The 16th century actor’s art

If there’d been a poll for actors in the 1600s, Burbage would surely had topped it. It’s flattering to actors to have people imitating their style. It seems that after seeing Burbage perform Richard 111, young gallants started to adopt the same swagger and the tendency he showed to place one hand upon his dagger.

The amount of text was enormous. For us today it seems incredible that actors could learn so many lines in such little time but we know that in the grammar schools then after supper the pupils recited to their fellows what they’d learned during the day. There was a culture of learning and reciting; and teaching rhetoric at schools was especially important for the actor – It instructed him ‘to fit his phrases to his action and his action to his phrase and his pronunciation to them both’, to please the audience. Of course, what pleased the audience in the 16th and 17th century isn’t necessarily the same as today. They might have called it holding a mirror up to nature, but naturalistic acting then was highly stylised. With explanatory prologues, soliloquys and addresses aside, together with doubling of parts and gender swapping roles, the audience was never in any doubt about the difference between appearance and reality. The actor’s aim was to persuade and amuse, draw crowds and earn money.

The voice was Richard Burbage’s greatest tool, then far more important than with today’s technology to aid audibility and attract attention. Audiences listened to verbal displays of many kinds. It was important to learn how to pronounce clearly, loudly and to adjust one’s voice and pace to the meaning and content of the text. It was markedly affected and not at all natural.

There was a ‘correct’ use of gesture too ‘The Arme must be in contynuall mocion’ (Bulwer); and eyes, brows, indeed the whole body was a valuable tool in the actor’s kit bag.

The actors didn’t learn the whole play, they memorised only their own parts with cues. Imagine nor knowing to whom they were speaking or what had been said to them to evoke a response! How on earth did Burbage manage to find the right intonation, facial and body expression? Most of the actors played several roles and their versatility was highly praised. It was essential for a player to be a good acrobat, minstrel, singer and entertainer. It helped if you could improvise too. The aim was to sell your play, make sure it could run again and you got paid.


From the archive at Dulwich College by kind permission of the Governors

Photography by Dr David Cooper