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Something wanting: the actor, the critic, and histrionic skill.

"As an actor he left much to be imagined." (The Commercial Appeal, January 7, 1917) (1)

My epigraph telegraphs the concern of this essay, which is with the conception of histrionic "skill" in the vernacular of the commercial theater review. A reductive summary would be to point out that depending upon when it was written, the quote could be either a criticism or a compliment. In this case, the critic meant to denigrate John E. Kellerd's 1917 Macbeth, but the quote frames this brief survey of how "skill" is assessed by the popular press before, during, and after the reigns of Sigmund Freud, Konstantin Stanislavski, and A. C. Bradley. The brevity of this essay necessarily means that its argument is suggestive, rather than exhaustive, since it relies on a ludicrously thin biopsy of examples. The essay nevertheless proposes that assessments of Shakespearean acting in the twenty-first century remain beholden to ideas developed in the nineteenth. Moreover, the durability--even the stagnation--of the terms by which acting skill is diagnosed today is due to the way they mystify not just the actor but the critic as well.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a vocabulary of the interior entered the idiom of the professional theater review. It was, moreover, an idiom that attached accolades to actors who left something to be desired. By the early twentieth century, in other words, the surest way to consecrate an actor was to praise him for producing the epiphenomenon of interiority, which was paradoxically articulated by a discernible absence. Nearly one hundred years after Kellerd's critique, for instance, a review by Geoff Dyer--selected here for its anodyne typicality--protests that Ryan Gosling is "not just a pretty face" but a "serious actor with the knack of conveying inner life with minimum effort." (2) What makes Gosling more than just a pretty boy is his ability to suggest an "inner life," though not in such a way that you might notice it. (That's what the critic is for.) Gosling's wised-up imperturbability promises that he is more than meets the eye.

The idea--by now the thoroughly naturalized commonplace--that exhibiting an inner life is the principal work of the mainstream actor has, however, a discernible historical origin and identifiable intellectual sources. That "inner life" so rapidly became the metric of actorly evaluation says much about the role of the commercial theater review in indoctrinating actors, audiences, and--in a self-fulfilling loop--other reviewers in a language of inferiority, a language so familiar to us that we might fail to register how recent, pervasive, and remarkable it is. In short, the rise of professional theater reviewing in the late nineteenth century, recently well-articulated by Paul Prescott in Reviewing Shakespeare, led to a rapid "norming" of the terms of critical assessment, during which the ideas of Freud, Stanislavsky, and Bradley entered the theatrical vernacular through the vector of commercial journalism, altering and then codifying theatrical training, performance, and above all the terms of assessment of what constitutes actorly skill.

In addition to sharing parallel life spans, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), and A.C. Bradley (1851-1935) share the distinction of having dictated the terms of their own critique. To denounce the path by which Stanislavsky guides actors towards the "inner life" of a character is to submit to an understanding that an inner life--what we call "characterization"--is nevertheless the end of all acting. Similarly, critiques of Freud--at least popular ones--often articulate themselves in Freudian terms. Thus an undergraduate once told me that he did not truck with Freud since Sigmund "just had mommy problems." When your critics condemn you in terms that you taught them, you have already won the argument.

The three men also share in having coined the terms by which we still evaluate acting, terms that are largely a form of popularized psychoanalysis. In short, what constitutes "skill" on the mainstream stage continues to be the ability, in Stanislavski's terms, to give artistic form to "the inner life of the human spirit." (3) A survey of the influence of these three thinkers on acting is obviously beyond the scope of this piece, since it would embrace a pan-European ambit of literary, philosophical, and political developments across the nineteenth century. (4) Since the space here is brief, I will focus on a handful of critical reviews of Shakespearean acting across one-hundred-and fifty years to sketch a crude genealogy whereby we can trace a changing, and then stagnating, assessment of what constitutes histrionic skill. These assessments move from minute diagnoses of technical proficiency (or more often deficiency) in the eighteenth century to a mystified ability to discern what an actor withholds, and the moment of the shift can be located with unusual precision.

Today, to leave "much to be imagined"--to cheat us of fulfillment, to cite Kenneth Tynan on Greta Garbo (5)--is the aim of expressively interior acting. Minimal effort produces maximum affect. It has only relatively recently become so. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century reviewers of Shakespeare instead scrupled over actors' pronunciation and comportment. Consider a signal instance, the criticism of Fanny Kemble in her Portia at Drury Lane in 1783. The critic diagnosed not Kemble's ability to withhold--and therefore produce--Portia's anxieties during the trial scene, not how she might be feeling as she adjudicates a deadly trial tricked out in legal drag, but the way she pronounced Antonio's occupation: "We, however, recommend it to Miss Kemble, not to speak the noun merchant, as if it was spelt marchant; such a pronunciation is itinerant to a degree...." (6)

The critic's "itinerant" is, perhaps, obscure, but it is clear that Kemble's errant pronunciation needed to return to the straight-and-narrow. The critic almost certainly intends a class slur by calling her pronunciation "itinerant," and the critique is as pedantic as it is unimaginable in a modern newspaper. This precisionist criticism is, however, typical, and the eighteenth-century archives are full of similar scolding. In 1795, the anonymous review of "Mr. Cooper" at Covent Garden detects a whiff of the rural in Hamlet's accent, which brings down his rebuke:
   Sometimes also we discovered a provincial accent, as in the
   pronunciation of the conjunction as like arz, and the close sound
   of the vowel e, which, in the word beg, &c. he pronounces baig. In
   the adjective true also, and words of a similar construction, we
   noticed an introduction of the second vowel, name terue instead of
   true. (7)

While obviously class inflected--one man's "provincial" is another's "itinerant"--the review reflects the granular attention to elocution entirely typical of the period. The critic polices the aural outlines of propriety, serving as a collective ear, his credentials established by linguistic forensics.

Critics of this period pile on this point, echoing one another in their attempt at greater and ever greater feats of punctiliousness. Fanny Kemble's brother Phillip redressed her wandering merchant, redeeming the family name somewhat. From a review of 1809, on Dec. 19, the anonymous critic reports with relief that,
   We are glad to hear that this Gentleman has ... returned to the
   true verbal expression, not merely of the Author, but of the more
   cultivated portion of society, as he pronounced the word "beard"
   agreeably to the letter and acceptation of the term, and did not
   violate the custom of the learned as well as the unlearned, by
   calling it a "bird!" (8)

What constitutes "truth" in this matter is not Kemble's ability to register Hamlet's "inner life" but to tune his pronunciation to the tastes of the cultivated who, in a rhetorical feat of reverse engineering, includes William Shakespeare.

The apotheosis of this approach came during the great "aches" controversy of 1812, when the papers erupted with differing opinions on whether the word should be given one syllable or two when Prospero threatens Caliban, as the Theatrical Inquisitor quibbles in 1812:
   Mr. Young has conceded the old point of contest to his ignorant
   auditors, and is contented to purchase their applause by soothing
   them in error. We allude to the line,--"Fill all thy bones with
   aches; make thee roar." In defiance of his better judgment, he
   pronounces aches as a monosyllable; but as the line evidently
   halted under this mutilation, he has been pleased to add an "and,"
   which certainly remedies the defect in the metre. The truth is,
   that Mr. Young has a sound understanding, and though he knows what
   is right, is not not [sic] willing to contend with the stupid
   obstinacy of his audience. (9)

There is more of this, but I will spare you.

A wider survey of the period's press would take in a similarly acute attention to physical decorum, as in the criticism of Young's Othello at Covent Garden on December 5, 1809, "nor did we approve of the attitude in which he lay upon the stage in the concluding scene.--it was scarcely decent!" or of Mr. Cooper's ill-spoken Hamlet cited above who showed "an occasional debility in the bending forward of his knees." (10) The use of the right hand rather than the left, the positioning of the feet, the carriage of the body, an obsession with "bearing"; these concerns appear as often as critiques of pronunciation. These few but representative examples convey both the object of focus and the level of scrutiny that critics were interested in observing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. What actors lacked in the earlier tradition attracted condemnation, not praise.

A symbolic knell tolls for this strand of criticism in 1887, just two years before the premier of Ibsen's A Doll's House at the aptly named Novelty Theatre, which William Archer, writing in 1891, locates as "unquestionably the birthday of the new movement." (11) Before that birthday, it was still possible to censure Forbes-Robertson for laying the emphasis on the wrong syllable--
   Even Mr. Forbes Robertson ... is not always careful in this regard,
   as when he bids Mamillius "look on me with your welkin eye," and
   emphasises the adjective as if the boy had an eye in reserve of
   some other tint than the purest azure. (12)

--after 1887 we might conclude it was not.

Reviewers today still attend to actors' vocal delivery, of course, particularly with Shakespeare, but the aim is starkly different. Perhaps Britain's foremost theater reviewer, Michael Billington, recently wrote of Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth that,
   When he asks the doctor "Cans't thou not minister to a mind
   diseased?" he inserts a pause after the first syllable of the last
   word as if to prove that Macbeth's own problem is one of "dis-ease"
   and that he has never known the joys of peace and security. That's
   real acting. (13)

"Real acting" is not the ability to observe syllabic precision (in this case, it is easy to imagine an eighteenth-century critic faulting Branagh for taking a hypermetrical pause) but to make a story out of the silence. It is precisely Branagh's silence between syllables rather than his stress on one of them that attracts Billington's regard. An entire history--one of turbulence and insecurity--is registered in the space of a pause between "dis" and "ease." Silence is a technology of the interior, a technology of subjectivity. Absence produces desire, and out of that desire steps character.

This shift appears to have begun in the late nineteenth century, as the idea--if not ideal--of the inner life achieved a kind of crossover from an academic into a vernacular criticism that celebrates a radical form of expressivity designed to invoke the interior. We can hear a hint of the coming method in a review of Henry Irving from 1895, when a critic dismisses as modish Irving's suggestion of an inner life:
   As in the Tubal scene of "The Merchant of Venice," Irving's
   Shylock, which is so finely effective in every other scene, resorts
   to the modern myth of "suppressed passion," so in "Macbeth"; the
   actor employs the same device in a dozen scenes. (14)

There is nothing particularly "modern" about suppressed passion. A philosophy of productive suppression has philosophical roots in the ancients. (15) What is "modern" here is the suppression of passion as a purely theatrical device. (What this critic disdains, Billington would praise.) That the anonymous critic perceives it as "modern," however, registers the sea change in the manner that actors were assessed, as the always appropriative stage raided an emerging discourse of expressive interiority and put it to its use. (16)

The arrival of "psychology" to theatrical vocabulary is hinted at in a spectacularly bad prophecy in an early review of A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. Writing in the Athenaeum in 1905, the unsigned critic presages that,
   these essays of Prof. Bradley are designed for a wide public, which
   they appear to be well on their way to secure, and may possibly
   even exercise some influence upon stage production. This, however,
   will necessarily be faint, the anxiety of the manager-actor, who
   alone is in the position to mount and present a Shakespearean
   tragedy, being rather to furnish opportunities for histrionic
   accomplishment or spectacular display than to cast any strong light
   upon psychology, or to extract from scene and situation their final
   significance. (17)

The critic correctly predicted Bradley's popular appeal, but badly underestimated the impact his book would have on the theatrical profession. For depending upon your perspective, it is either a frustrating or a delicious irony--or more properly both--that one of the most energetically discredited works of twentieth-century Shakespearean criticism has arguably exerted the greatest academic influence upon the performance of Shakespeare on stage over the last one hundred years.

The first appearance of the word "psychology" in a theater review may be nigh untxaceable, but by 1921 it appears unselfconsciously --it is here no "modern myth"--in the Pettit Parisien review of James Hackett's Macbeth:
   Il tombe ensuite dans une sorte d'hebetement qu'il ne secoue, "goge
   d'horreurs", que pur mourir en heros. M. Hackett a exprime avec
   intensite ces etapes psychologiques.

   (From this time he sinks into a kind of depraved ruthlessness,
   which is only checked, "supped full of horrors," by his death. Mr.
   Hackett traced all these psychological phases with intensity.) (18)

The Paris review does not detail what "devices" Hackett used to trace Macbeth's "psychological phases," but the New York Herald's review of the same production goes into more detail:
   The play of passion in the soul was not revealed in frantic cries
   and tirades, nor in rushing and excited motion: the natural
   inflexions of the rich deep voice of the actor, the simplest
   gestes, sufficed to convey a sense of the great tossing, terrible
   internal emotions--not external commotion. (19)

Here, we can see the naturalization of inferiority to the assessment of histrionic skill. By 1925, the Spectator's critic can antiquate John Barrymore's Hamlet by concluding, plaintively, that, "some day an up-to-date actor will give us the psychoanalyst's Hamlet." (20) He wouldn't have to wait long.

We can draw a direct line from 1921 to 2014, from Hackett's "simplest gestes" to Gosling's "minimum effort." What we can also discover in this brief exam of commercial reviewing from the 1780s to the 1920s is nothing less than the total recalibration of what constitutes the Shakespearean character and the means by which the skillful actor produces it. Today, in mainstream productions of Shakespeare, "character" is a product of our desire for the inaccessible inner life of the actor. Character, like Elgar's variations, is a theme played on something that is not there.

It remains to ask why this approach has proved so durable, why assessments of histrionic skill have scarcely altered for over one hundred years. One answer might be that such criticism tends to mystify the critic as well as the actor. One congeniality of this arrangement, that is, is that the critic discovers what others cannot. If the eighteenth-century critic acted as an aural umpire, the modern critic is our collective eye, a kind of group seer. Blessed with second sight, he can discern in Branagh's briefest pause a whole history of Macbeth's unease. This is obviously as much Billington's skill as Branagh's, an easy elision the critic might desire, since in this example, Michael Billington is the co-creator of Shakespearean character.

Art often naturalizes its technique to its products to the extent that alternatives are hard to imagine. That might just be one definition of skill. It makes itself look inevitable. Skill also has a history, however, though its ends are not inevitable. In a 2011 critique of the antiquated psychological bases of contemporary acting, the novelist and critic Shelia Heti remarks first upon the standard assessment of the skillful actors, one consonant with the argument here: "The actors we consider 'best'--like Streep or Daniel Day Lewis or, closer to home, Sarah Polley--imbue their art with subtlety; they do the smallest amount necessary to get the emotion of the character across." (21)

She goes on to suggest, however, that cognitive behavioral developments in psychotherapy offer up new models of what it might mean to be human. These models also offer an avenue for actors, who might pursue methods of being onstage unshackled from an outmoded idea that we are all little more than the history of our trauma.

Henrik Ibsen premiered A Doll's House in London in 1889. The Moscow Arts Theatre opened ten years later. The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, while A. C. Bradley released Shakespearean Tragedy just four years later. It is easy enough to bring texts and events together paratactically to suggest pregnant historical parallels, and this essay offers an obviously reductive history, since it attempts in a few thousand words to account for developments across 150 years. Moreover, it attempts to see the ways in which ideas from thinkers and writers as diverse as Sigmund Freud, A. C. Bradley, Konstantin Stanislavski, not to mention Henrik Ibsen have consolidated interiority as the desideratum of actors, critics, and audiences today.

The argument here, however, is that "the minimum effort with the maximum affect" has entered into our critical vocabulary so thoroughly that it mystifies its own history. In any event, the sovereign subject's reign over the idea of Shakespearean character--even the colonization of Shakespearean character for the sovereign project of liberal humanism itself--is a contingent one. And it's a history ripe for shaking.


(1.) This review from Memphis, Tennessee, is pasted into Folger Scrapbook, B.30.2 "Hanford, Charles."

(2.) Geoff Dyer, "How the cosmetic 'stylish thriller' is beating up on honest cinema," The Guardian August 2, 2014.

(3.) Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares (London: Methuen, 1995), 14.

(4.) See John J. Sullivan, "Stanislavski and Freud," Tulane Drama Review, 9 (1964): 88-111 and J. L. Styan, "Psychology in the Study of Drama: The Negative and the Positive," College Literature 10 (1983): 251-67.

(5.) Cecil Beaton and Kenneth Tynan, Persona Grata (London: Wingate, 1953), 48.

(6.) "Theatrical Intelligence," February 15, 1783, pasted into Folger Scrapbook, A.12.1 "Theatrical Clippings--Drama."

(7.) Anonymous clipping pasted into Folger Scrapbook A.15.6 "Theatrical Scrapbook," Vol. 6 1794-1799.

(8.) Anonymous clipping pasted into Folger Scrapbook A.4.11 "London, Covent Garden, 1809-10."

(9.) The Theatrical Inquisitor, Folger Scrapbook A.14.16 "Theatrical Clippings"

(10.) Anonymous item pasted into Folger Scrapbook A.4.11 London, "Covent Garden," 1809-10; Folger Scrapbook A.15.6 "Theatrical Scrapbook," Vol. 6 1794-1799.

(11.) Quoted in Paul Prescott, Reviewing Shakespeare: Journalism and Performance from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 57.

(12.) September 12, 1887, The Daily News pasted into Folger Scrapbook B.4.1 "Mary Anderson."

(13.) chester-review.

(14.) November 3, 1895, The New-York Times.

(15.) See Paul Menzer, "The Actor's Inhibition: Early Modern Acting and the Rhetoric of Restraint," Renaissance Drama 35 (2006): 83-112.

(16.) We have further verification of Irving's approach from a review by the playwright Charles Rann Kennedy, who after Irving's death acquired his marked up Clarendon Press copy of Macbeth. Writing early in the twentieth century, Kennedy remarks that Irving's notes fall into several categories, including those that register "(a) Simple emphases of particular words" and "(b) For throwing up values in psychology, characterization or story." In Kennedy's evaluation, Irving attended to both pronunciation and psychological nuance, which become increasingly comfortable with one another. Folger Scrapbook B.77.1 "Macbeth."

(17.) Anonymous. The Athenaeum, 1905: May 13 #4046.

(18.) Folger Scrapbook B.29.1 "Hackett, James K."

(19.) June 12, 1921, New York Herald.

(20.) Quoted in Styan, "Psychology in the Study of Drama,"253.

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Title Annotation:theater review evaluations of acting skill; Forum: Skill
Author:Menzer, Paul
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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