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5— D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company
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Griffith's Theatrical Experiences

The ephemeral nature of theatrical acting largely precludes precise knowledge of the acting styles of all but the most prominent actors, and even then the scanty evidence necessitates informed speculation. In the case of a relatively minor actor such as Griffith, evidence is elusive and, for the most part, nonexistent. Griffith, speaking of his touring days, admitted that "we acted in true 'high-falutin style.'"[3] Marshall Neilan, who in 1905 appeared with Griffith in The Financier , said that Griffith "played the villain and he was lousy."[4]


By "high falutin," Griffith presumably referred to the unchecked histrionic code, but what did Neilan mean by "lousy"? That Griffith employed the histrionic code which was by then passé, or that he employed the histrionic code inadequately even by the standards of those accustomed to the old performance style? Beyond these two comments and a few brief reviews, very little evidence about Griffith's theatrical acting survives.

George Pratt and Russell Merritt have, however, managed to piece together a fairly detailed record of Griffith's professional activities from the summer of 1895 through the winter of 1907.[5] Griffith spent most of this period touring with a variety of small, undistinguished companies that presented everything from Shakespeare to such popular standards as East Lynne and Camille . He usually had supporting roles and is only occasionally mentioned in reviews, none of which says much about his acting. The zenith of Griffith's stage career occurred in 1906 when he joined the company of Nance O'Neil, a well-known leading lady. Griffith stayed with O'Neil from February through May of 1906.

Merritt uses these data about Griffith's theatrical career to make a psychoanalytically inflected argument concerning Griffith's expression of biographical impulses in his Biograph films: "I will be arguing that by the time Griffith made his first film, he had gone through an adolescence marked by feelings of unexpressed anger, acute humiliation, and fear of women. His early experience in the theatre . . . generally intensified these emotions. Not until he discovered film did he find a way effectively to channel and redirect them."[6] Merritt, then, is not concerned with attempting to reconstruct Griffith's own acting style, a task I seek to accomplish by adducing information about the performers with whom Griffith worked as well as about the staging of his play A Fool and a Girl .

As he migrated from company to company, what kind of acting might Griffith have seen? Because many of the companies and actors with whom he was associated were fairly obscure, this is a difficult question, though one can assume that most actors in most second-rate touring companies at the turn of the century probably employed the histrionic code. Judging by his frequent mentions of O'Neil's name, Griffith seems to have considered the time spent with the O'Neil company as his most prestigious theatrical accomplishment. Luckily for us, her productions received extensive publicity, as she played major roles in major cities, and reviews and other sources provide a fairly clear picture of O'Neil's performance style. Both favorable and unfavorable critics often compared her with actors of the histrionically coded school. Reviewing her production of Ibsen's Rosmersholm , in which Griffith played Brendel, The Boston Transcript said: "She really is a survival from a past generation of acting. . . . She illustrates emotions as the players of an elder day used to picture them."[7] The same paper had earlier directly linked her with Delsarte:


From her beautiful arms and hands and the most exquisite use of the wrist and the open fingers in gesture . . . one could construct all the figures of the traditional poses, as given in Delsarte and the old French works for the expression and heightening of all the various passions and emotions. As with the arms and hands, so with the whole superb figure, all of its movements were "express and admirable."[8]

The Evening Sun , unimpressed by this throwback to an earlier style, accused O'Neil of "ranting, shouting, tearing and strutting about in awkward poses and impossible attitudes, with all of the airs and very few of the graces of the tragedy queens of fifty years ago."[9]

O'Neil herself summed up the critics' assessment when she said that they thought that "I am inclined to rant, to assume the ultra melodramatic which has gone out and was never artistic."[10] Her interpretation of Lady Macbeth would certainly seem to have verged on the "ultra melodramatic." Recalling seeing her in this role, Henry Goddard reported that "in the scene where she welcomes Duncan to the castle, she seized his hand and bent over it effusively." At the close of the banquet scene she "drops at her husband's feet as he sits, burying her face in his lap and sobbing convulsively as the curtain falls." In the ultimate test of any Lady Macbeth, the sleepwalking scene, she "starts backward so swiftly as to strike against the pillar at the corner of the stage . . . so violently that it awakens her. Glaring at the two attendants she utters a shrill scream."[11] Here we see the self-consciousness, the deliberate theatricality, and the attitude-striking of the histrionic code.

O'Neil was a theatrical atavism who nonetheless tackled the dramatic realists for whose work she seems to have been singularly unsuited. In a daring move, she played Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in New York at the same time that Mrs. Fiske, the female exemplar of the new style, appeared in the role in a nearby theatre. Mrs. Fiske garnered rave reviews, while O'Neil's interpretation was uniformly judged inferior. But though the critics may have objected, there were still audiences who appreciated the old style. Reviewing Rosmersholm, The Boston Transcript noted that "the subtleties and suggestions of modern psychological acting would probably baffle and weary them [the audience] as much as Miss O'Neil's forthright playing of the obvious gives them pleasure."[12]

In later life, Griffith would mention O'Neil but express profound admiration for Mrs. Fiske. Yet when he wrote his first play, A Fool and a Girl , his sympathies seem to have lain more with the O'Neil school, as suggested by a few of the stage directions:

Effie throws herself across chair, clutching wildly at his coat.

Effie catches hold of his hands as he takes her and throws her off.

Crouching on floor by door moaning.

Wearily picks up receiver [of telephone] then sinks to a heap on floor.[13]


Publicity stills from the play's only production (one week in Washington, one week in Baltimore) indicate that the actors used the conventional gestures and attitude-striking of the histrionic code, though whether at the playwright's behest or that of James K. Hackett, the producer and director, is unknown. In what appears to be a climactic confrontation, five men and two women stand on stage, the women in the center. The leading lady, Fannie Ward, later to star in deMille's The Cheat (1915), stands facing Allison Skipworth. Ward holds her right arm extended backward at a forty-five degree angle as she points at Skipworth with her left arm fully extended. Skipworth holds out her right hand, arm fully extended to Ward, while her left hand is placed on her hip. The gentlemen stand stiffly, hands at sides or on hips, or in one case leaning on knuckles on a table. In another photo of Ward, Skipworth, and a male actor, Ward sits on a fallen tree, one hand in her lap and the other hand pointing at a gentleman who sits at her feet.[14] The first photograph, especially, could well be a frame enlargement from a 1908 Biograph.

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