Philip Hope-Wallace | “Acting” | Sight & Sound | 1950Posted: December 28, 2012
One-page article arguing that acting is an expression of national temperament. British context. Robert Newton discussed.
Whatever has been said of internationalism in the last fifty years, nations and their characteristics die hard. Acting must always be largely an affair of national temperament; grief as depicted by, say, Miss Fay Bainter, might not be intelligible to a hottentot or vice versa.
Generally in your English types of a certain sensitivity (or breeding, if the word is allowed) all effort tends towards the cultivation of a perfectly blank expression; this is merely a convention, though horrid foreigners have insisted on regarding it as evidence of a phlegmatic disposition.
English acting of the latterday naturalistic school has taken stock of this; rigidity, silence, a finger traced along a collar, a cigarette tapped, a needle stopped in mid-stichery– by such means have emotions been nevertheless conveyed. These, be they on ever so small a scale, are none the less gestures of a kind, active expressions well understood by the English themselves, if not always by foreigners.
“Swedish actors,” said one of them to me recently, “generally do too much or too little. If only they could learn to do just the right amount like Sir late Leslie Howard.”
Under the microscope of the camera’s eye, such people generally have to tone themselves down considerably, merely to achieve a norm of naturalism. With us though, it is rather the other way about, and the question is; how far may we go and still look British?
[Discussing The Wooden Horse] Take that moment of sickening anxiety, when in the railway station the fugitives passed close to the German corporal from the camp– without being recognized. What was happening inside the rigid men in danger ought there to have been communicated. We, as well as they, should have our hearts in our mouths. In fact neither actor (one of whom is highly experienced) nor the camera did anything whatsoever to spring the imgaination. This, it may be said, was deliberate: “We don’t call attention to these things in England” as one’s nurse used to say. But I cannot help feeling it a defect.
Of course one may rush to the other extreme. A performance which has been generally described as grand and which remains at least in the memory was Robert Newton’s in Treasure Island. Though hardly one’s exact idea of Long John Silver, more in fact like a gipsy brought in to help with the hay making and frightening the wits out of the village children, he at least put on a display of “acting” which none could fail to notice. But how expressive was it? Not very, I thought. Mr. Newton rolled his eyes and leered and mouthed, but one often did not understand very clearly what was being expressed. [Newton is performing a display of acting. Not British, nor in a performance language British critics could understand – Hope-Wallace’s national context.]
Somewhere between Mr. Steel, Mme Feuillère and Mr. Newton lies I suppose a norm, but what the norm is will always be largely an affair of taste and national feeling.