Masks

Travels with Herodotus

Source: Ryszard Kapuściński (trans. Klara Glowczewska), Travels with Herodotus (Lonson: Allen Lane, 2007 [orig. pub. Podróże z Herodotem, 2004]), pp. 241-243

Text: Theatrical performances abound in the streets and squares. African theater is not as formalistic as the European. A group of people can gather someplace extemporaneously and perform an impromptu play. There is no text, everything is the product of the moment, of the passing mood, of spontaneous imagination. The subject can be anything: the police catching a gang of thieves, merchants fighting to keep the city from taking away their marketplace. wives competing among themselves for their husband, who is in love with some other woman. The subject matter must be simple. the language comprehensible to all.

Someone has an idea and volunteers to be director. He assigns roles and the play begins. If this is a street, a square, or a courtyard, a crowd of passersby soon gathers. People laugh during the performance, offer running commentary, applaud. If the action unfolds in an interesting way, the audience will stand there attentively despite the punishing sun: if the play does not jell, and the ad hoc troupe proves unable to communicate and move the action forward effectively, the performance is soon over and the spectators and actors disperse, making way for others who may have better luck.

Sometimes I see the actors interrupt their dialogue and begin a ritual dance, with the entire audience joining in. It can be a cheerful and joyous dance, or the opposite—with the dancers serious, focused, and collective participation in the common rhythm an evidently profound experience for them, something meaningful touching their core. But then the dancing ends, the actors return to their spoken parts, and the spectators, for a moment still as if entranced, laugh once again, happy and amused.

Street theater includes not just dance. Its other important, even inseparable element is the mask. The actors sometimes perform in masks, or, because it is difficult in this heat to wear one for long, simply hold them near—in their hands, under their arms, even strapped to their backs. The mask is a symbol. a construct full of emotion and resonance that speaks of the existence of some other universe, whose sign, stamp, or presence it is. It communicates something to us, warns us about someone; seemingly lifeless and motionless, it attempts by means of its appearance to arouse our feelings, put us under its spell.

Borrowing from various museums, Senghor collected thousands upon thousands of such masks. When seen in the aggregate, they evoke a separate, mysterious world. Walking through that collection was a singular experience. One began to understand how masks acquired such power over people, how they could hypnotize, overwhelm, or lead people into ecstasy. It became clear why the mask—and faith in its magical efficacy—united entire societies, enabled them to communicate across continents and oceans, gave them a sense of community and identity, constituted a form of tradition and collective memory.

Walking from one theatrical performance to another, from one exhibit of masks and sculptures to others, I had the sense of being witness to the rebirth of a great culture, to the awakening of its sense of distinctness, importance, and pride, the consciousness of its universal range. Here were not only masks from Mozambique and Congo, but also lanterns for macumba rituals from Rio de Janeiro, the escutcheons of the guardian deities of Haitian voodoo, and copies of the sarcophagi of Egyptian pharaohs.

Comments: Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist and travel writer. Travels with Herodotus is an account of his early years as a journalist in India, China and Africa, interwoven with his reading of the Histories of Herodotus. The book includes an account of his visit to Senegal in 1966, when the president Léopold Senghor hosted a festival of worldwide black art in Dakar, the Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Negres.

Mr. Pope

‘Mr. Pope as Hotspur’, via LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/3491×2 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Source: Leigh Hunt, ‘Mr. Pope’, in William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (eds.), Dramatic Essays [by] Leigh Hunt (London, W. Scott, 1894), pp. 16-21. Originally published in Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, 1807

Text: When I place Mr. Pope immediately after Mrs. Siddons, everybody will see I do not criticise the actors according to their rank. But it is for the sake of contrast. If we have just had an example of almost perfect tragedy, we have now an instance of every fault that can make it not only imperfect but disgusting. Mr. Pope has not one requisite to an actor but a good voice, and this he uses so unmercifully on all occasions that its value is lost, and he contrives to turn it into a defect. His face is as hard, as immovable, and as void of meaning as an oak wainscot; his eyes, which should endeavour to throw some meaning into his vociferous declamation, he generally contrives to keep almost shut; and what would make another actor merely serious is enough to put him in a passion. In short, when Shakspeare wrote his description of “a robustious fellow, who tears a passion to tatters,” one would suppose that he had been shown, by some supernatural means, the future race of actors, as Macbeth had a prophetic view of Banquo’s race, and that the robustious phantom was Mr. Pope. Here is an actor, then, without face, expression, or delivery, and yet this complication of negative qualities finds means to be clapped in the theatre and panegyrised in the newspapers. This inconsistency must be explained. As to the newspapers, and their praise of this gentleman, I do not wish to repeat all the prevailing stories. Who does not know their corruptions? There is, however, an infallible method of obtaining a clap from the galleries, and there is an art known at the theatre by the name of clap-trappings which Mr. Pope has shown great wisdom in studying. It consists in nothing more than in gradually raising the voice as the speech draws to a conclusion, making an alarming outcry on the last four or five lines, or suddenly dropping them into a tremulous but energetic undertone, and with a vigorous jerk of the right arm rushing off the stage. All this astonishes the galleries; they are persuaded it must be something very fine, because it is so important and so unintelligible, and they clap for the sake of their own reputation.

One might be apt to wonder at Mr. Pope’s total want of various expression, when his merit as an artist is considered. It should seem that the same imitative observation, which gives so natural an elegance to his portraits on canvas, should enliven and adorn his portraits on the stage: that the same elegant conception which enables him to throw grace into the attitudes and meaning into the eyes of others, should inspire his action with variety and his looks with intelligence.

It is in the acknowledgment of gesture and attitude, but more particularly in the variation of countenance, in the adaption of look to feeling, that the actor is best known. Mr. Pope, in his general style, has but two gestures, which follow each other in monotonous alternation, like the jerks of a toy-shop harlequin: one is a mere extension of the arms, and is used on all occasions of candour, of acknowledgment, of remonstrance, and of explanation; the other, for occasions of vehemence or of grandeur, is an elevation of the arms, like the gesture of Raphael’s St. Paul preaching at Athens, an action which becomes the more absurd on common occasions, from its
real sublimity. If Mr. Pope, however, is confined to two expressions in his gesture, he has but two expressions in his look: a flat indifference, which is used on all sober occasions, and an angry frown, which is used on all impassioned ones. With these two looks he undertakes to represent all the passions, gentle as well as violent; he is like a quack who, with a phial in each hand, undertakes to perform every possible wonder, while the only thing to be wondered at is his cheating the mob. The best character he performs is Othello, because he performs it in a mask: for when an actor’s face is not exactly seen, an audience is content to supply by its own imagination the want of expression, just as in reading a book we figure to ourselves the countenance of the persons interested. But when we are presented with the real countenance, we are disappointed if our imagination is not assisted in its turn; the picture presented to our eyes should animate the picture presented to our mind; if either of them differ, or if the former is less lively than the latter, a sensation of discord is produced, and destroys the effect of nature, which is always harmonious.

The pain we feel at bad acting seems, indeed, to be entirely the result of a want of harmony. We are pleased when the actor’s external action corresponds with the action of his mind, when his eye answers his heart, when all we see is the animated picture of all we feel: we are displeased whenever the passion and the expression are at variance, when the countenance does not become a second language to the dialogue, when moderate tones express vehement emotions and when vehement tones express moderate emotions, when, in short, Mr. Pope is not Rolla or Romeo but Mr. Pope. A musician who tells us that he is going to play a melancholy movement, and then dashes his harp or his piano in a fury, cannot disappoint us more than this actor, when he raises from language merely sorrowful an expression of boisterous passion. The character of Hotspur has been reckoned a proper one for Mr. Pope, because it is loud and violent; these are good reasons certainly, and we would rather hear him in Hotspur than in Hamlet, for noise, like any other enjoyment, is delightful in its proper season only. But to act Hotspur well is a mark of no great talent; of all expressions, violence is the most easily affected, because the conception of violence has no sensation of restraint, it has no feelings to hide or to repress, and no niceties of action to study. The gentler passions give us leisure to examine them, we can follow every variation of feeling and every change of expression; but here we have leisure for nothing; everything is rapid and confused; we are in the condition of a man who should attempt to count the spokes of a wheel in a chariot-race.

Mr. Pope, in short, may be considered as an example of the little value of a good voice unaccompanied with expression, while Mr. Kemble is a proof how much may be done by an expressive countenance and manner with the worst voice in the world.

But perhaps as I can say nothing of Mr. Pope as a tragic actor, I may be expected to say something of him as a comic one, for he does act in comedy. Any one, however, who examines this double gift, will discover that to act in comedy and to be a comic actor are two very different things. Mr. Kemble performs in comedy, but who will call Mr. Kemble a comic actor? Who will reckon up the comic actors, and say, “We have Bannister, and Lewis, and Munden, and Kemble?” If Mr. Pope acts in sentimental comedy, what is called sentimental comedy is nothing more than a mixture of tragedy and comedy, or, if Dr. Johnson’s definition is to be allowed, it is sometimes entire tragedy, for he calls tragedy “a dramatic representation of a serious action.” There may be very often a serious character in humorous comedies, such as a sober merchant, a careful father, or one of those useless useful friends who serve as a kind of foil to a gay hero; but the actor who performs these characters never excites our livelier feelings or our mirth, and therefore cannot be called a comic actor. Lord Townley, for instance, in The Provoked Husband is merely a tragic character who has stepped into comedy: Mr. Kemble represents Lord Townley with much gravity and stateliness; yet nobody in the pit ever said at seeing this character, “Really that is very comic!” It is necessary to a comic actor that he should be able to excite our laughter, or at least our smiles ; but Mr. Pope never excites either, at any rate not designedly. It is for this reason that he has been placed among the tragedians, and that Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Henry Johnston, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Siddons will be placed among them too. All these gentlemen might undoubtedly be called comic actors, as Robin Hood’s companion, who was seven feet high, was called Little John; or we might say such a man was as comic as Mr. Kemble or Mr. Henry Johnston, just as we say such a thing is as smooth as a file. But upon plain subjects I would rather be plain spoken.

Comments: Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a British essayist, journalist and poet, and one of the leading dramatic critics of his time. Alexander Pope (1763-1835) was an Irish actor and painter who was a regular member of the company at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Remarks on Our Theatres

Source: Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Remarks on Our Theatres’, The Bee no. 1, 6 October 1759, reproduced in Essays and The Bee (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1820), pp. 11-17

Production: Henry Fielding, The Miser, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 September 1759 and Henry Fielding, The Mock Doctor, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 25 September 1759

Text: Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub-street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs, and another’s eye-brows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dulness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most surprising genius, and Holland likely to do well in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty at Covent-Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would he inexcuseable in a comedian to add any thing of his own to the poet’s dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgment; we scarcely see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and they depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite stolidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet immediately upon representation we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see; in the Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player’s action, therefore, should conspire with the poet’s design, and represent him as an epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies, and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those who he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital; but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation. In short, there is hardly a character in comedy, to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once or even twice repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe, where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury-lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty methinks seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when for instance we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and while unwieldly with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger!

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could rather see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or mis-shapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops; but in viewing the last I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Comments: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic. The Bee was a periodical that he published himself. The Miser and The Mock Doctor were plays by Henry Fielding, both adapted from Molière. Antoine-François Riccoboni was an Italian actor whose treatise L’Art dit Théâtre was published in 1750.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust