On François Delsarte and the Inarguable Superiority of his Acting System

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Today is the birthday of François Alexandre Nicolas Chéri Delsarte (1811-1871), one of the most influential figures in the 19th century and early 20th century theatre, as well as early film. Delsarte developed a gestural system of acting that was wildly influential in the service of melodrama. Trained as an opera singer, he went on to become a composer and a voice teacher. Ironically he developed his Science of Applied Aesthetics in opposition to the arbitrary technique of codified poses then common in the French theatre. He sought to reconnect the physical actor to emotional meaning. Naturally, as always happens, as his teachings spread they became diffused and altered, until the Delsarte System too became the byword for artificial, hokey acting. Stanislawski’s Method sprang up partially in response to the influence of Delsarte. Delsarte’s more lingering influence may be felt in the realm of dance through such admirers as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. 

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I celebrate him here today because, as you may have gleaned from my Hall of Hams series and other writings (such as this), I am not the hugest fan of the Method. As an artist, I see artifice and form (formalism, formality) as virtues, not embarrassments but clear semiotic signposts, a symbolic language. I want theatre to resemble music. I want it to be remarkable and strange. I’m not the slightest bit interested in the slavish reproduction of “everyday life”. To me that’s the lowest conceivable order of accomplishment, akin in significance to joking references to body parts and “Look, ma, I’m on television!” Duplication of the real is at best a foundation. Art is about SHAPING reality and taking the viewer, the listener, the audience to a NEW place. If you want to go to a familiar place, why not stay home and watch yourself in a mirror?

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Coincidentally, Bree Benton (formerly a Poor Baby) and I got to do a bit of research on the Delsarte System for Dead End Dummy a couple of months ago, as references to it were written into Dick Zigun’s script. Delsarte produced no writings about the system, nor did his preeminent American pupil the playwright/ manager Steele MacKayeBut MacKaye’s pupil Genevieve Stebbins wrote a highly influential book, easily obtainable off the internet, which I have been studying:

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And Dick loaned us this even more magical tome, an 1896 first edition:

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Delsarte’s influence was still being strongly felt in the early days of silent pictures. And the training of course remained in the older actors through most of the 20th century, only gradually becoming supplanted by the more realistic styles of younger generations. Leaving us now several generations into a nearly universal aesthetic of mush-mouthed, slovenly anarchism. It fills me with so much despair I have to do this:

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3 comments

  1. Ted Shawn’s book EVERY LITTLE MOVEMENT is a great introduction to Delsarte and a strong defense of its value even for post-Stanislavski actors.

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