Of Dramatic Acting
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The province of the art of dramatic acting, in which are exercised the senses of both sight and hearing, is to represent in the most vivid and truthful manner, through the real imitation of them by actually existing and living agents, the operation of the various feelings and passions which excite mankind; and through them to exhibit in the most perfect and powerful form the workings of human nature.
Dramatic acting, like poetry, and indeed each of the arts, is not only available for the representation of human nature, but it is mainly valuable in proportion to the perfection which it here attains. And both poetry and dramatic acting, and also painting and sculpture, are in this respect most successful when they portray not mere individuals as such, but persons as general representatives of the whole species, which constitutes, in fact, the essential distinction in all the arts between portrait-painting and historical painting. Acting and poetry, when properly applied to this end, serve to afford us really more correct ideas of human nature than the most minute biography, or the most exact chronicle of particular events could effect.
The employment of the art of dramatic acting for the purpose of representing human nature in all its different scenes and characteristics is, however, too well known to require any dissertation here as to its capabilities in this department. In many respects, its objects are the same as those effected by painting, sculpture, poetry, and eloquence, which are always, to a certain extent, more or less united with it, and aid its operations. But dramatic acting has a distinct province of its own, so far as regards the imitation of the actual movements of the personages represented. Motion is indeed peculiarly the vehicle of, as well as the main element in acting; and to acting properly belongs whatever in art is attained in this mode, whether during the delivery of an oration, in dancing, or while on the stage.
Painting and sculpture are motionless representations of life. Acting is a moving representation of it. A dramatic spectacle might not inaccurately be defined to be an animated picture.
Of all the arts, acting is the most confined in its scope, but the most complete in its mode of effecting its object. Its elements are language and motion, so adapted as to constitute together the imitation of bodily action, through the operation of the soul upon the body.
As regards the element of language, this is variously modulated as to its tones, so as to accord with and second the motions of the body, both of the limbs and of the features. Both the above elements are availed of, according to circumstances, in an infinity of modes; but nature is ever to be referred to as the guide by which they are to be regulated. And the rules regarding design and composition, and the de-lineation of character and emotion contained in some of the succeeding chapters,* are as applicable to dramatic acting as to any of the arts.
Moreover, the exhibition of passion and feeling and character is effected by this art with all the fidelity of a mirror. Excitement is, perhaps, the leading result aimed at.
All the efforts resorted to in eloquence for the imitation of passion, not naturally or spontaneously originating, and not really felt, whether by intonation of voice or gesture, belong to acting rather than to the former art.
In acting, as in all the other arts, nature is to be strictly followed as a general guide ; but it may also be improved, more especially as regards the higher departments of tragedy. In comedy, perhaps, it is frequently sufficient merely to copy nature; and the more correctly and closely this is done, the more perfect is the comedy. But even here, where nature is not improved, it is more or less exaggerated; and, perhaps, exaggeration in comedy corresponds with elevation in tragedy. In some cases, however, even in tragedy, exaggeration may be found requisite, as elevation may, in certain instances, be desirable in comedy to add to its effect. In general, the two are more or less blended together, elevation being, however, always the leading aim in tragedy ; and exaggeration, by which the lines become deeper and the colours more vivid, in comedy. It is, indeed, in this latter mode only that it is applied in tragedy. Where imitation is solely and servilely adopted in the case of dramatic acting, whether in tragedy or comedy, the performance degenerates into mimicry. Such an effort bears the same relation to the higher efforts in dramatic acting, that an exact representation in painting of inanimate objects—such as fruit or flowers, or dead animals, which are the only strictly and purely imitative efforts in painting, aiming indeed almost at illusion, which is a step beyond imitation-does to the higher efforts in the latter art.