Monday, May 29, 2017

Hearing Sarah Siddons

I was excited to learn that the latest issue of Theatre Notebook has an article by Glen McGillivray titled "Rant, Cant and Tone: The Voice of the Eighteenth-Century Actor and Sarah Siddons."

Siddons has interested me for a while now, so after Theatre Notebook arrived in my mailbox this weekend, it didn't take me long to read the article. Frequently, theatre historians compare Siddons with the "natural" acting style of David Garrick who immediately preceded her, or with the Romantic school of actors like Edmund Kean who followed her. McGillivray also makes comparisons, but to show shifting conventions rather than an overall evolution in acting styles.

McGillivray agrees with the conventional wisdom that Siddon's acting "harked back to an earlier era." As he points out, the "new" style pioneered by Siddons and her brother John Phillip Kemble actually "bore strong similarities to the acting techniques of Barton Booth and James Quin, and before them, to those of Elizabeth Barry." This style was described by contemporaries both as being more restrained and as being more stylized than the acting of Garrick and his imitators.

Though Siddons had a strong, deep voice, she frequently made an impression by means of a whisper. This was particularly true of her Lady Macbeth. Rather than exhibiting passionate shrieks of tragic emotion, Siddons made Lady Macbeth at times scarcely audible. McGillivray argues that Siddons, like other actors, was "alert to the rhetorical conventions of the time," but like Garrick, she "could shift an audience's expectations" of those conventions.