November 26: Lamb, Crosby, and Shakespeare

Remember that radio show Shakespeare had in the 30s? The "Snyder's Codpieces Pentameter Hour?" A great show, and also the launching pad for a man named Eddie Cantor (stage name -- his given name was Christopher Marlowe).


Charles Lamb makes me rise to the defense of actors -- which isn't the default position of those who write for them, believe me -- by telling them they suck at Shakespeare:
>Why, nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does, are transactions between himself and his moral sense, they are the effusions of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth..These profound sorrows, these light-and-noise-abhorring ruminations, which the tongue scare dares utter to deaf walls and chambers, how can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience, making four hundred people his confidants at once? [H]e must insinuate them into his auditory by some trick of eye, tone, or gesture, or he fails. He must be thinking all the while of his appearance, because he knows that all the while the spectators are judging of it. And this is the way to represent the shy, negligent, retiring Hamlet.
Basically the argument is twofold. First, actors are idiots:
how people should come thus unaccountably to confound the power of originating poetical images and conceptions with the faculty of being able to read or recite the same when put into words; 1 or what connection that absolute mastery over the heart and soul of man, which a great dramatic poet possesses, has with those low tricks upon the eye and ear, which a player by observing a few general effects...can easily compass.
And second, even non-idiot actors, if there are any, of necessity have to stomp around and roll their eyes and stuff so you miss the sublime glory of Shakespeare:
Some dim thing or other they see, [the idiot non-Charles Lamb part of the audience -- ed.] they see an actor personating a passion, of grief, or anger, for instance, and they recognize it as a copy of the usual external effects of such passions...but of the grounds of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which is the only worthy object of tragedy,—that common auditors know anything of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them by the mere strength of an actor’s lungs...I can neither believe, nor understand how it can be possible.
Underneath all this is a kind of Shakespeare-olatry which, while I appreciate -- especially since I had to read one of his competitors yesterday -- I also instinctively rebel against. Come on -- no other dramatist is sublime?

But mostly I disagree with the conception of acting Lamb presents, as an art basically incapable of registering subtlety -- as if all actors were basically walking 104-point New York Post headlines. That doesn't square at all with the kind of acting I've seen up close, on sitcoms yet. And I was thinking that acting must have changed since Lamb's time (early 1800s) when it hit me -- of course it has. The microphone and camera changed it. What Bing Crosby is said to have done for singing -- used the technology to make intimate an art that, previously, had to reach the second balcony -- the movie stars did, bit by bit. "The Method" or more loosely the attempt for actors to establish more psychological intimacy in their acting, probably wouldn't have worked as well in Lamb's time. Or maybe it's us in the audience, more affluent, better educated, who have caught up to Lamb (if not Shakespeare), and now there's enough of us to fill a theater once in a while to watch a performance that's not all fireworks.

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