Tragic Acting Style
A new school of acting develops in the early eighteenth century by some of the prominent tragedy performers at Drury Lane (Downer; 1006-8). Tragic acting, “was not considered effective without a great show of vocal pyrotechnics and exaggerated gesture” (Gore-Browne; 95).
Barton Booth becames one of the actor-managers of Drury Lane in 1714 which enables him to play major tragic roles. He exaggerates gravity in his roles in order to prevent any positive sentiments from distracting the audience from the dignity of tragedy (Highfill; 221). He is especially known for his tactfully placed pauses and bursts of emotion that would break the monotony of blank verse soliloquies (Downer 1008). For example, before the stoic, God-like general, Cato, commits suicide because he is betrayed by his army to the dictator, Caesar, Booth pauses in order to emphasize Cato’s mental state that waivers between confidence and anxiety; Cato suddenly bursts into exclamation when his son walks in on his private moment.
From 1711 until her death in 1730, Anne Oldfield performes at Drury Lane. Unlike Booth, Oldfield is “a born comedienne, [who] would eagerly seize on every light and shade in a tragic part” (Gore-Browne; 95). According to Colley Cibber, “Tragedy…is too often written in lofty disregard of nature. The silver accents of her voice…redeemed it from the fashionable monotony.” (Gore-Browne; 97). Oldfield especially excelles as Calista in The Fair Penitent. Her prompter praises her in a scene in the third act when Calista tears up her letter, “Her excellent clear voice of passion, her piercing, flaming eye, with manner and action suiting, us’d to make me shrink with awe, and seem’d to put her monitor Horatio into a mouse-hole.” (Fyvie; 52)
Joseph Addison describes in Spectator No. 40 that in a successful tragedy,
“Terror and Commiseration leave a pleasing Anguish in the Mind; and fix the Audience in such a serious Composure of Thoughts, as is much more lasting and delightful than any little transient Starts of Joy and Satisfaction.”
No doubt, Oldfield’s energy shockes the audience and Booth’s pauses moves them into sympathy. The sociopolitical consequences of the tragedies proves that theater-goers reflect on the ideas long after they leave the theater.
Downer, Alan S. “Nature to Advantage Dressed: Eighteenth-Century Acting.” PMLA 58.4 (1943), 1002-1037. Print.
Fyvie, John. Tragedy Queens of the Georgian Era…E.P. Dutton and Co, New York: 1909. Print.
Gore-Browne, Robert. Gay was the Pit. Max Reinhardt, London: 1957. Print.
Highfill, Philip H. Jr., et al. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Vols 2, 10, & 11. Southern Illinois University Press, 1973. Print.
Addison, Joseph, 1672-1719. Cato. A tragedy. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by Her Majesty's servants. By Mr. Addison. [The seventh edition.] (London : printed for Jacob Tonson, at Shakespear's-Head over-against Catherine-Street in the Strand, MDCCXIII. )
National Portrait Gallery. 11 Nov 2011. Web.
Rowe, Nicholas, 1674-1718. The fair penitent. A tragedy. As it is acted at the New Theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields. By Her Majesty's servants. Written by N. Rowe, Esq; (London : Printed for Jacob Tonson, within Grays-Inn Gate next Grays-Inn Lane, 1703.)
Www.jimandellen.org. 11 Nov 2011. Web.