Category Archives: Art

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.

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
Adequatio
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond
Aletheia

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

Reynolds vs Fielding (avec version française)

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Over the course of his tenure as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a series of Discourses, one a year, on the occasion of the annual prizegiving in December. These speeches were not easy to compose for a number of reasons: first, as delivered by the president of a relatively young institution, they tended to be seen as statements of policy; second, his audience would have consisted of artists ranging from the level of neophytes right up to established professionals, and few topics would interest them all. On 11th December 1786 (Discourse XIII), however, Reynolds hit a particularly rich seam of material, with the proposition, ill-expressed, that “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

There is not space to explore at length how Reynolds does this, ranging across poetry, drama, architecture and more; rather, the president’s comments on the theatre will be briefly laid out for analysis here. One  instructive parallel drawn, for example, between the stage and the canvas is that both have ‘high’ and ‘low’ modes, where the latter “follows nature” and the former “departs from it”. In the theatre, you thus have comedy which follows nature by depicting the foibles of everyday life, whilst tragedy departs from nature by being more stylised and excessive than quotidian existence in order to engage with deeper questions of human nature. After making this point, Reynolds then points out that a failure to realise this distinction between the imitations of high and low art is evident in a celebrated passage of Fielding’s Tom Jones (found here)

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds attacks Fielding by showing that it is incorrect to think of acting in terms of ‘deception’. Instead, the real skill of such actors is not that they deceive but that, in high tragic drama at least, they depart from nature and still captivate the theatregoer. After all, it is imperative that, when one is performing, “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding is wrong to show Partridge as the one tricked by Garrick, since Partridge’s ignorance of the stage would have made him supersensible to Garrick’s departures from absolute mimicry that the theatre and traditions of tragedy require. Instead, it is only the more educated members of the audience, those who “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations” that would experience such emotional engagement. Counter-intuitively, only the most sophisticated are subject to delusion, an argument that both justifies the high-class credentials of some of Reynolds’ own fantastical paintings and suggests that the illusions of the actor are less morally-problematic than they might otherwise appear, since those most subject to them are of a class sufficient to look after themselves.

To return to the attack on Fielding, there is much to be said in defence of this section. One might point out, for instance, that the resemblance between the ignorant Partridge and the theatrical connoisseur may well have been intentional ironic social commentary and not a misunderstanding of the principle that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” After all, Fielding himself, for all his fame as a novelist, began his literary career as the most successful playwright of the early eighteenth century.

Version française: Reynolds contre Fielding

Tout au long de sa présidence de la Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds prononça tous les ans un ‘Discours’ lors de la remise des prix en décembre. Ces discours étaient très difficiles à composer pour plusieurs raisons. D’abord, on avait tendance à considérer les propos tenus publiquement par le président d’une institution relativement jeune comme des déclarations de sa politique. Ensuite, son public était composé d’artistes de tous niveaux et il fallait trouver un sujet qui les intéresserait tous. Le 11 décembre 1786 (Discourse XIII), Reynolds trouva cependant un sujet particulièrement riche dans l’idée (mal exprimée) que “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

Je n’ai pas la place ici d’explorer en détail comment Reynolds réalise cette ambition à travers la poésie, le drame, l’architecture et d’autres disciplines. A la place, je souhaite analyser brièvement les commentaires du président sur le théâtre. Il propose, par exemple; un parallèle instructif entre la scène et la toile, dans la mesure où toutes deux ont des genres hauts et bas, où le bas “follows nature” et le haut “departs from it”. Au théâtre, on a ainsi la comédie qui imite la nature en montrant les manies quotidiennes, tandis que la tragédie s’éloigne de la nature par son style moins naturel pour réfléchir à des questions plus profondes sur la nature humaine. Après avoir établi cela, Reynolds indique un passage de Tom Jones qui échoue à réaliser cette distinction entre style haut et style bas.

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds critique Fielding en montrant qu’il est incorrect de penser le jeu théâtral en termes de ‘deception’ (tromperie). Au contraire, le talent de tels acteurs ne consiste pas dans la tromperie mais, du moins dans la grande tragédie, à s’éloigner de la nature tout en captivant le spectateur. Il est impératif, quand on joue, que “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding a tort de montrer Partridge comme celui qui est trompé par Garrick, puisque l’ignorance de Partridge concernant le théâtre l’aurait rendu très sensible à la manière – requise par la tradition théâtrale – dont Garrick s’éloigne du simple mimétisme. Au lieu de cela, seuls les membres les plus éduqués du public, ceux qui “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations”, se seraient autant investis émotionellement . De façon contre-intuitive, seuls les spectateurs les plus sophistiqués se trompent. Cet argument justifie l’élitisme des toiles non-naturalistes de Reynolds et suggère que les illusions produites par l’acteur sont moins gênantes sur le plan moral qu’elles pourraient le sembler, puisque ceux qui y sont le plus sujets sont suffisamment cultivés pour en avoir conscience.

Pour en revenir à l’attaque contre Fielding, il y aurait beaucoup à dire pour la défense de ce passage. On peut signaler, par exemple, que la ressemblance entre l’ignorant Partridge et le spectateur averti  pourrait bien avoir été intentionnellement ironique, et non pas l’effet d’une mauvaise compréhension du principe selon lequel “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Après tout, Fielding lui-même aussi célèbre qu’il fût comme romancier, avait commencé sa carrière littéraire comme le dramaturge le plus apprécié  du début du dix-huitième siècle.