Stages and Screens

FILM TECHNIQUE AND FILM ACTING, by V.I. Pudovkin. New York: Grove Press (Evergreen paperback). Pp. 388. $2.45.

Somewhere or other Shaw tells of a momentous discovery he once made: from the balcony of a theater of any considerable size actors appear rather like puppets, gesturing about on the stage with blurs for faces. Thus the histrionics that he, a critic in the stalls, found overdone were necessary if those seated with the gods were to see anything of interest. Subtle gestures just don't work: rather, a subtle gesture for Row B is invisible in Row JJ, subtle gesturing for JJ is out-heroding Herod for B.

This problem noted by Shaw is one of the bases of Pudovkin's discussion of acting for films, in Film Technique and Film Acting. Translated and edited by Ivor Montagu, the volume reprints the two classic works of the great Russian director. (I am baffled and irritated by Grove's billing of this as an "Evergreen Original": precisely this volume was published two years ago in London; Pudovkin on technique was first published in England many years ago. It is all the more surprising to see this misrepresentation as Grove is a reputable publisher.) To return to Shaw's observation: Pudovkin notes the same problem as did GBS, and observes that the difficulty does not arise in motion pictures: the actor performs for a camera, not for a theater. The camera can move in for a close-up and catch things that usually pass unnoticed even in life, much less on stage.

Consequently one of the problems which must haunt the stage actor need not disturb the screen actor. He does not have to theatricalize his performance; there is no necessity once he has caught the reality behind his role to project it for a large audience, perhaps to make a delicate and fragile moment perceptible for thousands in New York's Winter Garden Theatre. (It was the ability to communicate throughout that cavernous theater that was one of the noteworthy excellences in Jean-Louis Barrault's production of Claudel's Christophe Colombe, an exceedingly fine-wrought work.)

Freedom from some of the requirements of the stage enable the screen actor to follow, in certain ways closed to the stage actor, the approach to acting developed by Stanislavsky. The screen actor can concentrate on developing his acting image, without worrying about the stage problem that editing of camera sequences eliminates. (It is interesting to note that a frequent complaint about American Method actors is that they act on stage as if they were performing before a camera: that is, they mumble in a way inaudible to the back rows. I don't think this is a fault more common among Method actors than any others, but if the complaint is valid there is a logical reason for the failing.

Pudovkin's remarks about acting go into a problem of the screen actor which does not trouble the stage actor, to the same extent, one which the Method can help to solve. Development of the unity of a role is extremely difficult when the role, as seen by the final spectator, consists of an edited sequence of camera shots. The elements of the role may have been shot over a period of weeks or months; dialogues may have been filmed with the actor's opposite absent; a single speech may consist of sections from several day's filming; the actor's performance may be placed in juxtaposition with other material, animate or inanimate, which will affect his impact in a way unknown to him at the time of performance. Much of Pudovkin is devoted to an examination of some ways of countering the fragmentation that filming, as a consequence of film's nature as an art, may cause. Longer rehearsal time, stock companies, close co-operation between director and actor--all are methods of aiding the actor to achieve unity, methods that can bolster his own development through the Method of a cohesive acting image.

On technique, Pudovkin's work is one of that small group of books which made clear years ago the principles of the art of cinema. Rene Clair said that "Nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since Griffith": it is equally true that little important has been added to film theory since Pudovkin, and Eisenstein's Film Form and The Film Sense. (Raymond Spottiswoode's books might be included if they were not derivative from Pudovkin and Eisenstein.) I have little to say about it, except to recommend it. It is essential reading for anyone interested in films, and for such persons the only thing more important than reading it and Eisenstein is seeing, again and again, great films.

J.L. Styan is Staff Tutor in Literature and Drama in the University of Hull's department of adult education. His book, The Elements of Drama, shows how good teaching can be. This is not a piece of original scholarship on the drama; it is a straightforward and lucid introduction to the subject, and of its kind a model. The book is sensible, intelligent, interesting and detailed.

Styan emphasizes first that a play must be judged in performance. The text should be read as an indication of what happens on a stage, and criticism that loses sight of this essential point will go astray. (Even such a brilliantly perceptive and original critic of Shakespeare as John Dover Wilson acknowledges the handicap that he works under when competing with a critic who is also a man of the theater, such as Harley Granville-Barker.) Styan might have made the additional point, recently emphasized by Fredson Bowers in Textual and Literary Criticism, that discussion of early plays must have its foundations in scientific bibliography. Twentieth-century Shakespearean scholarship depends upon the work of W.W. Greg and other textual scholars; the two volumes of Dover Wilson's The Manuscript of Shakespeare's Hamlet precede his What Happens in Hamlet.

Styan analyzes passages of dramatic dialogue, showing how they differ from ordinary conversation; discusses dramatic verse and how it is used; investigates meanings, impressions, and the devices actors use to interpret a text. He goes on to some of the more complex problems of drama: sequence, tempo, continuity, character manipulation, overall meaning. The book concludes with chapters on audience participation, judgment of plays, and playgoing as an art.

I have not read all the plays Styan discusses, but I found his text readily understandable even when I had no prior knowledge of the play exampled. (He quotes generously throughout.) The volume is physically well-produced and its usefulness is enhanced by three indexes: playwrights and plays, subjects, critics and commentators. The book's success is such that the dust-jacket description of it as "an ideal introduction to the art of the theatre" is not a puff.