David Garrick & the fall of bombastic acting

Garrick as Richard III
Garrick as Richard III

When you think of great Shakespearean actors, who comes to mind? I think of Kenneth Branagh, James Earl Jones (is there a better Lear?), Lawrence Olivier, Helen Mirren and Tom Huddleston. Each of these actors, when on stage, becomes the character they play. We are pulled into the drama precisely because of this. Modern audiences are accustomed to players who bring fiction to life; we would be disappointed by actors who just recited lines. There a term for this type of acting, “phoning it in”. “Hamming it up” is a derogatory term we use for those who do the opposite by overacting with exaggerated body language and lines. But, would you be surprised to learn this wasn’t always the case? Prior to 1740, this type of acting was the norm.

Jack Lynch, author of Becoming Shakespeare, offers readers a look into the history of how Shakespeare came to be regarded as the world’s greatest playwright. Lynch introduces us to the people behind the making of Shakespeare into the Bard we know and love today.

An interesting part of this story is the history of the theater and those who acted in it. We are introduced to several colorful characters whose popularity helped fuel the desire for Shakespeare’s work long after he created them.

One of these colorful characters was David Garrick, the first Shakespearean superstar. Garrick’s rise to fame was a result of his break with contemporary acting. Garrick would change audience expectations, and forever change what would be considered “acting”.

Before Garrick, actors were bombastic and flamboyant in both speech and mannerism. Acting was nothing more than reciting lines as loudly as possible with exaggerated body language. This was due in part because they had to carry their voices across the theater, and partly because being bombastic was considered “acting”. It never occurred to anyone to do anything else.

 

Garrick as Hamlet
Garrick as Hamlet

Garrick arrived on the London stage scene in 1740, having failed in his family’s wine trade. Garrick knew he was no businessman, and had always fantasized about acting. The Goodman’s Fields Theater in London gave him a chance; what we would term an “off-Broadway” theater company today. Garrick was given the star role in Richard III and was an instant hit, or at least, an instant sensation, as his unconventional methods would prove to be controversial.

Garrick abandoned traditional acting methods mentioned above. Instead, he appeared to feel the emotions he was portraying. One contemporary said of his style. “He is the only man on any stage where I have been, who speaks tragedy true and natural”. This “natural” approach to acting would revolutionize London’s theaters forever.

Not all audience members however appreciated this new style. Many felt Garrick was no “actor” and thought him a disservice to the theater. Henry Fielding satirized the uproar in a very funny scene in he novel Tom Jones. In the scene, Jones takes his servant Partridge to see Hamlet. Partridge having never been to the theater, mistakes Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s ghost as a real emotion. Later, when asked about the actor playing Hamlet, Partridge replies, “He’s the best player?! Why I could act as well as he myself. I am sure if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the same manner, and done just as he did”. Partridge points out that the King, a more bombastic player was the real actor on stage.

Thankfully the majority of theatergoers did not agree with Partridge’s sentiments. Garrick won over audiences and because of him we expect our actors to be natural. Garrick and his successors would bring new life into Shakespeare and helped created the emotional Shakespearean tone we know today.

 

For the fun of it.

In the course of a conversation this week with Professor Rosenblum, a noted Shakespearean scholar at the University of North Carolina, the subject of bombastic acting came up. Professor Rosenblum asked me if I had seen an episode of the Blackadder, in which two Shakespearean actors give the prince “acting “lessons. I had not, but eagerly sought it out after being told the episode makes fun of the bombastic style of acting and mentions Garrick. I found this clip, though the sound quality is poor, headphones may be required, so that you my dear readers can see just how far we have come thanks to Garrick and his “natural” style of acting.

 

 

 

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

Jack Lynch, Becoming Shakespeare

When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

Getting ready for the play
Getting ready for the play
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?

 

There was a large crowd for the August 2 production of Lake Tahoe’s Shakespeare festival. As you can see a nice  crowed had gathered for a night of cultural entertainment. How can you go wrong with one of Shakespeare’s best well written plays? Some of Shakespeare’s best lines are found in this play. From the well known, “All the world’s a stage” speech to Touchtone’s witty comebacks, what the play lacks in plot more than makes up for it with very witty writing. One would have to try very hard to screw this up. Yet, as much as I enjoyed the performance of the actors, a question came to mind as I watched. When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

I’m well aware that most modern productions of Shakespeare discard Elizabethan settings and dress in order to connect with their 21 century audience. Last year I saw a Midsummer’s night dream set in the 60’s; a time of free love and hippie spiritualism. It worked because the idea of woodland spirits and capricious love are found in both the play in the era of the Beatles. There was a lot of forcing of the action to fit the setting. But this year it was hard to imagine the connection between the era of the railroad barons and setting Shakespeare intended.

In the opening scene we see what appears to be railroad workers, both labors and timekeepers enter and exit the stage, for now apparent reason other than to illustrate the setting. Then Orlando, dressed as a lowly worker, appears with his servant Adam. Orlando, now changing his dirty cloths for clean cloths complains about his lot in life.

As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayest, charg’d my brother, on his
blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my
sadness. My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and
report speaks goldenly of his profit: for my part,
he keeps me rustically at home, or, to speak more
properly, stays me here at home unkept; for call you
that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that
 differs not from the stalling of an ox?

This speech indicates that instead of being allowed to become a well-bred man (educated) he is stuck at home with nothing to do. This is Shakespeare 101. The wordplay, on “unkept” means that his brother’s lack of attention is not in keeping with his father’s wishes. Yet on stage we see a dirty unkempt youth, washing grime from his face. It would seem his brother has given him something to do (work on the railroad lines we have to assume) and not kept him at home like an Ox in a stall.

The lines and the action on the stage do not match. We are not introduced to a youth so bored he decides to risk his life in a wrestling match. If he wins, he will be rewarded with money. Money that will allow him to leave his brother’s home and seek his own fortune. By showing him as a workingman, we are left to wonder why he doesn’t save his wages and become his own man?

Touchstone, the wise and saucy fool has some of the best lines of the play.

The more the pity that fools may not speak wisely when wise men do foolishly”.

When asked how he likes his new life as a shepherd, he says:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.

These lines alone are enough to make us laugh. The audience is smart enough to get the humor, yet in this production Touchstone is a buffoon. His physical mannerisms and cartoonish facial features detract from the words. Saturday night’s audience did not laugh at the lines; they laughed at the shtick that accompanied them. His lines were lost, hidden behind the clownish mask.

Were it not better,
because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?

 

When Rosalind and Celia decide to flee the court, the two talk of disguises. Rosalind makes the observation that being tall for a woman she should dress as a man so the two can safely make their way to the Forest of Arden. But in this, Shakespeare made a mistake (or the writers of the first folio made it). In the beginning of the play it’s established that Rosalind is the smaller of the two. Yet in the course of the play she is described as tall. Folger fixed this problem years ago by changing the first reference. Rosalind is said to be the taller of the two. Thus, eliminating the confusion and making the disguise make sense. The point of the manly disguise is to fool would be robbers into thinking twice about messing with a tall man. And later, Rosalind will give advice to several characters. Yet this director of As you like it, chose to make her short and petite. When Rosalind as Ganymede steps on the stage the audience is confronted with a youth who looks 15. The audience is left wondering why anyone would take orders from or find wisdom in a teen.

These are just three examples of how this adaptation fell flat. I heard someone behind me ask, “What is this, Shakespeare the musical?” when we were faced with a third vaudevillian song and dance number. He wasn’t the only one to show his displeasure. Some people left during intermission never to return. When it was over, the crowed applauded (the actors had done a fine job) but did not rise and show overwhelming gratitude for what they had just paid to see.

So when is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare? When the director tries to conform the play to what he thinks his audience will understand. In this case, changing the play’s setting, action and physical characteristics. All this accomplished was a conflict between the action and the lines.

Why would one American railroad baron ask another, “So how goes it in court?” Why was Touchstone doing a soft-shoe number while reciting some of his best lines? Did the director think his audience to dense to get the original humor?

The first objective of a director of Shakespeare is to make sure the true spirit of the play comes through. Any changes should be done in order to make sure the first objective is met. Failing this, the play is not Shakespeare.

Let’s hope next year’s Tahoe Shakespeare Festival returns to the true spirit of Shakespeare.