Classic Mistakes in Acting—& Marriage
by Anne Fielding

From "The Ethics of the Great Art of Acting," presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
Bennett Cooperman and Anne Fielding

I'm going to speak about what the art of acting says about marriage, including mistakes wives make.  The biggest mistake, Aesthetic Realism taught me, is for a woman to give way to her desire to be scornful and superior, to have contempt—for her husband and the world. This takes many everyday forms, all debilitating, all ruinous. And it's amazing that every one of these forms has its likeness to mistakes in acting. This is what I have the pleasure of showing technically tonight.


1. Their Purpose Is the Same

Marriage, Eli Siegel explained, is "a means for liking the world."  It is a means for a woman and man to have, as he once said to me, "the most accurate and romantic relation with the universe possible." He also taught me—and this changed the whole direction of my life—that acting has the very same purpose. Acting is a means, through one's self, one's thoughts, speech, one's body—of being fair to the selves of other people, characters in plays, getting inside of them, becoming them.  The art of acting, therefore, is a making one of the opposites of self and world, point and expansion, being affected and affecting. As Mr. Siegel said in the lesson we just heard "[It]is a way, of being somebody else," of taking "a trip in order to find out who you are. When you act, he said, "You are trying to meet [a character] accurately and merge with it."   Isn't that what every wife is hoping to do?

       Yes, because when we marry we're looking to have our intimate, personal self become at one, respectfully, lovingly with a man who comes from and represents reality.  A woman needs to feel: "I want to be fair to the depths of this man, his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, his memories, his relations.  Just as an actress tries to imagine what a character was doing before the play began, I want to see who this man was before I came on the scene, not just as a featured player in my drama." 

        But when a woman has contempt, when she uses her husband, as Mr. Siegel showed me in a lesson I was in danger of doing with the man I would marry, Sheldon Kranz, not to like the world, but "just for myself" to serve me, and make me the most important thing in the universe" she becomes bitter with her husband and the world, and then asks herself "What went wrong?"

          In issue 1305 of The Right Of, titled "Poetry, Domesticity, Love," Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss explains:

A wife, who now feels her marriage is flat,...does not see that the reason is: she has used her husband...not to know the world in its wideness and care for it, but to make less of it.  She thought, when they married eight years ago, that romance was their ability to kick out the world together, make a universe apart, and feel the two of them were superior to everybody.  What she saw as romance was really contempt, the most hurtful thing in the human mind....

          And when a wife has used her husband to kick out the world-she inevitably wants to kick him out, too, and finds various ways of showing her superiority.  So, we come to an immemorial mistake in marriage and acting:

2. Upstaging--a Bad Relation of Point and Expansion

A heinous thing in any theatrical production—and a constant danger for a wife—is what is called "upstaging."  In marriage it occurs like this: You, the wife, out at a gathering or with friends, arrange by various means—some subtle, some not—to have your husband in the background, or even offstage in the wings, while you take center stage, and all eyes are focused on the main character in this drama.  The opposites of self and world, point and expansion or circumference are painfully awry. 

         Upstaging in the theatre occurs when, during a dialogue between two people, you move upstage, like this: [Example, AF moves to center back on the stage] forcing the other actor gradually to move downstage. Now this might not seem so bad, because you tell yourself he's closer to the audience—but, the whole purpose is to have him turn towards you so his back, not his expressive face and eyes, is what the audience sees, while you remain center stage, the spotlight on you.  An example, here is a brief dialogue from Act I of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde.  [BC and AF go to stage right.] 

          Bennett Cooperman is Sir Robert Chiltern, and I am Gertrude, his wife:

Sir Robert.  How beautiful you look to-night, Gertrude.

Lady Chiltern.  [AF moves to center upstage as she speaks and BC is forced downstage, turning towards her.]  Robert, it is not true, is it? You are not going to lend your support to the Argentine speculation? You couldn't! 

Sir Robert.  (starting)  Who told you I intended to do so? [His back is now to the audience.]

Lady Chiltern.  That woman who has just gone out, Mrs. Cheveley, as she calls herself now.  Robert, I know this woman.  You don't.  We were at school together.  She was untruthful, dishonest, an evil influence....         

         Another form of upstaging is for an actress to do superfluous activities during a scene, distracting the audience, making them pay attention to her, not the other actors or the unfolding plot. For example, there is what is called "furniture grabbing," something I did in one of my first acting jobs in summer stock, during a mystery play. The audience was tense, wondering "What's going to happen next? Who's the murderer?" [AF demonstrating].  And there I was, clutching the back of the sofa, wiping the table with quiet intensity—[BC rise and start emoting]—while the actor playing my husband was speaking some of his most important lines. The director was tearing his hair out, furious—let alone my fellow actor—this was utterly unprofessional, and I was lucky I wasn't fired!

         This has its humor, but it's ugly and anti-art; it arises from unkind competition with a husband and the world.  Women try to upstage their husbands in all kinds of ways; as a means of showing that she's the center of the universe, superior to everyone and everything—and it makes her mean.

         I'll give a few examples, using my own experiences as a wife: Upstaging occurs when your husband calls to tell you something that happened he's excited by, and you're hurt—why didn't he ask you about your day and all the unpleasant things you had to deal with?  And if, at a party, he's having a good time talking with people, you either wangle the conversation around to something you simply must express—as we say in the theatre "pad your part"—or sulk alone in a corner, getting everyone to worry about you. And at home, when he's concentrated on work he is doing, you bustle around, vacuuming loudly, doing the dishes noisily, or as I'm sorry to say I did, try to engage him in discussion about the urgent matter of what you should prepare for dinner, or his opinion of the skirt you just bought.

          "Can your desire to control Sheldon be inordinate?"  Mr. Siegel once asked me. Yes, it was.  And if a husband has a concern, a wife pleasantly but dutifully asks him a few questions—and then moves on to the more important character in this play: herself.

         For example, in a consultation, Emily Corrigan of Fairfield, Connecticut told us that her husband, Ryan, was so worried about losing his job, his stomach was in knots and he was morose and ill-natured. But as she said this, she sounded peevish, offended, as if she were the hurt person. 

        We asked her: "Are you really interested in knowing what your husband feels, what he's worried about, how you can honestly encourage him; or do you take it as an insult that you have to think about him at all?"  After all wasn't she the star of this show? 

          Mrs. Corrigan was thoughtful. She told us that as a young woman, "I felt I should just get praise and devotion from a man I was dating, and that I needed to be the center of attention at all times.  If he talked to someone else or had anything to do with other people, I became angry and aloof."

           In a lesson, Mr. Siegel once asked me at a time I was displeased because my husband was giving his thought to something important "What is your biggest desire, to have Sheldon honor you or be sincere with himself?" 

          This is also a question that can be asked of an actress—Do I want my fellow performers to make me shine, or be as good as they can be?          

3. How Well Do We Listen; or, Affecting and Being Affected        

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel said to me: "Anything, including listening, can have the word art before it.  There's an art of skipping rope, and an art of listening."  I want to say that Mr. Siegel himself had that art consummately.   

         Onstage there are various technical showings of faulty listening. There is what is called "Stepping on another's lines," which means you interrupt a person before he's finished his sentence—and it's seen as reprehensible and unprofessional. Wives are notorious for this—and what it comes from in both instances is contempt, the false importance we get from diminishing others.    

           Here is an example. In Act I of Sheridan's The School for Scandal—a husband, Sir Peter Teazle and Lady Teazle are quarreling about the way she spends money; a frequent subject of marital fights.
 Malcolm Kenn & Peggy Ashcroft as Lady Teazle & Sir Peter Teazle The scene begins, "Enter Sir Peter and Lady Teazle"—and first, we'll read it straight:

Sir Peter.  Lady Teazle, Lady Teazle, I'll not bear it!
Lady Teazle.  Sir Peter, Sir Peter, you may bear it or not,as you please; but I ought to have my own way in everything, and what's more, I will, too.  What!  Though I was educated in the country, I know very well that women of fashion in London are accountable to nobody after they are married.

Sir Peter.  Very well, ma'am, very well;—so a husband is to have no influence, no authority?

Lady Teazle.  Authority!  No, to be sure:—if you wanted  authority over me, you should have adopted me, and not married me: I am sure you were old enough.

Now, here is what would happen if, because I haven't really been listening to him, I step on Sir Peter's lines: [Example of stepping on lines, interrupting—BC and AF do scene.]

          Another mishap as to listening is coming in late on cue, or forgetting your lines altogether.  How often has a wife "dropped her cue," as her husband tries to tell her something, or asks a question. She'll take a long pause, be distracted, her mind on something else?  This is what it would sound like:  [Example of coming in late on cue, long pauses. BC begins on "Very Well, Ma'am...."]

          As an example of how important listening is in the theatre, I quote from an article of 1916 by the critic Arthur Johnson, titled "Sarah Bernhardt Here Again," on the occasion of the great actress's second visit to the U.S. He writes:

As the audience was dispersing, an actor exclaimed,... "Heaven's, what a wonderful feeder!" "Feeding," as it is technically called, is another name for the difficult art of listening, or paying the closest sort of attention to the actors with whom the scene is played....Bernhardt is never above listening--with rapt attention--to whatever is said to her by the actors on the stage.  And it is this quality, more than anything else, that has made her a permanent favorite with American audiences.

Sarah Bernhardt, the queen in Hugo's "Ruy Blas"

Here is the "Divine Sarah"—[on left, Sarah Bernhardt in Racine's Phedre]—the actress who has been seen as so dazzling—[on right, Bernhardt as the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas]—and this critic says what makes her great, is how well she put together affecting and being affected; how well she listened to her fellow actors, which made the audience listen keenly, too. Every wife can learn from this.

4. Overacting; or "Tearing a Passion to Tatters"

In Hamlet's famous Speech to the Players, Act III, Scene 2, he advises them not to overact, saying: "But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently."

         Hamlet, Mr. Siegel explained in The Right Of—is asking for aesthetics.  And in a class, he looked at these lines, and said: "When you mouth something, there is more energy than is necessary—and also you are louder than you have to be. And a [certain kind] of gesture [sawing the air with your hand] is also excessive."  How many wives, in kitchens and bedrooms, use their energy this way—as a weapon, to defeat a husband, make him cower, subdue him?  Hamlet tells the Players not to "tear a passion to tatters....Pray you avoid it."

       Overacting in the theatre has always been seen as reprehensible; made fun of—and the reason is audiences feel, rightly, it's insincere, fake stuff. "The test of sincerity,"  Mr. Siegel explained, "is whether there is a right involvement with the depths of yourself, the self as individual and the world as such, let alone things." When an actress over-emphasizes, "rants and raves," her purpose is to have a big effect, to show how passionate she is—usually to cover the fact that she has so little real feeling—there is not that "right involvement with the depths of herself and the world as such."

         And when a wife says, melodramatically: "What do you want from me!" or, "I asked you to bring lemons, not limes, you idiot!" "You're killing me!"—she is insincere and ungraceful  Her purpose is unaesthetic and mean; she doesn't give a damn about her effect on her husband; in fact, with all her seeming agony, she's contemptuously calm inside, and is having a terrific triumph wiping the floor with him, all to prove the world is against her. Then, she feels awful.

         I learned about this danger in a lesson early in my marriage. When Sheldon told of my getting intense about a domestic situation, and later berating myself, Mr. Siegel explained: "You use yourself dramatically. Your mistake is to use intensity for despair. At a certain point it is intelligent to mute the drama and let it speak for itself. You don't know how to be prosaic." This was the very problem I had as an actress! A frequent criticism I heard was that my acting was too intense, Sheldon Kranz and Anne Fieldingoverblown, but not deep enough—and I had a tendency to turn each scene—be it a comedy or straight drama—into very high tragedy.

         "How are you on the middle register?" Mr. Siegel asked me in one lesson. "Do you welcome all possibilities of acting, or do you prefer the defiant or the despairing?"  "I do," I said, and he showed me the danger, saying: "These two moods have to be added to, or in real life you're going to do one or the otherthe smelling salts or stamping your foot." And he said:

The main problem a person has, married or unmarried, is the problem of opulent sincerity. In marrying Sheldon, you're using his problems to understand your own. Do you think you're up to that? One aspect of sincerity is an undiminished, untiring desire to find out what you feel.

I love him for these words, and see them as useful to every wife. They also point to another constant danger in marriage and acting.

5. What Happened to Romance; or, the Feeling of the First Time

In TRO 1305, under the heading "Familiarity and Wonder in Marriage," Ellen Reiss answers that question as she writes about what wives all over America feel:

The man whom they once saw as Mr. Romance, who brought to the tedium of life a something that made their hearts leap, is now a husband; and instead of offsetting the tedium, he now seems to be part of it, to add to it.

And she explains:

Meaning, wonder, real romance, real thrill are the feeling that the world itself is close to us through another thing or person.  That is so in art.

         When I read these sentences, I thought about what called in the theatre "the feeling of the first time." which Stanislavsky, the great Russian director and theoretician went for very much.  It has to do with freshness, seeing new meaning, wonder in lines you may have said many times, and saying them with such sincerity and naturalness that they seem to come from you, at that very moment. When this occurs on the stage, it's very exciting. 

          A wife needs to see a husband with that true wonder; not succumb to the contempt that says: "I know my husband like a book." She needs to see the man she's close to the way Miranda does in Shakespeare's The Tempest, when she says, looking at persons for the first time:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!

Said Mr. Siegel in his great lecture on the play: "[Miranda] has her sense of wonder, she has the artist's unstained eye, and unpolluted perception, and unblemished heart."  This is good will; it is what every wife and every performer needs—and Aesthetic Realism can teach us to have that beautiful purpose.
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