The actor's coronation

At XVIIIea century of revolutions, the spectator is born with the advent of the actor, consecrated by several features of the game. Brought to light, the actor competes with the author: a configuration which gives theatrical representation an importance which will hardly be denied.

The famous Paradox about the actor by Diderot tends to obscure the multitude of treatises devoted to theatrical acting published over the course of XVIIIe century. This text, however, only met a limited audience in the 1770s and only appeared in its complete version in 1831. Above all, it was not born ex nihilo. It is part, in its brilliant originality, of a vast textual fabric. This covers not only France, but the Europe of Enlightenment.

Double comparatism

It is the restitution of this whole that Laurence Marie focuses on through a “doubly comparative” approach (p. 14). Its comparatism is first of all interdisciplinary: the investigation certainly concerns the first features of dramatic play, since The Comedian by Pierre Rmond de Sainte-Albine in 1747; but the fledgling theory of an art in search of recognition, that of the actor, necessarily borrows from other arts, from oratory to painting via sculpture, and other disciplines, from philosophy to medicine. Comparativism is also European: theorists, French, German, Italian, English or Spanish, were themselves comparativists before their time, because “(p)hilosophers, authors, actors, theater directors and spectators travel; the texts migrate with (or without) them, are translated, commented on, adapted, and give rise to other texts in an incessant dialogue” (p. 16). Mapping without freezing, restoring theoretical dialogues in their most subtle movements, these are the challenges taken up by Invent the actor. emotions and spectacle in the Europe of Enlightenment. One hypothesis gives it a solid foundation: the classic imitative theory of theater, reducing the art of the actor to that of the orator (of a speaker amputated of almost his entire body), is shaken by the intercultural exchanges innervating theatrical Europe.

The invention of “natural”

Laurence Marie retraces the steps taken by the theory of dramatic play to detach itself from the dominant declamatory model in XVIIe century particularly in Theater practice by abb dAubignac (1657), translated into English then into German, focused on the composition of the dramatic poem. According to a textocentric conception of the theatrical spectacle, the stage action is then based on an art of the voice inspired by a rhetoric where recitation prevails over gestures: the illusion of sight is preferred “that which can be visualized in the imagination” (p. 25). According to Molire's biographer, Grimarest, author of Line of the recitative in 1707, the actor had to model himself on the orator. This French model is spreading unevenly in Europe, because countries practicing improvised comedy, such as Italy or England, are more sensitive to the expressiveness of the body on stage. A paradigm shift thus took place in the 1720s: the effect produced on the spectator gradually replaced, among theorists, this heel which constituted the reader's relationship to the dramatic poem. English action and Italian improvisation nourish the emerging reflection on “natural acting” while exceptional actors revolutionize practices and soon theories. Michel Baron, Adrienne Lecouvreur, Mshe Dumesnil, Mshe Clairon and Lekain are seen as the founders of a “French naturalness” (p. 60), before David Garrick, “practitioner of pantomime theater, reappropriates the rhetorical codes of pictorial eloquence in the service of an entirely corporeal game” (p. 66 ) and offers a model to the whole of Europe. In this context appear the first real treatises on the game, by Garrick himself, by Aaron Hill in England, by Gianvito Manfredi in Italy or by Sainte-Albina in France. All contribute to giving the actor moral and artistic dignity. They gradually raise him to the status of creator of meaning, engaging him in a new balance of power with the authors. The first gaming schools appeared (from 1744 in England), without yet replacing training within the troops themselves. If the theory accompanies the modes of acting more than arouses them, it nonetheless testifies to the emergence of an “expressive approach” and no longer “mimetic” to the art of the actor (p. 149): it is less a question of imitating a pre-existing model than of to represent a fictional character, in the novelty of its emergence.

An art of the body

The classical thought of theater is disturbed, soon overturned, by the irruption on stage of the expressive body of the actor. Laurence Marie constructs the history of this progressive extension of “theatrical declamation” with the whole body, engaged in a silent game, according to the model spread by Garrick in England, France and Germany. Sensualist and empiricist philosophy encourages us to conceive of the passions expressed no longer according to a rationally determined range, but according to an infinite range. The character, torn from the classic type, stands out. Above all, interest shifts towards the person of the actor. We explore the links between his interiority and his expressive appearance, between his sensitivity and his dramatic play. If “the empathetic approach” to the art of the actor, “inherited from the art of oratory” (p. 212) still dominates, excess enthusiasm is condemned by Luigi Riccoboni or Sainte-Albina. This prepares the distinction between feeling expressed on stage and the sensitivity of the actor's person, an off-stage distinction placed at the heart of the Ideerotian Paradox. But by distinguishing “cold sense” acting from “cold-blooded” interpretation, Diderot goes further: he “insists on judgment and removes any physiological dimension from stage expression” (p. 283).

Picking up the chronological thread at the end of her journey, Laurence Marie describes the “aesthetic revolution” at work at the twilight of the Enlightenment, between 1780 and 1815, after the death of Garrick. New artists are establishing themselves on European stages, from Kemble in England to Iffland in Germany and Talma in France. These actors are now publishing their testimonies and their memories, a sign of the social recognition achieved. Theory and practice now feed into each other more intensely. If actors' travels intensify, encouraging exchanges, cultural situations differ at a time when the founding of national theaters becomes the major issue in several European countries. Two divergent trends then cross the scenes. The first extends, in the name of natural truth, the imitative conception of the game: we imitate “in cold blood” the “beautiful sensualist nature”, to the “sublime” (p. 303). Interesting pages are devoted to the probable influence of Iffland's play on the theories of Louis-Sbastien Mercier: popularizer of German and English theater, Mercier saw Iffland play in Les Brigands by Schiller Mannheim and was able to appreciate the expressiveness without excess of his pantomime. The second trend, from a neo-classical perspective, favors the idealism of beauty: separated from nature, the stage performance elevates, in Goethe, Schlegel or Schiller, or even Alfieri, to the rank of an autonomous symbolic art, closer to music, not imitative, just paint. Talma is the great model here.

Focal aperture

Through its historical depth, Laurence Marie's study invites us to approach our contemporary scene in a new light. Because the theatrical life of the Enlightenment is a “privileged laboratory for (re)thinking modern theater” (p. 417). Theatrical representation is gradually understood as the place and moment where meaning is developed, with its own artistic means. The respective roles of play, image, sound and text in symbolic creation remain, for today's scenes, a burning subject of questioning.

The great merit of Laurence Marie's book finally consists of broadening the focus to recapture and reread French theoretical texts in their European “co-text”. These are both English, German, Italian and Spanish textual masses which are brought to light and made readable, and intense networks of intercultural exchange which are revealed. Clearly, eighteenth-century research on theater remains one step ahead of nineteenth-century studies, which remains, on such models, to construct a European history of acting. unless it is, then as today, a world story?