Virtuosity in the Theatre

Download Virtuosity in the Theatre

Post on 20-Jan-2017




1 download

Embed Size (px)


<ul><li><p>Irish Jesuit Province</p><p>Virtuosity in the TheatreReview by: Gabriel FallonThe Irish Monthly, Vol. 74, No. 877 (Jul., 1946), pp. 303-310Published by: Irish Jesuit ProvinceStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 19:48</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Irish Jesuit Province is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Irish Monthly.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>303 </p><p>Sitting at the Play </p><p>Virtuosity in the Theatre By Gabriel Fall?n </p><p>IN an intriguing article on The Writer in the Theatre iji the first (March, 1946) issue of Theatre To-Day, Mr. Frank O'Connor makes an opening reference to the dramas written </p><p>by Shelley, Keats, Browning and Tennyson and their utter </p><p>unsuitability as works of theatre. " </p><p>Browning," he declares, " who couldn't write a lyric without the very throb of drama in </p><p>it, wrote verse drama which is almost comical." In a fair </p><p>measure this is true of course ; yet one cannot afford to overlook </p><p>the amazing fact of actor-manager Louis Calvert touring The </p><p>Blot on the Scutcheon (even to our own Gaiety Theatre) with a </p><p>considerable degree of uncomical success. </p><p>John Drinkwater in his Victorian Poetry covered much of this </p><p>ground, commenting on the waste of energy incurred by Tenny </p><p>son, Browning, Swinburne and Arnold in the writing of plays. He referred to it as-one of the tragic futilities both of English </p><p>literature and the English theatre. " </p><p>It was a time," he tells </p><p>us, " </p><p>when the actor had achieved complete ascendancy in the </p><p>theatre and when what he wanted was not creative poets whose </p><p>work he could perform, but hack playwrights who could serve the </p><p>purpose of his own histrionic virtuosity." </p><p>Like Drinkwater, Mr. O'Connor finds employment for the " virtu </p><p>" root, and he informs us that </p><p>" from the point of view </p><p>of the virtuoso, musical or theatrical, the creative artist is only a </p><p>nuisance. He can get far better show pieces from the theatre </p><p>pianist or the village idiot ". I wonder. Making due allow </p><p>ance for Mr. O'Connor's pardonable and poetic exaggeration, the </p><p>statement seems plausible enough. But is it? Where will our </p><p>theatrical virtuoso find his purpose better served than in the plays </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>304 THE IRISH MONTHLY </p><p>of Shakespeare? Consider the soliloquies. Think of the whole wilderness of </p><p>44 virtuosity </p><p>" which has been thrown behind </p><p>Hamlet's " </p><p>O what a rogue and peasant slave " </p><p>or the fifth </p><p>Henry's " </p><p>Once more into the breach " </p><p>to mention only two </p><p>of them. Your Shakespeare is (or rather was) the very abiding place of theatrical virtuosity. </p><p>Harley Granville-Barker puts forward the Drinkwater </p><p>O'Connor view but in another way. " With the actor in the </p><p>ascendant the contemporary drama is generally lifeless," he tells us. And then goes on to say: 4f Remarkable plays are not </p><p>written by taking an actor at his own valuation, and by giving him merely what he likes best to do. But neither are they written by men who take other plays for a model, and know noth </p><p>ing at first hand about the actor's art at all." Something which rules out the village idiot, I'm afraid. Mr. O'Connor speaks of </p><p>that Victorian period in theatre as one in which the partnership of dramatist, audience and actor had been dissolved, </p><p>4i and the </p><p>actor was in the saddle ". Granville-Barker on the other hand, is not inclined to grant a partnership at all. </p><p>4i It would seem," </p><p>he says, " </p><p>as if this collaboration were less an alliance than a </p><p>rivalry, the history of the theatre could be viewed as a never </p><p>determined struggle between drapiatist and actor for pre eminence </p><p>" with, of course, all the advantages as disputant or </p><p>historian on the writer's side. Except, perhaps, when actors like </p><p>Shakespeare or Moliere were in the saddle. </p><p>Much of the early history of the Abbey?the exodus-of-the </p><p>Fays period, for instance?shows traces of this 4i </p><p>never </p><p>determined " </p><p>struggle. What actors are in the ascendant there </p><p>now, a period which Mr. O'Connor has already measured by </p><p>literary standards and found wanting? If the ascendancy of the actor-manager kept Tennyson, Browning, Shelley and </p><p>Keats from writing actable plays, and if, as Mr. O'Connor con </p><p>tends, the ascendancy of the producer is keeping Eliot, Auden </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>VIRTUOSITY IN THE THEATRE 305 </p><p>and Spender from writing actable plays, could we possibly create dramatists by liquidating producers? </p><p>' Or would we then find </p><p>excuses in stage-door-keepers, for instance?or in the moon? </p><p>But this?virtuosity?which so offended Mr. Drinkwater and is not pleasing to Mr. O'Connor. Mr. St. John Ervine, no </p><p>enemy of writers, confesses in The Theatre in My Time that he has wakeful moments in the night, wakeful moments </p><p>" in which a fear crosses my mind that the actor-managers were in the right more often than I supposed and that the exploitation of </p><p>personality is an important part of what we callfi theatre '." He </p><p>complains of the passing of great speech in the theatre. itf </p><p>The </p><p>naturalists, upset by these bursts of eloquence declared that this, </p><p>way of speaking words was mere ranting and they demanded a </p><p>method of delivering lines which would be more life-like." </p><p>(Incidentally the naturalists to whom Mr. Ervine refers were the </p><p>literary conquerors of the actor-managers.) " </p><p>Henry the Fifth </p><p>was to call his friends to the breach once more as if he were Mr. </p><p>Sidney Webb exhorting members of the Fabian Society to </p><p>propagate the principles of the Minority Report of the Reform </p><p>of the Poor Law ". (And this is exactly how most of our </p><p>present-day young Henrys do perform the trick.) " </p><p>Gradually the old-style of acting disappeared," laments Mr. Ervine, </p><p>i and </p><p>was succeeded by the new style, in which actors and actressses </p><p>behaved on the stage as if they were in their own homes. Acting, indeed, seemed as if it might disappear altogether and be </p><p>replaced by behaving ". Exactly; all the virtuosity had gone out of it. </p><p>We were told, of course, that this new type of acting called </p><p>for greater intelligence on the actor's part. Irving could never </p><p>play ShawT, and all that. And so we fii^d a modern critic, James </p><p>Agate, searching for something which the theatre had lost when </p><p>it lost the actor-manager. He looks around for an actor who can </p><p>act in any sense of the word, even though there be nothing but </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>806 THE IRISH MONTHLY </p><p>vanity in his head, and he declares that he will get out of the fellow's pose and voice and gesture a Hamlet who will bear some </p><p>resemblance to the original. " </p><p>You, on the other hand, shall be at liberty to produce your intellectual darling, steeped in Piran </p><p>dello to the very lips, and set him mooning upon the stage ; and the best he will achieve will be to resemble a well-laid fire to which the house-maid has forgotten to apply the match." (It should be noted that Agate is looking for an actor to play Hamlet and not in Eliot, Auden or Spender. No doubt he would be content to leave the works of those producer-inhibited dramatists to the </p><p>multitude of " </p><p>well-laid fires ".) Thanks to the writers who downed Irving and the actor </p><p>managers, acting has become so unlike acting that when we come </p><p>upon it by some rare chance to-day we call it over-acting. And </p><p>certainly if we find it in anything but Shakespeare or melodrama we are justified in calling it so. For outside of these spheres, </p><p>acting, as Irving and the actor-managers knew it, is to-day as </p><p>incongruous as a giant in a pigmy's overcoat. The " </p><p>realists " </p><p>on </p><p>the writers side of the theatre have seen to that. Virtuosity in </p><p>acting had served the theatre well ; the Greeks had a use for it ; so had the Elizabethans ; you will find it even in our own fathers' </p><p>early time. Then it ceased to be required ; it was no longer necessary ; the new dramatist had no place for it ; it acquired a </p><p>relative badness ; in his stated opinion it was just bad acting ; and </p><p>that's all there was to it. The players of the Moscow Art Theatre </p><p>obligingly supplied the new style in acting ; and thereafter be came known as?the Whisperers. These were the forerunners </p><p>of the " </p><p>naturalistic " </p><p>actors of to-day. </p><p>Naturally, whenever the theatre of to-day stages a play calling </p><p>for " virtuosity " in acting, the result is often tragic, though, of </p><p>course, in a non-theatrical sense. Shakespeare, for instance, is " </p><p>produced " </p><p>and " </p><p>experimented with " </p><p>to cover up the </p><p>deficiency. Hamlet in a lounge suit is a sober example. Recently </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>VIRTUOSITY IN THE THEATRE 807 </p><p>in a Dublin Theatre we were subjected to a fancy-fair version of </p><p>The Merchant of Venice, misleadingly dressed in 18th-century costume, tricked out with musical kick-shaws, and complete with programme note (a sop to the pseudo-intelligentsia) handed across the footlights </p><p>" in the manner of " </p><p>Commedia dell </p><p>Arte. Yet, what's to be done? How many of our present-day </p><p>actors possess the virtuosity necessary for the speaking of that </p><p>unrhymed iambic line which Shakespeare used so pliantly to help the actor in his interpretation. How can one expect the very </p><p>competent speakers of Mr. Shaw, for instance, to answer the call </p><p>of a form of verse, free, pliant, and subtle which the late Professor </p><p>Quiller Couch described as " </p><p>the multitudinous rhythm of life, broken yet harmonious, continuous, various, out of itself unfold </p><p>ing, in a moment responding to sudden thoughts, interruptions, </p><p>gusts of passion, changings of mind, ardours, repentings, dejec </p><p>tions, interchange of eyes, quick embraces of the young, slow </p><p>death-beds of the old ". In other words, a form of verse calling </p><p>for virtuosity or nothing. No wonder Desmond McCarthy recently found it necessary to </p><p>make an appeal for virtuosity in the playing of Shakespeare's </p><p>buffoons, declaring that it was the business of the actor " to </p><p>transmit to the audience his own virtuoso's relish " in the playing </p><p>of such figures as Bottom, Dogberry, Osric, etc. But what are </p><p>actors without virtuosity to do? Pursuing his point Mr. </p><p>McCarthy told us that sometimes, it is true, Shakespeare's </p><p>great poetry should be dropped, as it were, by accident, but at </p><p>others " </p><p>it should be pronounced with a glorious ostentation of </p><p>which, say, Yeats in conversation was alone capable among con </p><p>temporary poets ". This reference to Yeats is of more than </p><p>usual interest, particularly in view of the fact that the virtuosity which his </p><p>" glorious ostentation" represented has long been </p><p>foreign to the acting content of the theatre he founded. </p><p>Yeats dedicated his play The King's Threshold to " </p><p>the beauti </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>308 THE IRISH MONTHLY </p><p>ful speaking of Frank Fay." Yet many years after this dedi cation he had occasion to write </p><p>For actors lacking music </p><p>Do most excite my spleen </p><p>They say it is more human To shuffle, grunt and groan Not knowing what unearthly stuff Rounds a mighty scene. </p><p>It is interesting to recall that Frank Fay, before his untimely death, was looked upon by many of his younger colleagues as an </p><p>actor who suffered from too much virtuosity. In his preface to </p><p>A Full Moon in March, Yeats wrote " </p><p>I came to the conclusion that prose dialogue is as unpopular among my studious friends </p><p>as dialogue in verse among actors and playgoers." The theatre had changed : that was all. But it was the writer </p><p>and not the actor who had changed it. , The theory that Eliot, Auden and Spender write as they write because the existence of </p><p>the producer in the theatre compels them to do so has no bearing with common sense. Indeed, it suggests an examination of the </p><p>earlier theory that Tennyson, Swinburne, Browning and the rest </p><p>wrote as they wrote because (to use Mr. O'Connor's phrase) 44 the actor was in the saddle ". When the change came, the </p><p>audience accepted it, the audience having no initial power of choice in the theatre. Yet, as early as 1902, Val?ry Bruissov </p><p>wrote : 4i </p><p>Naturalism has degraded the stage?it has banished </p><p>everything that is truly of the theatre ". And Georg Fuchs </p><p>writing in Die Revolution des Theatres, published in 1909, reads like a paraphrase of Yeats </p><p>44 The more often one goes to the </p><p>modern theatre the stronger the feeling assails one : It won't </p><p>be very long before there is not a single actor who can speak German dramatic verse properly on the stage. The task of an </p><p>actor in modern plays is to smoke, spit, cough, blow his nose, </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 19:48:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>VIRTUOSITY IN THE THEATRE 309 </p><p>snuffle, belch, and to mouth revolting or commonplace gibberish. Such action destroys the creative art of the actor which is essential for the genuine drama. A sharp division must be made, at least, between dramatic art in the real sense, and literary, </p><p>novelistic, lyrical and dialogised psychology ". In contributing to this necessary work of sharp division, how </p><p>right Mr. O'Connor is when he says that the mistake which so </p><p>many poets make is the mistake of writing " </p><p>poetic plays as </p><p>though poetry was an end in itself and not merely the greatest instrument of the theatre. Poetry is not external to the theatre ; it isn't something one applies like rouge, and for first-rate </p><p>dramatic poetry one has to turn not to the professional poets but to the realists like Ibsen and Synge ". Now here's where the trouble of division really begins. For there are many, like...</p></li></ul>