The Actor and Himself
— A member of the Club recently treated us to some words of wisdom on Le Cothurne Étroit, throwing a light on its qualities sadly needed by our theatre. But I find a certain infelicity in Ins question, “ What, then, becomes of the oft-repeated assertion that one must feel the part in order to be ‘natural’ or ‘ effective ’ ? ”
This query is, of course, not a full expression, even by implication, on the point at issue, but I think it unfortunately misleading. It is because they feel that the doctrine of law in expression contradicts this assertion that the great mass of English-speaking players and their public distrust it, or, in other words, Delsarte, whose name is considered synonymous with it, and also, unfortunately, as authorizing much charlatan teaching that takes his name in vain. Their antagonism does not prove, to be sure, the doctrine wrong, even though it were based on a fair understanding of it; but nevertheless I think their belief in the necessity of emotion sound, based on deep and true instincts, and that their error lies in a misunderstanding of Delsarte and his best expounders. The “natural ” result sought by all is not literally natural, but, as in all the arts, has the effect of nature, more or less idealized as the case may be, limited and modified by the technical conditions of the creation.
A wordy war has long raged between Mr. Irving and M. Coquelin on this subject, and I am fully aware of the disadvantage it must be, in any kindred discussion, to be found on the great English manager’s side ; but I declare that is not my position. I am only not on Coquelin’s. I have never seen or heard an expression from a competent artist or critic — and I am thinking of Salvini for one — as to the comedian’s insistent assertion that he never “ feels ” his parts, that the commenter did not attribute it to a deficiency of self-analysis, the diverse use of words by different people, the natural perversity aroused by the popular over-valuation of feeling, and insufficient appreciation of technique among such an inartistic people as the English, — one or all of these things, — or did not, worse than all, and, I think, unjustly, dismiss the subject by saying that Coquelin’s acting would have led him to suppose the case to be exactly as he states it.
The fact is, acting, psychologically considered, is the most curiously subtle thing in the world, and while all possible training can make nothing of a part but an empty shell unless there exists in the performance the feeling that gives the actor a sense of momentary identity with it, that sense of identity should cover but a small part of his consciousness (to speak, perforce, metaphorically); and outside of this emotional centre the critic part of him should stand unmoved, guiding, more or less consciously, his excitement, and turning it to the best artistic account.
One of Delsarte’s great arguments for the study by actors of the beautiful, eternal principles of expression he formulated was that the knowledge and assumption of the outward symbols of a mood would powerfully aid in producing it; whereupon, of course, the reciprocal play of action and reaction would continuously add to the result.
In a recent beautifully lucid little paper, which I have not now by me, and so cannot quote directly, Salvini, who was a close pupil of Delsarte’s, describes the emotional exaltation of acting, and the process of mastering it to the actor’s purposes, instead of being mastered by it, with all the charming typical naïveté of a great plastic artist. And when I read what he had to say I was consoled for Coquelin’s incredible, tiresome paradoxes, and, in my own mind, complacently congratulated the greatest actor in the world upon saying exactly what I had always thought.