Performer who takes one or more role(s) in a play or film. In ancient Greece, the speaking actors were distinguished from the chorus, whereas in ancient Indian and in medieval Japanese drama, singing and dance or stylized movement characterized the performers. Body and (in unmasked drama) facial mobility, vocal control, and an ability to portray character and emotional states are skills that have been held in common by actors throughout the ages.
Classical Greece and Rome
In ancient Greece, the tragic actors appear to have held a highly respected place in society and were organized into guilds. Roman actors, on the other hand, were often recruited from the slave class and were generally held in very low esteem. The style of acting changed also: in early Greek tragedy it was highly formalized and infused with a sense of grandeur, but gradually a more realistic manner seems to have been introduced; in Rome the histrionic or ‘theatrical’ style was influenced by the fact that the actors had to rival the sensational entertainments of the amphitheatres.
With the dissolution of the organized theatre that accompanied the collapse of the Roman Empire, the mimes and associated entertainers were left to make a living as best they could, relying on their traditional resourcefulness and ingenuity. The actors of the medieval liturgical drama were the clerics themselves. Since their aim was not to entertain but to emphasize the emotional and theological significance of crucial events in scriptural history, they functioned as actors only in the sense that they added to their normal priestly ritual a number of carefully regulated effects. The European medieval mystery plays, on the other hand, were intended both to instruct and entertain, and the actors, members of the guilds charged with the production of the plays, were able to adopt a more frankly histrionic style. Although amateurs, these actors were probably extremely competent performers.
Rise of professional actors in England
The 15th century witnessed the rise of professional actors, who brought their traditional skills to bear when they performed interludes in the Tudor banqueting halls and in a variety of locations when the troupe was on tour. In the final quarter of the 16th century, professional acting became concentrated in a few major companies operating in permanent playhouses in London. Technically, the actors of Shakespeare's time appear to have continued many of the traditions of the players of interludes, though it is likely that during the period a less formal style of acting was gradually introduced. Even so, the Elizabethan actor, like his medieval counterpart, probably performed in a manner more reminiscent of the highly stylized oriental drama than of the studied realism of today.
In the French neoclassical theatre, the actors of tragedy exploited a highly stylized manner of rhetorical delivery and action corresponding to the severe grandeur of the conception of tragedy. The players of farce continued to use traditional methods of comic acting which were also much influenced by the performers of the commedia dell'arte, with its special techniques of improvisation within conventional plots and characterization.
The history of post-Renaissance acting has been a slow but steady movement towards greater realism, complementing the gradual development of realistic effects in costume and scenery. Women had acted in Rome, but not in the medieval drama or in the Elizabethan drama. Professional female actors emerged in Italy and later in France in the 16th century and appeared in England at the reopening of the theatres with the Restoration. The disappearance of boy actors playing women meant a greater degree of realism, though in the 18th and 19th centuries the style would still have appeared extremely artificial and extravagant compared with today. The great actors of this period, such as David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, and Sarah Bernhardt, achieved fame largely through their virtuoso displays of passionate, if conventional, emotion, amplified by their own powerful personalities. The development of ‘naturalism’ in the drama of the late 19th century caused a reaction against the extravagance of the melodrama and contributed greatly to a recognizably modern acting technique.
Modern Western styles
In contemporary commercial theatre, the histrionic style is still retained within this more naturalistic trend, in which the reproduction of the spontaneous appearance of normal behaviour is only achieved through very thorough training and study. At the same time, there have been reactions against the dominant naturalism of 20th-century theatre which have taken numerous forms: examples are the general movement of ‘theatricalism’, the violently mannered techniques of expressionism, the return to primitive styles and conventions associated with oriental theatre in the theories and practice of Antonin Artaud and his disciple Peter Brook, and the deliberate eschewing of emotional involvement in the practice of Bertolt Brecht. See also drama and theatre.
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