Method in my Madness

Fragonard’s portrait of Diderot, circa 1769. Denis may well have been in the throes of planning something here too.

I’ve just handed in a draft of my paper on Diderot, and, as I wait for my supervisor’s verdict, I thought I’d compose a post about how I wrote this latest piece. For the first time in a while, I was returning to familiar ground by writing about Diderot and the English stage, having worked out a very rough version of my ideas for my first year review in July of this year. This meant that I already had a rough idea of what I wanted to argue in the thirty minutes allotted to me: namely that Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien was a break with acting theory along lines of tension already inherent in texts of this kind written before him, lines which were made all the clearer by the transmission of these ideas between England and France. I’ll post a full version (or maybe an audio version) of the paper once it’s ready for anyone interested in this argument; my main aim here, though is to consider how I prepared and drafter this piece, not least to see if there is any room for improvement in my methods.

The first thing I did was, unsurprisingly, to go and reread the five texts that would be my primary sources: Sainte-Albine’s Le Comédien, John Hill’s The Actor (1750 and 1755 edition, as they are very different), Sticotti’s Garrick ou les acteurs anglois, and Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien. As the first four texts are very similar, each being an elaboration on the ideas of their predecessors, I decided to take very detailed notes about the content of their arguments. Since some texts recycled passages from others, I could often copy and paste from one document to another, eventually arriving at such palimpsests as these:

EXAMPLE: Garrick is still Garrick in Richard and Osmyn this is repeated from 1750 (perhaps with slighty different roles) but now Hill has a basis for the argument, Barry still Barry in Othello, Mrs Cibber in Alicia or Indiana – but Mrs Pritchard disappears when she is Merope since she does not have distinguishing marks of the others. Better then for the others to shake off such marks, “beautiful as it is”
Sticotti’s phrasing again is distinctive at 71: On sent que le caractère propre du grand acteur est de n’en avoir aucun ; et qu’une passion qui dominerait en lui, ramenerait toutes les autres à ce caractère ; elles en porteraient l’empreint monotone. (← Hill’s much more specific and less gnomic: 61: it would be better if the other three [Garrick, Cibber, Barry] would shake off what is so peculiar in each of themm beautiful as it is: for tho by means of it, they severally shine in different characters, yet it renders them less fit for universal playing
9. Ductility of mind is the only true sensibility, would mean that the [“actor would be the body, the author for the time the soul” – this is new for 1755, reworking of 1750s collaboration / affinity (with a dash of the stuff below about limited pallette of tragedy), still has not made D’s step into actor and author both as soulless] – *Sticotti hasn’t got this line about body/soul, instead says that the absence of a particular passion would allow an actor to reach the heights of Garrick (i.e. contradicts what he just translated about G having a particular passion, and translates again on 73) BUT FIXES G AS A POINT WHERE Q OF ACTOR’S FEELING AT ITS SHARPEST (= his utility as model for D, who simply moves from ductility to absence)
71-2: Si l’acteur n’avait aucune passion particulière au comédien son cœur les saisirait toutes dans leur integrité ; il les sentirait telles que le poète les a senties, & sans doute il atteindrait ce degré de perfection où ? Garrick est parvenu dans tant de rôles différens*
10. 62: Tragedy has a limited pallette of passions – love, revenge, ambition are its only resources
Cut for ‘belivdera touche moins qu’andromache {EXAMPLE: Mrs Cibber as Andromache, the melancholy of character fits melancholy in her sensibility, but then she has trouble transitioning to fire afterwards, has less ductility}

This process meant that reading took a very long time, and it occasionally felt as if I wasn’t so much analysing these works as paraphrasing them. The benefit was having, after two weeks’ work, four 15 000 word documents mapping the contours of and overlaps between Sticotti’s, Hill’s and Sainte-Albine’s arguments, but the downside was a great difficulty in making any larger analytical observation, as I could always find the counter-example.

Ultimately, as I reread Diderot’s Paradoxe for the nth time (without paraphrasing the argument into bullet points – not least because this would have been far harder than for the relatively ordered texts of the others), a few ideas did come and I started writing them down. This done, I then returned to each argument-map I’d created, and started organising and summarising them according to themes of my own devising. Here’s a brief chunk of my summary for Hill’s 1750 acting manual:

Author/Actor
OVERALL: Hill posits a collaborative relationship between author and actor, going beyond SA in suggesting specific affinities (Milton/Quin, G/S, Cibber/S, etc.) as part of argument for more sensible casting in English theatres. Note that Hill is also aware of different ranks: weak actors still show how good Milton is because we only see Milton when they act (not as good as full experience), or the manger ges lucky and casts someone whose deficiency actually helps the role (excess sentimentality in Adam, for example). Altering text is possible but resistance already beginnning.
7: Hill departs from SA to suggest that author may write so powerfully as to compel powerful on-stage action: note that this is an attack on managers: Milton so good that even a miscast actor cannot ruin it – cf. 36 addition: poor actress without fire disappears when performing Milton: only admire poet and not the play, a weaker experience (“lost the tragedy”) – cf. 43-5: On Adam: S’s Adam needs only sensibility and not vehemence (this is part of a criticism of managers’ accidental success)
16: Actor as soft wax in both SA and H => actor’s matrix-like capacity, also passivity: note other vocabulary: “give” / “donner”

With these summaries complete, I had an idea of those areas where I had the most to say, and where I could weave an argument incorporating all five texts. At this point, before writing a plan, I turned to the secondary literature, conducting searches on the MLA bibliography, JSTOR, Google Scholar and more, each time using not just the names of my authors but key terms suggested by my summaries. At the end of the process, I had twenty or so articles and books, which I read, noting down what contribution they could make to my paper, whether it be something I may have neglected or something I could now refute. Here’s one particularly abrupt note, written as a quick guide to the article in question:

Weak article: best points are on the continuing interest of D in spectator’s position, and how that position is often the starting point for his reflections.

With primary and secondary material in place, I now began to plan. I knew I would have to spend a long time introducing these little-known texts (apart from the Diderot) so tried to weave many of my opening premises into a presentation of my corpus. The remaining 50% of the paper was split two ways: first, into a discussion of sensibility, a term that my reading of the critics had shown to be an important aspect of research in this field; and second, into a discussion of authorship, something of particular importance for me, and under which I had already organised a great many of my observations.
The plan took me a day. It was time well spent, and I wrote the 5 000 words or so of my draft in the library in eight and a half hours. My only concern here is that such writing exhausted me, leaving the conclusion of the article weak. It will be rewritten once I know my supervisor’s opinion. For now, though, I’d reached the end of my labours and the end of this post.

Well, not quite. Here are the things I could probably do better.

  1. Incorporate more analysis into the exploration stage of my reading, if only to keep worry at bay
  2. Widen my reading of critics: I now know a lot about current research on a small part of Diderot (i.e. his sources and reading), but am ignorant of larger trends in Diderot criticism. This will make entering into discussion about by paper harder than it need be.
  3. Write more slowly, and try and pace myself so as to have the energy left for a conclusion.

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