Although nineteenth century actors used a wide variety of techniques, three important styles can be readily identified. The first is the classic style, popularized by John Philip Kemble and Sarah Kemble Siddons . This style demanded that an actor catch the essence of a character and express it with dignity, grace, declamation, and stately poses. Naturalness resided in the catching, rather than in the expressing, of this essence. The art of the actor was not to be concealed but rather to be revealed and admired.
The second style, the Romantic, sought naturalness through emphasizing a character’s passions—a stark contrast to the reasonableness of the classic style’s interpretation. Actors achieved their effects chiefly through exaggeration of, and sometimes through rapid changes among, the various emotions they sought to portray. Edmund Kean helped to establish this style, though his critics judged both his acting and his personality to be somewhat erratic.
The realistic style was encouraged by Charles Fechter. Fechter, an actor, managed successively the Princess’s Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre, both in London. His emphasis on the box set and his interest in creating an illusion of reality led him to demand that his actors move and speak more like persons in everyday life. Fechter’s enthusiasm for this style was not limited to contemporary drama but was extended to the classics as well.
Actor-managers such as Fechter were not uncommon. For example, in 1788, Kemble succeeded Richard Brinsley Sheridan as manager of Drury Lane before moving to Covent Garden in 1803. One of the best-known managers was William Charles Macready . An actor who combined the best of the classic and Romantic styles (with a touch of realism thrown in), Macready was dissatisfied with current theatrical practices and saw managing as a way to effect reforms. He managed Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839 and Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843. Macready emphasized the importance of rehearsals, which had previously been perfunctory—the star often not bothering about them in order to conserve strength for the actual performance. Furthermore, he insisted on dictating where his actors were to stand instead of allowing them to choose the positions that were personally most advantageous. All in all, Macready strove for a unified effect that also extended to his sets and costumes, which were designed with great concern for their historical accuracy.
Among Macready’s acting company was Samuel Phelps, who, as eventual manager of the run-down Sadler’s Wells Theatre, attracted large audiences by offering a bill consisting almost exclusively of poetic drama. Phelps acted in his own productions and, like Macready, took great pains to achieve historical accuracy. In 1862, he left Sadler’s Wells to tour, but later in the decade his productions of Shakespeare’s plays revived the sagging fortunes of Drury Lane.
Madame Vestris ’s work at the Olympic has already been mentioned, especially her use of the box set and her insistence on more realistic costuming for the “minor” drama. She herself was famous for her roles in light comedy. Her second husband, Charles Mathews, was well known for the same types of roles. (Her first husband, Armand Vestris, had been a dancer.) Vestris and Mathews combined their managerial talents, first at Covent Garden, from 1839 to 1842, and then at the Lyceum, from 1847 to 1856.
One of the most influential actor-managers was Charles Kean, son of the more famous Edmund Kean. Never the actor his father was, Charles gave up acting in favor of managing the Princess’s Theatre in 1850. He was assisted by his wife and leading lady, Ellen Tree. He was also Master of the Revels—an appointment granted him by Queen Victoria. Kean managed to attract a fashionable audience by setting his curtain time and arranging his theatrical bill to cater to upper-class tastes. He presented chiefly Shakespeare and melodramas, using long runs to offset the cost of his productions, which had escalated in response to Kean’s demands for historical accuracy.
John Baldwin Buckstone was a comedian-turned-manager of the Haymarket from 1853 to 1876. He was...