The Business of the Actor

English playwright and actor, Sir Arthur Pinero, writes about ‘The Theatre in Transition’ in 1932.

Marie Bancroft. PRG-280-1-5-179

Marie Bancroft.

As a youth I climbed one night up to the sixpenny gallery of the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The Bancrofts and their company were “starring” for a week in that huge house….. From my remote seat I listened to Marie Bancroft as Polly Eccles in Caste. Her lightest whisper was as audible as her loudest tones. She might, so it seemed, have been holding me by the button-hole and imparting something to me that nobody else was expected to hear. Far off as was the stage, I felt that if I had held out my hand I could have grasped hers. And I am sure that every member of the audience had exactly the same sensation.

Her method, acquired after years of training, was the method of Mrs. John Wood, now almost forgotten, of

Vintage postcard of Mrs. (Madge) Kendal, Victorian/Edwardian actress.

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal

Ellen Terry and (both happily still with us) Dame Madge Kendal and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and of many others I could cite. It was the method of the old actors and actresses generally – the ABC of their equipment. They knew that acting is an enlargement of life to be viewed from a distance, not a reproduction of nature confined to the limits of the small space of the stage. In the delivery of their dialogue they appeared to be talking as people talk in a room. But they did not make the mistake of pitching their voices as though the walls of the room were the extreme range within which their voices had to travel. In short, they had learnt, in their rough school, that the business of the actor is to act. …..

The theatre is now engaged in a struggle for existence with the films. To all appearance, the fight will be long and bitter. Nobody can say how it will end, what conventions may be sacrificed, what new features may be encountered, what new forms evolved. Those of us who love the play as we have known it must be a little fearful lest it should cease to be a medium for the serious exposition of life and character, or should be allotted only the task of dealing with subjects which may uplift the soul but certainly do not cheer it. Whether eventually the silent films conquer the talking, or the talking the silent, is not, to my mind, of great importance. What is of importance is the fact that the “pictures,” for the moment at any rate, have captured the masses who formerly were the faithful supporters of the regular theatre, and who are now content with the thrills and humour furnished by mechanical process.

Image sources:
Marie Bancroft, State Library of South Australia
Mrs. Kendal, a postcard in my collection.

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