Reflections on Acting
The Vanities of Research
I think back, so many, years ago, when I first went to England on a Fulbright in the mid 50s to try to discover the secrets of British classical acting. I ended up discovering a lot about a lot of things-- not a little about English fly fishing, medieval architecture, and the glories of English theatre-going . But, the secrets of English acting proved elusive.
Back then, English actors were reluctant to talk about their ‘’classical style,” given all that was happening with acting in America where Stanislavski had found a home. They were at best, guarded, and at worst, sheepish.
Cells of "method" acting and its study, after the American manner, were cropping up here and there in London. And here and there I managed to find someone who was willing to talk to me. Sam Wannamaker, scion of the great Philadelphia store, was the peck’s bad boy about London what with his incessant flogging of the new American dispensation for a new, more subjective, inner way of making theatre-- and a national theatre for England.
My contacts flinched when I used the word “style.” Especially when I suggested that the English had a style. It was a word they generally feared, It’s having become tainted by long association with West End drawing-room, upper-class comedy. And, as far as classicism, whatever that might mean, well, “classicism” was the Shakespeare that John Gielgud did at the Old Vic and there was an end to it. Few there were who would stand up to defend that old stuff, however accomplished-- and brilliant it might be. And it usually was brilliant.
All in all, I was not a great success in my research.
Now, just the other day, a good friend, an actor, director, and a real professional, said to me that he just "hated" the English actors, "they do it so well". Meaning that they were such superb actors, especially with their prize possession, Shakespeare. Why could not we over here be as good….?
So here I am worrying about “style” all over again. I ought at last to be able to come up with something to say at least faintly useful on the subject. So, I ask myself, point blank, what is it that they, the British actors, do so well?
Here’s what I think-- as of today:
English acting is crisp, sharp edged, clear-- and absolutely confident. The English actor is never in the least apologetic for either his work or his profession of it. He's sure of himself. He brings to bear at any given moment of acting the full resources of his five-hundred year tradition and his long established institutions of actor training. And, he has learned well the lessons of his modernity: how to show the inner life of the characters he plays.
His American cousin, on the other hand, is always full of doubt about his work and worry about his feckless, wandering profession. He has no secure tradition to back him up. Rarely has he a decent income, to say nothing of a real home. He’s always worried. Always looking for the next gig.
His work on stage appears to us to be just a bit soft- edged, just a bit blurred by his own suspicion that he has not got it right, that there might be a better way. His training has tended to thrust him onto his own inner resources, onto a landscape of the heart and mind full of slippery slopes and rocky barriers. Of doubts and fears. He knows no certain standard. He can often be brilliant without ever knowing it-- fearing even to think it. Or he can be awful and not know it. Joy is only momentary in his profession.
I see him doing on stage and screen, work that in its “naturalness” would stymie his English counterpart. Often the American actor can take us dangerously close to the mega-real, from which there can be no return. It is a place where technique alone can never go.
Sometimes, I feel exploded with national pride at the beauties of it, the courage of it, and its selflessness.
Still, American actors tend to be apologetic in their ability to accomplish such access to character, while English actors are exuberantly confident. They understand themselves as trained professionals.
And they expect to live a decent, respectable life in return for their efforts.
The English have another advantage: that rich stable of old actors, actors who have been able to have a steady, rewarding profession of it. They have, of course, lived and worked in a small geography where getting around among the many outlying theatres is easy and inexpensive. They age beautifully with television as its record.
Speaking of old actors: back then, I was at a luncheon table with Mary Fagan, the first to play Chekhov’s Madame Ranevskaya in English. Imagine that! She was, in the most charming manner, dismissive of her grand career, She understood that whatever she and her famous husband J.B. Fagan had done for Chekhov in England, the Russians and their Stanislavski had o’er leaped the English theatre and come down full force in New York. All the while, the English theatre remained less given to psychological acuity and more to just “getting on with it”.
The Shakespearean tradition, in a presentational mode of performance always protected them. In New York, actors were on their own, clinging to whatever model or teacher in whom they could believe. They often became highly skilled at looking deep within themselves and their characters, hoping to represent truly their search into the wilderness of self.
Sometimes I see our American actors do things, so beautiful as to bring tears to my eyes. But, there is little agreement among us in the audience. Our criticism is little more than bare report.
All the while, I, like my friend who "hates" them for it,
am swept away in that special admiration of the British.
I can’t get enough of it.
The American actor is full of the dark secrets that polite folks --- like the traditional British would rather leave at home under wraps of a cultural reticence. The
American actor is ready to tell all. And it amazes me how vividly different and sometimes breath-taking that can make the American actor.
Different? Yes. And that's about all I understand-- other than the abiding British excellence in speaking well and clearly, of seeing a sentence through to the end of its sense. American schools have yet to come close to British voice and speech training. The dirty little secret being that we do not really believe in it….
Still, and I regret it, too many of the English have taken to affecting the worst of the subjective American manner. American films-- and television especially-- have taken their toll on the British theatre. From actors on both sides of the Atlantic, I understand fewer and fewer words well-spoken. I blame all-absorbing television for this decay.
But, I burden you-- as I burdened my boss at the British Drama League in Fitzroy Square, so long ago-- Frances MacKenzie, MA. Oxon, who remonstrated with me impatiently saying, "Gordon, you Americans are so analytical".