beauty. It were a poor age indeed where such a state of things is possible; as poor as that of which Mrs. Browning's unhappy poet spoke in the bitterness of his soul:
                           "The age culls simples,
    With a broad clown's back turned broadly to the
          glory of the stars."
Let us lift our faces when we wish to judge truly of any earnest work of the hand or mind of man, and see it placed in the widest horizon that is given to us. Poetry, painting, sculpture, music, architecture, all have a bearing on their time, and beyond it; and the actor, though his knowledge may be, and must be, limited by the knowledge of his age, so long as he sound the notes of human passion, has something which is common to all the ages. If he can smite water from the rock of one hardened human heart—if he can bring light to the eye or wholesome color to the faded cheek—if he can bring or restore in ever so slight degree the sunshine of hope, of pleasure, of gayety, surely he cannot have worked in vain. It would need but a small effort of imagination to believe that that great wave theory, which the scientists have proved as ruling the manifestations of light and sound, applies also to the efforts of human emotion. And who shall tell us the ultimate bounds of these waves of light and sound? If these discernible waves can be traced till they fade into impalpable nothingness, may we not think that this other, impalpable at the beginning as they are at the end, can alone stretch into the dimness of memory? Sir Joshua's gallant compliment, that he achieved immortality by writing his name on the hem of Mrs. Siddons's garment, when he painted her as the Tragic Muse, had a deeper significance than its pretty fancy would at first imply.

Not for a moment is the position to be accepted that the theatre is merely a place of amusement. That it is primarily a place of amusement, and is regarded as such by its habitués, is of course apparent; but this is not its limitation. For authors, managers, and actors it is a serious employment, to be undertaken gravely, and of necessity to be adhered to rigidly. Thus far it may be considered from these different stand-points; but there is a larger view—that of the State. Here we have to consider a custom of natural growth specially suitable to the genius of the nation. It has advanced with the progress of each age, and multiplied with its material prosperity. It is a living power, to be used for good, or possibly for evil; and far-seeing men recognize in it, based though it be on the relaxation and pleasures of the people, an educational medium of no mean order. Its progress in the past century has been the means of teaching to millions of people a great number of facts which had perhaps otherwise been lost to them. How many are there who have had brought home to them in an understandable manner by stage-plays the costumes, habits, manners, and customs of countries and ages other than their own; what insight have they thus obtained into facts and vicissitudes of life—of passions and sorrows and ambitions outside the narrow scope of their own lives, and which yet may and do mould the destinies of men. All this is education—education in its widest sense, for it broadens the sympathies and enlarges the intellectual grasp. And beyond this again—for these are advantages on the material side—there is that higher education of the heart, which raises in the scale of creation all who are subject to its sweetening influences. To hold his place therefore amongst these progressing forces, the actor must at the start be well endowed with some special powers, and by training, reading, and culture of many kinds, be equipped for the work before him. No amount of training can give to a dense understanding and a clumsy personality certain powers of quickness and spontaneity; and, on the other hand, no genius can find its fullest expression without some understanding of the principles and method of a craft. It is the actor's part to represent or interpret the ideas and emotions which the poet has created, and to do this he must at the first have a full knowledge and understanding of them. This is in itself no easy task. It requires much study and much labor of many kinds. Having then acquired an idea, his intention to work it out into reality must be put in force; and here new difficulties crop up at every further step taken in advance. Now and again it suffices the poet to think and write in abstractions; but the actor's work is absolutely concrete. He is brought in every phase of his work into direct comparison with existing things, and must be judged by the most exacting standards of criticism. Not only must his dress be suitable to the part which he assumes, but his bearing must not be in any way antagonistic to the spirit of the time in which the play is fixed. The free bearing of the sixteenth century is distinct from the artificial one of the seventeenth, the mannered one of the eighteenth, and the careless one of the nineteenth. And all this quite exclusive of the minute qualities and individualities of the character represented. The voice must be modulated to the vogue of the time. The habitual action of a rapier-bearing age is different to that of a mail-clad one—nay, the armor of a period ruled in real life the poise and bearing of the body; and all this must be reproduced on the stage, unless the intelligence of the audience, be they ever so little skilled in history, is to count as naught.

It cannot therefore be seriously put forward in the face of such manifold requirements that no Art is required for the representation of suitable action. Are we to imagine that inspiration or emotion of any kind is to supply the place of direct knowledge of facts—of skill in the very grammar of craftsmanship? Where a great result is arrived at much effort is required, whether the same be immediate or has been spread over a time of previous preparation. In this nineteenth century the spirit of education stalks abroad and influences men directly and indirectly, by private generosity and national foresight, to accumulate as religiously as in former ages ecclesiastics and devotees gathered sacred relics, all that helps to give the people a full understanding of lives and times and countries other than their own. Can it be that in such an age all that can help to aid the inspiration and to increase direct knowledge is of no account whatever, because, forsooth, it has a medium or method of its own? There are those who say that Shakespeare is better in the closet than on the stage; that dramatic beauty is more convincing when read in private than when spoken on the stage to the accompaniment of suitable action. And yet, if this be so, it is a strange thing that, with all the activity of the new-born printing-press, Shakespeare's works were not known to the reading public till the fame of the writer had been made on the stage. And it is a stranger thing still, if the drama be a mere poetic form of words, that the writer who began with Venus and Adonis, when he found the true method of expression to suit his genius, ended with Hamlet and The Tempest.

How is it, I ask, if these responsible makers of statements be correct, that every great writer down from the days of Elizabeth, when the drama took practical shape from the wish of the poets to render human life in all its phases, have been desirous of seeing their works, when written in dramatic form, represented on the stage—and not only represented, but represented under the most favorable conditions obtainable, both as to the fitness of setting and the choice of the most skilled and excellent players? Are we to take it that the poet, with his eye in a fine phrenzy rolling, sees all the minute details of form, color, light, sound, and action which have to be rendered complete on the stage? Is there nothing in what the individual actor, who is gifted with fine sense and emotional power, can add to mere words, however grand and rolling in themselves, and whatsoever mighty image they may convey? Can it be possible that there is any sane person who holds that there is no such thing as expression in music so long as the written notes are correctly rendered—that the musical expression of a Paganini or a Liszt, or that the voice of a Malibran or a Grisi, has no special charm—nay more, that there is not some special excellence in the instruments of Amati or Stradivarius? If there be, we can leave to him, whilst the rest of mankind marvel at his self-sufficient obtuseness, to hold that it was nothing but his own imagination which so much influenced Hazlitt when he was touched to the heart by Edmund Kean's rendering of the words of the remorseful Moor, "Fool, fool, fool!" Why, the action of a player who knows how to convey to the audience that he is listening to another speaking, can not only help in the illusion of the general effect, but he himself can suggest a running commentary on what is spoken. In every moment in which he is on the stage, an actor accomplished in his craft can convey ideas to the mind.

It is in the representation of passion that the intention of the actor appears in its greatest force. He wishes to do a particular thing, and so far the wish is father to the thought that the brain begins to work in the required direction, and the emotional faculties and the whole nervous and muscular systems follow suit. A skilled actor can count on this development of power, if it be given to him to rise at all to the height of a passion; and the inspiration of such moments may, now and again, reveal to him some new force or beauty in the character which he represents. Thus he will gather in time a certain habitual strength in a particular representation of passion. Diderot laid down a theory that an actor never feels the part he is acting. It is of course true that the pain he suffers is not real pain, but I leave it to any one who has ever felt his own heart touched by the woes of another to say if he can even imagine a case where the man who follows in minutest detail the history of an emotion, from its inception onward, is the only one who cannot be stirred by it—more especially when his own individuality must perforce be merged in that of the archetypal sufferer. Talma knew that it was possible for an actor to feel to the full a simulated passion, and yet whilst being swept by it to retain his consciousness of his surroundings and his purpose. In his own words—"The intelligence accumulates and preserves all the creations of sensibility." And this is what Shakespeare means when he makes Hamlet tell the players—"for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must beget a temperance that may give it smoothness."

How can any one be temperate in the midst of his passion, lest it be that his consciousness and his purpose remain to him? Let me say that it is this very discretion which marks the ultimate boundary of an Art, which stands within the line of demarcation between Art and Nature. In Nature there is no such discretion. Passion rules supreme and alone; discretion ceases, and certain consequences cease to be any deterrent or to convey any warning. It must never be forgotten that all Art has the aim or object of seeming and not of being; and that to understate is as bad as to overstate the modesty or the efflorescence of Nature. It is not possible to show within the scope of any Art the entire complexity and the myriad combining influences of Nature. The artist has to accept the conventional standard—the accepted significance—of many things, and confine himself to the exposition of that which is his immediate purpose. To produce the effect of reality it is necessary, therefore, that the efforts of an artist should be slightly different from the actions of real life. The perspective of the stage is not that of real life, and the result of seeming is achieved by means which, judged by themselves, would seem to be indirect. It is only the raw recruit who tries to hit the bull's-eye by point-blank firing, and who does not allow for elevation and windage. Are we to take it for a moment, that in the Art of Acting, of which elocution is an important part, nothing is to be left to the individual idea of the actor? That he is simply to declaim the words set down for him, without reference to the expression of his face, his bearing, or his action? It is in the union of all the powers—the harmony of gait and utterance and emotion—that conviction lies. Garrick, who was the most natural actor of his time, could not declaim so well as many of his own manifest inferiors in his art—nay, it was by this that he set aside the old false method, and soared to the heights in which, as an artist, he reigned supreme. Garrick personated and Kean personated. The one had all the grace and mastery of the powers of man for the conveyance of ideas, the other had a mighty spirit which could leap out in flame to awe and sweep the souls of those who saw and heard him. And the secret of both was that they best understood the poet—best impersonated the characters which he drew, and the passions which he set forth.

In order to promote and preserve the idea of reality in the minds of the public, it is necessary that the action of the play be set in what the painters call the proper milieu, or atmosphere. To this belongs costume, scenery, and all that tends to set forth time and place other than our own. If this idea be not kept in view there must be, or at all events there may be, some disturbing cause to the mind of the onlooker. This is all—literally all—that dramatic Art imperatively demands from the paint room, the wardrobe, and the property shop; and it is because the public taste and knowledge in such matters have grown that the actor has to play his part with the surroundings and accessories which are sometimes pronounced to be a weight or drag on action. Suitability is demanded in all things; and it must, for instance, be apparent to all that the things suitable to a palace are different to those usual in a hovel. There is nothing unsuitable in Lear in kingly raiment in the hovel in the storm, because such is here demanded by the exigencies of the play: but if Lear were to be first shown in such guise in such a place with no explanation given of the cause, either the character or the stage-manager would be simply taken for a madman. This idea of suitability should always be borne in mind, for it is in itself a sufficient answer to any thoughtless allegation as to overloading a play with scenery.

Finally, in the consideration of the Art of Acting, it must never be forgotten that its ultimate aim is beauty. Truth itself is only an element of beauty, and to merely reproduce things vile and squalid and mean is a debasement of Art. There is apt to be such a tendency in an age of peace, and men should carefully watch its manifestations. A morose and hopeless dissatisfaction is not a part of a true national life. This is hopeful and earnest, and, if need be, militant. It is a bad sign for any nation to yearn for, or even to tolerate, pessimism in its enjoyment; and how can pessimism be other than antagonistic to beauty? Life, with all its pains and sorrows, is a beautiful and a precious gift; and the actor's Art is to reproduce this beautiful thing, giving due emphasis to those royal virtues and those stormy passions which sway the destinies of men. Thus the lesson given by long experience—by the certain punishment of ill-doing—and by the rewards that follow on bravery, forbearance, and self-sacrifice, are on the mimic stage conveyed to men. And thus every actor who is more than a mere machine, and who has an ideal of any kind, has a duty which lies beyond the scope of his personal ambition. His art must be something to hold in reverence if he wishes others to hold it in esteem. There is nothing of chance about this work. All, actors and audience alike, must bear in mind that the whole scheme of the higher Drama is not to be regarded as a game in life which can be played with varying success. Its present intention may be to interest and amuse, but its deeper purpose is earnest, intense, sincere.


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