Sunday, June 5th 2011

The art of convulsions and emotionalism in the late 18th century. European influences.

The art of convulsions and emotionalism in the late 18th century. European influences.
Between 1720 and 1730 two actors gained recognition on the French stage with certain form of casual elegance: Michel Boyron known as Baron and Adrienne Lecouvreur 1. They introduced simplicity in Tragedy. Dramatic anecdotes depicted Baron as an innovative actor, who broke the rules and came up with new acting. Marmontel stressed the fact that Baron did not care whether his arms remained elegant and well positioned in a moment of intense passion.

Baron rejected conventions: for instance he could turn his back on the audience, which was considered low and common. He would touch his wig, blow his nose in public, or keep in handkerchief in his hand 2. This casual approach was highly appreciated by the audience as it gave a more human touch to the character. Marie Françoise Marchand known Miss Dumesnil, who made her début in 1737, became famous for introducing a new style in tragedy: she tended to improvise and forget rules on stage. She was the first actor to run across the stage in a dramatic moment (she played a queen whose son was about to be murdered). Before her, actors were expected to walk in a stiff manner in all circumstances. Her new style did not meet with universal approval. Dumesnil was often accused of mixing coarse gestures with the aristocratic touch, and thus of being inconsistent on stage – what Madame de Staël would refer to later as the ‘air degagé” or in Italian la disinvoltura. Later Aufresne who did not last long at the Comédie-Française was reputed for his very simple and easy manners 3. Although it cannot be said that the actors at the Comédie-Française were all brilliant, they were never regarded as unprofessional or lacking in innovation.

Between the 1720s and the 1750s, parodies staged at the fairgrounds most probably distorted reality by giving to their audience unfair generalizations: it was easy to mock their rivals and it was an easy way to earn money since popular audiences liked these caricatures which were not staged anywhere else in Paris (besides it was much simpler and less dangerous to mock actors than members of the government, the Church, the aristocracy or the king himself).

Each generation of actors brought new styles and a different approach to the old conventions which were still adhered to by some: for instance Mademoiselle Clairon favoured technique over improvisation. Rather than emphasizing bad acting at the Comédie-Française witnesses generally referred to a relevant use of gestures and voice―except in the case of Lekain.

Most criticisms aimed solely at Henri Louis Lekain, famous actor at the Comédie-Française who made his debut in 1750, focused on the way in which he moved. They were polemical. For instance, François-Antoine Chevrier in Le Colporteur published in 1765 abhorred Lekain’s acting –i.e. his style. He wrote: "I know that half of Paris approves of him and that provincial dimwits are taken aback by his shouts and the very large movements of his arms. It seems that Lekain has convulsions on the stage. Constantly barking like a dog, he seems demented whichever way he moves”. 4 This way of acting seemed scandalous to the author who concluded that this tragedian should only perform the parts of martyrs. Thus, Chevrier’s main point was Lekain’s inability to be decent and subtle (some of Lekain’s detractors called him the Bull 5).

Other references were made in Imirce ou la fille de la nature. In 1765 Henri-Joseph Du Laurens also portrayed the actor in a ferocious manner: “Monsieur Lekain’s misinterpretations, his convulsions, his theatrical insensitivity, his exhausted face, the froth which spills out of his mouth, his disgraceful voice, his folded arms… all this makes me sick of tragedy and tragedians.” 6 Acting was not anymore mechanical but excessive –thus artificial. Later Charles Joseph de Ligne referred to Lekain and his Herculian arm. Travellers were also shocked by this particular French style. Thomas Moore disliked Lekain’s affected attitudes: “I cannot accept the way in which tragedy is performed by French actors. In my view, Lekain’s arrogant walk and over proud gestures, which are thought to be noble over there, only seem affected to me”. It seems therefore that French actors used to display their technique to the audience in a conspicuous and ostentatious manner. French acting was based on theatricalism. How did actors deal with criticism and how did acting styles evolve?

New actors favoured naturalism and rejected more and more conventional and stilted postures - but convulsive acting became fashionable.

In the second part of the eighteenth century, British theatre influenced strongly French theatre. Shakespearian plays were translated or adapted (e.g. Ducis) and performed at the Comédie-Française. Authors - for instance Pierre Buirette De Belloy or François Baculard d’Arnaud - discussed whether tragedy should include situations gone to extremes or going to one extreme to the other (i.e. 'horrible') and hair-raising staging – which were both part of the British style.

British acting style was therefore ‘imported’. Garrick came several times in France and met with the French tragedians who began to develop expressionism (hands or arms covered with blood in Semiramis; later, bloodstained props and clothes were used - e.g. Gabrielle de Vergy).

A strange assertion by Mlle Clairon in a letter to Larive in the late eighteenth century leads us to understand that acting changed profoundly in a few decades. She claimed that tragedians were now rolling over on the stage. Obviously she was outraged by such acting. In 1788 Jean-Charles Levacher de Charnois also spotted weird ways of acting. ‘They should not express suffering or anger by shrieking their throats out nor should they writhe forcibly like demons or maniacs tormented by violent colic. These excesses which are praised today just confuse eyes and ears. 7 How can we understand that actors came up with such a convulsive acting?

According to Fabio Sticotti who published Garrick ou les acteurs anglais in 1769, the British acting style was judged to be very peculiar. It seemed that English actors did not care much for decency. According to Sticotti, “moving arms and legs regardless of justifications and occupying any space on stage” was pure “English style.”8 A few decades earlier Abbot d’Allainval had been bothered by Waltniq (an English tragedian he had seen on the London stage): “He exaggerates things so much that he expresses pain as despair, he groans violently; sighs as if he was enraged; he grits his teeth and he seems in a way to bruise his expressions etc.” 9

This style seemed to be part of the British cultural identity because in the late 1770s Simon Henri Nicolas Linguet wrote a very detailed description of a performance in London in his Annales politiques, Civiles et Littéraires: “The actress was lying on the body of her unfortunate lover who was expiring in the English style, i.e. like a man who is being tortured. When he seemed to pass away then her parents came in. Then she stood up twisting her arms, grinding her teeth, threatening to bite anyone who approached her. It was so real that I doubted for a while whether she was performing or not. Then she seemed exhausted by so much efforts, she lied down again on the poor body and passed away, i.e. like a woman condemned to the gallows.”10 He described also actors who performed death scenes: they would be in a sort of trance, their body quivering and shaking on the ground. Garrick’s success was due to his ability to spin out a death on stage by extended contortions: his body would twitch as a fish out of water; he would roll his eyes vehemently; he would hiccup until the very last breath; eventually he would breathe his last after tremendous efforts. Linguet did not much appreciate this style from Drury Lane and Covent Garden which he compared to a buffoonery and ‘surgical parades’, i.e. to a form of expressionist theatricalism. He did not like either its influence on French actors especially dreadful contractions and suffocations. Linguet did not support any kind of performance where actors would try to impress the audience by performing dying characters. Linguet therefore added: “when Achilles is insulted by Agamemnon, would you not be deeply moved by this hero if he put his hand on his sword, then stopped and said containing his rage: “I still respect Iphigénie’s father” rather than if he lounged on Atrée’s son, if the old man fell on the ground, then writhed indecently.

To display agony was against the very nature of tragedy which aimed to give rise to emotions, and not to disgust and frighten. Britain and France had different views concerning decency and the limits that should be imposed on actors on stage – and thus had a different understanding of what theatricalism was on stage. Linguet concluded: now you can judge properly all these dying men à la Garrick who come on stage to perform with their thinning hair and their face covered by white make-up 11 … According to Linguet they were the worst and least intelligent actors and their style should be banned. Unfortunately, this was not to be and French performance was from then on under British influence. In the end British modernity impacted strongly on the way in which French actors performed very dramatic and tragic situations. At the end of the eighteenth century, the age of melodrama and expressionist emotionalism was about to come into existence.

Sabine Chaouche


See the recent study by Virginia Scott. i[Women on the Stage in Early Modern France (1540-1750)]I (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 198-246.

“On ne peut lui reprocher de plus que quelques manques de bienséance, comme de toucher sa perruque, de se moucher sur le théâtre, de tenir son mouchoir à la main même dans les Tragédies quand il jouait habillé à la Française, & quelques autres indécences, où même il savait qu’il mettait tant de grâces, qu’il ne daigna jamais s’en corriger.” (Abbé d’Allainval/ George Wink, Lettre à Mylord *** sur Baron et la demoiselle Lecouvreur (Paris: Heuqueuville, 1730), 10-11).

He made his debut in 1765.

French quotation: “Je sais qu’il plaît à la moitié de Paris, et que l’hébété provincial qui se laisse surprendre par de grands bras et des cris ; mais quand on connaît le théâtre, et qu’on veut suivre de près cet usurpateur de réputation, on est forcé de convenir qu’il n’a pour lui que la beauté de l’attitude, et l’expression des gestes : encore verrait-on, si on les suivait de près, qu’ils ne sont pas naturels, et qu’étant compensés au miroir, ils ont une uniformité qui, sentant l’étude et la contrainte, n’a pas l’air d’avoir été dirigée par la situation : d’ailleurs votre Lekain est un convulsionnaire qui, ne saisissant jamais le vrai sens d’un rôle, est toujours au-delà de la nature. Aboyeur éternel, il est furieux dans toutes les positions ; ainsi je conclus qu’il faut qu’il se borne à jouer les rôles de martyr, si analogues à sa figure pitoyable, et à sa voix piteuse.” (François-Antoine Chevrier, Le Colporteur (Londres: Nourse, 1761), 148).

Besides he claimed that Lekain was used to rehearse in front of a mirror and thus was not able to vary his movements.

French quotation: “Les contresens du Sieur Le Kain, ses convulsions, son insensibilité théâtrale, son air fatigué, l’écume qu’il jette, son organe disgracieux, ses gestes croisés, tout cela me rend l’acteur et la tragédie détestables.” (Henri-Joseph Du Laurens, Imirce ou la fille de la nature (Berlin: impr. du philosophe de Sans-Souci, 1765), 313).

That is why this type of actors are not impressive: “Mettant de la dignité jusque dans leur colère, ou dans leurs souffrances, ils ne doivent pas plus manifester l’une par des cris de rage, arrachés avec force du fond de leur gosier, que les autres par des contorsions forcées, qui les font ressembler à des démoniaques, ou à des malades tourmentés par des coliques violentes ; ce serait abuser de la force de ses muscles et de ses poumons. Ces excès, que l’on paraît aimer aujourd’hui, étonnent les oreilles et les yeux, mais n’attendrissent pas les spectateurs sur le sort du malheureux qui souffre : en imitant de semblables modèles, mademoiselle Guimard, représentant Créuse dans le ballet de Médée, en proportion de la faiblesse de son sexe, aurait donc dû se rouler par terre avec des convulsions effrayantes. Elle ne l’a pas fait, et son état de souffrance a touché ; cependant sa situation était la même que celle d’Hercule brûlé par la robe de Nessus.” (Jean-Charles Levacher de Charnois, Conseils à une jeune actrice (Paris: s.d., 1788), 24-25).

French version: “car à tous propos jouer des bras & des jambes, & battre tous les recoins de la scène, est un art anglais.”

French quotation: “À force d’outrer les choses, il exprime la douleur comme le désespoir ; il gémit avec violence, soupire comme s’il enrageait, il serre les dents & meurtrit, pour ainsi dire, ses expressions” (Lettre du souffleur de la comédie de Rouen, (Paris: Tabarie, 1730), 25).

French version: “Je me souviens d’avoir vu jouer à Londres Roméo & Juliette […]. L’Actrice, dont les spectateurs étaient enthousiasmés, paraît au dernier acte couchée sur le corps de son amant dont elle reçoit les derniers soupirs : il les rend dans le caractère Anglais, c’est-à-dire comme un homme sur la roue. Au moment où elle semblait en sucer le reste de chaleur, arrivent ses parents : elle se soulève alors en tordant les bras, en grinçant les dents, en menaçant de mordre ceux qui approcheraient, avec une vérité si énergique, que j’eus besoin de réflexion pour m’assurer qu’elle ne faisait que jouer. On sent avec quel transport celui-là fut accueilli : ensuite elle en parut épuisée ; se recouchant sur le cadavre, elle y expira comme une femme au gibet. Je n’ai de ma vie rien vu d’aussi effroyable ; mes yeux étaient secs, & mon cœur flétri.” (Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet, Annales politiques, civiles et littéraires, tome V, Londres/Paris, 242-244).

“Qu’on juge, d’après ce principe, tous nos mourants à la Garrick, qui viennent les cheveux épars, & le visage blanchi, jouer des convulsions avec la vigueur de la santé, qui copient la langueur avec des muscles bien tendus, qui s’épuisent pour parler bas, & ne rendent sensible que la peine qu’ils ont à se contenir.” (Annales politiques, civiles et littéraires, V, 248).

Special thanks to Monique Moreton for her advice and readings.



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