Beinecke: Performance

This post is dedicated to the various passages found in those papers of David Garrick and William Smith, held at the Beinecke, which deal with the more theoretical side of performance. I already touched on this when writing about attitudes to French actors, so this piece will, in some ways, extend ideas already evoked there.

Along with letters to and from Garrick, the papers I examined also include various figures’ poems in praise of the English actor. One of the most notable of these is by Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal . I won’t quote the text in its entirety, but rather extract the passage that piqued my interest:

Why should our Roscius grieve the want
Of Practice and of art
To bid each pitying bosom pant
To wring each feeling heart?
These found excuses sure degrade
Intrinsic merit here:
Art could have but an actor made
‘Twas nature form’d him Lear!

This short piece is based on the continuing preoccupation of whether technique or inspiration is most central to the actor, which is the theatre’s particular version on the eternal debate of the roles of art and nature in creative endeavour. What I find interesting here is Hasting’s unusual claim that whilst art (i.e. technical skill, “practice”) provides the general qualities an actor needs, it is only nature that provides the specific touches necessary to create the character of King Lear. To my ears (and to theorists such as John Hill or Remond de Saint-Albine), this seems back-to-front in that one would expect nature to have granted the actor the general qualities that make him an actor (sympathy, imagination, physical beauty and strength, etc.) and that art would polish and perfect these qualities into what was appropriate for the role. Instead of this, however, Hastings proposes that Garrick taught himself the general skills and then relied on nature for the authentic recreation of the particular. This reversal depends on a conception of the actor where it is the natural that makes a person unique, something that looks forward to romantic ideas like the egotistic sublime where it is your personal emotional response that counts and not so much your specific use of an established technique.

Quite what Garrick would make of this, I’m not sure. Interestingly, there are very few letters from him about the art of performance. A copy of one of them, sent to the painter Hayman when he was preparing to paint a series of Shakespearean murals, is in the Beinecke, but the main thrust of Garrick’s efforts to describe how the painted figures should be posed so as to express the chosen scenes fully is that a written account cannot possibly do justice to everything involved in the performance and composition of such moments.
Garrick Papers-06-Hayman,F-ShakespearePictures-Transcript-1
Moving from Garrick’s papers to Smith’s (not a large jump, as Smith was often seen as one of the last survivor’s of the ‘Garrick school’), I found a few other scattered thoughts about performance. Some of these pick up things I’ve already seen elsewhere, such as the use of Shakespeare as a theatrical instructor in the epilogue John Byng wrote to mark Smith’s retirement from the stage in 1788, or Smith’s own quotations from Shakespeare to strengthen his satirical prologue on “the intent and business of the stage”. A letter, however, from Capell Loftt to Smith in June 1798 stood out from the rest. I give the relevant section below.

There is much of Mr Grarick’s acting that I think will always live in my remembrance. It is the felicity of very strong impressions, that, depending on the high pleasure they convey to the mind, they serve more forcibly to identify our being, and to give a familiarity, a kind of apparent unity of ideas, to the very remote parts of it. The time when I saw him was that part of my life which was full of hope and of spirits: and if there has been any spirits of any utility in the rest of it, I flatter myself the animation derived from the hearnig and seeing him has had no small share in it.
I do think dramatic representation and specially of the great tragic characters, one of the very powerful exciters of the public mind.

What I find so powerful about this letter is the observation that the actor, whether he is inspired or not, can inspire others, be one of the “exciters of the public mind”. Of course, this is not a new observation (Bacon has a fantastic description of the audience as a violin on which the actor plays), but it is a rare one with regard to Garrick, who is normally seen as resurrecting Shakespeare rather than inspiring contemporaries. Indeed, it is the next generation of actors – Sarah Siddons, Dora Jordan – who are thought of as muses. Here, though, with heavy nostalgia and in a letter to one of Garrick’s inheritors, Loftt makes Garrick (and dramatic representation in general) not into an inspired act but an inspiring one.


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