Thursday, August 16, 2007


One of the first things a 19th-century actor would learn was the expression of the "ten major emotions": Joy, Grief, Fear, Anger, Pity, Scorn, Hatred, Jealousy, Wonder, Love. These covered most dramatic situations. Contemporary theories of psychology, physiology, and elocution held that internal emotions were expressed externally on the body, the body's external positions could create internal emotions, and attitudes of emotion would communicate and sometimes instill themselves in the viewer. In dimly lit and noisy theatres, the taking of commonly understood positions helped viewers follow a story, of course.

Ten Major Emotions for Actors (1756) by Aaron Hill, was published in Britain and was still running through many successive editions in Jacksonian America. I've listed below the emotions in the order Hill did -- words in brackets are Hill's explanations of the emotion. The descriptions of physical expression are from another very popular book, Lessons in Elocution by William Scott (the 1814 edition). This was another 18th-century title, a standard text for study well into Victorian America. Abraham Lincoln pored over his copy to learn proper modes of declamation and oratory. Copies of Scott's Elocution show up regularly on eBay, generally for about $10 a copy, its ubiquity a testimony to how many copies were printed and kept in early America.

1. JOY [PRIDE possessed of TRIUMPH] when sudden and violent, expresses itself by clapping of hands, and exultation or leaping. The eyes are opened wide; perhaps filled with tears; often raised to heaven, especially by devout persons. The countenance is smiling, not composedly, but with features aggravated. The voice rises, from time to time, to very high notes.

2. MELANCHOLY OR FIXED GRIEF [DISAPPOINTMENT void of HOPE] is gloomy, sedentary, motionless. The lower jaw falls: the lips pale, the eyes are cast down, half shut, eyelids swelled and red, or livid, tears trickling silent, and unwiped; with a total inattention to every thing that passes. Words, if any, few, and those dragged out, rather than spoken; the accents weak, and interrupted, sighs breaking into the middle of sentences and words.

3. FEAR [GRIEF discerning and avoiding danger], violent and sudden, opens very wide the eyes and mouth; shortens the nose, draws down the eyebrows; gives the countenance an air of wildness: covers it with a deadly paleness; draws back the elbows parallel with the sides; lifts up the open hands, the fingers together, to the height of the breast, so that the palms face the dreadful object, as shields opposed against it. One foot is drawn back behind the other, so that the body seems shrinking from the danger and putting itself in a posture for flight. The heart beats violently; the breath is fetched quick and short: the whole body is thrown into a general tremor. The voice is weak and trembling…

4. ANGER [PRIDE provoked beyond reach or regard of Caution] expresses itself with rapidity, interruption, noise, harshness and trepidation. The neck stretched out, the head forward, after nodding and shaking in a menacing manner, against the object of the passion. The eyes red, inflamed, staring, rolling and sparkling; the eyebrows drawn over them; and the forehead wrinkled into clouds. The nostrils stretched wide, every vein swelled; every muscle strained, the breast heaving and the breath fetched hard. The mouth open, and drawn on each side towards the ears, shewing the teeth in a gnashing posture. The face bloated, pale, red or sometimes almost black. The feet stamping, the right arm often thrown out, and menacing with the clenched fist shaken, and in a general and violent agitation of the whole body.

5. PITY [active GRIEF for another’s affliction], mixed love and grief, looks down upon distress with lifted hands; eyebrows drawn down; mouth open, and features drawn together.

6. SCORN [negligent ANGER] - [contempt unconnected with anger…gained…by a seeming unsinewy slackness of muscles, associated with a look of placid indifference. When, however, the passion rises into nervous and exclamatory violence, the laxity of the muscles, added to their given disposition, will require a look that flames with anger and insult, a big and bursting expansion of the body, and a voice of grand and lofty loudness.] …sets the jaws or gnashes with the teeth; sends blasting flashes from the eyes; draws the mouth towards the ears, clenches both fists, and bends the elbows in a straining manner. The tone of voice and expression are all much the same with that of anger; but the pitch not so loud.

7. HATRED (AVERSION) [restrained, yet lasting ANGER] …drawing back, as avoiding the approach of what he hates; the hands, at the same time, thrown out spread, as if to keep it off. The face turned away from that side…the eyes looking angrily and asquint the same way the hands are directed, the eyebrows drawn downwards, the upper lip disdainfully drawn up; but the teeth set. The pitch of the voice loud, the tone chiding, unequal, surly, vehement.

8. JEALOUSY [doubtful ANGER, struggling against LOVE and PITY] shows itself by restlessness, peevishness, thoughtfulness, anxiety, absence of mind. Sometimes it bursts out in piteous complaint, and weeping, then a gleam of hope lights up the countenance…. Immediately the face clouded with a general gloom shews the mind overcast again with horrid suspicion…the arms are folded upon the breast; the fists violently clenched; the rolling, bloody eyes dart fury.

9. WONDER [inquisitive FEAR] opens the eyes, and makes them appear very prominent: sometimes raises them to the skies; but oftener fixes them on the object. If the cause…be a present and visible object, with the look all except the wildness, of fear. If the hands hold anything…they immediately let it drop…the mouth open; the hands held up open, nearly in the attitude of fear.

10. LOVE [DESIRE kept temperate by REVERENCE] lights up [the face with] smiles. The forehead is smoothed, and enlarged, the eyebrows are arched, the mouth a little open and smiling; the eyes languishing and half shut, doat upon the beloved object. The countenance assumes the eager and wishful look of desire; but missed with an air of satisfaction and repose. The accents are soft, and winning; the tone of voice persuasive, flattering, pathetic, various, musical, rapturous, as in Joy.


Anonymous said...

thanks heaps for posting these- i've been trying to find this for ages

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for compiling so much information on Victorian stage melodrama in one place - your blog has proved very valuable to a research paper I am currently writing for IB Theatre. Thank you once again! :)

Rong said...

Thank you so much for all the information posted on this blog! They have been very helpful to me in writing my research investigation for IB Theatre, but when I was reading this blog post, I didn't really understand what you meant by accent. Do you mean tone or something completely different?
I hope I am able to get your reply soon! Thank you very much!

Buff Huntley said...

The word "accents" is written by the author of "Ten Major Emotions," not by me. It refers to the stresses on individual syllables, words and phrases.