Seventeenth Century Natural Acting Essay

939 words - 4 pages

Seventeenth Century Natural Acting

As we read through the standard accounts of seventeenth-century acting, observers display the same desire to believe in the fictions of the actors as their twentieth-century counterparts. Webster said of "An Excellent Actor" that "what we see him personate, we think truly done before us" ("An Excellent Actor," 1615, in Overbury's The Wife) An anonymous elegy on the death of the famous actor Richard Burbage (d.1619) recalls,

Oft have I seen him leap into a grave
Suiting the person (which he seemed to have)
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye
That then I would have sworn he meant to die:
So lively, the spectators, and the rest
Of his sad crew, while he but seemed to bleed,
Amazed thought that he had died indeed.

Like spectators today, the Jacobean spectators had strong ideas about what constituted "good acting." Thomas Heywood notes that good looks, combined with type casting, are important: "actors should be men pick'd out personable, according to the parts they present" (An Apology for Actors 1612). In the fictional acting lesson in The Return from Parnassus, Part II (c. 1601-03), the Burbage character remarks to his student, "I like your face, and the proportion of your body for Richard the Third ... let me see you act a little of it." Shakespeare's Peter Quince and Holofernes go in for similar methods of casting in their amateur theatricals.

Rhetoric and vocal virtuosity were also admired. Hamlet advises that the players speak "trippingly on the tongue" (Hamlet, III.2, c. 1603), and Heywood adds that the actor should observe the structure of his texts, "and with judgment to observe his commas, colons, and full points; his parentheses, his breathing spaces, and distinctions" (ibid.). Noting that actors are not necessarily scholars, Heywood wryly comments that they "should have that volubility that they can speak well, though they understand not what."

Facial expression was considered a part of rhetorical skill. Heywood advises the actor

to keep a decorum in his countenance, neither to grown when he should smile, nor to make unseemly and disguised faces in the delivery of his words; not to stare with his eyes, draw awry his mouth, confound his voice in the hollow of his throat, nor tear his words hastily betwixt his teeth. (ibid.)

Hamlet observes a more successful example of this facial eloquence in the Player, who

Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That, from her working, all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit . . . (II.2)

"Action" was the third basic component of acting. Heywood...

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