ALTHOUGH so much time and care are given to the various means of artistic expression, it is a singular fact that comparatively little attention is given to the use of the very first instrument which should be under command before any secondary instrument can be made perfectly expressive.
An old artist who thanked his friend for admiring his pictures added: “If you could only see the pictures in my brain. But–” pointing to his brain and then to the ends of his fingers–” the channels from here to here are so long!” The very sad tone which we can hear in the wail of the painter expresses strongly the deficiencies of our age in all its artistic efforts. The channels are shorter just in proportion to their openness. If the way from the brain to the ends of the fingers is perfectly clear, the brain can guide the ends of the fingers to carry out truly its own aspirations, and the honest expression of the brain will lead always to higher ideals. But the channels cannot be free, and the artist will be bound so long as there is superfluous tension in any part of the body. So absolutely necessary, is it for the best artistic expression that the body should throughout be only a servant of the mind, that the more we think of it the more singular it seems that the training of the body to a childlike state is not regarded as essential, and taken as a matter of course, even as we take our regular nourishment.
The artificial is tension in its many trying and disagreeable phases. Art is freedom, equilibrium, rhythm,–anything and everything that means wholesome life and growth toward all that is really the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Art is immeasurably greater than we are. If we are free and quiet, the poem, the music, the picture will carry us, so that we shall be surprised at our own expression; and when we have finished, instead of being personally elated with conceited delight in what we have done, or exhausted with the superfluous effort used, we shall feel as if a strong wind had blown through us and cleared us for better work in the future.
Every genius obeys the true principle. It is because a genius is involuntarily under the law of his art that he is pervaded by its power. But we who have only talent must learn the laws of genius, which are the laws of Nature, and by careful study and steady practice in shunning all personal obstructions to the laws, bring ourselves under their sway.
Who would wish to play on a stringed instrument already vibrating with the touch of some one else, or even with the last touch we ourselves gave it. What noise, what discord, with no possible harmonies! So it is with our nerves and muscles. They cannot be used for artistic purposes to the height of their best powers while they are tense and vibrating to our own personal states or habits; so that the first thing is to free them absolutely, and not only keep them free by constant practice, but so train them that they will become perfectly free at a moment’s notice, and ready to respond clearly to whatever the heart and the mind want to express.
The finer the instrument, the lighter the touch it will vibrate to. Indeed it must have a light touch to respond clearly with musical harmonies; any other touch would blur. With a fine piano or a violin, whether the effect is to be piano or fortissimo, the touch should be only with the amount of force needed to give a clear vibration, and the ease with which a fortissimo effect is thus produced is astonishing. It is only those with the most delicate touch who can produce from a fine piano grand and powerful harmonies without a blur.
The response in a human instrument to a really light touch is far more wonderful than that from any instrument made by man; and bodily effort blurs just as much more in proportion. The muscles are all so exquisitely balanced in their power for co-ordinate movement, that a muscle pulling one way is almost entirely freed from effort by the equalizing power of the antagonizing muscle; and at some rare moments when we have really found the equilibrium and can keep it, we seem to do no more than think a movement or a tone or a combination of words, and they come with so slight a physical exertion that it seems like no effort at all.
So far are we from our possibilities in this lightness of touch in the use of our bodies, that it is impossible now for most of us to touch as lightly as would, after training, bring the most powerful response. One of the best laws for artistic practice is, “Every day less effort, every day more power.” As the art of acting is the only art where the whole body is used with no subordinate instrument, let us look at that with regard to the best results to be obtained by means of relief from superfluous tension. The effects of unnecessary effort are strongly felt in the exhaustion which follows the interpretation of a very exciting rôle. It is a law without exception, that if I absorb an emotion and allow my own nerves to be shaken by it, I fail to give it in all its expressive power to the audience; and not only do I fall far short in my artistic interpretation, but because of that very failure, come off the stage with just so much nervous force wasted. Certain as this law is, and infallible as are its effects, it is not only generally disbelieved, but it is seldom thought of at all. I must feet Juliet in my heart, understand her with my mind, and let her vibrate clearly across my nerves, to the audience. The moment I let my nerves be shaken as Juliet’s nerves were in reality, I am absorbing her myself, misusing nervous force, preparing to come off the stage thoroughly exhausted, and keeping her away from the audience. The present low state of the drama is largely due to this failure to recognize and practise a natural use of the nervous force. To work up an emotion, a most pernicious practice followed by young aspirants, means to work your nerves up to a state of mild or even severe hysteria. This morbid, inartistic, nervous excitement actually trains men and women to the loss of all emotional control, and no wonder that their nerves play the mischief with them, and that the atmosphere of the stage is kept in its present murkiness. The power to work the nerves up in the beginning finally carries them to the state where they must be more artificially urged by stimulants; and when the actor is off the stage he has no self-control at all. This all means misused and over-used force. In no schools is the general influence so absolutely morbid and unwholesome, as in most of the schools of elocution and acting.
The methods by which the necessity for artificial stimulants can be overcome are so simple and so pleasant and so immediately effective, that it is worth taking the time and space to describe them briefly. Of course, to begin with, the body must be trained to perfect freedom in repose, and then to freedom in its use. A very simple way of practising is to take the most relaxed attitude possible, and then, without changing it, to recite with all the expression that belongs to it some poem or selection from a play full of emotional power. You will become sensitive at once to any new tension, and must stop and drop it. At first, an hour’s daily practice will be merely a beginning over and over,–the nervous tension will be. so evident,–but the final reward is well worth working and waiting for.
It is well to begin by simply inhaling through the nose, and exhaling quietly through the mouth several times; then inhale and exhale an exclamation in every form of feeling you can think of Let the exclamation come as easily and freely as the breath alone, without superfluous tension in any part of the body. So much freedom gained, inhale as before, and exhale brief expressive sentences,–beginning with very simple expressions, and taking sentences that express more and more feeling as your freedom is better established. This practice can be continued until you are able to recite the potion scene in Juliet, or any of Lady Macbeth’s most powerful speeches, with an case and freedom which is surprising. This refers only to the voice ; the practice which has been spoken of in a previous chapter brings the same effect in gesture.
It will be readily seen that this power once gained, no actor would find it necessary to skip every other night, in consequence of the severe fatigue which follows the acting of an emotional rôle. Not only is the physical fatigue saved, but the power of expression, the power for intense acting, so far as it impresses the audience, is steadily increased.
The inability of young persons to express an emotion which they feel and appreciate heartily, can be always overcome in this way. Relaxing frees the channels, and the channels being open the real poetic or dramatic feeling cannot be held back. The relief is as if one were let out of prison. Personal faults that come from self-consciousness and nervous tension may be often cured entirely without the necessity of drawing attention to them, simply by relaxing.
Dramatic instinct is a delicate perception of, quick and keen sympathies for, and ability to express the various phases of human nature. Deep study and care are necessary for the best development of these faculties; but the nerves must be left free to be guided to the true expression,–neither allowed to vibrate to the ecstatic delight of the impressions, or in mistaken sympathy with them, but kept clear as conductors of all the heart can feel and the mind understand in the character or poem to be interpreted.
This may sound cold. It is not; it is merely a process of relieving superfluous nervous tension in acting, by which obstructions are removed so that real sympathetic emotions can be stronger and fuller, and perceptions keener. Those who get no farther than emotional vibrations of the nerves in acting, know nothing whatever of the greatness or power of true dramatic instinct.
There are three distinct schools of dramatic art,–one may be called dramatic hysteria, the second dramatic hypocrisy. The first means emotional excitement and nervous exhaustion; the second artificial simulation of a feeling. Dramatic sincerity is the third school, and the school that seems most truly artistic. What a wonderful training is that which might,–which ought to be given an actor to help him rise to the highest possibility of his art!
A free body, exquisitely responsive to every command of the mind, is absolutely necessary; therefore there should be a perfect physical training. A quick and keen perception to appreciate noble thoughts, holding each idea distinctly, and knowing the relations of each idea to the others, must certainly be cultivated ; for in acting, every idea, every word, should come clearly, each taking its own place in the thought expressed.
Broad human sympathies, the imaginative power of identifying himself with all phases of human nature, if he has an ideal in his profession above the average, an actor cannot lack. This last is quite impossible without broad human charity; for “to observe truly you must sympathize with those you observe, and to sympathize with them you must love them, and to love them you must forget yourself.” And all these requisites–the physical state, the understanding, and the large heart–seem to centre in the expression of a well-trained voice,–a voice in which there is the minimum of body and the maximum of soul.
By training, I always mean a training into Nature. As I have said before, if art is Nature illuminated, we must find Nature before we can reach art. The trouble is that in acting, more than in any other art, the distinction between what is artistic and what is artificial is neither clearly understood nor appreciated; yet so marked is the difference when once we see it, that the artificial may well be called the hell of art, as art itself is heavenly.
Sincerity and simplicity are the foundations of art. A feigning of either is often necessary to the artificial, but many times impossible. Although the external effect of this natural training is a great saving of nervous force in acting, the height of its power cannot be reached except through a simple aim, from the very heart, toward sincere artistic expression.
So much for acting. It is a magnificent study, and should be more truly wholesome in its effects than any other art, because it deals with the entire body. But, alas I it seems now the most thoroughly morbid and unwholesome.
All that has been said of acting will apply also to singing, especially to dramatic singing and study for opera; only with singing even more care should be taken. No singer realizes the necessity of a quiet, absolutely free body for the best expression of a high note, until having gained a certain physical freedom without singing, she takes a high note and is made sensitive to the superfluous tension all over the body, and later learns to reach the same note with the repose which is natural; then the contrast between the natural and the unnatural methods of singing becomes most evident,–and not with high notes alone, but with all notes, and all combinations of notes. I speak of the high note first, because that is an extreme; for with the majority of singers there is always more or less fear when a high note is coming lest it may not be reached easily and with all the clearness that belongs to it. This fear in itself is tension. For that reason one must learn to relax to a high note. A free body relieves the singer immensely from the mechanism of singing. So perfect is the unity of the body that a voice will not obey perfectly unless the body, as a whole, be free. Once secure in the freedom of voice and body to obey, the song can burst forth with all the musical feeling, and all the deep appreciation of the words of which the singer is capable. Now, unfortunately, it is not unusual in listening to a public singer, to feel keenly that he is entirely adsorbed in the mechanism of his art.
If this freedom is so helpful, indeed so necessary, to reach one’s highest power in singing, it is absolutely essential on the operatic stage. With it we should have less of the wooden motion so common to singers in opera. When one is free, physically free, the music seems to draw out the acting. With a great composer and an interpreter free to respond, the music and the body of the actor are one in their power of expressing the emotions. And the songs without words of the interludes so affect the spirit of the singer that, whether quiet or in motion, he seems, through being a living embodiment of the music, to impress the sense of seeing so that it increases the pleasure of hearing.
I am aware that this standard is ideal; but it is not impossible to approach it,–to come at least much nearer to it than we do now, when the physical movements on the stage are such, that one wants to listen to most operas with closed eyes.
We have considered artistic expression when the human body alone is the instrument. When the body is merely a means to the use of a secondary instrument, a primary training of the body itself is equally necessary.
A pianist practises for hours to command his fingers and gain a touch which will bring the soul from his music, without in the least realizing that so long as he is keeping other muscles in his body tense, and allowing the nervous force to expend itself unnecessarily in other directions, there never will be clear and open channels from his brain to his fingers; and as he literally plays with his brain, and not with his fingers, free channels for a magnetic touch are indispensable.
To watch a body give to the rhythm of the music in playing is most fascinating. Although the motion is slight, the contrast between that and a pianist stiff and rigid with superfluous tension is, very marked, and the difference in touch when one relaxes to the music with free channels has been very clearly proved. Beside this, the freedom in mechanism which follows the exercises for arms and hands is strikingly noticeable.
With the violin, the same physical equilibrium of motion must be gained; in fact it is equally necessary in all musical performance, as the perfect freedom of the body is always necessary before it can reach its highest power in the use of any secondary instrument.
In painting, the freer a body is the more perfectly the mind can direct it. How often we can see clearly in our minds a straight line or a curve or a combination of both, but our hands will not obey the brain, and the picture fails. It does not by any means follow that with free bodies we can direct the hand at once to whatever the brain desires, but simply that by making the body free, and so a perfect servant of the mind, it can be brought to obey the mind in a much shorter time and more directly, and so become a truer channel for whatever the mind wishes to accomplish.
In the highest art, whatever form it may take, the law of simplicity is perfectly illustrated.
It would be tiresome to go through a list of the various forms of artistic expression; enough has been said to show the necessity for a free body, sensitive to respond to, quick to obey, and open to express the commands of its owner.