Introduction (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Illuminating a play’s text for the audience remains the primary task for actors, which they accomplish according to the nature of the literature they are called on to perform. A fiery melodrama with stock characters, for example, requires broad gestures and declamatory speech, whereas a realistic play with complex characterization necessitates a more lifelike approach. At the same time, actors, as the principal instruments of drama, reflect, as all artists do, the values, tastes, and fashions of the society in which they perform. Because a theater audience registers its approval or disapproval at the moment of artistic “creation” (in the sense that all stage plays are fully created only when performed), the actor remains one of the few artists who immediately respond to the demands of the public. Theater represents the most immediate of art forms, reflecting societal moods and anticipating change; thus, as society evolves, it creates new trends in dramatic literature, with acting styles reflecting those changes. A twenty-first century American audience viewing a nineteenth century melodrama would find the broad gestures and declamatory speech laughable; conversely, the nineteenth century audience would be bored and confused by the stark realism of twenty-first century American stage.
Actors are their own instruments. Whereas sculptors have clay with which to mold their art, actors use their voices, bodies, and individual characteristics as their clay. Actors’ methodology—how they create a role—lies at the center of a debate that has raged for centuries. One theory holds that actors should create the role through mechanical means; that is, they should not experience the emotion of the character but should simulate it through logical and deliberate choice of gesture and vocal inflection. In contrast, the creative or psychological approach insists that actors should create from the inside, emphasizing motivation and emotion. The first theory, or external approach, presupposes the importance of characterization over the personality of the actor, whereas the second, or internal approach, emphasizes the importance of the actor’s emotions projected through the character. In the early 1900’s, the great Russian actor-teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky fused the two theories into one system.
Renaissance Acting (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In the mid-twentieth century, scholars looking back at the Elizabethan stage focused on what acting styles may have looked like in plays such as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (pr. c. 1585-1588) or William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) or King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), debating on the differences between a more formal style of acting—with an emphasis on the technical aspects of delivery—and a more natural style, emphasizing the internal, psychological life of the character. The two great actors from the English Renaissance—Richard Burbage, the leading actor of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Edward Alleyn,leading actor of Marlowe’s company, the Lord Admiral’s Men—typified some of the differences in acting styles that characterized the period. Each was praised as the finest talent of his day; however, Burbage, as Hamlet, instructs the visiting players on proper playing, clearly distinguishing between poor acting—the tragedians who “strut and bellow” and “saw the air too much” with bad gestures, and the clowns who improvise and upstage fellow actors—and correct acting, suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action” so as to observe and not go beyond the “modesty of nature.” (It must be added that relatively little is known about acting styles on the Elizabethan stage.) While the arguments about Elizabethan acting styles focused the...
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Restoration Acting (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Acting styles on the Restorationstage borrowed heavily from the French Baroque theater. English audiences traveling to France to see plays during the Commonwealth expected similar fare when the English theaters reopened. One notable difference in the reign of Charles II was the appearance of women on the stage, heretofore portrayed by young men and boys. Interestingly, audiences had some trouble adapting to the change because real women seemed physically larger than the young men and boys to whom audiences were accustomed. Still, the actor’s delivery, particularly in tragedy, was highly formalized and declamatory.
Reflecting the classical tastes of high society, aristocratic norms of decorum, temperance, politeness, and simplicity governed the actor; actor-playwright Colley Cibber, in An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), said that the theater should be “a school of manners and virtue.” Discussing the actor’s methods, the leading actor of the period, Thomas Betterton, said that the actor carefully catalogs “the passions and habits of the mind [that] discover themselves in our looks, action and gestures.” That the Restoration actors’ approach to their roles was external and technical seems evident in Betterton’s assertion that acting should “never transport the speaker out of himself.” The actors played primarily on the wide apron, or forestage, in front of the proscenium arch, rarely doing something so informal as...
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Nineteenth Century Acting (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Excessive emotional display, considered undesirable by actors throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century, became the norm with the rise of English melodrama and the nineteenth century tragedians. Melodrama which flourished in both England and the United States, afforded the actor an opportunity, in Hamlet’s condemnation, to “tear a passion to tatters.” As a way to circumvent the consortium of London playhouses that held licenses for dramatic fare, melodrama, in its original sense, meant theater set to music. A continual musical accompaniment set a tone for emotional scenes on stage, and because the characters were stock villain, hero, heroine, comic man, and comic woman, characterization became simpler. So important did action become to the melodrama that authors wrote elaborate stage directions for the actors, including descriptions of facial expressions such as “revenge burning in his eye” or “his countenance disordered.” Strict conventions governed each stock character, and each type was marked by its idiosyncrasies. The comic characters dressed ludicrously and indulged in such low comedy as face slapping, falling down, and bumping into one another. The villain generally sported a black top hat, frock coat, and cape and boots; his delivery was marked by facial contortions and furtive asides. William Brady, writing of New York’s Bowery Theatre around 1870, recalled a special technique for the villain’s death: “elbows stiff, spine rigid, then fall over backward square on the back of your head.” Audience participation was not discouraged. The villain was regularly hissed and booed and the hero cheered on in his efforts, and it was not uncommon for audience members to comment aloud on an actor’s performance or a piece of stage business. In turn, audience involvement required the actors to become more aggressive in their style. Movement and gesture were performed as broadly as possible, and speech was marked by peculiar pronunciation and special rhythm. Each syllable was voiced with elaborate distinction and sometimes elongated for effect.
The flourishing of melodrama spawned a number of star actors in both England and the United States. These giants of the stage, most of whom got their start in melodrama, assayed the great Shakespearean tragic roles, developed their repertoires to include the parts in which they particularly excelled, and honed their talents to such a degree that their dramatic feats became legendary. The first of these great actors in England was Edmund Kean,whose powers were so great that he reportedly caused an actress playing a scene with him to faint; the Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, allegedly was so carried away by Kean’s performance of Hamlet that he was seized with convulsions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s comment that watching Kean act was like “reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning,” doubtless meant as a compliment, may provide some insight into the histrionics of Kean’s acting style.
The first great American actor of the period was Edwin Forrest . The feud that developed between Forrest and the English actor William Charles Macready nitiated a lively rivalry between English and American actors that continued into the twentieth century. Because Forrest was not as well trained as his English counterpart, his...
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Impact of Stanislavsky (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In the early 1900’s, disillusioned by the staleness of his own acting and in part inspired by the work of the Italian tragedian Salvini, Konstantin Stanislavsky et about to formulate a system of acting that would allow actors to develop their character properly and sustain the portrayal through many performances. The precepts that Stanislavsky set forth in An Actor Prepares (1936) and Building a Character (1949) did more to revolutionize acting styles on the English-speaking stage than any factor before that time. Stanislavsky divided his “System,” as it came to be known, into roughly two parts: the actors’ work on themselves and their work on their roles.
In An Actor Prepares,...
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The Group Theatre (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In 1931, Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford, united by a common interest in the System, founded the Group Theatre Until that time, actors in American theater—following the nineteenth century practice—were cast by type. The Group Theatre founders believed that typecasting stifled the actor’s artistic growth, and they set out to form an ensemble of actors who could express their creative imaginations in the tradition of Stanislavsky. The Group Theatre located a farm in Brookfield Center, Connecticut, and retreated there to live and work together. Some of the notable actors in the original Group Theatre were Franchot Tone, Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner, Morris Carnovsky, and Stella Adler. Using improvisation as their...
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The Actors Studio (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Believing that the actor was undervalued in the American theater and united in a desire to pursue realism on the stage, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis founded the Actors Studio in 1947. At their headquarters on West Forty-eighth Street in New York City, twenty-six actors gathered to study their craft. Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, E. G. Marshall, and Maureen Stapleton were among the original ensemble. Invited to join the Studio in 1951, Lee Strasberg eventually assumed control. Strasberg and Kazan continued the work they had begun at the Group Theatre, stressing improvisation and emotional memory. Actors were required to perform simple exercises such as threading a needle or peeling an...
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English vs. American Approach (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
English actors, too, were influenced by the movement toward realism, though much less so than the Americans. The English had their acting schools, most notably the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but the emphasis remained more focused on the technical aspects of acting. Courses in fencing, stage movement, and voice and diction were a regular part of the English student actor’s curriculum. While the American theater had become indigenous, its actors performing in the heavily realistic style of their native drama, the English were more eclectic in their tastes. The proliferation of the repertory system and the founding of the National Theatre of Great Britain(1963-1964) allowed the...
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New Approaches to Shakespeare (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
The dramas of Shakespeare played a key role in changing acting styles. The twentieth century witnessed a renaissance in performances of Shakespeare’s plays in both England and the United States, Shakespeare being the most frequently performed playwright. Shakespeare festivals had been held regularly since 1879 at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and in 1961 the Royal Shakespeare Company was formed. Interest in performing Shakespeare quickly spread to Canada and the United States, the Bard’s plays becoming so popular in the latter that by the 1980’s virtually every state in the United States had at least one Shakespeare festival, many with facsimiles of the first Globe playhouse.
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Innovations of the 1960’s and 1970’s (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
By the 1960’s, American actors, growing disillusioned with the Method, were searching for new techniques. The politicization of American society at that time led to the formation of agitprop theater companies such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe (formed in 1959 by R. G. Davis), whose chief aim was to make a political statement. The acting style of these groups was rough, broad, and forceful, borrowing from the Italian commedia dell’arte. The performances were often improvised, with the actors working only from a scenario. This kind of “street theater” was not in the mainstream of American theater; further, the orientation of such groups was political, not artistic.
By the 1960’s, the American actor’s...
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Role of Cinema (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
The most notable distinctions in modern acting styles have to do with the emergence of cinema as an art form. Acting schools across the country, and especially on both coasts, reflect the differences in acting formats: classes center on stage work, film acting, and even commercial and soap opera acting. Film schools, such as New York University among many others, offer classes in cinema, which include acting specifically geared toward film and television. Film remains a director’s medium. Many successful film actors rely on the nuances of direction—in close-ups, editing, and camera work—to help them create a role. Film actors often, however, seek “legitimacy” by appearing on the stage. The Public Theatre’s productions...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Benedetti, Jean, and Alice L. Crowley. Stanislavski and the Actor: The Method of Physical Action. New York: Routledge, 1998. Benedetti is a well-known Stanislavsky scholar and here provides the first English version of Stanislavsky’s later notes and practical exercises. Benedetti adds his own analysis of Stanislavsky’s acting approach and rehearsal methods.
Brestoff, Richard. Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods. Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 1995. A good introduction to some of theater’s renowned teachers and an exploration of how their techniques are used today in universities and acting groups. Each chapter presents a...
(The entire section is 508 words.)