'Action and the Art of Gesture' from EARLY MODERN ACTORS AND SHAKESPEARE'S THEATRE

Actors are above all experts in movement. From holding out the hand, to turning the head, to kneeling, to passing over the stage, to drawing a sword, to dancing a pavan or a jig, to tumbling, wrestling, vaulting or other feats of activity, the actor’s body is above all kinetic. This section of the book takes up the question of the player in motion, attempting to reconstruct the kinesic intelligence of the early modern actor. In understanding kinesic intelligence, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s term ‘animation’ is perhaps a more precise way of conceiving of the actor’s body than the rather inert term ‘embodiment’. She writes that ‘when we properly begin our inquiries with animation, with movement, with the quintessential feature of our aliveness, we have no need for lexical band-aids on the order of embodiment. Minds are not embodied. Bodies are mindful.’[2] In her view, the term ‘embodiment’ is too static a term for capturing the moving body. Actors are not packaged into a role like a paper tucked inside an envelope; rather they animate their character in rich ongoing modulation with their environment. In endorsing Sheets-Johnstone’s critique of the term, Tim Ingold writes that:

animacy and embodiment pull in opposite directions: where the former is a movement of opening, the latter is bent on closure … . We do not [Maxine Sheets-Johnstone] insists, experience ourselves and one another as ‘packaged’, but as moving and moved, in ongoing response – that is in correspondence – with the things around us. Of course, we have bodies – indeed we are bodies. But we are not wrapped up in them. [3]

In this section, I approach the question of the mindful, animate body of the actor through the lens of skill and training. In training their bodies, actors build upon what Sheets-Johnstone calls the ‘qualitative kinetic dynamics of our everyday lives’.[4] She notes that whilst we easily identify the ‘qualitative dynamics’ or ‘style’ of others – their gait, their little tics, their habitual ways of speaking, laughing or carrying themselves – our own ‘coordinated dynamic patterns’ are often ‘sidelined in our awareness’, they ‘flow forth effortlessly in the sense that we do not have to concentrate attention on our movement’.[5] But this does not mean such movements are entirely sunk beneath conscious notice; even without training, we can identify our own ‘kinesthetic melodies’.[6] And those who undertake mindful training of the body – including, among many others, the early modern player trained in the techniques of gesture, the contemporary actor studying movement, the martial artist or the dancer – gain a purchase on their movements that can render them mesmerizingly attractive.

Indeed, in the early modern period, the art of action was described precisely in such hypnotic, quasi-magical terms.[7] Action was seen as a serious and powerful art. In early modern plays, in the wider debates and discussions about the theatre and in treatises and literature on oratory and sermons, the ability of the skilled actor or orator is likened to bewitchment. ‘By a full and significant action of body’, writes the author of ‘The Character of an Excellent Player’, ‘he charms our attention.’[8] Like a magus at the centre of a conjuring circle, the skilled actor pulls the audience to him: ‘sit in a full Theatre, and you will thinke you see so many lines drawne from the circumference of so many eares, whiles the Actor is the Center’.[9] The ability to produce ‘significant’ or meaningful movement through the managed body is akin to sorcery, a reminder that the secret of both the actor and the conjurer is to manage and direct attention and affect.[10] The actor is imagined as seizing the eyes, ears and attention of the audience and directing them through an invisible tether.

Detractors and defenders of the theatre alike imagine a quasi-physical link between the movement of the actor’s body and the eyes of the audience, a link given weight and heft through the attraction of animal spirits as they flowed through the body of the actor into the spectator. Joseph Roach has written eloquently of the theory of animal spirits that underpinned these views of the power of the stage: ‘the spirit moves the actor who, in the authenticity of his transport, moves the audience’.[11] Such powers could be used for good or ill. In the hands of a powerful cleric such as John Donne, these abilities could be used to move men and women towards God, as Jasper Mayne describes Donne’s effect on congregations who heard his sermons: ‘Such was thy carriage, and thy gesture such / As could divide the heart, and conscience touch.’[12]

Action comprised both gestures made with the hands and the larger movements of the body – more generally, it is used ‘to signify the physical animation of a speaker, whether on stage, in the pulpit, in its Christian sense or on the lecturer’s or legislator’s podium’.[13] The term connotes the ability to manage the body and to ‘grace’ the language of the playwright, rendering it vivid and present. Descriptions of ‘action’ and its importance derive from classical rhetoric, especially the work of Quintilian and Cicero, and teaching skilled pronunciation and gesture was a bedrock of the English grammar schools.

As John Astington notes, ‘The acquisition of proper pronunciation, clarity of enunciation, vocal emphasis and control, respect for rhythm and pitch, and the accompanying “action” of facial expression and bodily stance and gesture … were all regarded as appropriate educational attainments in the mastering of oratory.’[14] This early practice in oratory formed the substratum of embodied knowledge brought to the stage by the men and boys trained in this system, and the truly skilled among them were able to lift these practices into an art form in itself.

On the other hand, precisely because speakers, including players, could ensnare the eyes of the audiences through their expert action, their art was a potentially dangerous one. If a preacher inspired by God could use gesture to touch the heart of his listeners, so too could an actor inspired by Satan use the same abilities for nefarious ends. In his anti-theatrical treatise A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plays and Theatres, Anthony Munday notes that ‘it is marvellous to consider how the gesturing of a player, which Tully termeth the eloquence of the body, is of force to move and prepare a man to that which is ill’.[15] Resonance between the movement of the actor and the body of the spectator could be dangerous as well as delightful.

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Notes:

2         Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, ‘Embodied Minds or Mindful Bodies? A Question of Fundamental, Inherently Inter-Related Aspects of Animation’, Subjectivity 4 (4) (2011): 459.

3         Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013), 94.

4         Sheets-Johnstone, ‘Embodied Minds’, 459.

5         Ibid., 460, 459.

6         Ibid., 460.

7         For a contemporary discussion of the relationship between gesture and hypnosis, see Andrew Lawrence-King’s work on historical action and baroque gesture: http://www.theharpconsort.com/#!historical–action/c12q3 (accessed 17 March 2016).

8         ‘An Excellent Actor’, in English Professional Theatre,1530–1660,ed. G. Wickham, H. Berry and W. Ingram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 181. As Wickham notes, Webster, the presumed author of this ‘character’, is responding to John Cocke’s satirical ‘Description of a Common Player’, published in 1615.

9         Wickham et al., English Professional Theatre, 181.

10      For the relationship between playing and magic, see Donald Hedrick, ‘Distracting Othello: Tragedy and the Rise of Magic’, PMLA 129 (4) (2014): 649–71. The psychological underpinnings of the art of distraction are explored by Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions (London: Macmillan, 2010).

11      Joseph R. Roach, The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985), 44–5.

12      Mayne’s homage to Donne is quoted by John Bulwer, Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand and Chironomia: Or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, ed. James W. Cleary (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, [1644] 1972), C2v.

13      John H. Astington, ‘Actors and the Body: Meta-Theatrical Rhetoric in Shakespeare’, Gesture 6 (2) (2006): 242.

14      John H. Astington, Actors and Acting in Shakespeare’s Time: The Art of Stage Playing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 40.

15      Anthony Munday, ‘Players Incline their Audience to Wickedness’, in English Professional Theatre, ed. Wickham et al., 163. Wickham notes that Munday takes this phrase over wholesale from William Bavand’s 1559 translation of Hans Eisermann’s treatise Touching the Good Order of a Commonweal; see Wickham et al., 158.