A Question of Authenticity

A collection of quotations about actors and acting

All the reliable recoverable early-baroque evidence in the world will not produce the equivalent of a home-movie of the premiere miraculously shot by the composer and as miraculously preserved. [Roger Savage, 1989]

An Actor: I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs... I look down upon (the spectators) from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking.

Socrates: Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which receive the power of the original magnet from one another?...the actor is an intermediate link, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction he pleases...for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession. [Plato: Ion]

(On Comedy) The whole dialogue must seem like a familiar talk, wholly improvised. [Leone di Somi, 1565]

(On Tragedy) The use of Greek masks in the theatre is not recommended nowadays, since they do not allow the spectator to observe the changes of expression that vary according to the different moods. The only goal is to move the soul of the spectator. [Ingegneri 1585]

(On Opera) The singer should sing with emotion, both soft and loud, without ornamentation, to express the words so well that they may be understood, and accompany them with gestures and motions not only of the hands but moving the feet as well, which all helps to affect the spectator. [Giudotti, 1600]

While singing, one should not always stay fixed at the centre, but be now here, now there - in a natural way, though also in good order - particularly if one is followed or supported by other performers. (Il Corago c.1630)

To be a good actor-singer, one should above all be a good speaking actor...[Ibid]

The first intent of all playing is to affect and move the audience [John Hill mid 18th cent]

Madame de Rochois to a would be actress: “What would you do if you were abandoned by a lover that you adored passionately?”

Student: “Take another.”

Madame de Rochois: “In that case, we are both wasting our time.” (Lully’s prima donna, late 17th cent.]

Endeavour to imagine that you are what you represent. [Moliere to his actors, 1663]

The actor must transform himself into every person he represents, since he is to act all sorts of actions and passions. [Betterton, late 17th cent]

(Of rhetorical gesture) ...well known to the Frequenters of the Theatres...but that if any Stranger or Foreigner had been there it would have been nothing but an unintelligible Gesticulation, whereas if these actions and gestures were drawn from Natural Significancy, they must be intelligible to all Nations, even to Barbarians who never saw them before, as the Roman Pantomime was perfectly comprehensible to Barbarians. [Betterton, late 17th cent.]

The rules prohibit the lifting of the arms above the head, but if passion carries them there it is right. Passion knows better than the rules. [Michel Baron, late 17th cent]

Action is Motion [Betterton, late 17th cent.]

To repress an actress’s tendency towards exuberant gesticulation, Voltaire ordered her to rehearse with her hands tied to her side. She began her recitation in this enforced quietness; but at last, carried away by the moment of her feelings, she flung up her arms and snapped the threads. In a tremor she began to apologize to the poet. He, smiling, reassured her that the gesticulation was then admirable, because it was irrepressible. (Voltaire’s plays were produced in Paris between 1730 and 1760)

In the old days they sang without forcing, and thus they knew how to soften and delight the hearts of those who heard them.

Recitative is the foundation of opera...should be between ordinary speech and singing a melody, with varied speeds of delivery...an aria demands not only a capable singer but also an understanding actor...dance is mute poetry, the passion of the drama expressed in dancing, every minuet, saraband,contredanse, should signify something... [Milizia 1773]

All the time she was singing, her features and movements and the expression on her face and in her eyes corresponded exactly to the various conceits with which she so subtly beguiled us. [A singer in Alidoro, 1568]

(Of Mrs. Barry)I have frequently observed her change her countenance several times as the discourse of others on the stage have affected her in the Part she acted. [Gildon 1710]

(Of Mrs. Bradshaw) she endeavoured first to make herself Mistress of her Part, and left the Figure and Action to Nature. [Gildon 1710]

What can be better than Nature?...the actor should remember that Nature has its limits. The principal and necessary thing for an actor is to show clearly that he does not depart from the truth, for so he can almost convince his audience that what is feigned is not false. [Riccoboni, 1728]

The actor is called upon to be completely involved while distanced - detached without detachment...he must practice how to be insincere with sincerity and how to lie truthfully...[Peter Brook, 1969]

Cicero observed that] Every Passion marks the Face, yet what, if I mistake not, is, in the following little System, first discover’d, is --- that the FACE forms the PASSIONS.

..it will be found, that without previously assuming the peculiar LOOK, adapted to each Passion, ‘tis impossible to give the VOICE its proper Modulation, or the right expressive GESTURE to the Body: For, when Imagination forms the Images,... has fix’d itself upon the clear Idea, it is, then the FACE, that, of Necessity, receives the first Transmission of theis Image:.... the Voice also is compell’d to take a Tone, exactly correspondent; and the Mien MUST follow, and adapt itself, to an Expression of the same necessitated Tendency.

The first dramatic principle is the following: To act a passion well, the actor never must attempt its imitation, until his fancy has conceived so strong an image or idea of it, as to move the same ...springs within his mind...as when it is natural. The imagination must conceive a strong idea of the passion,...the muscles of the face...and the body, must transmit their own conceived sensation to the sound of the voice and the disposition of the gesture. [Aaron Hill 1746]

I pronounce that the greatest strokes of genius have been unknown to the actor himself, till circumstances, and the warmth of the scene, has sprung the mine as it were, as much to his own surprise as that of the audience. [Garrick, 1769]

Those who would make us feel, must feel themselves. [Charles Churchill, The Rosciad 1761]

If Garrick really believed himself to be that monster, Richard the Third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed it. [Samuel Johnson]

Do you deny that one can improve on Nature? [Diderot, 1773]

When a part is first put before me for studying, I look it over in a general way, to see if it is in Nature, and if it is, I am sure it can be played. [Sarah Siddons, 1780’s]

She worked from within outward; first, by yielding herself to the spontaneous flashes of her sensibility, she became the person represented; then, inevitably, brought out the external indications, peculiar and personal. [biography of Sarah Siddons, early 19th cent]

Were an actor or actress actually to feel, the effect would be lost, for utterance would be denied them...all that can be expected is to adhere to nature as closely as they can - how they would feel, how express that feeling. [A Veteran Stager 1828]

One of the greatest dangers that threatens the actor is, obviously, lack of discipline, chaos. One cannot express oneself through anarchy. I believe that spontaneity and discipline are the two sides of the creative process. Meyerhold based his work on discipline, exterior formation, etc.; Stanislavsky on the spontaneity of daily life. These are respectively the two complementary aspects of the creative process. [Jerzy Grotowski, 1967]

(On examining Gagliano’s preface to his Dafne of 1608) If Gagliano can be taken as the spokesman of the operatic pioneers (and there is not much in their surviving writings which would rebut anything he has to say), then it becomes clear that these pioneers did not, theatrically speaking, live on some Alpha Centauri across an unbridgeable time-warp from us moderns. They are in some measure our neighbours....[even] after profound revolutions in politics, taste, education and theatrical organization, to say nothing of the more personal revolutions of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner...As a perceived work, the reawakened Dafne has arguably undergone quite as much of a transformation as its heroine did in her last few minutes as a nymph. And just as Apollo has to contemplate Daphne’s transformation and come to terms with it, so must a modern director...make something of the laurel leaves. That something will be a stageable concept of the piece now as it relates to the audience and auditorium now and to the piece then. [Roger Savage, Early Music 1989]

Realistic opera is a contradiction in terms. [Carl Ebert 1957]

The farther the past disappears, the less anyone knows about it...You say “That past is gone, but oh, how lovely it would be if we could get into a time machine and go there. How much better than our poor world.” And then, with the help of conventions, dubious traditions, documents, paintings and so on, we build up a completely bogus past in which everybody in the eighteenth century happens to have the handkerchief there and there is always some expert to be found who will have spent two years at his university doing a thesis on “The Function of the Handkerchief for the Eighteenth-Century Gentleman.”...

(Or you say that) eighteenth century music or eighteenth century words or eighteenth century behaviour are the expression of something that was once intensely meaningful, alive and real to somebody who is now gone, his period has gone, we have no contact except this work. So this work is of interest to us only if, one way or another, it can suddenly become alive, real and meaningful to us. If that happens, then it is no longer a work of the past, it doesn’t take us to the past, it brings the past right to us here in the present. And I think when that happens, we have a rich and living human relation with human beings who no longer exist, and this is a miracle of a magical and highly rewarding nature. [Peter Brook]

How far do you, should you, can you go in recreating a baroque performance? Indeed, what exactly are you trying to recreate – the look, the sound, the impact? How much information, what attitudes can you assume to be common to the 17th and 20th century audiences? How do you balance the facts that what seems exotic and enchanting to us was everyday to them – the costumes, the dances – and what was new and arresting for them may have become clichés for us – the gestures, the effects? No matter how much material you have, you cannot recreate the seventeenth century, only an idea of it. But if you believe the idea is worth investigating, then the answer must involve knowledge of period conditions both real and ideal. However, that in itself is more like simply learning the language the piece is written in, and alone does not guarantee either good music or good theatre. One must start with the life inherent in the piece itself, a truth about the human predicament which is independent of time, which one then presents in a setting which speaks from their time to ours. [Kate Brown]