The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0465 Monday, 18 February 2002
From: Charles Weinstein <
Date: Saturday, 16 Feb 2002 14:52:34 -0500
Subject: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline, Part I
In his fine book Being an Actor (1985), Simon Callow recounts a
conversation that he had in the 1970s with the stage director William
"I had been moved when Bill had talked to me months before, in a hotel
room in Zagreb...about working with Edith Evans: 'It was like being in
the presence of a force of nature. Waves and waves of warmth came from
her as she rehearsed, a sea of warmth.' 'THAT'S what I want to see!' I
cried, 'that's what we should be striving for as actors.' "No,' Bill
said, 'it's not possible any more.' 'Why?' 'The conditions for what we
call great acting no longer exist.' I didn't say anything, but I
couldn't accept it. If it was good, we must try to do it. I resisted
his historical fatalism. Behind it I detected an almost romantic
despair at the prospect of ever seeing extraordinary acting again...."
But it would seem that Callow's resistance is wearing thin. In the 1995
reissue of Being an Actor, he contributed a "Gloomy Postscript,"
subtitled "A Short View of the English Stage." It is the single most
important statement about contemporary classical acting ever written.
The whole of it is well worth attention; the salient passages are as
"The theatre has chosen to forgo its capacity for refreshing the common
humanity of the audience, preferring instead to appeal to its
intelligence--when, that is, it is not simply stimulating its senses.
In these circumstances, the actor ceases to be the very embodiment of
the play and its world; he becomes instead simply a part of the
author/director's statement about the play.
This is not acting as it was understood. It seems that there has been a
break in the transmission of the tradition. 'They were actors then!' is
a common cry of the misty-eyed romantic. The departure from the stage,
however, of the last generation that was truly extraordinary is still
well within living memory, and to say that Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft,
Donald Wolfit, Anew McMaster, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson,
Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud purveyed an experience that is not
available to present-day play-goers is no nostalgic fantasy, merely a
banal truth. Perhaps the explanation lies in Bill Gaskill's view
(quoted in this book) that the social conditions which gave rise to that
sort of great acting have disappeared; that the debourgeoisification of
society and the dismantlement of the hierarchies has demanded a
different sort of acting. It is equally true that the theatrical
structures that enabled those actors to develop their extraordinary
talents have also disappeared...But there is something even more
important which has changed: the way in which these actors saw
A strange thing happened to the succeeding generation of actors. For
many reasons--personal and financial--they declined the succession.
They went away--some to Hollywood, some just away. The great roles
continued to be played, and played well, but there was a strong sense
that something had gone out of the theatre. The performances of these
crucial roles ceased to be events in the collective life of society.
They were intelligent and accomplished and often brilliant performances,
but they failed to stir the souls of the audience. The mythic, the
archetypal dimension had disappeared. These great characters were being
portrayed as individuals instead of forces of nature; the approach was
sometimes naturalistic, sometimes stylized, but either way it failed to
project a full human life on an epic scale. The acting had become
The same thing has been noted in all the performing arts. Dancing,
singing, instrumental performance are all practised with greater
technical skill, accuracy and intelligence than ever; and yet they lack
the human expressiveness, the resonance and vibrancy of past
performances. Linearity has been purchased at expense of depth, and
there is a consequent diminution in power. In a word, these
performances *mean* less than performances seen and remembered by any of
us over forty years of age. The performers offer less of themselves;
perhaps there is less to give.
[T]here is a terrible danger that audiences will forget that the theatre
can be more than [musicals], more even than the civilized evenings on
offer on the South Bank and at the Barbican, more than the splendid
panoplies of machinery and decor without which no show is now complete,
more than the adaptations of novels, more than the beautiful things done
in small spaces. That there is something else, something hugely
nourishing, soul-shakingly profound and indelible, memorable....
There is no reason why acting should not aspire to [these]
qualities....But we will never do this if we dilute our training, if we
are unable to practise what we have learned, above all unless we are
prepared to delve deeper and deeper into ourselves, finding ever more
expressive means of showing what we know. Self-congratulation will get
THE TREE WILL STAND FOR SOME TIME AFTER THE ROOTS HAVE DIED.
THEN IT WILL FALL."
All I can add is that now, some seven years after Callow penned his
"Gloomy Postscript," things are incalculably worse. When I first
visited England in the 70s I was well aware that the acting I saw in
London, Stratford, Birmingham and other venues did not approach the best
that I had seen in New York and on film of Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson
and others. But it was indeed brilliant, intelligent and accomplished,
and so far above even the best American classical acting that I couldn't
help but feel exhilarated. This remained true for a while longer; then,
about the mid-80s, things began to slip badly; and throughout the 90s my
theatrical junkets to England became an unbroken series of
heart-deadening disappointments. At the present moment, the great roles
are still being played, but they are NOT being played well, let alone
"brilliantly." Even the vaunted "technical skill" and "intelligence"
that Callow mentions seem to have disappeared. There is no longer any
real difference in quality between American and British classical
acting, not because we Americans have gotten better, but because the
British have gotten so much worse, joining us hand-in-hand as we plunge
straight into the abyss. I have stopped going to England: I simply
can't take it any more. The roots have rotted away; and the tree is
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