Category Archives: Feeling

Orphan Black and General Sensibility

Have you been watching Orphan Black? I have, and enjoying it immensely as a way to get away from writing up my PhD. Unfortunately, though, the fact that my thesis is all about performance makes it pretty much impossible to ignore my research completely when watching a TV series. Especially this one. I can’t help but use eighteenth-century methods to reflect on the program’s plot, its mise en scène, or, in the case of Orphan Black, how it depends so heavily on its lead actress (and now producer too) Tatiana Maslany.

A bit of background is in order here, so prepare yourself for a few spoilers. Orphan Black is set in contemporary North America, with one difference: human cloning was achieved several decades back, and then – with key aspects of the research mysteriously lost – hushed up. All is well until, one day, a woman called Sarah Manning comes across what appears to be her identical twin (but is really her clone) in a train station. From there, a complex series of events unfold, in which Sarah meets (at time of writing) ten other clones, and, together, they try and work out who they are and where they came from.

Maslany in the role of: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima and Rachel.

All the clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. Yet all of them are distinct characters: Sarah is former con artist, Cosima a geek, Alison a soccer mom, Helena a trained assassin, and so on. Maslany’s ability to transform from one person to the other is extraordinary, and has won her numerous acting awards.

What interests me, however, in my own little eighteenth-century way, is how this ability to transform has, to a certain extent, hidden Maslany herself. When watching Orphan Black, unless you try very hard indeed, you do not see the same actress in each of the parts. Televisual trickery sometimes helps with this: by combining several takes, it is possible for multiple clones to meet and talk (and, in one extraordinary season finale, dance) together. Yet even when there is no post-production help, the most critical of viewers will be hard pressed to say that Sarah, Cosima, Alison and all the others are visibly the same person.

Maslany’s ability to enter into each of these roles so completely that it is so hard to see the same actress behind them all is proof of something that was once called “general sensibility”. John Hill coins this term in the 1755 volume of The Actor.

Hill argued that “any particular turn of mind, far from qualifying a person for playing, is rather a disadvantage”. For him, an aspiring actor must instead possess a “ductility of mind”, a “general sensibility”. In other words, “It were best that the heart of the player had no reigning passion of its own” but rather a “ready sensibility of all”. In these circumstances, the actor would disappear into the role assigned to them, as Maslany does in Orphan Black.

Interestingly, Hill is pushed to theorise “general sensibility” as a way of understanding why performances by star actors of his time, like David Garrick and Spranger Barry, sometimes fell short of their full effect, because, as he puts it, “whether we see Mr Garrick in Richard or in Osmyn, still [we see] Mr Garrick”. Only an actress, Susannah Cibber, possesses the full general sensibility that means we do not identify the player from the play.

Perhaps Cibber is an ancestor of Maslany. If not by blood, than at least by intellectual tradition. There is certainly much more to say about Orphan Black with regard to early modern acting theory. For example: the TV series has (spoiler) a series of male clones too, but they – unlike the women – are far less varied. Perhaps the showrunners couldn’t find an actor with enough “general sensibility”?

Another question. If Maslany becomes more famous, will she lose the power to transform? Hill attributes Garrick’s visibility in to a lack of “general sensibility”, but more modern approaches might call this phenomenon a downside of theatrical celebrity. Isn’t an actor’s art also dependent on the eye of the beholder?

And one more thing to finish with. Hill suggests that “general sensibility” entails having “no reigning passion” of one’s own. I feel Maslany might take issue with this: is she really an unfeeling person, oddly characterless when not in front of the cameras? I doubt she’d say so. And then, to step once more into the world of Orphan Black, can we justly distinguish Cosima from Sarah, Helena from Alison, in terms of a “reigning passion”? If so, then where did it come from, given that the characters are all clones of each other? An important, submerged, implication of the premise of this series as a whole, but one that soon appears after a little reflection, is that we are not mere slaves to our genetics, but rather infinitely variable, if not – perhaps – to the extent of Tatiana Maslany and her “general sensibility”.

A wave o’th’sea

My posts have been few and far between of late, as I am nearing the end of my thesis, and pouring my energies into making three years of thinking and reading presentable. I couldn’t, however, resist a little post about these lines from The Winter’s Tale. Florizel is watching Perdita.

FLORIZEL When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’th’sea, that you might do
Nothing but that, and own no other function.

These lines are well known, and well loved, not least by me. In one of the little moments of serendipity which sometimes occur when reviewing and rewriting,  I’ve also found a way to make them into a kind of emblem of my doctoral research. Throughout the thesis, I’ve tried to characterise what changes in the way people understood Shakespeare between the time of Garrick and that of the Romantics. Two uses of the phrase “wave o’th’sea” now help me do this.

First, Hogarth’s. In his Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth uses these lines from The Winter’s Tale to show that Shakespeare, many years before this painter, had also observed how “the beauty of dancing” resided in its “serpentine lines”. In other words, Shakespeare – although he never used the term – understood Hogarth’s concepts of the line of beauty and the line of grace, and so writes elsewhere of “bends adornings” and the fascinating pleasure of “infinite variety” that can be found in the physical spectacle of the dance hall or the professional stage.

Against Hogarth’s use of a “wave o’th’sea” we may set Hazlitt’s, who weaves the phrase into one of his most famous comments on Hamlet.

We do not like to see our author’s plays acted, and least of all, Hamlet. There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted. Mr Kemble unavoidably fails in this character from a want of ease and variety. The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of ‘a wave o’th’sea’.

The contrast with Hogarth is striking. Whereas the eighteenth-century writer finds in Shakespeare’s Florizel words that characterise the beauty of physical presence, of performance, Hazlitt finds an expression of the inscrutability of Hamlet’s character. A “wave o’th’sea” denotes variation and fascination in both cases, but, in the latter, is attached to character, to the inward world, and not, crucially, to the stage.

From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century therefore, the line of Shakespearean beauty changes its location and its nature. It moves inward and becomes a matter for the mind.

Theobald’s Baobab Theatre

A Madagascan Baobab tree, which I suspect Theobald refers to when he says ‘Baricot’.

Almost a decade ago now, I spent two months of my summer holidays teaching English in Madagascar as a volunteer for The Dodwell Trust. I worked in the capital Antananarivo, in the cattle town of Tsiromandidy and in Vatomandry on the eastern seaboard. Wherever I went, I met so many extraordinary people and learnt so much. These days, I think of Madagascar often, but content myself with following the – often sad and always sparse – news that comes out of the country, and with hoping one day to go back. There is no place for Madagascar in my thesis.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I stumble across an article, written by Lewis Theobald in his journal The Censor for May 25th 1717, which caps its critique of English audience ignorance with a description of Madagascan theatre. Needless to say, this description bears a far greater resemblance to Gulliver’s Travels than to my own experience of life on one of the world’s largest islands. In all its oddity, though, it is worth copying out here for what it tells us about both eighteenth-century prejudice, and the period’s love of strange (and satirical) tales.

…without Regard either to Action or Emphasis, we take a particular Spleen to a Person, and hiss him, as oft as he appears, from no other Cause but our own idle Antipathy. It were well in this Case if we were obliged to the same Punishment, to shew the Injustice of our Prejudice, as I have read is frequent among a People in Madagascar.

The Jaribots are a Nation of Dwarfs, the Tallest of whom exceed not eighteen Inches: and the chief of their Recreation, is that kind of Drama which we understand by the Word Farce. They holllow the Trunks of their Baricot-Trees, which are of a stupendous Height and Circumference, to make their Theatres, where they pla their Comedies, which consist in merry Expressions and antick Gestures. ‘Tis remarkable that all the Spectators bring with them a Sort of Whistle made of a Reed, to hiss the Players when they perform not their Part well, or take a Liberty of Lewd Talk, or unseemly Postures. But no Man is permitted to hiss without Cause: If any do, the Audience force him to get upon the Stage, and if he can play the Part better than the Actor he hiss’d, he is receiv’d to be an Actor himself: But if he play it worse, they drive him with Shame out of the Theatre, and forbid him from that Time to make his Appearance there.

An Article Comes Forth

So, back in the mists of time, back before this blog and even back before the start of this thesis, I decided to read some writing by Madame de Staël. Everyone should do this.

In my case, I read her Corinne, ou l’Italie, her De la littérature and her De lAllemagne. My interest in Shakespeare was already well developed by this time (the bard and I go much further back than the mists of time), and I found much in these texts that caught my interest. Once I was back in Cambridge, and not too deep in my doctoral research, I devoted some time in September 2012 to writing up my thoughts on Staël’s relation to Shakespeare, especially with regard to Corinne. Continue reading An Article Comes Forth


This post is so far out of the Christmas spirit that I’ve decided to put this warning at the head of it. Apologies. Continue only if you’re feeling Scroogish.

Continuing my sideline of reading whatever roughly contemporary anecdotal accounts of acting and performance I find in secondhand bookshops (e.g. Sher’s, and Brook’s), I’ve just finished volume two of Actors Talk About Acting. It was first published in 1961, and contains seven interviews with the luminaries of the American theatre of that time: Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, José Ferrer, Maureen Stapleton, Katharine Cornell, Paul Muni and Anne Bancroft. I enjoyed going through it, and shall try and get hold of volume one. Continue reading Monsters