Commentary Magazine

Our Actors and Theirs

At the Actors' Studio some years ago I listened to a discussion that had as its subject national styles of acting. The English were spoken of with admiration, but always with the reservation that they somehow maintained a safe distance between themselves as performers and the roles they played, that they were reluctant to plunge into a character's “inner truth,” to risk the dangers that lay in psychological depths. As one of the participants, himself an actor, put it, “The English are the greatest actors in the world—from the neck up.”

Now this is a view that, crude as it may seem, is often used as the last line of defense by those who wish to claim for American acting a discrete excellence which excuses its obvious limitations when confronted by a great deal of our theater's traditional repertoire. The English may, as actors, rule the tongue and the mind; we, however, we hold sway over the area between the gullet and the groin. We call our productions of the classics fresh and vital when most often they are confused and callow; and when there is a flat lethargy about the doings of our kings and queens, we claim the demands of realism as an excuse. In our proud search for honesty and physical energy, we do not stoop to grandiose effects, nor do we care overmuch about the nuances of theatrical diction; for these, we feel, belong to the surface of the theater, to its old-fashioned craft rather than to its quest for art and truth. How, we ask, can an actor who attempts to ferret out the secret of a character's soul during the course of a performance, be expected to pay attention to the quality of a vowel, the accent of a word, or the calculation of an effect?. If he truly has embodied the psychology of his character, all these symptoms of the role he plays will, so the prevailing theory tells us, effortlessly appear.

Now I do not wish to make this method of preparation for a role seem without merit. There have been many cogent books written about, and performances that have successfully sustained, this eschewal of results that do not flow out of the actor's sense of psychological necessity. My only quarrel with those who demand that psychological truth take precedence over theatrical manner is that the great majority of roles which an ambitious actor must undertake, roles modern as well as classic, either have no psychological basis to speak of, or else the psychology is so complex as to make it impossible for an actor within the limits of a single production to make it dramatically coherent. It is as barren an enterprise to rely on inner motivation and its “natural” consequences when performing Lear as it is when playing Sir Peter Teazle, and the only way even to adumbrate such roles is to think of them first in theatrical terms; that is, to think of ways that will at least present, clearly and distinctly, the dramatic surface of these characters so that they seem vital and comprehensible to an audience that will never grasp easily the magnitude of Lear's pain or, in our democratic age, readily understand those beings of pure society who make up so much of our best comedy.

Such clear and distinct presentation requires an emphasis on craft rather than on visceral revelation, and—to continue my observations on the English influx onto our stages and what it implies about our theater and theirs1—I am going to deal here with two imported works of the Royal Shakespeare Company, London Assurance and Sherlock Holmes, and one presentation by our New York Shakespeare Festival, A Midsummer Night's Dream.


The plays the English company has brought us are patched-together trifles: London Assurance is a farce by Dion Boucicault that contrasts urban and country manners in a broad and creaky way, the comic excesses of its characters barely held together by plot devices that were worn out even when the play made its debut and by social observations that, unlike Wilde's or Congreve's, go no deeper than the manner and tone of their enunciation; and Sherlock Holmes, a play by Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette, is one of those melodramas that, before driving him out of the profession of theater reviewer altogether, provided Shaw with such rich targets for humorous outrage. Both of these plays have, I am sure, been pruned and fiddled with by their directors to suit any ingenious notion that popped up during pre-production and rehearsal labors, so that what one saw in the present productions were true vehicles for performance.

On the other hand, A Midsummer Night's Dream, produced by a company which has displayed Shakespeare in every theatrical guise save that of Kabuki, and which has never thought it excessive, when the cause of contemporary relevance was at stake, to perform operations and transplants upon the text, was presented without adulterations. There was no modern point of view, no directorial inspiration for the play to overcome in order to be enjoyed: Puck was not a rock musician; the quartet of beguiled lovers remain comic attitudes of aristocratic passion and were not reduced to runaways from suburban values; Bottom and his fellow rustics were allowed to function with the dignity of clowns and not as put-upon members of the working class. And yet for all the restraint and good intentions of this production, Shakespeare's masterpiece ends up seeming hardly different in worth from those nugatory items brought over by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In other words, what the troupe from England was able to provide with the most meager material, our supported and endowed theater company could only equal with the help of one of the great lyric comedies of the language.


This certainly brings up the question of craft, the uses it can be put to, and the abuses its absences can cause. No one can defend a bland, lyricless production of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the basis that what we lose in intellectual and linguistic delight we gain in those gullet-and-groin truths that reside beneath the surface of the play. Indeed, it is because A Midsummer Night's Dream depends almost exclusively on theatrical ingenuity for its realization—that is, on those qualities from the neck up—that it makes it fair to compare its treatment with those of a light farce and an antique melodrama, and when it is found that all treatments produce the same pleasant, thinly amusing result, then, unless we care nothing about distinctions and differences in the qualities of art, a serious problem arises.

In maintaining that this problem revolves around craft, or the lack of it, I don't mean simply an attractive wrapping of a play's substance or a collection of theatrical tricks that must be studied and practiced until, in an odd moment of contradiction, they become apparent to an audience. I do not even mean the combined schematic cleverness of author and players so depreciated by critics who claim to discern nothing but craft in plays they like but feel they shouldn't. What I intend by the term “craft” is no more or less than theatrical intelligence, the ability to perceive the artistic limits of a play and, within those limits, to choose the effects necessary to make an audience accept, for a few hours, confinement within these boundaries of theatrical imagination.

When the play's limits are as narrowly set as those of London Assurance and Sherlock Holmes, the task of creating such a condition is both harder and easier for a director and his actors than ii they were involved, say, in a production of The Misanthrope or The Importance of Being Earnest. True, no professional actor should be incapable of achieving the effects demanded by a play with modest ambitions, nor should a director find himself overwhelmed by literary depth and variety to the point where he is stifled by the number of thematic choices open to him. But, on the other hand, when the text makes few demands on the performer's technical range, it generally provides him with little help or protection. A mediocre actor in' a great role can, by virtue of the role's many facets and power, seem to be doing a fairly good job when he is only being an inoffensive conduit of whatever in the written character his talent can draw forth; and no matter how he fails the role, if he has not obviously butchered it, he may take refuge behind the right of individual interpretation.

However, when one is playing Sherlock Holmes in a popular melodrama or an aging cockscomb like Sir Harcourt Courtly in a farce whose characters have tiny but definite dimensions, there is little opportunity to hide behind complexity, and craft is tested not by its ability to resolve and control the ambiguities of character, but by being able to choose, with precision, the mannerisms, inflections, and attitudes that will make the thinnest personality seem substantial enough to warrant our laughter or concern. To do this, of course, the actor must be much more naked as a performer than he would be it wrapped up in the layers of a deeply written part. His artistry is almost all that stands between the audience's willingness to believe in his theatrical existence and their readiness to be disillusioned by any obvious bit of dramatic nonsense. One mistake—an excessive bit of mugging, a coy line reading, a bit of stage business that goes just an inch too far in its effort to bustle the audience into laughter, a noticeable moment of self-satisfaction or unease—any one of these can cause that part of an audience which distinguishes between the theater and the circus to wonder why its intelligence is being abused.

Nor, of course, can the actor working within these limitations afford to be too cautious, for if he does not risk the ridiculous in his performance, if he and the director do not devise a manner of production interesting and dramatic in itself, there will be nothing happening on stage at all, or so little that it would seem to be no more than a slightly animated plot synopsis. We all consider the performance of a classic role more than an ordinary success when the actor dares and avoids horrible failure; in the performing of trifles, the actor must dare embarrassment in order simply to survive his time on the stage, and it is in this survival that a craftsman's intelligence plays its part. Outlandish inflections of speech, dangerously broad gestures, shameless takes, the conspiratorial wink at the audience, the over- and the under-reaction, the ingenious prop and the clownish costume—among all these devices a selection must be made that is based upon the knowledge of how to employ them to maximum effect without straining the limits of theatrical decency.

Thus a melodrama like Sherlock Holmes earns our amused attention through the way in which John Wood, as the Baker Street sleuth, speaks English as if each syllable of each word were the audible result of a deductive process that is awesomely swift and infallible. One would no more think of challenging his syntactical stresses than one would consider taking on Holmes in a logical debate, and when Wood comes to the moment that dares absurdity—a pronunciation of the famous word “elementary” which he turns into a descending arpeggio of vowels—he wins by his verbal courage applause for the word itself, applause which the audience gives not because technique coerced them to do so, but because it demonstrated a perfect fusion, by making an old catchword come to life again, of the theatrical and the common-place.

It is this type of detailed craftsmanship, this technical tension, that performers, caught in the barren circumstances of a mediocre play, can turn to their and the audience's advantage, so that the most fragile achievements of a playwright become appreciated and enjoyed. When technique of this kind is applied to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the result is always memorable. However, the American production lacked all the benefits of an intelligent plan. Either by choice or necessity, it presented Shakespeare's play with a straight-forward lack of inspiration that flattened its poetry, blurred its contrasts, made its magic mundane, and caught its comedy only in those places where the humor was most broad. What each actor chose to do, whether successful or not, had little in common with what his fellow players had decided on, and never at any time did it seem that these choices dared more than was absolutely necessary in order to present the idea of a performance. The rich theatrical derails of the roles, the colors, shadings, nuances that, good actors always surprise us with, were either blurred or missing completely. Theseus and Hippolyta spoke, or rather declaimed, their lines to no one in particular, and only seemed animated when they could demonstrate, by the excessive stressing of a humble word, that they understood the meaning of the sentences they spoke. The young lovers believed, too, that articulation means the voice must bob up and down at regular intervals, thereby showing that there is human emotion behind the verbal conceits. Apart from this, they were youthfully competent, which is to say that they displayed a great deal of energy and little theatrical control of it. Puck received his most cloying interpretation since Mickey Rooney's: the actor pranced, flapped, and babbled until he and the role disappeared from the stage, leaving behind them nothing but a collection of theatrical hocum, bits and pieces of grim evidence that a fair idea had been fatally injured. Titania, who spoke about the discord her argument with Oberon was causing as if she were reciting the happenings on the six o'clock news, seemed more a camp follower than a fairy queen, and. . . .

But there's no need to go on with this list of deficiencies. The moral is clear: having decided to abandon novelty, the New York Shakespeare Company was forced to stand or fall on its fundamental theatrical ability, and the fundamentals were simply missing. They did not exactly mutilate A Midsummer Night's Dream, they merely wore it out with ineptitude and thereby diminished it to the point where it became an ordinary little comedy of manners pleasantly if roughly performed. This inability technically to embellish and enliven a text, or even to meet its simplest theatrical requirements, is not unique to our New York company of players. It is, sadly, a flaw that pervades our entire manner of acting, and until it is removed, the English will continue to shame us with their execution of the insignificant. And they will shame themselves a little too, if, with their richness of performing talent, they do not attempt works a little more worthy of their abilities.



1 See “The English Invasion,” COMMENTARY, February 1975.


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