actings

   Before the long-running play became economically feasible in the 1890s, the fundamental qualification for a career on the stage was the ability to memorize a lot of lines on short notice, for only a star knew the luxury of the limited repertory. Stock company actors were cast according to lines of business, but might be called upon to play a different role every night for months on end. Marie Dressler recalled her days in a traveling stock company: "Often a bill was changed on an hour's notice or less. Every member of the cast had to be a quick study. I have gone on in a part which I had only read over hastily while dressing, more intensive study being pursued while I waited in the wings for my cue" (quoted in Lee 1997, 15-16).
   Vocal projection skills were essential, including the ability to adapt to a variety of acoustic environments. Periodic unemployment was to be expected. Even actors who enjoyed long association with a single company based in a large city found themselves obliged to travel.
   Acting style remained under the influence of melodrama during much of the modernist period: making points in vocal interpretation, using grand gestures, and striking attractive poses both in terms of individual physicalization of the text and in tableaux by the ensemble. This romantic school of acting, with the climactic unleashing of a storm of passion, was the foundation for the careers of many tragedians who performed the Shakespearean repertoire, for example, Fanny Janauschek, Thomas W. Keene, Robert Mantell, and John McCullough.
   At the same time, however, other actors gradually introduced greater realism into their performances. As early as the 1850s, Edwin Booth was turning from his father's romantic style, adopting an economy of gesture, while eschewing points. His conversational manner of delivery and immersion in his character proved influential on such actors as Lawrence Barrett, Mary Anderson, and Otis Skinner. Minnie Maddern Fiske was especially noted for the apparent naturalness with which she assumed her characterizations, and she was fortunate in finding roles that allowed her use of subtle effects. The gradual acceptance of psychological realism in acting was certainly reinforced with the advent of plays by Henrik Ibsen and James A. Herne.
   The handsome actor-playwright William Gillette has been signaled as another leader in the move away from elocutionary artifice of line interpretation; his biographer Doris E. Cook described him as "one of the first American actors to speak rather than declaim his roles" (1970, 8). She quotes his recollection of his early days of acting in the earlier style: "I began very humbly indeed, in stock, and if I had tried to be natural, I'd have lost my position. My business then was to learn the tricks of the stage. We had our tragic walk, our proper comedy face, our correct and dreadful laugh, our carefully learned gestures, our shrieks and outcries and our stilted voices. We were to hope for success in so far as we mastered these rules and tricks and put force and personal 'vigor' into our execution of them" (12). In 1936, several critics analyzed Gillette's contribution to the art and mentioned his detailed handling of properties, his "underacting," and "the illusively effective naturalness of his acting" (88).
   Comic acting was largely realistic while allowing for exaggerations to heighten character or get the laugh. Rural or ethnic stereotypes appeared frequently in legitimate drama as well as on the variety stage. William H. Crane and Stuart Robson figured prominently among character actors specializing in comedy. For polished light romantic comedy, John Drew reigned supreme.
   By the 1920s, the range of styles had expanded to include celebrity acting by those who stamped their roles with their own personalities rather than immersing themselves in the characters. A few examples are Tallulah Bankhead, Billie Burke, De Wolf Hopper, Olga Nethersole, and Mae West. However, Hopper reminisced in his 1927 autobiography Once a Clown, Always a Clown that versatile actors were better than "the products of today's specialization" (14). For example, Blanche Bates learned early in her career that "an actress should be able to play Topsy or Lady Macbeth equally well. It is not how she looks, but what she makes the audience think and feel" (14). Other exceptionally talented and compelling actors of the modernist period include Ethel Barrymore, John Barry-more, Julia Marlowe, and Otis Skinner.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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