- The Art of the Actor: The Essential History of Acting, from Classical Times to the Present Day
Written as “a working tool and a sourcebook” (vii), The Art of the Actor compiles excerpts from primary texts to document how acting has been conceptualized from ancient Greece through Jerzy Grotowski. Editor Jean Benedetti provides most of the translations and all of the contextualizing commentary, positioning each approach to the craft of acting in its proper historical milieu and offering meaningful insights into the tastes of each period. Fifteen loosely chronological chapters examine rhetoric, declamation, Diderot’s Paradox, Stanislavski’s system, Meyerhold’s biomechanics, and Brecht’s Epic Theatre, among other schools of thought. Although The Art of the Actor is not as comprehensive as it claims to be, Benedetti successfully demonstrates “the continuity of a tradition of concerns” (vii) that have been raised by actors and acting theorists throughout history.
The book’s strengths are richly in evidence throughout the latter chapters. The chapter on Brecht, for example, is one particular highlight. Not only does it present the central tenets of Epic Theatre incisively, it also provides useful glimpses into three stages of the development of these theories, culminating in their application at the Berliner Ensemble. Benedetti includes Brecht’s rehearsal notes from Galileo, which provides the reader with a unique perspective on Brecht’s detailed work with actors and lends credence to Benedetti’s claim that Brecht was, above all, “actor-centered” (186). Comments from Berliner Ensemble actor Angelika Hurwicz demonstrate that Brecht’s fundamental ideas about acting were virtually in agreement with those of Stanislavski. Drawing on his expertise regarding Stanislavski, Benedetti offers a fascinating explanation of Brecht’s methodologies that have heretofore been largely misunderstood or misrepresented.
Less successful are the book’s early chapters, in which Benedetti presents the source materials (some exceeding ten pages) with only spare prefatory comments. This strategy relies upon the reader’s own knowledge of theatre history to contextualize these materials and identify key points within. Further, Benedetti chooses not to footnote the works he cites, presenting instead only a select bibliography (rather than a comprehensive list of reference works) at the book’s end. Only rarely does he acknowledge another scholar’s contributions to his thinking. The overall effect of such stylistic choices is to curtail variety of tone and silence opposing points of view. In these early chapters, it was impossible not to compare The Art of the Actor to Joseph Roach’s The Player’s Passion, a work in which the synthesis of other scholars’ ideas provides a considerably more rigorous and satisfying examination of the development of early notions of acting. However, beginning with the ninth chapter on Michael Chekhov, Benedetti’s approach changes; he integrates paragraph-length citations within his commentary and thoroughly explicates their nuances. This technique increases the value of this sourcebook for less sophisticated readers, an audience Benedetti apparently wishes to include: he states in the foreword that “The Art of the Actor is intended . . . for all those studying the theatre at whatever level” (vii). If and when subsequent editions of the book are published, Benedetti may wish to consider extending this style to his early chapters as well.
Another aspect of the text that could be reconsidered is the book’s historical endpoint. Benedetti’s concluding remarks begin with: “Since Grotowski, no one has worked out a systematic programme of training that is universally recognized. No one has attempted a general theory of the actor’s creative process” (233). It seems curious that an “essential history of acting, from classical times to the present day” would not consider—at least briefly—contemporary training methods such as those proposed by Suzuki or LeCoq. Benedetti instead chooses to effectively end his discussion of “the present day” in the 1970s.
Omitting Suzuki draws attention to the under-acknowledged Eurocentric bias of The Art of the Actor: Benedetti’s included sources derive only from Western traditions, with Eastern performance concepts only alluded...