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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 3

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 8 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 So how does this actor (Mr. Eckhof) manage to please us even when speaking the most ordinary truism?[3.1]  What is it exactly that another actor could learn from him, so that we would find that actor equally captivating in such cases? All moral truisms have to come from the depth of the heart before passing though the lips; one must appear neither to think long about them nor to be ostentatious about them.[3.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is therefore self-evident that the moralistic passages have to be particularly well memorized. They have to be spoken without faltering, without the slightest stumbling, in an unbroken flow of words, and with an ease that makes them seem to be a spontaneous inspiration of the immediate situation rather than a strenuous regurgitation of memory. It also follows that no false emphasis should make us suspect that the actor is babbling something he does not understand. He has to convince us through the truest, most confident tone that he has discovered the full significance of his words.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But correct emphasis can, in a pinch, be taught to a parrot.  There is a tremendous gulf between the actor who merely understands a passage and one who also feels it! Words, the meaning of which one has grasped and which one has committed to memory, can be recited quite correctly, even if one’s attention is preoccupied with entirely different things; but there will be no possibility of deep feeling. The spirit must be entirely present; it must direct its attention solely and entirely to its speech, and only then—

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But it is also the case that the actor can have truly abundant feeling, and at the same time appear to have none. Among an actor’s abilities, feeling is undoubtedly always the most questionable. It can exist where one does not perceive it; and one can believe that one sees it where it does not exist. For feeling is something interior, which we can only judge by its outward manifestations. It is quite possible that certain things in the construction of the body either simply do not allow for these manifestations, or they weaken them and render them ambiguous. The actor could have a particular facial structure, particular facial expressions, or a particular tone that we tend to associate with completely different capacities, different passions, and different sentiments than those he ought to express and demonstrate at a given moment. In such a case, regardless of how much he feels, we will not believe him, because he is in a state of contradiction with himself. On the other hand, a different actor could be so felicitously built, he could possess such decisive features, all of his muscles could respond so easily and swiftly to his command, he could control such fine and varied inflections of his voice; in short, he could be so blessed with all of the gifts necessary for acting in such a high degree that he will appear to us to be inspired by the most profound feeling even in those roles that he performs not from original inspiration but in imitation of some good example, and in which everything that he says and does is really nothing more than mechanical mimicry. [3.3]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This actor, notwithstanding his indifference and coldness, is without question far more important to the theater than the other. Once he has spent enough time doing nothing more than simply mimicking others, he will have acquired a number of little habits according to which he will begin to behave. And (according to the principle that those modifications of the soul that bring about certain changes in the body can in return be produced by those changes to the body) through observation of those rules he will attain a kind of emotion that, to be sure, may not have the duration or fire of that which arises from the soul, but which is powerful enough in the moment of performance to bring about some of the involuntary changes in the body from whose presence alone we believe we can dependably infer a person’s inner feelings.[3.4] Imagine, for example, that this kind of actor is supposed to convey anger’s most extreme fury. Suppose that he does not really understand his role, that he is neither able to comprehend the reasons for the anger sufficiently, nor to imagine them vividly enough to inspire anger in his own soul. Nevertheless, I maintain that if he has learned even the crudest expressions of anger from an actor with native sentiment and knows how to imitate them well—the quick pace; the stamping foot; the raw, now shrieking, now grim tone; the play of eyebrows; the trembling lips; the grinding of teeth, etc.—I repeat, if he imitates just these things that can be mimicked and does so well: then his soul will without question be overtaken by a dark feeling of anger, which will then in turn provoke a reaction in the body and bring about those changes that cannot be controlled by our will: his face will glow, his eyes will flash, his muscles will swell; in short, he will seem to be truly enraged, without actually being so—without understanding in the least bit why he ought to be so.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 With these fundamental principles of feeling in mind, I have tried to determine which external characteristics accompany the feelings with which moral observations should be delivered, and which of these characteristics are within our control so that any actor, whether or not he has the feelings himself, can portray them. I propose the following:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Every moral truism is a universal axiom or premise that, as such, requires a certain amount of spiritual composure and quiet contemplation. It should be spoken, therefore, dispassionately and with a distinct coldness.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 On the other hand, this universal axiom is the result of impressions made by unique circumstances upon the acting persons. It is not merely a symbolic conclusion; it is a generalized feeling, and as such it should be spoken with fire and with a certain zeal. [3.5]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 So with zeal and with dispassion? With fire and with coldness?—

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Precisely, with a mixture of both, in which, however, sometimes the one or the other takes precedence according to the nature of the situation.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 If the situation is calm, then the soul has to want to inspire itself anew with the help of the moral principle. It must appear to meditate generally on its happiness or on its duties, so that through this generalization, it can enjoy the former with more gusto or keep watch over the latter more willingly and courageously.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 If on the other hand the situation is tempestuous, then the soul must reign itself in by means of the moral truism (a term that I understand to mean every universal observation). The soul must seem willing to give its passions the appearance of reason, and its stormy outbursts the appearance of carefully weighed resolutions.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The former requires a lofty and inspired tone; the latter a measured and solemn tone. In the one, reason must ignite emotion, and in the other, emotion must cool itself through reason.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Most actors get this backwards. In tempestuous situations, they bellow out the universal observations with just as much bombast as the rest of the dialogue, and in calm situations, they offer these passages as reverently as the rest. And so it comes to pass that the moral does not stand out in either case, and that we find it unnatural in the one case and boring and cold in the other. They never stop to consider that embroidery has to contrast with its background, and that gold embroidered on gold is in terrible taste.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Moreover, they ruin everything altogether with their gestures. They neither know when they should make use of them, nor to what end. The gestures they do make are usually too many and too meaningless.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 When the soul seems to collect itself suddenly in an tumultuous situation in order to reflect upon itself or its circumstances, then it is natural that the soul will control all movements of the body that are subject to the will.  Not only will the voice quiet down; but the limbs will also fall into a relaxed state in order to express that inner calm, without which the eye of reason cannot look around. All at once, the advancing foot stands fast, the arms sink, and the entire body gathers itself into equilibrium. A pause—and then comes reflection. The man stands there in solemn silence, as if he doesn’t want to hinder himself from hearing himself. Then the reflection is over—another pause—and then, depending on whether the reflection directed him either to temper or to ignite his passions, he either suddenly breaks out, or only gradually sets his body in motion again. The evidence of emotion remains only on the face during the reflection; the facial expression and the eyes remain in motion and on fire, because we do not have sudden and complete control over countenance and eyes the way we do over feet and hands. And so it is here, in the telltale expressions, in these burning eyes, and in the utter composure of the rest of the body, that the mixture of fire and coldness is found, with which I believe that a moral truism can be conveyed in an intense situation.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 It should also be conveyed by the same mixture in tranquil situations—but with the difference that, the part of the action that was fiery in the previous case will here be cold, and where there it was cold, here it must be fiery. Namely: when the soul has nothing but gentle emotions, it will try to give these emotions a higher degree of liveliness during universal contemplation, and to that end it will also make use of the limbs of the body that are under its direct command. The hands will be in full motion, but the expression of the face cannot follow so quickly, and the calm from which the rest of the body would like to work its way out will still rule the face and eyes.


  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • [3.1] See [2.8]. Although Lessing presents Ekhof as the ideal actor, Robertson reminds us that Lessing was obligated to praise the company’s leading actors (143).
  • [3.2] See Matthew 12:34; “for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh.” (KJV)
  • [3.3] The eighteenth-century witnessed a heated debated that placed a mechanistic approach to acting in opposition to a more intuitive approach. Lessing read and translated major proponents of both schools of thought and draws from each in his writing on the acting process in order to suggest this negotiation of voluntary and involuntary emotional processes. For an overview of the debate and its major participants see Roach, The Player’s Passion.
  • [3.4] Lessing’s discussion of the relationship between the actor’s emotion and the legibility of emotional signs draws from a Cartesian understanding of the relationship between mind and body. According to such models, emotion is generated from an intellectual understanding of an idea or image, which is then communicated to the body through a dispersal of “animal spirits.” See Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings 160-212; 218-238.
  • [3.5] Lessing uses the term “symbolic conclusion” to differentiate universal, systematic knowledge (that which requires dispassionate contemplation of signs) from intuitive understanding, which provides a personal connection to profound truths (see “Abhandlung zur Fabel: I. Von dem Wesen der Fabel” [“Treatise on the Fable: I. On the Nature of the Fable”], Werke und Briefe 4: 372-73).
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-3/