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François Delsarte: A Codification of Nineteenth-Century Acting

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009

George Taylor
George Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Drama, University of Manchester


In 1875 George Henry Lewes published the following analysis of William Charles Macready's acting:

Whenever he had an emotion to depict he depicted it sympathetically and not artificially; by which I mean that he felt himself to be the person, and having identified himself with the character, sought by means of the symbols of his art to express what that character felt; he did not stand outside the character and try to express its emotions by the symbols that had been employed for other characters by other actors.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1999

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1. Lewes, G. H.On Actors and Acting (London: Smith & Elder, 1875), pp. 37–8.Google Scholar

2. Diderot, Denis, Le Paradoxe sur le comédien (1773/1830), translated by Pollock, W. H. (London, 1883)Google Scholar; reprinted with Archer, WilliamMasks or Faces? edited by Strasberg, Lee (New York: Hill & Wang, 1957).Google Scholar

3. Barba, Eugenio & Savarese, NicolaThe Secret Art of the Performer (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 136Google Scholar; Zarilli, Philip, Acting (Re)considered (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 192.Google Scholar

4. Donahue, Joseph, Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 345.Google Scholar See also Taylor, George, Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)Google Scholar, Chapter 3, ‘A Theatre of Feeling’.

5. Wilson, MichaelColumbine's Picturesque Passage’, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretations 31 (1990) p. 205.Google Scholar

6. Brown, Moses TruePhilosophy and Expression (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886), p. 144.Google Scholar

7. I simplify the history here for the purpose of clarity. There were ‘passionate’ performers before Garrick, and treatises, such as Brun's, LeConférences sur l'expression des differents caractères des passions (Paris, 1667)Google Scholar, which identified the expression of passions, but Garrick inspired an intense revaluation of stage technique, in England and on the continent. See Taylor, George, ‘The Just Delineation of the Passions, Acting Theories in the Age of Garrick’, The Eighteenth Century English Stage, edited by Richards, Kenneth & Thomson, Peter (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 5172.Google Scholar

8. Barba, Eugenio, The Paper Canoe (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1516.Google Scholar

9. For this change in social deportment, see the essay by King, Thomas A. ‘Performing Akimbo’ in Meyer, Moe, The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994).Google Scholar

10. Hill, Aaron, ‘An Essay on the Art of Acting’ (1749), in The Works of the Late Aaron Hill, esq. (London, 1754), vol. 4.Google Scholar

11. Diderot, , Paradox, in Strasberg, p. 33.Google Scholar

12. This stance is comparable to that of Kathakali and Balinese actors. This intercultural comparison is valid as the ‘start’ is used as a conventional gesture of ‘seeing’ in both the oriental and European styles.

13. Jelgerhuis, J.Theoretische lessen over de gesticulatie en mimik (Amsterdam, 1827Google Scholar, reprinted in Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1970).

14. Harvard Theatre Collection: Autographs I, A-F; cited Taylor, George, Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), p. 2.Google Scholar

15. Hunt, Leigh, The Examiner, 26 02 1816.Google Scholar

16. Balukhaty, S. D., ed., The Seagull: Production Score for the Moscow Art Theatre K.S. Stanislavsky, translated Magarshack, David (London: Dennis Dobson, 1952).Google Scholar

17. For the ‘mechanics of second nature’, see Roach, Joseph, The Player's Passion (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), chapter 5, pp. 160–94.Google Scholar

18. Ibid.: Roach argues that principles of performance are deeply informed by the psychological theories of their times. Thus Renaissance performers used ‘humours’ to interpret character, the precision of neoclassical acting reflected the mechanistic theories of Harvey's circulation, Descartes' animal spirits and Newton's laws of motion; and during the Romantic age ‘sensibility’ was envisaged as electrical influence, following Mesmer's theory of animal magnetism.

19. See Cooter, Roger, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

20. Darwin, , On the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872), p. 239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21. James, William, Principles of Psychology (London: Macmillan, 1890).Google Scholar

22. MacKaye, Percy, Epoch; the Life of Steele MacKaye, Genius of the Theatre. (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927), i, pp. 132–3.Google Scholar

23. Arnaud, Angelique, François del Sarte (Paris: Librairie Charles Delagrave, 1882)Google Scholar: Giraudet, Alfred, Mimique, Physionomie et Gestes (Paris: Ancienne Maison Quantin, 1892).Google Scholar Translations from these and from Abbé Delaumosne, Marie Geraldy (Delsarte) and Francis A. Durivage appear in both Werner, Edgar S., The Delsarte System of Oratory (New York: E.S. Werner, 1893)Google Scholar and Zorn, J. W., The Essential Delsarte (New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1968).Google Scholar

24. Stebbins, Genevieve, The Delsarte System of Expression (New York: E. S. Warner, 1885)Google Scholar: Brown, Moses True, Philosophy and Expression (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1886)Google Scholar: Warman, Edward B., Gesture and Attitude (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1892)Google Scholar; Lowell, Marion, ed., Harmonic Gymnastics and Pantomimic Expression (Boston: Marion Lowell, 1895)Google Scholar and several articles in Werner's Voice Magazine, especially: Steele MacKaye (December 1874); Sargent, Franklin H., ‘The Silent Art’ (01 1890- 02 1891)Google Scholar, MrsMacKaye, , ‘Steele MacKaye and François Delsarte’ (07 1892).Google Scholar

25. Durivage, Francis, ‘Delsarte System of Oratory’, in Zorn, Essential Delsarte, pp. 89.Google Scholar

26. Before and during the Revolutionary period the gestic language developed by Noverre in the 1760s for narrative ballet had been adopted by the mime and melodrama of the Boulevard Theatres from which the spoken drama was banned by the monopoly of the Royal Theatres, see. Root-Bernstein, M., Boulevard Theatre and Revolution in 18th-century Paris (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984).Google Scholar

27. Sargent, F. H., ‘The Silent Art’, Werner's Voice Magazine, 01 1890, p. 69.Google Scholar

28. Quoted by Brown, True in Philosphy of Expression, p. 50.Google Scholar

29. Shawn, Ted, Every Little Movement (New York: Dance Horizons, 1954)Google Scholar, frontispiece. Shawn gives no source reference, but it is more likely the product of a French commentator than Delsarte himself.

30. Quoted in Warman, , Gestures and Attitudes, p. 64.Google Scholar MacKaye used as similar tone: ‘The body should be like a veil thrown over the spirit through which the spirit shines’, Sargent, F. H., ‘The Silent Art’ part 4, p. 127.Google Scholar

31. Ibid.

32. Delsarte's self-imposed restriction to trinities (or three times three) in all his propositions makes one suspect the relative importance of all Nine Rules, particularly as commentators list them differently. I find True Brown's list the most persuasive, as he describes each law with reference to other ‘laws of science’ (Philosphy of Expression, pp. 49–87). Ted Shawn, who argued Delsarte's relevance to modern dance, follows Genevieve Stebbins's list: Altitude; Force; Motion; Sequence; Direction; Form; Velocity; Reaction; Extension (Every Little Movement, pp. 47–9).

33. Martha Graham's mother taught ‘Delsarte Method’, and the Russian director Tairov knew of his principles.

34. MacKaye, , Epoch, I, pp. 132–67Google Scholar

35. Downer, Alan S., The Eminent Tragedian; William Charles Macready (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), pp. 152–4 & 293309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36. MacKaye, , Epoch, I, p. 149Google Scholar

37. See especially Stebbins, G., op. citGoogle Scholar and Wilber, Elsie M., Werner's Voice Magazine, 02 1891.Google Scholar Both gymnastics and oratory were central to the summer camps of Chautauqua, New York State, dedicated to developing ‘field preachers’. The gymnastics were further developed by Melvin Gilbert and Dudley A. Sargent into systems that directly inspired the dancers Gertrude Colby, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, see Kraus, Richard, History of the Dance in Art and Education (New Jersey, 1969), pp. 127–30Google Scholar, and Ruyter, Nancy Lee, Performers and Visionaries: the Americanization of the Art of Dance (New York: Dance Horizons, 1979)Google Scholar and ‘Antique Longings: Genevieve Stebbins and American Delsartean Performance’ in Foster, Susan, ed., Corporealities; Dancing, Knowledge, Culture and Power (London: Rout-ledge, 1996).Google Scholar

38. MacKaye, , Epoch, I, pp. 437–54.Google Scholar

39. Meyer, Moe, ‘Under the Sign of Wilde’, The Politics and Poetics of Camp (Routledge, 1994), pp. 81–2.Google Scholar

40. Sheila Barlow who taught acting classes for opera singers at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in the 1970s, attributed her methods to Delsarte; and many of Delsarte's techniques, even if unattributed, are still used by singers in that the qualities of poise, extension and rhythm, as well as the illustrative gestures to stomach, heart or temple are, as it were, composed into many operatic scores of the late nineteenth century.