Cary Mazer responds:
I’m grateful to Stern for providing a genealogy and taxonomy of “Original Practices.” No, O.P. is not monolithic; numerous practitioners predate the term, or decline to use it to describe their own work. Nor it is necessarily one thing, either in theory or in practice, as Stern accurately observes.
Nor is Stanislavski or “Stanislavskian acting” monolithic. I invoke his name to describe a body of practice, not because he necessarily invented it, but only because he provided a systematic explanation for phenomena that his contemporaries pondered and grappled with less systematically. What Stanislavski, his forerunners, his contemporaries, and his successors share is a set of priorities: an ideal of histrionic mimesis in which the representationally “virtual” asymptotically approaches the “actual” of real life; an emphasis on inner process over external effect; and a systematic way of detecting the inner, “sub-textual,” life of the character beneath the words of the script.
I am less interested in genealogies than in discourses. And once one examines discourses, one finds a lot more in common among theorists and practitioners who position themselves oppositionally than they themselves would allow. David Mamet’s rejection of Strasberg, Declan Donnellen’s useful distinction between an objective and a “target,” and alternative methodologies such as Charles Marowitz’s “Other Way” and Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, are all definitive departures from the system delineated by Stanislavski; but they all fall well within the Stanislavskian paradigm as I have described it. Nor does the distinction between British and American acting, as exemplified by the off-quoted anecdote about Olivier and Hoffman, or the short-hand distinction of “inside out” versus “outside in” acting, any longer pertain.
Similarly, the Anglo-American verse-speaking specialists and companies such as Tucker’s Original Shakespeare Company that employ “parts” with minimal rehearsal, though in many ways different from one another, share a discourse and a paradigm, one which, I still maintain, has more in common with the Stanislavskian paradigm than it likes to admit. That Barton learned his craft, not from Stanislavski, but from Rylands, who learned it from Pole, who learned it from Poel, doesn’t exempt him from the Stanislavksian paradigm, which he so explicitly embraces (though mocking its putative American Method-acting excesses) in his invocation of the “Two Traditions” in the first episode of Playing Shakespeare. (Besides, it can be argued that William Poel, contemporary and collaborator of Shaw and Granville Barker, was a conscious participant in sorting through the conundrums of histrionic representation that Stanislavski provisionally solved; indeed, Cary DiPietro and Joe Falocco have recently located Poel squarely within the High Modernist movement.)
I cannot quarrel with Stern’s scholarship, or the sheer number of descriptions of early modern acting that she cites in support of her contention that early modern acting was Stanislavskian avant la lettre. But I read these document quite differently. What I take away from Joseph R. Roach’s path-breaking book, The Player’s Passion, is that the descriptions, manuals, and manifestos of acting tell us more about the discourses of the time than they do about actual acting methods; that theorists and eye-witnesses understood acting according to the prevailing scientific and philosophical paradigms about the passions, the physical body, and the mechanisms by which emotions, the mind, and the soul inhabit the body and find expression through it; and that perennial terms such as “emotion,” “passion,” and “character,” and, even more significantly, the ubiquitous descriptors “natural” and “real” may mean quite different things from one period and paradigm to another. (For example, Garrick’s pneumatically activated wig, which raised Hamlet’s hair when he saw the Ghost, could be described by contemporaries as “natural” because it replicated what was understood to be the hydraulic flow of fluids through the body, even though we would recognize it as pure artifice.)
Stern quotes several early modern sources to document the period’s emphasis on an actor “passionating.” But can we be sure that we understand what that word means? We think we understand Hamlet when he sees in the Player’s tears visible evidence of the Player’s, and his character’s, affect. But can we be sure of the definitions he would offer for the words he uses to describe the actors’ process? We know that by “action” he means, not Stanislavskian objectives, but physical gesture. What about “motive,” “cue,” and “passion?” Or “soul,” and “conceit?” We read in the rhetoric books that orators and actors generated emotions by forming an image in their imagination. Was this necessarily understood as the same process as the Stanislavskian “magic if?” Perhaps; but not if the mechanism by which the imagination generates passion in the body was understood to operate in different ways in the two periods. Stern argues persuasively in her books that the early modern actor studied his part in isolation, learning to express in speech and action the specific passion of the moment, independent of knowing the larger situation or context. But does this mean that, in performance, he was listening for his cues to spark in his imagination the picture he would need to shift to the next passion? Or was he merely listening for his cue to “passionate” as he had already learned to do in his study, having already trained himself to force his “soul” to his own “conceit?” There are, admittedly, numerous descriptions of actors who could not, or chose not to, “shake off” their role even when they were off-stage; but can we be sure that that means that they stayed “in character,” as we understand that term, within our Stanislavskian paradigm? (It is interesting that the classical source that the early moderns quote about actors who stay in character and do things “even such as the parties did whome they represent” is a cautionary tale about going too far.)
My task is easier than Stern’s. She needs to determine what early modern acting was, what early modern character was, how early modern actors characterized. My own interest is, rather, how actors from a later period and, arguably, a different paradigm read the signals of the script to create performances that are comprehensible and effectively affective for their own audiences. They don’t have to be right in how they read these signals. They are, I’d like to suggest, more often wrong: they can, and do, read backwards from their own assumptions about character, motivation, behavior, expression and their interrelationship, and assume that these mechanisms were understood by the dramatist and his or her actors the same as we understand them today. Indeed, I must confess that I have a vested interested in their being wrong, which, I freely admit, explains the extremity of the argument of my essay in this volume: actors (and theorists, and scholars) are simply more interesting if they are wrong, for then they reveal more about themselves, their priorities, and the expectations of their audiences.
What I take away from my cordial disagreement with Stern, and from this volume as a whole, is that our return to character criticism, after several decades of assault by both the anti-subjectivity early modernists and postmodern theorists and practitioners, is not a rediscovery of an eternal truth, but a recognition of the terms by which the plays work in our own theatre, with our own actors, working within our own paradigms. We are, at last, bringing to our scholarship the same guilty pleasure we experience when we attend live theatre, when we are driven to rapture or to despair by our empathic response to the actor’s embodiment of the character’s journey across the length of the story over the duration of the performance. Stern labors profitably to figure out how this worked in the early modern theatre; I am fascinated about how today’s artists make this work today using early modern scripts. But when she and I read character into the performance, we are both seeking the same thing: the pleasures of empathy.
Gillette’s lecture is, in common with the essays and articles of many of his contemporaries, naive and unprofound; Irving, Coquelin, and Boucicault, in their series of articles, are still debating Diderot’s Paradoxe from nearly a century earlier; and Bernard Shaw, in his attempt to describe Eleanora Duse’s acting, still relies on the “point” system that her art had clearly superseded (see Our Theatre in the Nineties, vol. I, pp. 148-154 [London: Constable, 1948]).
The American acting teacher Uta Hagen had a large following in Britain, including Timothy West and Prunella Scales; for Antony Sher on his “method,” see Woza Shakespeare! (London: Methuen, 1996), pp. 164-166.
Cary DiPietro, Shakespeare and Modernism (Cambridge, Cambridge U.P., 2006), and Joe Falocco, Reimagining Shakespeare’s Playhouse (Cambridge, D. W. Brewer, 2010).