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2— The Theatrical Heritage
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The Theatrical Heritage

"Despite the stylized pantomimic gestures employed by Linda [Arvidson] and Arthur Johnson, . . . some small transcendence of types and situations was achieved."[1] Richard Schickel, the author of one of the more recent additions to the rapidly growing Griffith bibliography, thus assesses Griffith's first film, The Adventures of Dollie . Schickel might find Dollie laudable in all other respects, but to him the acting is on an equal—that is to say equally bad—footing with that of any other 1908 one-reeler. A few pages later, Shickel discusses the results of the Biograph Company's 1909-1910 sojourn in Los Angeles: "There was still, even in Griffith's films, plenty of posturing, exaggeration, excessive movement, . . . but in fact he was managing to tone this down and sometimes . . . to almost totally eliminate it."[2] Schickel seems to see the transformation in acting style as a simple, linear progression from the bad "posturing, exaggeration, excessive movement" to the good "deliberation and repose" that was being praised in the New York Dramatic Mirror .[3]

In the past, many writers on the early silent film committed similar errors of historical solipsism, devaluing not just the acting but also other signifying practices, such as editing. The films and signifying practices of the pre-Hollywood era were often depicted as necessary but faltering steps along the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of the classical Hollywood cinema. More recently, an intensive reevaluation of the pre-Hollywood period has done much to correct this teleological perspective.[4] Instead of dismissing the early silent films as primitive or preliminary, scholars now appreciate that their signifying practices constitute the road not taken and strive to understand the ideological determinants of their abandonment.


The Adventures of Dollie:  "Stylized pantomimic 

Yet surprisingly, even a scholar who has contributed a great deal to the reevaluation of the early silent cinema takes a somewhat teleological perspective on silent-film performance style. Janet Staiger, in "The Eyes are Really the Focus: Photoplay Acting and Film Form and Style," draws on evidence from the film-trade press and theatrical history to discuss performance style between 1908 and 1913, producing a creditable essay. In the first paragraph, however, Staiger contrasts the "graceful, intense, restrained and illusionistic" style of the "great actresses of the teens" with the "older film acting style of broad gestures, grotesque facial grimaces and contorted body movements."[5] Though Staiger never explicitly denounces the old style, the opposition between "graceful" and "intense," on the one hand, and "grotesque" and "contorted," on the other, unavoidably valorizes the new style. This valorization, inadvertent though it may be, blurs the possible ideological implications of shifts in performance style.

Recourse to intertextuality can help deal with the problem of a teleological perspective insensitive to the aesthetic standards of a bygone age. As the paradigms of auteurism and psychoanalysis, previously so influential in cinema studies, have given way during the past few years to new paradigms derived from British cultural studies and reader response/reception theory, the primacy of the text has simultaneously given way to a concern with intertextual and contextual matters. Film scholars increasingly supplement textual analysis with knowledge of how a particular text both relates to other texts and functions in the larger culture. Indeed, many theorists, including Tony Bennett and Janet Woolacott in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero , argue that the text by itself has no independent existence, is "an inconceivable object":

The case of Bond throws into high relief the radical insufficiency of those forms of cultural analysis which, in purporting to study texts 'in themselves', do radical vi-


olence to the real nature of the social existence and functioning of texts in pretending that 'the text itself' can be granted an existence, as a hypostatised entity, separated out from the always variable systems of inter-textual relations which supply the real conditions of its signifying functioning.[6]

A text, then, can only exist within and because of an intertextual framework. Intertextuality should not be conceived in the narrow art-historical sense of direct influence. Rather, intertextuality refers to those texts, both "traditional" ones such as books, paintings, and plays, and less tangible ones such as broadly diffused cultural conceptions, which form a framework for the reception of a particular text. As Jonathan Culler observes:

Intertextuality thus becomes less a name for a work's relation to particular prior texts than a designation of its participation in the discursive space of a culture: the relationship between a text and the various languages or signifying practices of a culture and its relation to those texts which articulate for it the possibilities of that culture. The study of intertextuality is thus not the investigation of sources and influences as traditionally conceived.[7]

Because intertextuality conditions both production and reception, one cannot describe and account for the transformation of acting style in the Griffith Biographs without reference to the intertextual frames within which these films may have been produced and received. What was the shared frame of reference between producers and audiences, derived from culturally prevalent conceptions of "correct" performance style, that conditioned the production and reception of acting in the Griffith Biographs?[8] I shall refer to this shared intertextual framework as a code, by which, if you will, the producers encoded their messages and the audience decoded them.[9]

Intertextuality, then, can help to temper a teleological perspective. But how might we deal with the problem of value-laden terminology, which I raised in the previous chapter, and avoid the use of such terms as "melodramatic," "realistic," and "naturalistic"? Rejecting these terms, and following Humpty Dumpty's advice that Alice become the master of her words, I shall invent my own terms for the old and new performance styles.

Between 1908 and 1913 the intertextual frame about performance style shared by the Biograph producers and their audience gradually shifted. In 1908 the producers and audience derived the frame of reference primarily from their knowledge of theatrical conventions, which were by that time associated with the melodrama. Performance style was "histrionically" coded. By 1913 the shared intertextual frame derived primarily from knowledge of culturally specific notions about the mimesis of everyday life. Performance was "verisimilarly" coded. I shall henceforth refer to the old style as the histrionic code and the new style as the verisimilar code .


The Histrionic Code

The Oxford English Dictionary defines histrionic as "theatrical in character or style, stagey." The histrionic code is, in a sense, reflexive, referring always to the theatrical event rather than to the outside world. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, most English and American actors in most theatres performed in a self-consciously theatrical fashion, ostentatiously playing a role rather than pretending to be another person. Disdaining to mask technique in the modern fashion, actors proudly displayed their skills, always striving to create a particular effect. Performers, audiences, and critics all knew that a theatrical presentation was an artificial construct meant to bear little resemblance to any off-stage reality. Audiences and critics condemned as inadequate those who did not demonstrably act: the pleasure derived not from participating in an illusion but from witnessing a virtuoso performance.

The actors remained always aware of the spectators, "playing to the gallery." The stars stood at center stage, facing front, as close to the footlights as possible. At their climactic speeches, they would "make points," striding across the stage in deliberate fashion to call for applause. The audience entered into the spirit of the occasion, applauding more frequently than is the current custom, and even encoring favorite speeches. At times the audience would demand the reenactment of entire scenes, displaying a particular fondness for the repetition of heartrending, pitiful deaths.

The actors moved in stylized fashion, selecting their gestures from a conventional, standardized repertoire passed on not only through an "oral" tradition and stock-company training but through descriptions and illustrations in acting manuals and handbooks.[10] As early as the eighteenth century, "various attempts had been made to select and classify the gestures that were appropriate for use on the stage."[11] These manuals instructed actors on the facial expressions and arrangement of limbs and head necessary to portray a vast gamut of emotions. For example:

Rage or Anger expresses itself with rapidity, interruption, rant, harshness and trepidation. The neck is stretched out, the head forward, often nodding and shaking in a menacing manner against the object of the passion . . . the feet often stamping; the right arm frequently thrown out menacingly, with the clenched fist shaken, and a general and violent agitation of the whole body.[12]

Just as many schools of acting flourished throughout the century, the instruction manuals proliferated. We may question how accurately the manuals reflect actual theatrical practice, because many of them were directed at either would-be thespians or amateurs. Nonetheless, the manuals provide the best available data about the histrionic code, recording gesture and movement in much more detail than do contemporary reviews or memoirs. My explication


of the histrionic code depends mainly on instruction manuals and other books propounding the Delsarte system, one of the most popular and influential of the various schools of acting.

François Delsarte was a Frenchman who headed a theatrical academy in Paris and died shortly after the Franco-Prussian War. Founding his system upon the observation of human behavior, he assumed that posture mirrors emotions, a different posture corresponding to every shade of feeling. Delsarte devised exercises that taught his students to reproduce these postures, making a connection between "real life" and the stage, which the histrionic code denied. As one of his American disciples, Geneviève Stebbins, put it, "The actor's art is to express in well known symbols what an individual man may be supposed to feel. . . . But unless the actor follows nature sufficiently close to select symbols recognized as natural, he fails to touch us."[13] But Stebbins goes on to warn against a thoughtless and slavish reproduction of everyday behavior: "Strict fidelity to nature is nonsense. Art must always idealize nature, and when it fails to do this, it fails in its proper expression."[14]

Why equate Delsartism with the histrionic code? Delsartism thrived at the end of the nineteenth century, by which time histrionically coded performance had all but vanished from most stages. Moreover, Delsarte and some of his more faithful disciples professed to follow nature, a practice that was anathema to many of those championing histrionically coded performance. Delsarte, it would seem, desired to challenge the hegemony of the histrionic code, but the wholesale acceptance of Delsartism perverted its founder's intentions. His system, in its debased form, became emblematic of histrionically coded performances. His followers forgot about following "nature sufficiently close" in their enthusiastic determination to "idealize nature."

The Delsarte system enjoyed an American vogue, largely due to the proselytizing of Steele MacKaye, one of the important actor managers of the late nineteenth century, who also lectured widely and established the first dramatic school in New York City. Delsarte's enthusiastic American proponents applied the master's precepts to everything from dance to oratory, in the process rendering the system mechanical and artificial, a mere cookbook of theatrical emotion. They jettisoned theory, observation, and any notion of following nature, devising "correct" poses for each emotion and state of mind. Delsarte instruction books illustrating these poses resemble others of the period, and many of the pictures would today strike even the nonspecialist as immediately familiar. As any five-year-old child familiar with Saturday-morning cartoons could tell you, the right hand raised to the forehead, left arm extended backward, means "mine woes afflict this spirit sore."[15]

Delsartism's vast popularity and the great wealth of available information make it the obvious primary source for evidence about the histrionic code. One can also argue that the Delsarte postures reflect actual practice. After reading the manuals and examining the pictures, one discovers striking simi-


larities among Delsarte postures, descriptions of melodramatic acting, and performances in the early Biographs. By the end of the nineteenth century, melodrama's appeal had waned and it was presented mainly at the cheaper or "popular"-priced theatres, such as those clustered along New York's Bowery. On these stages the histrionic code, banished from the boards of the higher-priced theatres, still flourished. And when the popular-priced theatres and the melodrama faltered circa 1907–1908, histrionically coded performances survived, though now in the nickelodeon rather than the cheap theatre.

If one were so inclined, it would be possible to present numerous instances, complete with frame enlargements and plate reproductions, of poses found in both Delsarte manuals and the early Biographs. Two factors invalidate this tactic. First, though strong similarities existed, one must not overstate the case: Biograph performance style, as will be seen, did not exactly duplicate either Delsartism or any other school. Second, the interesting parallels between Biograph and Delsarte style lie not in specific poses but in the overall principles of histrionically coded acting shared by the two.

Rather than present massive amounts of data sans interpretation, offering a fruitless plethora of examples, I shall instead seek to explicate these common underlying principles through reference to the semiotics of gesture and language. A linguistic model, while generally applicable to neither cinema nor gesture, does further our understanding of certain highly structured forms of gestural communication. The highly structured histrionic code shares several characteristics with natural language, a fact that greatly facilitates verbal description both of the workings of the code and of individual gestures.

Limited Lexicon

A gesture is not a word or a syllable but a whole phrase which cannot be further broken down. There seem to be no gestural equivalents to what linguists call phonemes and morphemes. Umberto Eco labels this phenomenon a "super sign," defining it as a sign "whose content is not a content-unit but an entire proposition; this phenomenon does not occur in verbal language but it does in many other semiotic systems."[16]

The resemblance of gestures to phrases or even whole sentences rather than words normally precludes a gestural dictionary, since there are an infinite number of possible gestures. This distinguishes both cinema and gesture from natural language systems. As Metz says of cinema, "One of the great differences between this language system [cinema] and natural language is due to the fact that, within the former, the diverse minimal signifying units . . . do not have a stable and universal signified. In a natural language each morpheme (moneme) has a fixed signified."[17]

Though the Delsarte system encompasses a multitude of possible postures/emotions, it does not encompass an infinity of possibilities and hence may be


said to have a limited lexicon. Each emotion/state of mind must be represented by a particular, precise arrangement of the torso, limbs, and head. In actual practice, it is unlikely that any two actors could have faultlessly reproduced one another's exact poses, so that an infinity of possible poses did, in this sense, exist. But this is akin to individual pronunciation of a standard vocabulary, which some semioticians have referred to as an idiolect.[18] The Delsarte system did theoretically sanction a platonically ideal pose for each emotion. In a lecture delivered in the early 1870s Steele MacKaye stated, "The actor who is a follower of Delsarte is taught to express an emotion according to the laws of the emotion—the use of the appropriate and most powerful physical presentation of the impassioned thought."[19]

Though MacKaye's interpretation of Delsarte was more subtle and complex than that of the next generation of "Delsartians," this statement could be seen to countenance the publication of gestural lexicons giving students the "Delsarte" vocabulary.[20] The vocabulary, however, consisted not of words but of phrases. Eco's concept of the "super sign" corresponds to the way the "Delsartians" themselves thought of gesture: "But one gesture is needed for the expression of an entire thought, since it is not the word but the thought that the gesture must announce."[21]

Although it is not my intention to become the Dr. Johnson of the Biographs, a few entries from the Biograph gestural dictionary may help to illustrate the concept of the limited lexicon:

"resolution or conviction": fist clenched in air, brought down sharply to side of body.

"despair, shame": hands covering face or head buried in arms.

"fear": arm extended, palm out toward fearful object, other hand perhaps clutching throat.

"Help me, Lord": arms fully extended above head, sometimes hands clasped.

"feminine distress": hand to cheek or hands on both sides of face.

"Honey, you and I are going to have a great future together": gesture performed by a man, when he and his lady have finally transcended all obstacles to togetherness, in which one hand is raised as in the fascist salute, palm down and fingers spread, and waved slowly from side to side.

Analogical Versus Digital Communication

Digital communications, such as formal language systems, involve "discrete, discontinuous elements and gaps."[22] Barthes claims that this discontin-


uous character has in the past been considered necessary for signification to occur at all.[23] Gesture is, however, an analog communication, involving "continuous quantities with no significant gaps."[24] This continuous flow of signifiers, along with the lack of a minimal unit, makes it extremely difficult for the analyst to segment gestural signification. Indeed, Patrice Pavis asserts that the analyst should not even attempt segmentation: "We define gesture as that which cannot be limited or isolated, as that which cannot be isolated from the flow of communication without damage resulting."[25]

Because gesture cannot be segmented, the one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified of verbal communication does not exist. A. J. Greimas states that the semiosis of the gesture will consist "in the relation between a sequence of gestural figures, taken as the signifier, and the gestural project, considered as the signified."[26] The recipient understands this gestural project only by translating it into another sign system, that of verbal language.[27] Barthes points out that this sort of translation is common in the case of analogical systems. "These systems are almost always duplicated by articulated speech . . . which endows them with the discontinuous aspect which they do not have."[28]

Though most gestural communication systems are unsegmented and analogic, the histrionic code, with its emphasis on the isolation of gesture, does resemble segmented, digital communications such as speech.[29] Actors deliberately struck attitudes, holding each gesture and abstracting it from the flow of motion until the audience had "read it." An author of one of the Delsarte instruction manuals advises: "But one gesture is needed to express an entire thought. Consequently, the gesture must be held until the impression which caused it melts away, and gives place to another impression."[30] One need only look at the early Biographs to observe the holding of gestures, but a 1907 Atlantic Monthly article confirms that this attitude-striking was also integral to melodramatic acting. The writer describes the heroine's gestures as she declares her innocence: "For gesture, one hand may be slightly extended and upraised, the other pressed timidly upon the breast; and at the close of the word [innocent ] the eyes should fall, the head drop forward with sweet submission. This position may be maintained for several seconds. Then the gallery will clap."[31]

Not only were aspiring actors told to "rest long enough in a gesture,"[32] they were urged to avoid excessive movement, which might detract from attitude-striking. Dion Boucicault, one of the premiere names in theatrical melodrama, warned against superfluous gesture: "Let the gesture be exactly such as pertains to what you say . . . and no more. Do not use gesticules —little gestures—that is fidgety."[33] The elimination of the small gestures brings about the physical equivalent of silence between the grand, posed gestures, resulting in the "discrete, discontinuous elements and gaps" of digital communication.



Another hallmark of natural language not shared by most gestural communication is opposition.[34] Indeed, Ferdinand de Saussure often insisted that language is nothing but a diacritical system of differences, that the meaning of a language system derives solely from paradigmatic oppositions. The presence or absence of phonemes in morphemes or of morphemes in sentences can entirely change the meaning of a word or sentence. Natural language exhibits a perfect binary opposition: the distinction between cat and pat , for example, stems solely from the opposition between c and p .

Opposition in histrionically coded acting is more a matter of degree. Actors had to decide: (1) the length of time of the gesture; (2) the stress and speed of the gesture; and (3) the direction of the gesture, each of which involves not two but a whole range of choices.

1. Length of time. Though actors might be told to "rest upon a gesture," the histrionic code did not demand that each gesture be held for precisely the same number of seconds. Instead, actors varied the time of gestures for dramatic effect. Both the emotional intensity of a particular scene and the scene's place within the narrative determined the time that a particular pose might be held. At the climax of each act, always an emotional high point, melodramatic casts often froze in place, forming a motionless tableau that might last for several seconds before the curtain fell.

2. Stress and speed. The weight and speed of gestures also constituted significant oppositions. Generally, slow, languid movements connoted resigned despair, pensiveness, calm content, quiet love, and similar states of mind. Fast, forceful movements connoted anger, fear, unbearable misery, grief, and other more active, and often negative, emotions. The Actor's Art , from 1882 (not a Delsarte book) tells us "a calm thought will prompt a quiet action. The arm will move slowly without abruptness." However, should "the sentiment be strong, the thought will prompt the arm to rise rapidly."[35] Once again, actors suited the stress and speed of the gesture to the progress of the narrative: early Biographs often begin with slow, languid gestures, climax with fast forceful gestures, and resolve with slow, languid gestures.

3. Movement. The final significant opposition concerns the direction of movement with regard to the actors' bodies: toward the feet or the head, toward or away from the body, parallel or perpendicular to the body. Move-


ments directed upward may indicate acceptance, pleading, or an appeal to heaven, while movements downward indicate conviction, resolution, or the act of rejection. Boucicault was quite insistent on these distinctions: "Why in the attitude of appeal do you put your hands up so? You cannot appeal that way [with the palms downward]. Why in depreciation do you put your hands downward? You cannot do it that way [the palms upward]."[36] Movements close to the body may indicate pleading, acceptance or shame, whereas movements away indicate rejection, fear, repulsion. Generally, the closer the movements to the center of the body, the calmer the emotion, while stronger emotions result in movements upward, downward, or outward. The greater the extension of the arm in these directions the more intense the emotion. The author of The Actor's Art states, "So long as in their movement the hands do not rise above the waist, they express sentiments of a quiet nature, . . . but so soon as the hands are raised above the waist, and therefore reach the chest . . . their expression assumes much greater force, more intensity."[37]

To summarize, the histrionic code is always marked by a resemblance to digital communication and a limited lexicon, but performers had to choose the time, stress and speed, and direction of their gestures. And since the performance of gesture could vary, an actor could use various combinations of oppositions to suit the movements to the nature and intensity of the character's state of mind. By looking at the quality of the gestures in the early Biographs we can conceive of a range of options between what I shall term the checked and unchecked histrionic codes, the latter more closely resembling conventional, stereotyped notions of melodramatic acting. In the unchecked histrionic code, gestures are quickly performed, heavily stressed, and fully extended, the arms being held upward, downward, or outward from the body. Often these gestures are repeated, either immediately or a little later in a series. Slower, less stressed, and less extended gestures, the arms remaining closer to the body, characterize the checked histrionic code.

The Verisimilar Code

By the penultimate decade of the last century, those connected with the theatre realized that the old style of histrionically coded performance had given way to a new style, to verisimilarly coded performance. "The stage may be said to have undergone . . . a revolution."[38] Or, as Gus the Theatre Cat put it more eloquently, "The theatre's certainly not what it was."[39]

The concept of mimesis goes back to Aristotle and The Poetics , while the terms "verisimilar" and "vraisemblance" appear frequently in structuralist literary theory. My use of verisimilar derives specifically from the work of Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov says that "we speak of the work's verisimilitude


insofar as the work tries to convince us it conforms to reality and not its own laws. In other words, verisimilitude is the mask which is assumed by the laws of the text and which we are meant to take for a relation with reality."[40] Verisimilitude should not be equated with reality; it refers, rather, to a particular culture's coded expectations about the artistic representation of reality. Reality in this sense is a cultural construct, a matter of commonly held opinion rather than that which is presumed to have some objective existence outside the text: "verisimilitude is never anything more than the result of opinion; it is entirely dependent on opinion, public opinion."[41]

Verisimilitude, predicated as it is upon intertextuality rather than personal experience, frees the historian from having to make claims about some extratextual historical "reality." As Fredric Jameson tells us, "history is not a text" but "is inaccessible to us except in textual form, or in other words, . . . it can be approached only by way of prior (re)textualization."[42] There is no need to replicate Erving Goffman's work in a 1913 context in a futile attempt to determine how closely the Biograph actors' gestures approximated the gestures of their "real life" counterparts. Instead we can try to discover, through reference to other texts, the 1913 audience's coded expectations about the representation of everyday behavior. That the coded expectations may have had little relation to the way people actually behaved matters not at all: "For a particular society . . . the work that is realistic is that which repeats the received form of 'Reality.' It is a question of reiterating the society's system of intelligibility."[43]

Let me illustrate the point anecdotally. During a film studies conference in New Orleans, a group of my colleagues and I took an after-dinner stroll along the banks of the Mississippi. Inspired by the setting, we began to storyboard a murder for the first scene of a projected film noir, The Third Beignet . We agreed that the principals would be followed to the riverbank in a long tracking shot. We agreed that the murder itself would be presented in quick-cut montage. But we disagreed over the background music. Two street musicians competed for our attention: a cornet player along the riverbank rendered a mournful version of "All of Me," and a bagpiper in Jackson Square played whatever bagpipers play. I argued that we should use the bagpipe for its sheer unconventionality. With the piping clearly audible to all, one of my colleagues countered, "There are no bagpipes in New Orleans." And he was right. As far as our hypothetical audience was concerned, there are indeed no bagpipes in "the city that care forgot." The "society's system of intelligibility" about a cinematic New Orleans includes cornets but not bagpipes.

An anecdote from the period in question may be more persuasive. In a 1912 article, "Stage Realism," the author questioned the theatre's obsession with the "approximation of life," making his point with a story about Sir Henry Irving, one of the leading actor-managers of the late-nineteenth-century British stage:


There is a current anecdote . . . which relates how once Sir Henry Irving, at rehearsal, upbraided a stagehand for the poor imitation of thunder the latter produced. "Please, sir," replied the man, "that wasn't me that made the noise. It's the real storm outdoors; it's ragin' so 'ard I couldn't 'ear you tell me when to begin."[44]

The extratextual storm violated Irving's expectations about the satisfactory representation of thunder, which to convince him had to sound not like "real" thunder but like "stage" thunder. But if we are tempted to mock our grandparents' naivete we need only recall the false, timid sound of the shots on the evening news compared to the loud reports on our favorite action-adventure shows.

As Henry James well knew, "the real thing" is not always the most convincing. In his short story of that title, he tells of a gentleman and his lady who, having fallen on hard times, serve as artist's models. When the artist begins to illustrate a book with an upper-class setting, the couple, possessing the requisite breeding and bearing, expects a long engagement. The artist finds, however, that his cockney char and Italian servant man make far more suitable subjects: when he draws them they simply appear more aristocratic than the "real thing."[45] James intended to show that there is no foolproof recipe for verisimilitude.

You will not write a good novel unless you possess the sense of reality; but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it, and others have not; as for telling you in advance how your nosegay should be composed, that is another affair.[46]

What was the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century recipe for calling a sense of reality into being? What were this particular culture's coded expectations about the artistic representation of reality? Ideally, one would answer this question through immersion in the multitude of surviving texts: from the dime Western to "great" literature such as the novels of Henry James. Following such an immersion, one might emerge with what Raymond Williams would call "the structure of feeling" of the period:

This structure of feeling is the culture of a period: it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization. And it is in this respect that the arts of the period, taking these to include characteristic approaches and tones in argument, are of major importance. For here, if anywhere, this characteristic is likely to be expressed; often not consciously, but by the fact that here, in the only examples we have of recorded communication that outlives its bearers, the actual living sense, the deep community that makes communication possible, is naturally drawn upon.[47]

Obviously, the recreating of the period's structure of feeling would in and of itself constitute a book, if not a life's work, even if such a task were possible


or theoretically justifiable. Forced to be selective about the relevant intertexts for the structure of feeling or the intertextual framework, what texts do we select? Because we are concerned with the fictional representation of reality it behooves us to turn to a body of work that self-consciously addressed this issue. In the mid-nineteenth century a literary movement arose that scholars have dubbed nineteenth-century or modern realism. Realism is, as I have said, a term to be handled carefully, but it can be useful when properly defined. In this case, both the writers themselves and literary critics have rather precisely defined the characteristics of the nineteenth-century realist novel.

Verisimilitude has been debated since Plato and Aristotle, and, as Erich Auerbach has shown, the emergence of modern realism was a highly gradual process with numerous antecedents.[48] Through identifying and listing some of the primary ingredients, we can, despite James's demurral, reproduce at least to a degree the late-nineteenth-century recipe for literary verisimilitude. Having done so, we can seek points of contact between this construction of reality and the verisimilar code in performance. In what follows I have to some extent relied on secondary critics but where possible have used period writers, assuming that the latter were perforce more strongly imbued with their era's structure of feeling and of "the received form of Reality."[49]

Most realist writers adopted as their first premise the notion that literature should indeed have some connection to the actual experience of day-to-day life. W. D. Howells, the foremost champion of the realist movement among literary critics, asserted that "we must ask ourselves before we ask anything else, Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women."[50] These writers deliberately opposed themselves to a fiction that they perceived as mannered, stylized, and artificial. To turn once again to the doyen of literary realists, listen to Henry James's Mark Ambient, "The Author of Beltraffio," telling his young admirer about his wife's conception of the novel: "[It] is a thing so false that it makes me blush. It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in which life is so blinkered and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that it makes my ears burn."[51] Ambient desired to be "truer than I've ever been. . . . I want to give the impression of life itself."[52] Or, as James said elsewhere, "the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life."[53] Clearly, this was a hallmark of the new verisimilar performance style—the assertion rather than the denial of a connection between the stage and everyday life.

Two techniques that the realists used to achieve "truth" and the "impression of life" relate directly to the emergence of the verisimilar code. According to A. C. Benson, writing in 1912, the "old inclination . . . was to brush aside all the vulgar, obvious and commonplace elements of life."[54] Scientific observation and recording of these commonplace elements would lead to the inclusion of facts, of little details. The aspiring realist would go about the world with a notebook, mental or actual, noting down the peculiarities and


particularities of his fellow beings, then transcribe these minutiae onto the written page. A realist should literally draw from life: "realism in fiction consists in copying actual facts. . . . The realist is a photographer. His grocer has a peculiar way of tying up a package, his mother-in-law a trick of lifting her left eyebrow; the indefatigable realist secures a negative of each."[55]

Barthes argues that details, those "minute gestures, transitory attitudes, insignificant objects, redundant speech"[56] serve no narrative function but naturalize the text by contributing to an effect of the real. The details become "the very signifiers of realism. A realistic effect is produced, which is the foundation of the unacknowledged verisimilitude that makes up the aesthetic of all the common writing of the present."[57] As we shall see, the observation and inclusion of "realist" details figured largely in Griffith's instructions to his actors.

The realists also struggled to dispense with artificialities of plot and character, to give their fictional creations a psychological depth and plausible motivation. In their work they sought to capture the "God-given complexity of motive which we find in all the human beings we know."[58] The exploration of psyche became of paramount importance, and character the dominant element of the novel. In the realists' plots, characters precipitated events rather than simply reacting to them. Henry James summed up this doctrine in his famous questions about narrative construction:

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is either a picture or a novel that is not of character? . . . It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way. . . . At the same time it is an expression of character.[59]

The rise of dramatic realism paralleled that of literary realism, both movements originating in the mid-nineteenth century.[60] Theatre historians generally point to the English playwright T. W. Robertson's 1865 Caste as the origin of a rudimentary dramatic realism, often dubbed "teacup" realism for the drawing-room society that it portrayed: "A plausible representation of actual life and manners and speech, with all the rhetoric and rhetorical conventions abolished, with no aim but the aim of illusion, was for the first time presented to an English playhouse audience."[61]

The dramatic realists shared with the literary realists the desire to represent real life in their work: "The realistic drama is not a poetical fancy of the inner vision, but a photograph of actual life."[62] Like the novelists, the realist dramatists emphasized the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. "Drama of the intimate type . . . aims to the reflection of actual life upon the stage, life stripped of the large meaning, but with as many of the commonplaces retained as possible."[63] The dramatic realists also rejected unbelievable plots and implausible characters. They wished to substitute for one-dimensional stock fig-


ures, whose personalities were often signified by their physical attributes, the more complex, multi-dimensional, and psychologized characters being created by the literary realists:

A character came to signify a man fixed and finished: one who invariably appeared either drunk or jocular or melancholy, and characterization required nothing more than a physical defect such as a club-foot. . . . Because they are modern characters . . . I have drawn my figures vacillatory, disintegrated, a blend of old and new.[64]

The dramatic realists also paid attention to the insignificant, trying to get the little things right. Or as one hostile critic put it, "Petty details are to be substituted for largeness of conception and execution."[65] In the plays themselves, realist detail often meant dialogue that accurately reflected a character's social station or nationality, instead of the standard clichés of the melodrama.

Realist details became especially important not primarily in the texts but in their production. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, British and American theatrical producers increasingly sought the "realist effect" through sets, props, and costumes that reproduced in great detail their "real-life" models. The trend began with the productions of Robertson's plays at the Prince of Wales Theatre, which introduced the first fully developed box set to the English theatre. With its three walls, and implied fourth, all set within the picture frame of the proscenium arch, the box set at the Prince of Wales transferred the society drawing room, complete with furniture, sculpture, draperies, and fireplaces, to the stage.[66]

In the United States at the end of the century the famous producer David Belasco had become the prime exemplar of this sort of theatrical realism, which he carried to fantastic and, said some, unnecessary extremes. Theatre critic Sheldon Chaney accused Belasco of devotion to an "unimaginative realism" predicated on "photographic accuracy and naturalistic detail" that obscured a play's deeper meaning: "Belasco, in a recent magazine essay, epitomized his creed in one sentence: 'I believe in the little things.' . . . He believes that if he puts together enough little details that are 'real' or 'natural'—that is, true to the outer, material aspects of life—he can build a whole that will be artistically or spiritually true to life."[67] In his passion for accuracy Belasco put on stage wet rainstorms, working telephone switchboards, and once a Child's Restaurant set complete down to the food.[68]

Once Belasco set the standard, others followed his lead, and theatrical realism became synonymous with a mania for accurate and "lifelike" detail:

Infinite pains are now lavished upon settings and costumes and properties, to make them accurate and complete and real. The stage is boxed in with sidewalks and ceilings. . . . Real meals are served to players who actually eat and drink. Real water trickles over realistic stones. Real horses and automobiles are pressed into


service. And the actor himself makes an earnest endeavor to say and do things on the stage as they are said and done in real life.[69]

The movement toward theatrical realism coincided with a new acting style, the verisimilar code. Crediting Robertson with the introduction both of rudimentary dramatic realism and realistic settings, theatre historians also trace the new acting style to the first productions of his plays.[70] Because both text and stage sought to evoke "real life," verisimilarly coded performance achieved a unity of effect that the self-conscious theatricality of the histrionic code could not. But the ephemeral nature of the acting makes it much easier to discuss Robertson's society dramas and box sets than the performances that took place in those painstakingly reproduced drawing rooms.

The writings of critics and of the actors themselves help us to visualize the new code. Given the fallibility of human memory, how reliable is this evidence? As any film scholar knows, ask any two people to tell you about a film, and you will get three completely different descriptions. We have no reason to assume that critics accurately recorded nor actors accurately reported what happened on stage. But by looking at nineteenth-century literary, dramatic, and theatrical realism we have attained a sense of that society's code of verisimilitude. This enables us to describe the verisimilar code by seeking homologies in the written evidence between the new acting style and literary, dramatic, and theatrical realism. In this way we have an intertextual control, if you will, no human fallibility.

As we have seen, the realists (literary, dramatic, and theatrical) all used details to create a "realistic effect." The passion for detailed accuracy which animated the set designers carried over to the actors. Verisimilarly coded performances included the little details, the realistic touches that actors referred to as "byplay." A critic defined subtle acting, by which he meant the new style, as "a temperamental ability to suggest the stage portrait by delicate hints and nuances rather than by obvious methods."[71] In 1867 one of the actors in a production of Caste at the Prince of Wales was said to establish his entire character by the way in which he filled his pipe.[72]

For the great English actor-manager Henry Irving, byplay was "the very essence of the true art." Believing "trifles make perfection,"[73] Irving built his characterizations on physical mannerisms, portraying Tennyson's Becket, for example, with a "piercing side-long glance and peculiar motion of the head."[74] Whereas actors employing the histrionic code behaved all the time as if they were on stage, and center stage at that, Irving added credible touches that suited his characters to their situations in life. In a lecture on acting, Irving revealed how he had learned to do this. During a production of Guy Mannering , Irving was cast opposite Charlotte Cushman to whom, at one point, he was to hand a purse of money. He handed her a "large purse full of coin of the realm, in the shape of broken crockery." This prop was traditionally used


because, when hurled to the ground in righteous indignation by the virtuous young maiden whom it was supposed to persuade, "the clatter of the broken crockery suggested fabulous wealth."

But after the play Miss Cushman . . . said to me, "Instead of giving me that purse don't you think it would have been much more natural if you had taken a number of coins from your pocket, and given me the smallest? That is the way one gives alms to a beggar, and it would have added realism to the scene."[75]

Irving learned his lesson well, as we can see from a description of his first entrance in one of his most famous roles, as Mathias in The Bells . Entering a house from a raging storm, he sat and listened to a conversation between two men:

The process of getting rid of his coat, and brushing off the snow as he stands on the mat by the door being over, he works his way down to a chair . . . and there, taking off his boots, he begins to put on and buckle his shoes. . . . Irving . . . [buckles his first and then] his second shoe, seated and leaning over it with his two long hands stretched down over the buckles. We suddenly saw these fingers stop their work; the crown of the head suddenly seemed to glitter and become frozen—and then, at the pace of the slowest and most terrified snail, the two hands, still motionless and dead, were seen to be coming up the side of the leg.[76]

In this scene Irving had nothing to do but enter, sit, and listen, yet he used his costume (coat, boots, shoes) as props, simultaneously confirming the realism of the setting, keeping his audience's interest, and revealing his character. Irving was not the only actor to realize the importance of props, which became an important part of the new acting style. As André Antoine, founder of the Théâtre Libre, said, "Expression will be based on familiar and real props: a returned pencil or an overturned cup will be as significant and will have as profound an effect . . . as the grandiloquent exaggerations of the romantic theatre."[77]

The use of props, personal mannerisms, and "realistic" touches all contributed to distinctly individual characters. The standardization of the histrionic code had imposed a certain uniformity on dramatic characters: with each emotion and state of mind represented by a certain prescribed pose or gesture, characters expressed themselves in precisely the same fashion. A young woman and an old man both portrayed grief by raising the back of the hand to the forehead. As Antoine complained, "All the characters of the present day theatre have the same gestures and express themselves technically in the same manner, whether they be old or young, ill or in good health." Antoine wanted his actors to "include those thousands of nuances and details which have become indispensable in capturing the spirit of a character and building it logically."[78] The construction of character through detail and nuance is obviously


related to the literary realists' giving their characters psychological depth. Remember what James said of the connection between character and incident: "for a woman to stand with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way . . . is an expression of character." James might almost have been giving stage directions for a verisimilarly coded performance.

Just as writers were urged to go about the world taking notes, actors were told to accumulate nuances and details by the scientific observation of real human beings. Tommaso Salvini, the leading Italian exponent of the new style, told of his training:

I felt the need of studying, not books alone, but men and things and all the passions for good and evil. . . . I needed to study out the manner of rendering these passions in accordance with the race of men in whom they were exhibited, in accordance with their special customs. . . . I needed to form a conception of the movement, the manner, the expressions of face and voice characteristic in all these cases. I must learn by intuition to grasp the characters of fiction . . . seeking to give every one a personality distinct from every other. . . . I must become capable of identifying myself with one or another personage to such an extent as to lead the audience into the illusion that the real personage and not the copy, is before them.[79]

As is apparent from the above, the advocates of the verisimilar code held to the realist tenet that there should be some connection between artistic representation and the actual experience of day-to-day life. Byplay and observation could establish this connection, but for the most part both actors and critics had difficulty in characterizing the verisimilar code, in reducing it to a formula to be followed by neophytes. The writings about the verisimilar code consist largely of negative injunctions: "It is much easier to ascertain what good acting is not. To begin with, it is evidently not staginess—conventional gestures and conventional attitudes and conventional sonority of language."[80] Tyro actors were not told what to do, they were told what not to do: "the exaggerated and grotesque use of gesture and facial expression, the stilted and unnatural stride and strut . . . these, with many other inherited blessings from the Palmy Days where there was acting that really amounted to something, may easily be recognized and thrown out."[81] We can sum up most of the negative advice in one sentence: "Do not use the histrionic code!"

At the inception of a new artistic style, this definition by opposition is common practice. According to Mukarovsky, artistic tradition establishes the intertextual frames by which people judge and evaluate new art works. Mukarovsky calls these frames aesthetic norms, "a point of orientation serving to make felt the degree of deformation of the artistic tradition by new tendencies." Unlike legal norms which must always be followed, aesthetic norms exist to be "violated rather than observed."[82] This is particularly the case when the new styles make realist claims, the realism consisting to some extent in not following established practice. As Jakobson points out, practitioners of


a new "realist" style often conceive of "the tendency to deform given artistic norms" as an "approximation of reality."[83] Thus, the literary and dramatic realists rejected one-dimensional characters, improbable coincidences, and high-flown rhetoric.

What did the adherents of the verisimilar code reject? Most fundamentally, they wished to substitute an easy "naturalness," a lack of self-consciousness, for the deliberate theatricality of the histrionic code. Proponents of the histrionic code criticized actors for not acting, while those of the verisimilar criticized actors for acting:

The difference between the subtle and the blatant actor may be read in his demeanor. The latter betrays self-consciousness from the moment of his entrance. He has one corner of his eye for the audience, and he gives the impression that he is not altogether unconcerned regarding the effect that he is creating. When he has a good line, he recites it with an emphasis that will ensure that it will not be lost upon the house. When he gets a chance at an emotion, he takes hold of it and wrings the life out of it. He takes the stage with a "now watch me" air, and lets it be felt that he considers himself the center of gravitation. However forcible or stirring he may be, however good a reading of the part he may be giving . . . he is palpably acting.[84]

Instead of "palpably acting," actors were to "acquire the art of standing at ease upon the stage," shedding that "fatal self-consciousness which is the main cause of the artificial and redundant gesture."[85] William Gillette, a leading actor-manager and matinée idol, did much to propagate the doctrine of not acting, which he called the "illusion of the first time":

Now it is a very difficult thing . . . for an actor who knows exactly what he is going to say to behave exactly as though he didn't; to let his thoughts (apparently) occur to him as he goes along, even though they are in his mind already; and (apparently) to search for and find the words by which to express these thoughts, even though these words are at his tongue's very end. . . . The Illusion of the First Time . . . extends to every part of the presentation . . . to the most insignificant item of behavior—a glance of the eye at some unexpected occurrence, the careless picking up of some small object which (supposedly) has not been seen or handled before.[86]

The "illusion of the first time" would, of course, be enhanced if actors ignored the audience, pretending that the hypothetical fourth wall truly existed. August Strindberg, in his Preface to Miss Julie , which Raymond Williams dubs his "manifesto of Naturalism," stated that he would like to be able to get "the actor to play for the audience and not with it"; although he did not dream "of seeing the full back of any actor through the whole of an important scene," he did "wish very, very much that decisive scenes would not be played as duets (next to the prompter's box) designed to be applauded, but at the place the situation dictates."[87] Belasco, as producer and moneyman, had


more power over actors than a mere writer. When he told his players to ignore the audience, they did:

I eliminated every movement . . . that did not seem natural. When two men sat down to talk things over, I had them sit there as they would if another wall had cut the stage off from the audience and they didn't move until they would naturally have moved. There was no striving for "keeping up the action."[88]

Just as contemporary practitioners and critics defined the verisimilar code in opposition to the histrionic, let me explain the opposition in the semiotic terms that I introduced earlier. The histrionic code is characterized by its limited lexicon and digital nature, while the verisimilar code has no lexicon and is analogic.

1. Verisimilarly coded acting had no standard repertoire of gestures, no limited lexicon. The style defined itself by the very abandonment of the conventional gestures of the histrionic code. Actors no longer portrayed emotions and states of mind by selecting from a pre-established repertoire but by deciding what was appropriate for a particular character in particular circumstances.

2. Whereas the histrionic code tended to resemble digital communication, the verisimilar tended to resemble analogical communication. The histrionic code depended upon gestural isolation, each gesture sufficiently distinct to be read by the audience. Actors struck attitudes and took poses, with intervening gestures omitted. When the new-style actors used gesture (and they were counseled to use it sparingly), they employed a continuous flow of movement composed of little details rather than broad sweeping motions.

3. Though opposition still operated in the verisimilar code, the oppositions were not as extreme as in the histrionic code. The verisimilar style no longer held gestures for dramatic effect and the fully extended, upward, outward, or downward movements of heightened emotion were dropped.


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