The Rise of Acting Technique began with some series of innovation from some groups. Troupes of the commedia dell’arte, popular Italian comedy, spread throughout Europe in the early 1600s. Working without scripts on makeshift stages, the commedia companies, which included the first professional female actors, produced a new dynamic between performer and spectator. The sources of theatrical creativity sprang directly from the performers, who improvised their own words and comic actions around a basic plot and stock character types. Unlike in the literary theater or the opera, where the audience concentrated on a playwright’s speeches or on individual arias, the spectator’s interest in the commedia attached itself to the improvised and expressive accomplishments of the entire ensemble. Literary concepts and spectacular scenic displays were uncommon in commedia dell’arte, and this encouraged attention to the art of acting.
During the 17th century, when the plays of such dramatists as William Shakespeare and Moliere were popular in England and France, theater integrated great dramatic literature with the excitement of professional acting. But once again the playwright’s art overshadowed the performer. It was difficult to untangle artistically the words of the dramatist from the skill of the actor speaking them. Only the historical separation of these first productions from their restagings a generation later allowed audiences to fully appreciate the actor’s art, independent of the original dialogues.
Beginning in the late 17th century, theatergoers in England learned to distinguish the treatment of Hamlet by actor-manager Thomas Betterton from other productions of Shakespeare’s play. Different stagings of classical or familiar plays sharpened spectators’ critical facilities. In addition, theater halls designed with a concern for good acoustics permitted performers to be heard differently and allowed for more subtle, natural inflections. Sophisticated systems of indoor stage lighting displayed the faces and hands of individual actors, so that the visual details of a performance could be more easily perceived and critiqued.
Among the first modern actors on the British stage in the 18th century were Charles Macklin and his student David Garrick. Macklin, who was hired because of his background in commedia-like farces and pantomime, based his celebrated Shylock (a Jewish businessman in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) on observations of Jews in London. Essentially, Macklin added lifelike details of movement and authentic speech to written text, acting features that may not have been noticed 50 years earlier with less advanced acoustics, lighting, and other theater technology.
Garrick continued this novelty of natural acting but with still more plausibility and under better lighting conditions. Garrick practiced imitating the facial expressions of actual people and brought this mimicry to the stage. What would be a good comic turn in a fairground performance became a new expressive technique for tragedy. For example, Garrick based his portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear on a crazed neighbor who compulsively reenacted the accidental killing of his infant daughter. Although Macklin, in contrast to the prevailing style of the time, never dropped his character during a performance, Garrick went further by listening and reacting in character to all the dialogue around him. This standard feature of the unscripted commedia became a surprising innovation when applied to Shakespeare. Audience members could not take their eyes off Garrick.
Eighteenth-century French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, who saw Garrick on tour in Paris, became fascinated with Garrick’s abilities to rapidly portray emotional states on his face without actually feeling them. Diderot believed the less the actor felt the emotions of his character, the more artistic control he could have, and therefore, he could deliver a more consistent and stronger performance. In the essay “Le paradoxe sur le comédien” (1773; translated as “The Paradox of the Actor,” 1883), Diderot contrasted the techniques of two famous rivals, Marie-Françoise Dumesnil and Hippolyte Clairon, who performed at the Comedie Française. Dumesnil, the representative of the so-called emotional school, thought it was an actor’s duty to become the character. Although horribly uneven as a performer—she normally coasted through a play until she reached a tragic point—Dumesnil had tremendous power and emotional depth. She claimed she knew the secret of great acting: heaven. She prayed to find out who she was as a character, where she was, and what she had done. Unfortunately, her divine inspiration was frequently stimulated by alcohol. Clairon maintained she did not become her characters; she did not even play them. Instead, she created them through movement and speech. Perfecting the “look” of emotions and rehearsing endlessly, Clairon managed to develop fairly natural and reliable character portrayals. Clarion declared audiences applauded actors, not characters. What Diderot had really uncovered in his comparison of the two actors were the polarities of inspiration and technique.
Neither Macklin, Garrick, Diderot, Dumesnil, nor Clairon solved the problems of inspiration and expressiveness for other actors. For one thing, the schools and treatises they left behind were more philosophical than technical. In fact, Garrick’s natural school of acting vanished with his death. For British audiences, it was a fad associated with the actor. The truth of the matter was that Garrick and the rest could not teach their highly personal techniques.
The emotional and anti-emotional acting styles of the great actors ran in cycles through the 19th century. In every country, an actor of one generation championed the first technique and was followed by a younger performer who advocated the other. So the romantic and emotive Edmund Kean followed the stately Sarah Siddons, who followed Garrick. But as limelight gave rise to gas lighting and then to electricity, more and more physical detail appeared on the stage. Costumes and scenic displays grew in complexity and size, dwarfing the actor. The Rise of Acting Technique metamorphosed from century to century.