Seventeenth Century Natural Acting

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Seventeenth Century Natural Acting

As we read through the standard accounts of seventeenth-century acting, observers display the same desire to believe in the fictions of the actors as their twentieth-century counterparts. Webster said of "An Excellent Actor" that "what we see him personate, we think truly done before us" ("An Excellent Actor," 1615, in Overbury's The Wife) An anonymous elegy on the death of the famous actor Richard Burbage (d.1619) recalls,

Oft have I seen him leap into a grave

Suiting the person (which he seemed to have)

Of a sad lover, with so true an eye

That then I would have sworn he meant to die:

So lively, the spectators, and the rest

Of his sad crew, while he but seemed to bleed,

Amazed thought that he had died indeed.

Like spectators today, the Jacobean spectators had strong ideas about what constituted "good acting." Thomas Heywood notes that good looks, combined with type casting, are important: "actors should be men pick'd out personable, according to the parts they present" (An Apology for Actors 1612). In the fictional acting lesson in The Return from Parnassus, Part II (c. 1601-03), the Burbage character remarks to his student, "I like your face, and the proportion of your body for Richard the Third ... let me see you act a little of it." Shakespeare's Peter Quince and Holofernes go in for similar methods of casting in their amateur theatricals.

Rhetoric and vocal virtuosity were also admired. Hamlet advises that the players speak "trippingly on the tongue" (Hamlet, III.2, c. 1603), and Heywood adds that the actor should observe the structure of his texts, "and with judgment to observe his commas, colons, and full points; his parentheses, his breathing spaces, and distin...

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...n the men's companies seem to have learned more from examples that from a curriculum. In The Return from Parnassus, Part II, both Burbage and Will Kemp are shown teaching by imitation:

BURBAGE: I think your voice would serve for Hieronimo; observe how I act it, and then imitate me.

Here we run up against the bugbear of historically informed performance. So many of the treatises (in music and dance as well as in acting) depend on the student's imitation of an admired master, and a gradual perfection of "good taste" as his society constructed that elusive quality. We cannot recreate those apprenticeships, those saturations in a period aesthetic. However, by constructing exercises along the lines of a Renaissance aesthetic, we may expose some of the differences between what the Shakespearean audience saw, and what the North American audience sees today.

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