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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