Thomas Wilkes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) is an enormous and rich mine of information about the eighteenth-century stage. An attempt at raising the profile of the stage, defending it from its many detractors is both the book’s starting point and its over-arching theme. What I hope to do here is sketch out a few of the more curious places that Wilkes’s defence of the theatre leads him to, not least since many of them have wider implications for literary criticism of the period.
Wilkes begins his defence with a commonplace, that the theatre offers a moral education to those who watch a play.
the bard and the player happily hold up the mirror to nature, in which each man may behold his own portrait at length; the shades of vice, and lights of virtue being so happily blended as to force the human heart to acknowledge the likeness, and the audience are obliged from their own feeling to applaud.
What caught my eye here was the use of Hamlet’s advice to the players from 3.2 as a means of defending the utility of the theatre. It can be tempting to read “mirror” here as something purely aesthetic, a way of expressing precise mimesis, but – as Wilkes and Hamlet use the word – “mirror” can also carry moral import since its function is all about revealing oneself to oneself. Hence such popular Tudor titles as The Mirror for Magistrates. Once Wilkes has made this point about the stage as educational mirror, he returns to this argument throughout, analysing, for example, Lady Macbeth as Shakespeare’s way of “correcting” minds in which one would find “the seeds of a passion so very hateful”.
As well as the reference to Hamlet, this quote about mirrors also does something else quite interesting: it makes no distinction between “bard” and “player”, both of whom “happily hold up the mirror to nature”. This is something of a running theme in Wilkes’s text, perhaps because he wishes to elevate the stage by shackling the actor to the more respectable figure of the successful author. Sometimes the relationship between writer and player is collaborative, where, for example, “The poet presents a correct drawing; the actor enlivens with colouring and finishes the piece.” Other times, the actor seems to have the edge, not least because there were no contemporary authors to rival dramatists of the past.
So that were not Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway sometimes to step forth with uncontroulable dignity, we should be apt to think the end of tragedy no longer subsisted in Britain; not all the varieties of the Roman Father could be able to preserve it a footing on the Stage, but for the exquisite feeling of a Garrick, which we once remember to have been finely supported by the tenderness of a Cibber, the noble deportment of a Barry […]
This passage argues that great actors have the ability to maintain the moral benefit of tragedy when they take up parts in the revivals of the great works of Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway. This point is made again later on, once more in the actor’s favour since the actor, more than the creator of immutable texts that is the author, is able to respond to contemporary conditions.
where the men dismiss shame, the women forget modesty, the Stage will first be touched with, and sink under the infection; the Music will be loose and enervate, the Theatre will be no more considered as the school of wisdom, but both tragic and comic energy dwindle into lightness and buffoonery. This period has Garrick, with giant-force, repelled.
Here Garrick is not just a reviver of past plays, but rather a bulwark against contemporary dangers of moral decline.
Having raised the profile of the actor to the skies, Wilkes then begins a second section on what a great actor requires. Of course, this part is also a continuation of his general theme, since the more an actor requires to succeed, the more such successful actors deserve a high rank in society. This logic is behind such passages on the actor’s skills:
[…] life and motion are derived from the actor: he unites all the beauties of the poet’s fancy, the Painter’s pencil, the Musician’s art; he graces them with elocution action, and a proper expression, as well as impressions of the various passions necessary to the character he assumes.
As well as such eulogies, two other passages mark out this section. One is Wilkes’s take on the perennial debate about what occurs when an actor acts. His description of the process sees the performer as someone who consciously renounces his own identity, and thus comes to act from feeling.
He must put on the character with the habit, and assume the air, look language, and action of the person he represents, till his imagination, quite absorpt in the extensive idea, influences his whole frame; is visible in every glance of the eye, every air of his countenance. Thus all his powers will sometimes swell with the most violent transports of rage, and again dissolve away by an insensible gradation into the most placid calm and serenity. This is not so much acting as being an original; and the Actor who has attained this has reached the summit of his art.
A little further on, Wilkes turns to Shakespeare, and argues that the playwright must have been an excellent actor since his writings show the “language of Nature” which all performers must be sensitive to. John Hill makes a similar defence in The Actor, a text whose influence is everywhere in this section.
As Shakespeare’s writings are the very language of Nature, it is probable, that, while he continued an Actor, he suited his voice and action to it; and as we know he did not care to have “a passion torn to tatters,” by this madness of gesture and voice, we may justly infer, that his judicious regulation of both was not relished by the vitiated taste of the audience of his days, and that he was censured as a bad Actor undeservedly.
After these opening sections on the value of the stage and the art of acting, Wilkes offers a historical account of the theatre before turning to a “critical examination of the merits and demerits of the principal performers in england and Ireland”. Here, once more, the actor’s status is elevated, with a truly remarkable piece of praise for Garrick towards the end:
We shall conclude the character of this Aesopian Roscius [i.e. good in tragedy and comedy] with observing, that he gives us not resemblances, but realities; that he does not exhibit, but create; in him we view as actions what we only admire in others as representations. There is in his performance true dignity of expression; his figures, where his subject gives him scope, are noble beyond imagination […]
To conclude this brief and partial (there are interesting points about theatrical illusion I can’t put in here) journey through A General View of the Stage, it’s worth just insisting on the general aim of establishing the cultural importance of the theatre. Following on from this, we see the intertwining of actors and authors, especially in the tropes of praise, and this mixing both offers new ways of thinking about actors (as creators, as educators) and writers (as performers, as weak in their immutability), including Shakespeare.