The Emergence Of The Tragedian Essay, Research Paper
The Emergence of the Tragedian
By 1600, international trade routes, which had been centered around the Mediterranean Sea for centuries were almost entirely based around Northern Atlantic countries like Spain, France and England. The economic explosion, and widespread circulation of money that came with this was accompanied by the invention of the printing press. Because of the newfound ability to spread information that the printing press afforded, the period is marked by scientific advancement, a return to intellectual and artistic ideals, national pride, and a sense of individual empowerment never before seen.
It was also at this time that the previously dubious profession of acting, or ?playing? moved slowly from the ouskirts of societal acceptance to having a central cultural role in England. The actor attained a respect and place in society which he did not previously possess. This was marked by a shift in popular taste, critical attention, and financial compensation from the comedic rustic clowns to more dramatic tragedians. This is significant because it was at this time that England produced its most highly acclaimed dramatic works, the most basic foundations of skillful acting are established, and acting gains enough respect to remain an important art form in the centuries to come.
Before the printing press, the widely-held concept of social structure was that of a fixed one. The individual existed in a chain of being which accounted for all God?s creatures and placed them in a hierarchy that could not be altered. There was little upward mobility socially or financially for the individual Englishman and there was a strong aristocratic presence. With the printing press and the explosion of accessible knowledge that came with it, and the economic rebirth of England at this time, the individual was granted a new optimism. The printed word, as opposed to the spoken word, is individualistic in nature. The act of reading is an individualistic activity and requires the reader to posses those cognitive skills involved individually. Where power once rested in the hands of religious leaders and ruling parties, who disseminated information orally, it slowly shifted into the hands of those individuals who possessed the ability to read, empowering the individual. The printed word also propelled a sense of the individual in that one?s name could be permanently fixed in print. Authorship became important for the first time in history, as ideas were ascribed fixedly to specific writers. Out of this atmosphere came the idea of the humanist man, who had the ability to change the world in his likeness, and change himself. This is important because enemies of acting, who also tended to be the enemies of the humanist man, held that the impersonation that actors took part in, wherein peasants had the opportunity to play kings and men to play women, broke with the idea of a chain of being. With the growing individualistic sentiment that came with widespread printing and knowledge, this argument held less water.
Another argument that the antitheatrical community of the mid to late 1500?s held was rooted in a more physical aspect of human design. It was commonly believed that the human body consisted of different humors or fluids which corresponded to specific human emotions. An imbalance in these fluids resulted in irregular emotional states. For example, if a person had an excess of the humor melancholy, they became filled with the corresponding emotion, or passion, which was grief. Actors, whose profession required them to alter their emotional states in order to play roles, were inevitably altering their physical makeup and therefore risking permanent loss of sanity. Not only did actors play with fire in manipulating these fluids, but the actor?s ability to affect the humors of spectators was frowned upon as well.
The idea of the humors affected acting styles as well as frightening the English antitheatricals. Because the idea of humors codified emotion so strictly, the actor had a responsibility to truthfully uphold that codification. Each emotion had an appropriate gesture associated with the humor. Specific oral and physical actions corresponded to specific emotions. The result was a highly formalized style of acting. One might assume that with the rebirth of knowledge and specifically science that accompanied the printing press and the age may have slowly undermined these theories over time.
One of the strongest contemporary arguments against the Puritanical viewpoints comes from An Apology for Actors by Thomas Heywood, a prolific writer and actor. He appeals to the growing interest in classical ideals by outlining acting as a way of teaching effective rhetorical skills. Along with classical drama, art, architecture, and other concepts, rhetoric became a respected aspect of a newly emerging educational system. This interest in the classics is what originally brought dramatic acting to English consciousness initially. Scholarly institutions, in keeping with this interest in the classics, would study classical dramas and would perform them in Latin and later in English. These performances would occur in school yards and courtyards. Previously, any acting was associated with mystery plays, which served as a way to teach the masses their Bible stories, and in court processionals, designed to celebrate the current monarch?s life and accomplishments. These scholarly attempts at acting eventually interested people outside academic circles and bands of professional actors began to emerge. These vagabond troupes were not especially successful or respected. Nor were they especially legal; actors needed the patronage of some wealthy benefactor to exist as professional actors. They performed in temporary structures located in the liberties of London where other marginalized members of society were concentrated. These areas were associated with prostitution, gambling, illness and acting. It was not until 1575 that James Burbage built the first permanent theatre there.
At the time of his death in 1580, Richard Tarlton had been the most famous actor in England. Tarlton, however, was not an actor in the tragic or dramatic sense; he was a comedian renowned for playing the part of the rustic clown and set the standard for all those comedians who followed in his footsteps. Public exposure gave clowns like Tarlton and his successors William Kemp and Robert Armin a place in English society. They were the first stars of the stage and enjoyed some economic and social respect. However, it is not until tragic actors like Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn emerge, that the actor?s dramatic skills are respected and recorded and he is able to make lots and lots of money. This in a country where not too long ago, acting and impersonation were considered taboo. Richard Burbage, who lived from 1573 to 1619, had the honor of originating many of Shakespeare?s most famous roles: King Lear, Richard III, Othello and Hamlet. Shakespeare writes into Hamlet a description of acting that is very different from the acting that Tarlton and the rustic clowns may have practiced. The concepts in Hamlet?s Speak the Speech speech about moderation in acting, truthfulness, naturalness, and a respect for the writing, still remain the basic standard of what is important in acting. It is also around this time that the words ?acting? and ?personation? begin to replace ?playing? as descriptions of acting.
Along with a shift from rustic and highly affected styles to the moderate acting professed in Hamlet, there was a shift of focus from the comic actor to the tragedian economically. Richard Burbage?s financial accomplishments as an actor exceeded the compensations of people like Tarlton and the rustic clowns, and those of Burbage were outshined by those of Edward Alleyn?s. Although acting still had enemies in England, Alleyn was able to endow schools and hospitals with his fortune. He was also able to marry the daughter of the Dean of St.Paul?s. This evokes a very different image of the acting than that of the vagabond rustic.
As actors move to the center of English social structure, so do theatres move from the outskirts of London to more centralized locations. The Globe was built on the Thames, nearer to the heart of London than previous theatres, and later, Shakespeare moved his company to Blackfriars, a former monastery that sat fewer people than the outdoor theatres and was generally more elitist in character.
Within a relatively short period of time, England sees a dramatic shift from actors as vagabonds, to actors as rustic clowns, to actors as respected tragedians. The art of acting, once feared and admonished, by the end of the Elizabethan era became a central aspect of English cultural pride. All of this is significant, these shifts from marginalized actor-vagabonds, to elitist actors, because it the time when modern acting and dramatic writing find their roots. The acting precepts in Hamlet, and other works of the time, still serve as the basic idea of what modern acting is in the collective consciousness. Shakespeare also penned what became the most basic ideals of acting in his plays . Although acting did not yet strive towards realism in his time, the basic premises of moderation, humility, and truth in acting were established. Furthermore, it is the very fact that Shakespeare, or someone like him, w as given the opportunity to flourish in society. His age is widely considered the pinnacle of English dramatic writ ing. As acting gained new respect in England during the late 1500?s, so did England gain an increasingly powerful seat in European politics and thought. As she moved into a new age of science, reason, and a rebirth of the arts, acting and the theatre progressed similarly as exemplified by the gradual emergence of the respected tragedian.