Restoration and 18th century acting style

A reproduction of authentic 17th-18th Century theatrical practice today would probably seem at best sterile, and at worst preposterous, but in his solo performance of The Rape of the Locke John H. Bartlett gives a taste of how an actor of the time would use Rhetorical Gesture and Vocal Colour to illuminate the text.

Actors have always striven to convey the same thing: to convince an audience that what appears to be happening to their characters is really happening to them.The best actors manage to transcend the style expected of them to express emotional truth. Nowadays the sonorous vocal delivery of Thomas Betterton might seem ludicrous and monotonous. The use of illustrative gesture is not to contemporary taste, but in the Baroque theatre the practice was required and appreciated. Certain mimetic codes that an audience of the 18th Century would have recognised cannot be readily understood today.

Probably all a modern audience needs to bear in mind is that gestures performed on the right hand side of the body signify Affirmations, and those on the left Negativity.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries Rhetoric was an admired accomplishment, respected as a method of sincerely elaborating an argument. Countless works on the rules of rhetorical address came out, derived from the writings on Oratory, Rhetoric, Logic and Aesthetics by Aristotle, Quintilian and Cicero. Gestures were prescribed, and the admired orators were those who contrived to fit their actions naturally to the import of their words. These works constantly refer to stage behaviour, sometimes disparagingly, so we can see that the art of theatrical gesture was similar to the art of the Orator. The best actors were admired for their restraint, but it seems that almost every other word would have had an accompanying gesture.

In his biography of Betterton, which took the form of an extended dialogue with the actor and served as a manifesto of the great actor's methods, Gildon attributed to him the theory that "... Every Passion or Emotion of the Mind has from Nature its proper and peculiar Countenance, Sound, and Gesture; and the whole Body of Man, all his Looks, and every Sound of his Voice, like the Strings of an Instrument, receive their Sounds from the various Impulses of the Passions ... it is true your Hands ought not to be always in Motion, a Vice which was once call'd the Babling of the Hands; and perhaps, it may reach some Characters and Speeches in Plays; but I am of Opinion, that the Hands in Acting ought very seldom to be wholly quiescent." "It is impossible to have any great Emotion or Gesture of the Body, without the Action of the Hands, to Answer the Figures of Discourse, which are made use of in all Poetical, as well as Rhetorical Diction."

It was understood that negative elements were expressed on the left-hand side of the body, and affirmations on the right. "...If an Action comes to be used by only one Hand, that must be the Right, it being indecent to make a Gesture with the Left alone ... When you speak of your self, the Right not the Left must be apply'd to the Bosom, declaring your Faculties, and Passions; your Heart, your Soul, or your Conscience, but this Action generally speaking, should be apply'd or express'd by laying the Hand gently on the Breast, and not by thumping it as some People do." A movement of the hand starting on one side and crossing the body, would be transferred seamlessly to the other hand. "The Gesture must pass from the Left to the Right, and there end with Gentleness and Moderation, at least not stretch to the Extremity of Violence ... There are some Actions or Gestures, which you must never make use of in Tragedy, ... they being low and fitter for Comedy or Burlesque Entertainments. Thus you must not put yourself into the Posture of one bending a Bow, presenting a Musket, or playing on any Musical instrument, as if you had it in your Hands." Although the rules forbade such deviations as lifting the arms higher than the head, the great French actor, Baron, commented that the performer may be allowed to break a rule "... if passion carry him that way;" after all, he said, "Passion knows better than art." Gildon's Betterton continued "... In the lifting up the Hands to preserve the Grace, you ought not to raise them above the eyes; to stretch them farther might disorder and distort the Body; nor must it be very little lower, because that Position gives a Beauty to the Figure: Besides, this Posture being general on some Surprise, Admiration, Abhorrence &c. which proceeds from the Object, that affects the Eye, Nature by a sort of Mechanic Motion throws the Hands out as Guards to the Eyes on such an Occasion ... Your Arms you should not stretch out sideways, above half a Foot from the Trunk of your Body, you will otherwise throw your Gesture quite out of your Sight, unless you turn your Head also aside to pursue it, which would be very ridiculous." He goes on to recommend the study of history painting as an example to players, citing Jordaen of Antwerp's Descent from the Cross as an instance of committed grief, differentiated by character and relationship.

Many religious, mythological and history paintings of the time are set up exactly as we would expect a scene in the Baroque theatre; the shallow plane of the compositions is typical of how actors arranged themselves on the narrow acting area of the forestage. The poses serve as a model for the way the actors' bodies could be disposed, and the arms and hands deployed. Striking an Attitude (the art of static posture) was the culminating high point of a succession of gestures corresponding with the high point in a long speech. Theophilus Cibber tells us that Barton Booth, Betterton's natural successor in dignified tragedy, collected prints and studied paintings and sculpture, so that "all his attitudes were picturesque ... which he so judiciously introduced, so finely executed, and fell into them with so easy a transition, that these masterpieces of his art seemed but the effect of nature ... warmed by passion, heightened by grace and improved by taste." Booth's mastery of striking Attitudes and his easy transitions from one emotion to another were so practiced and refined that admirers claimed they were indistinguishable from real spontaneity. Gildon made a great point out of Betterton's naturalness, and recommended that the player find "that nice Address in the Management of his Gestures, that there be nothing in all the various Motions and Dispositions of his Body, which may be offensive to the Eye of the Spectator; as well as nothing grating and disobliging to the ears of his Auditors, in his Pronunciation."