Gesture and Action – a guide for actors

Gesture and Action - a guide for actorsRecently I have been dipping into Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action, written by Johann Jakob Engel in 1785 and translated from German, and adapted for a British audience, by the actor-manager, Henry Siddons and published in 1807.

The book is essentially a ‘how to’ of acting covering every possible state of mind, feeling and emotion, with descriptions and illustrations of how these can be conveyed through gesture and action.

Through a series of letters (chapters) written to the sceptical reader, the author(s) pre-empts criticism of the prescriptive nature of the advice being offered:

A man when he first learns to dance moves with a solemnity which approaches the ridiculous; but, this solemnity in time wears off, and his step becomes not only more majestic, but more sure, more free, and more unembarrassed, than he who has never practised that accomplishment.

In other words ‘practice makes perfect’. The next letter acknowledges that different cultures act in different ways:

The player who wishes to be accomplished in his art should not only study the passions on their broad and general basis; he should trace their operations in all their shades, in all their different varieties, as they act upon different conditions and as the operate in various climates.

The letter goes on to suggest that the player should research the history and customs of different nations, making use of the collections of written material from those who have voyaged to such places:

The more he reasons over his task, the wider will his knowledge extend: he will find his imagination expanded by these studies.

After 30 pages of argument and justification we get to crux of the matter and the following 350 pages are full of instructions and illustrations using anecdotes and examples of when and where particular gestures and actions could be used. ‘Sublime Admiration’ is described thus: 

IMG_0051…here the head and body are thrown back a little, the eye is open, the aspect elevated, and , by an image which coincides with the expression analogous to the sentiment, the whole figure of the man becomes straight: nevertheless, the feet, the hands and the traits of the visage are in repose; or if one hand is in movement, it is not held forth as in simple admiration but lifted on high.

As the book progresses more anecdotes are retold and more opinion is shared, creating a picture of the theatrical experience at the time. Often the author quotes text from plays to make a point: 

When Freeport, in the English Merchant, says to the young lady “Madam, I don’t love you at all” would it not be ridiculous should his face express languishing softness?

We sense that the author is describing actors who recite lines but don’t necessarily understand them or engage with them. Early on we are told of great progress that has been made in costume design with the author suggesting that the same attention to detail is now demanded of the actors. 

…the actor certainly ought to study his own character with a view to its connexion with the others, as by this double study he will acquire the tone and perfect knowledge of his own particular part. Without this attentive view of the ensemble, without this exact appreciation of the portion which a particular character carries in the aggregate of a drama, without this modest and voluntary information, the effect of the play, if it is not entirely destroyed, is at least greatly weakened and defaced.

IMG_0046It is a fascinating read and clearly written by people who want to see the profession improve and lift its standards.

I don’t know how many aspiring actors would have been able to afford such a book in 1807 but for those that could it must have been one of the earliest examples of an instruction manual for the profession, something the author felt deserved more attention:

And if this affair should one day become an object of serious study, why should not technical words be in time found out, as proper for this science, as those at present discovered for the facilitation of the study of natural history?











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Charles Macklin – actor, playwright, murderer

Charles Macklin’s acheivements are not usually remembered but nearly 220 years after his death in 1797, Charles Macklin once again made an appearance on the stage in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which enjoyed good runs at the Hampstead and Haymarket theatres before finishing in January this year.event_media-banner_lrg

Macklin’s appearance (played by Colin Stinton) as tutor to Samuel Foote and David Garrick is rightly brief but withholds a story worthy of its own play. An event that took place on this day in 1735.

Charles Macklin
Macklin by John Opie

Charles Macklin was born Charles MacLaughlin in County Down, Ireland in 1700. His father died when he was a young boy and in 1707 his mother remarried a Dublin man, which is where the family moved to. Aged eight he attended Island Bridge Academy, a school run by the very strict Mr Nicholson, a Scotsman whose methods and mannerisms would become immortalised in the character, Sir Pertinax Macsycophant in Macklin’s play The Man of the World.

Macklin first arrived in London with two friends and a pocket full of money stolen from his mother. The money soon ran out and while Macklin’s friends pursued their own paths he got a job as an entertainer in a public house; he sung, danced, mimicked and generally played the comic fool to the delight of the customers. He soon became a known attraction, trebling the takings in the till. Such was his popularity that it was claimed that the buxom landlady married him in attempt to prevent him from leaving. However, as soon as word of this convenient merger reached his friends they quickly extracted him and escorted him back home to Dublin.

Back at home Macklin’s mother put all thoughts of the theatre and entertainment out of his head and instead found him employment at Trinity College as a Badgeman (someone who ran errands for the undergraduates). Based on Macklin’s recollections of the students he saw and served at Trinity, it is estimated that he was 15 or 16 years old at the time.

His stay at Dublin didn’t last and by the early 1720s Macklin was on the stage touring with a company based in Bristol and from there his career as an actor and comedian continued unimpeded.

Theophilus Cibber
Theophilus Cibber

In 1733 Macklin played the Drury Lane theatre and a year later at the Haymarket. The big names in theatre at the time were the Cibber’s – Colly Cibber was coming to the end of his career but his son, Theophilus was about the same age as Macklin and already an established member of the Drury Lane Theatre Company.

Just as his career was really starting to take-off  it was was very nearly ended when, in 1735, Macklin stood on trial for murdering fellow actor, Thomas Hallam.

Macklin had been in London two years and was steadily becoming an established name with regular appearances at the Drury Lane Theatre. On May 10th Macklin was appearing in an after-piece along with American actor, Thomas Hallam. Macklin arrived at the theatre and was in costume before he realised that the wig he had worn the previous evening was missing. Macklin went in search of the wig and found it in the green room, on the head of Hallam. An exchange of words ensued with Macklin proclaiming that the wig was central to his characterisation and as he had worn it the previous evening it was only right that he should wear it again. Hallam wasn’t budging claiming ‘first come first serve’ on the basis that the wig was not actually Macklin’s but from a stock of props kept at the theatre.

This reasoned argument did nothing to pacify Macklin who grew more and more frustrated.

Macklin: GOD – ye for a black guard scrub Rascal, How durst you have the Impudence to take this Wig?

HallamI am no more a Rascal than your self.

In his exasperation Macklin lifted a waking cane that he was holding and jabbed it at Hallam’s head. The court heard that Hallam suddenly moved his head sideways so that the cane went directly into his eye; and further.

A witness later stated in court: He clapt both his Hands to his Eye, and cry’d, “O’ Lord ! I believe my eye is put out”, and would have fal’n in the Fire, if Mr. Cole had not catch’d him. When he was set down, I asked him how he did; “Lord!” said he, “I believe my eye-ball is shev’d to the other side of my head.” I believe the Prisoner had him by the Hand, all the while the Surgeon was dressing him.

Macklin came to his senses immediately, threw the cane into the fireplace and asked for a doctor to be sent for by which time Hallam had passed-out. The wound proved fatal and Hallam died the next evening having never regained consciousness.

Macklin was charged with murder and appeared at the Old Bailey on 10th December. Evidence was heard from witnesses who described the feud, the attack, and Macklin’s regret in the immediate aftermath. Macklin himself, not entitled to legal representation, did his own cross examinations and gave his own version of events.

The jury found him guilty of Manslaughter and, as was customary, he was branded in the hand a few days later.

In 20th Century Hollywood a similar incident would have ended the career of an actor but Macklin went back to the Drury Lane theatre, regularly performing there until 1748. His portrayal of Shylock made him famous and, it is claimed, was his finest achievement as an actor. He also wrote a number of plays, Man of the World and Love in a Maze, being the most successful. 

Macklin-plaqueAs his career declined with age Macklin took to offering elocution lessons to aspiring young actors and was synonymous with David Garrick and Samuel Foote who were both tutored by him.

He died in July 1797 aged 97; despite his memorial at St Paul’s in Covent Garden stating he was 107.


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