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Commedia Delsarte Gautam Dasgupta WERE IT NOT FOR Santarcangelo dei Teatri XXII, an annual festival of alternative theatre that takes place during the month of July in a tiny medieval village near the Adriatic coast in Italy, I doubt if I would have taken a second look at the figure around whom an international seminar was convened in 1992. Fran~ois Delsarte (1811-1871), a much neglected French theorist of expressive movement and gesture in the nineteenth century, can arguably be considered the first of an entire generation of thinkers who systematically studied the art (and science) of acting. It may well be true that many of us came across his name fleetingly in books on theatre history. To consider him a theorist of the theatre is to do so by analogy and extension. A remarkable teacher by all accounts, his researches in the field of voice and anatomical behavior were shared equally by doctors, lawyers, and lay persons, as well as by actors, composers, musicians , and operatic singers. His reputation, considerable during his lifetime (his contributions to the art of vocal and gestural expression were heralded by the likes of Lamartine, Berlioz, Rachel, Macready, and Theophile Gautier), suffered partly because of Delsarte's refusal to leave behind a body of written work. Much of what we know of him today comes down to us secondhand from his students and ardent disciples, of which, fortunately, he has had many. But there is no denying that after his death his popularity waned until, in our century, his achievements were surpassed by the likes of Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Artaud, and Brecht. His native country, despite occasional tributes to his genius while he was still alive, proved inhospitable to his talents. The same could be said for his reception in the continent. In Italy, 95 I was told, he is virtually unknown, and this conference was a belated attempt to restore the memory of Delsarte after more than a century of neglect. To be fair, Delsarte did not suffer as ignominious a fall as the preceding paragraph might suggest. His name lingers on through associative links, principally that of the American actor-theatre manager Steele Mackaye, who did much to propagate the Delsarte system of oratory and gestural science in America at the turn of the century. Aided further by the indefatigable efforts of the expressional dancer Genevieve Stebbins on his behalf, Delsarte's system worked its way down to Ruth Saint Denis and Ted Shawn. Given such illustrious forebears, it was to be expected that Delsarte's name, although relegated to the far reaches of theatrical science, did find a place in the history of modern dance. A curious fate for one who was led to his researches in the pursuit of emotive characterization and vocal expressiveness, two constitutive axioms of theatre. Over the years, the Delsarte phenomenon has also gained dubious reputation as an hermetic science, a storehouse of esoteric knowledge to be intuited by a special coterie of adepts. To be sure, much in Delsarte lays claim to such beliefs. Although scientific in his approach to the study of human gesture, his overall schema is built around a trinitarian model into which all his arguments are subsumed. The body is subdivided into three distinct areas of study-head, torso, and limbs-which in turn is further codified along the principles of eccentric, concentric, and normal gestures that form the crux of Delsarte's method. Reading him carefully after many years, I was struck by the cabalistic insistence in his writings, a strong desire to penetrate the mysteries of human expressiveness in a totalizing manner. Trinal forms, medallions, and curvilinear hieroglyphics annotate much of Delsarte's meditations. Pyramidal and astral models that delineate the play of emotion or degree of expressivity are rendered, even explicated, in terms of the Trinity. God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost become the nodal points of his vast epistemology, and all expressive energies emanating from the physical or vocal apparatus are designated in terms of a theological blueprint. His charged rhetoric, aphoristic and evangelical at times, and obfuscative at others, but at all times incantatory, recall writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistos and to the Gnostic tradition...


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pp. 95-102
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