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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0484  Wednesday, 20 February 2002

[1]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 16:17:24 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0465 Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

[2]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 17:09:20 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

[3]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 11:17:11 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

[4]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 13:31:06 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 16:17:24 -0000
Subject: 13.0465 Classical Acting: Signs of Decline, Part I
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0465 Classical Acting: Signs of Decline, Part I

Charles Weinstein cites Simon Callow thus:

"[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...."

Like most of Weinstein's own criticism, this sounds very much to me like
criticisms of Jonsonian masques given in the light of Shakespearean
drama.  In other words, this is not the first time people have felt this
way, and this is not the first period in which playgoers have felt the
need to cry, "O tempora! O mores!" If one reads criticism of the theatre
of the 1620s and 30s from the first half of the twentieth century, the
same criticisms are made. Those criticisms have been thoroughly
reconsidered in the last twenty years or so. Now, this might be a
symptom of what Weinstein laments, I suppose. But the fact remains that
those earlier critics had to apologize for the fact that theatre was
still popular in the 1630s, indeed more popular and more respected than
ever. The latter critics simply put more effort into explaining why that
might be, why these supposedly "decadent" plays should have drawn an
audience. "The performances of these crucial roles ceased to be events
in the collective life of society", wrote Callow. The problem with this
is that it does not take account of the extent to which society itself
has changed. If theatre, and acting, are to reflect the needs and
desires of their audiences, then it is inevitable that they too will
have to change and evolve. If society feels itself to be fragmented and
atomized, then we should not be surprised when its theatre tries to
address that atomization rather than trying to refer to a "collective
life" that it is no longer possible to imagine. We might like this, we
might not like this; we might like our society, and we might not like
our society.  Musicals are popular; machinery is popular. Sometimes
musicals and their machinery are thought by many to constitute great
theatre (The Lion King is a good example of critical and popular
agreement in this respect). The productions at the RSC are still
popular; and Shakespearean acting still draws a considerable audience
for other companies, too. Whether this acting is "classical" or not, I
would not hazard to say, as the use of this adjective simply confuses me
in this context (especially its use by Weinstein). But our response as
critics should not merely be to whine that theatre does not meet our
peculiar ideals (because our ideals are always peculiar, never
"collective"), but, at least in part, to think about how it answers the
needs and desires of those people who pay to sit through it and
apparently enjoy it. Even a tree that has fallen down can be made into a
new chair, if the carpenter has the necessary skill.

m

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 17:09:20 +0000
Subject: 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

I'm vividly reminded of the words of two theater cats invented by TS
Eliot and Don Marquis respectively: Augustus the theater cat:

Now these kittens they do not get trained
As we did in the days when Victoria reigned.
They never get drilled in a regular troupe,
And they think they are smart, just to jump through a hoop!
And he says as he scratches himself with his claws
Well the theater's certainly not what it was.
These modern productions are all very well. . . (etc.)

And more simply, Mehitabel's friend "the old trouper"

they haven't got it
they haven't got it
here
jo jefferson was a trouper
he had it
here. . .
come, mehitabel
both our professions
are being ruined by amateurs

Since both of these feline quotes are circa 1930 I conclude that the
theater was in the ash heap long before Olivier and Gielgud arrived on
the scene.  Or, more to the point, that it wasn't, and that this sort of
blanket complaint is far from new.

Melissa D. Aaron
ailurophile

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 11:17:11 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

Several important issues have been raised in this thread. The Twentieth
Century saw a great revolution in the theatre as regards the methods
used to approach acting.

Theatre, from Shakespeare's era where the modern theatre first began
down through the advent of film, was a major social event. People
flocked to see their favorite playwrights and the great actors of their
age. The trend continued through the Twentieth when it was still
important to see the big actors of the age.  I do not think it is a
coincidence that the last generation of actors that seemed to matter,
that transcended the theatre, coincide with the stellar rise of the
cinema. Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson are acknowledged as the last
group of actors that mattered. But even they were passed by with the
"movie stars". Olivier crossed over in the early part of the Twentieth
century with films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, but by the time
of the mid 1950s, he was either creating his own Shakespearean films or
forced to portray an older style of acting.

I raised this issue once but did not receive any rebuttal. At the time
that Marlon Brando took the screen as Stanley Kowalski, the ideal of
acting, whether you agree or not and for better or for worse, changed
forever. Realism was in and the classical style for acting, which does
not necessarily reach for realism, was out. Gritty performances by
Brando and James Dean ruled the screen, which was the emerging new
theatre that it is now. People flock to the cinema as they once poured
into the theatres for their evening's entertainment. When this mid-50s
revolution occurred, Oliver and Gielgud were relegated to an "older"
generation. Olivier's performances were then regarded as too outrageous
or "big" for the screen (at times in Richard III and certainly in the
National's filmed version of his Othello). Gielgud never made it as a
big film actor. The films he made were as a supporting actor, for which
he even won an Academy Award.

This doesn't mean I necessarily prefer realism over classicism. I
sincerely wish that I could have seen some of those great stage
performances of years past (oddly and coincidentally enough, 1955 in
Stratford rings out in my head - a response to Brando's invasion?). I
even believe that some of those performances may have been unrepeatable.
I'm just saying, blame it on Brando and Stella Adler. Film (for better
and for worse) has usurped the role of theatre in society. With it, a
subtler style of acting. Actors who train for the screen never have a
need to project their voice to reach the back wall of a theatre;
classical actors did. They were required to have booming voices and
larger than life spirits. Today's actors, even the new theatrical ones,
are not as keen or even trained to project a resonant voice. I have had
trouble hearing performers in the RST or at the National. The problem is
that the actors of today are attempting to make the silver screen. Those
who make the theatre will never make a lot of money but will only be
satisfied with their craft. It used to be all Olivier and Gielgud had.
Now, the glamour and money of a film set beckons.

I actually can appreciate both styles of acting for what they are. Am I
the only one who can see before and after for what it is? Two different
approaches and two different techniques? Two different ways but both
effective in the right situations.

Brian Willis

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002 13:31:06 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0475 Re: Classical Acting: Signs of Decline

Sean Lawrence writes, "Last term, I showed my classes (who probably make
a reasonable cross-section of Canadian society, albeit of only one age
group) the wooing scene from _Henry V_ in both Branagh's and Olivier's
versions.  They had a very hard time taking Olivier seriously at all,
with his aggressive stance, over-bombastic costume (not to mention
enunciation), lousy attempt at speaking in French, stilted laughter, and
1940s filming.  Branagh's (or rather, Branagh and Thompson's)
performance, on the other hand, really did seem to move at least some of
them.  This is not to say that being moving, or touching the audience's
common humanity, is purposeless or so vague that it doesn't matter, nor
that all viewing is subjective.  It is, however, to say that standards
of acting will change enormously over time.  It takes a certain
sensibility to be moved by a particular style of performance.  If we are
losing one sensibility, perhaps we are gaining others."

I have a thought I hope any number of _Shaksper_ readers will think
about and respond to, OK?  I particularly accept what Sear Lawrence
writes above, having experienced similar reactions from my college
students over the years with various performances of various playwrights
from various times.  Several years ago I went to see Baz Luhrmann's
movie of _Romeo and Juliet_, in the theater and _not_ at home on tape,
the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.  I had _no_ idea what I
was in for, only going because a friend had pestered me to, and had
totally missed all the reviews, the hype, etc.  Who knows, maybe I was
prepping and teaching at the time....  Well, to say the least, it was
not what I _expected_ and I hardly remember what I expected.  But I sat
there, stunned, with my wife, wondering and wondering, what _is_ this?
I was caught between the modern-period setting and the _classic_
Shakespearean speech.  I had _no_ idea what I had got myself into,
sitting in that darkened movie theater.  Well, here is my question, for
those who wish to respond: if you can recall, at what _precise_ moment
did you get _into_ it, if at all?  Yes, for me, finally, it worked, it
clicked, and it was when one of the characters walked up to the gas
pumps and spoke.  When Ben, Romeo's cousin said, "Part, fools!  You know
not what you do," that voice of Shakespearean reason, albeit at the
other end of a gun pointed menacingly at other characters stopped my
world, and I was hooked, and the play was _on_.  From that _moment_ on
the movie was pure fantasy and magic, and I loved my Will Shakespeare
experience of _Romeo and Juliet_, once again.

Bill Arnold

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