A Note On Acting Fashions
( Originally Published 1938 )
WE ASSUME, without debate, that our production and its style of acting shall be the one accepted by the present generation. Before we take up the lengthy subject of the director and his actors, it may be worth our time to look at the present theater style and compare it briefly with styles of other days.
In respect to its objective—the endeavor to secure audience participation in the experience of the acted play—acting remains unchanged from generation to generation. It is much the same in that it employs a studied use of voice and posture and movement in its communication to the audience. It is the same in that the actor seeks to express the symbols of emotion, either through feeling the emotions and losing himself in the part, or through a conscious use of technique. But, though acting in its essentials does not change greatly, the manner of reaching the objective, or, as we may say, the style of acting employed, may vary widely from one generation to another.
This point about styles may be clarified by citing a parallel circumstance in the field of architecture. Houses have per-formed much the same function for thousands of years, but the styles of houses have changed. The Gothic style differs from the California Spanish; and the Colonial Georgian, from the twentieth-century concrete and glass structure with straight, unrelieved lines and flat roof. So it is with acting.
One style of house may not be fundamentally better than another; the prevailing style, however, growing as it does out of its own age—out of housing conditions, materials available, trends of thought, and living habits of the people —fits the lives of its tenants better than any other. So one acting style fits the mood and temper of the people and period for which it is created; while another fashion is more acceptable to another people and time.
We have no desire to entangle ourselves in the reasons why a certain style of acting finds acceptance in a particular period. We wish to do no more than mention several styles and then explain briefly the outstanding characteristics of the style that is now in vogue .
We are familiar with the term declamatory acting. At certain periods a style that is largely auditory in its appeal, that is a pretentious oratorical display, is popular. For this style a highly trained voice is the most precious possession of the actor. Generally he does much of his acting down-stage and addresses, or seems to address, his audience directly. He plays upon his voice as upon a musical instrument and gives his audience its experience, not so much through sense as through sound. We associate this style of acting with the early Victorian actor.
Another style that, more than once, has been accepted as the right style is one in which movement, gesture, and vocal utterance are all stressed far beyond the natural. The gesture is greatly exaggerated; the speeches are roared and shrieked from the stage. The times and their temper seem to produce the logic that acting must not consist of movement and utterance as restrained as in actual life, which everyone knows is tame and undramatic, but must, to be dramatic, carry utterance and gesture far beyond that which can be seen and heard on the streets. This style was to be found in the old popular theater of Japan and, with some softening of voice and curtailing of exaggeration in gesture, in Western countries during the early part of the last century.
In still other times, acting has been formalized, dignified, and aloof; and certain prescribed costumes have been worn for the different characters in tragedy, and other prescribed costumes for the characters in comedy. Such a style, seeking not illusion and realism, in the time of the ancient Greeks was capable of bringing to the audience a great dramatic experience; the same general style, with differences, which was popular in Paris during the late eighteenth century, was little more than a traditional routine and could not have produced an important effect on the audience.
In some Oriental countries, acting has not sought to pre-sent either an illusion or an idealization of life; a style has been developed in which speech, movement, and dress are all largely symbolic; and, as the actors do certain things or use certain inflections, the audience, having the keys to the movements and inflections, translate the things done and said into a drama that, in a literal sense, they create in their own minds.
There have been clear and sufficient reasons back of any period's acceptance of its special acting style. And bear this in mind: The age likes its own style and would not (probably could not) get its theater experience so completely from any other style. Therefore, the prevailing style is, for any particular period, the right style.
So we could discover sufficient reason for the popularity of our present style in acting which is generally called the representational style. It came into being in response to the will and temper of a public that turned from poetry to science, from romance to realities. It might be that some of us, looking wistfully upon some style which was popular in the past, would wish to change our present style for this older one; just as we might wish to exchange the fashions of dress of today for the knee breeches and panniered skirts of 1770. We cannot do this. Our generation accepts the representational style as right, and it is not yet ready to accept any other.
Representational acting is the style we will have in mind throughout our discussions. This style, as we all know it and have grown up to accept it, aims at a complete illusion of life. The voice that is used is the one that will give the illusion of the natural voice, with the conventional tones and inflections of everyday life; the facial expression is true to natural expression and is not exaggerated; the gestures we employ are the sort we can see about us every day; and our movement about the stage is subjected to the test of reality —we seek to walk, halt, and mount a stairs as our realistic character would do these things in actual life. And since the plays in which we act are largely realistic, we must al-ways "keep in the play"; that is, we must seem to be indifferent to the audience and disregard its very presence. We do not play directly to the audience, as in some other periods, but indirectly; and great is the condemnation heaped upon us if we are caught playing to the audience.
This is a hard, though not an unfair, summary of the characteristics of modern representational acting. It is only just, however, to mention the opportunities for the use of the imagination and the degree in which selection and emphasis are useful in creating the illusion.
As directors, we can seek fresh, interesting business, but business that is still logical and natural; from the many natural ways of inflecting a line, we can select one which is the most dramatic; still seeking to represent, we can discover some characterizing gesture which carries power and sharpness; and beyond this objective representation, we can help the actor create the mind and heart of the character within his own heart and mind.
While, broadly speaking, our objective is to represent, in a restrained, consistent, and natural manner, human beings going about their business of living, such an aim does not thwart our creative faculties or prohibit our building a play embracing the attributes of any piece of art, namely, beauty, truth, and power.