Thursday, August 23, 2007


I had seven years’ apprenticeship at [drama], during which most of my labour was in the field of comedy...the while my soul was yearning for high tragedy. I did my best with all that I was cast for, however, and the unpleasant experience did me a world of good. Had I followed my own bent, I would have been, long ago, a “crushed tragedian.” ---Edwin Booth

The idea of a "crushed tragedian", i.e., one suffering under changes in dramatic taste away from his mastered delivery style, was common through the 19th century. What was considered "natural" and what stiff and old-fashioned changed over the years, though. Edwin Booth, who acted with a graceful and cerebral delivery which shattered the hold on the stage by muscularly flamboyant actors like Edwin Forrest and Edwin's father Junius Brutus Booth, was considered a stale stereotype himself by the time of his death in 1893. Forrest had changed the style popularized by Edmund Kean, who had overturned the theatrical grip held by David Garrick, who had prided himself on replacing stiff classical styles with "naturalism."

The crushed tragedian, whatever he replaced or was replaced by, represented the actor out of work because of his mouthing, overgesturing, and overacting. An Arthur Lloyd song "Junius Brown, the tragedian" (1850s) bemoaned:

Since Kemble none like me's been seen,
Yet nought but bad luck is my portion;
My friends say I'm better than Kean,
That my 'Richard' and 'Hamlet's' a caution.
They say my declaiming's a treat --
In the speech over Caesar by Antony;
I can do the soft parts low and sweet,
Likewise I can 'pile up the agony.'

In 1902, a vaudeville act of "A Crushed Tragedian" had a "representative of the 'old school'" intone:

Classic laurels once were placed upon the tragedian's brow,
But the language-killing funny man gets all the plaudits now.
Richard Third no longer rails 'gainst his "shadow in the sun";
His personator now is forced to do five acts in one...
For vaudeville is the thing that now applause and money fetches;
And if Shakespeare were alive to-day, he'd write twenty-minute sketches.

The author's note says the performer should be dressed in a "seedy" Prince Albert or frock coat, with trousers frayed at the bottom. He should stride about, placing his right hand in the breast of a tightly buttoned coat, except when he is gesturing "extravagantly."

Of course, extravagance is in the eye of the beholder. We consider film and television actors "natural", but if they walked among us in everyday situations...boarding a Metro, buying groceries, asking for directions...we would raise eyebrows at their punching of words, excessive reactions and self-involved carriage. Nor do we see such linguistically, cosmetically, dentally and sartorially managed characters in day-to-day life. We accept entertainment's differences from real life subconsciously, whereas Victorian audiences frequently considered and rated differences they saw.

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