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You will follow my proposals more easily if you begin by acting one line of Shakespeare. You can do it sitting down. The line is Ophelia’s. Women readers will do it naturally; and men can remember that only they would have been allowed to act the part in Shakespeare’s time.
Ophelia, deeply troubled, rushes to her father, to describe Hamlet’s silent, distracted visit to her closet:
He took me by the wrist, and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As ’a would draw it.
The line I am after is: 'And with his other hand thus o'er his brow .. . ' How 'o'er his brow'? What did he do with his hand? Think about this for a moment, be the distraught Ophelia. Then, please, say the line with accompanying action:
And with his other hand thus o'er his brow . . . .
What you do, of course, is make a sign - a sign Shakespeare required to give an idea of Ophelia's image of Hamlet's distraction. Your sign will be your unique reflection of an emotional state. In a search among the reviews at the Colindale library, my wife, Mary, and I found Tom Taylor's observation of 1873 that Ophelia's usual gesture in the theatre was 'as if to shade the eyes from the light'. Taylor preferred the hand 'pressed hard on the forehead' - a considerable difference: one gesture directed mainly outward, the other inward.
A Play-by-Play history of King Lear in Germany, France, and Italy would be a dull thing; but a discussion of the special qualities found in the tragedy at historic theatrical moments can illuminate both the work of art and the cultural and artistic environment in which it was presented.
The German productions offer the best example of the range of possibilities found in Lear in Continental theatre because the play has had there its longest history of production, outside of England.
A good deal of critical energy has gone in recent years into the attempt to demonstrate that even the best Elizabethan actors were some kind of human marionettes. Some twenty years ago Miss M. C. Bradbrook wrote: the “general consensus of opinion on Elizabethan acting” was this: “There would be comparatively little business, and gesture would be formalised. Conventional movement and heightened delivery would be necessary to carry off the dramatic illusion.” Since then various articles in learned journals and sections of scholarly books have supported the “formalist” attitude, which now comes to this: that the Elizabethan dramatist's words were all that really counted, and that his actors were trained to be graceful, mannered mouthpieces who recited the dramatic poetry without letting their personalities or their personal ideas of the part played color the performance in any way; they acted formally, not naturally; they did not portray character, they symbolized it. Formalism has tended toward a rigid orthodoxy, although, as we shall see, one of the modern champions of the single style, Professor Harbage, seems to have moved away from his first strict view in the direction of a more liberal formalist attitude of the kind represented by S. L. Bethell. Bethell, frankly facing the rich and lively variety of the Elizabethan plays, noted scenes demanding something like “natural” treatment, and so he allowed a second, relaxed style subordinate to a conventional technique, or sometimes mixed with it. He also saw, as separate modes, the clowning, which he regarded as non-naturalistic, and the elements of vaudeville. But for the regular drama, he argued, “the poetry and its decent delivery were the only real essentials” and “I have no doubt that the formal manner of delivery was used.” The depersonalized actors, Bethell felt, could have made no “addition of ‘personality’ or ‘creativity‘” to their lines; they let the lines tell what the character was, instead of trying to be the character.
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