Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/August 1897/The Paradox of Diderot


HAVING had occasion several years ago to converse on subjects of psychology with a number of comedians, I sought their opinion concerning the "paradox of Diderot," and, finding much in their answers that was instructive, I took them down. I afterward completed the inquiry by questioning several of the actors connected with the Théatre Français. The subject had been already studied by W. Archer (cited by William James in his Psychology), but I was at the time ignorant of his work. So far as I can judge, I reached the same conclusions as he.

Diderot's Paradox of the Comedian is not a very profound work, but deals in scattered facts of little intrinsic weight, and his arguments are not very forcible.

His thesis is that a great actor must not be sensitive; or, in other words, that he must not feel the emotions he expresses. "Extreme sensitiveness makes poor actors; while absolute lack of sensitiveness is a quality of the highest acting." He sustains this view by six arguments, viz.: we can not repeat emotion at will, but the power is soon exhausted; the age when the comedian is at his greatest is not youth, when he is quick and full of emotion, but after he has had a long experience, when the ardor of his passions has subsided and his head is calm and his spirit self-possessed; certain facts going to show that the performer's real feelings are different from those which he is expressing on the stage; and, finally, his best argument, and the one on which his thesis mainly rests, that one can not do two things at a time. The actor has to be observant of his playing, to regulate its effects, his gestures, and his exclamations, to see that they are correct, to keep his mind on the scene, to recollect his part. All this critical work is incompatible with sincere emotion. When a person is really moved, when he feels some great woe, while he may indeed sink upon a chair as the actor does in the scene, he does not keep watch of his attitude while falling or think how to make it expressive and harmonious, but gives himself wholly up to his trouble.

The nine comedians whom I interrogated were unanimous in declaring that Diderot's thesis can not be sustained, and that the actor on the stage always feels, in some degree at least, the emotions of his character. I have been told that other comedians are of a contrary opinion—the elder Coquelin professes not to feel anything of the kind; but I have not conversed with M. Coquelin, and can not verify this assertion. Madame Bartet, of the Comédie Française, says, in writing: "Certainly I feel the emotions of the characters I represent, but by sympathy, not on my own account. I am not, indeed, moved before my audience is, but my emotion is of the same kind as theirs, and is only preceded by it. The extent of the emotion varies on different days, and very much according to my moral and physical condition; and to feel nothing, as happens sometimes, but rarely, is very depressing."

Replies from other actors are to a like effect. M. Worms, of the Comédie Française, says that at certain periods when he is playing scenes of passion or tenderness, the eyes of his comrade are moistened, and that those who do not enter into sympathy with their parts are generally themselves without feeling. M. Mounet Sully and his brother Paul Mounet hold that the art of the comedian consists in this very capability of realizing the emotions of his part with the intensity of actual life; and that on those days when he is without emotions he fails to attain the desired power. The power of realization diminishes, however, if the piece is repeated too many times in too rapid succession, as in M. Paul Mounet's case after the fiftieth representation.

It must be admitted that some actors, as, for instance, Sarah Bernhardt, may become such virtuosos in their parts as to become complete masters of their organisms, and produce the emotions at will.

The emotion of a part does not constitute all of it. A character lives in a piece, mingles in its action, and has his interests, ideas, and characteristics—a personality, in short, the development of which depends on the talent of the author. The actor who plays a part, especially one who creates it, should undergo a metamorphosis, and forget his own personality for a few hours, to put on a borrowed personality. Madame Bartet enters so thoroughly into her part that she puts on features not described by the author, but conformable to its character, thus going far toward completing the personality—filling in the outlines—which the author has sketched. M. Paul Mounet says that one can not master a character till he has mastered its reflex actions, its unconscious movements, gait, etc. M. Got tells us that the comedian's great pleasure is the pleasure of metamorphosis, of becoming for the moment in various things the personage he represents. M. Truffier believes that his profession would be in a crude state without the gift of such metamorphoses. He adds that he experiences these metamorphoses more completely in old plays, which take him out of the range of present life, than in those of to-day.

An important fact to be noted is that each actor plays a part according to the sensibility peculiar to him. M. Mounet Sully speaks of a combination of the character of the personage evoked and that of the actor, and observes that no two actors play the same part in the same way. Madame Bartet says that she is not capable of rendering every kind of emotions, and that she represents some categories better than others. Actors usually play parts having a certain degree of agreement with one another, and are liable to fail when they undertake a part of a different type. This restriction of ability is in part of physical origin, but is also largely moral or emotional.

The power of sustaining emotion and the duration of it vary among actors much, as M. Le Bargy has observed, as some horses excel in speed and others in bottom.

As to the exact nature of artistic emotion, Madame Bartet regards it as real in the sense that it produces the same physical effects in the organism as one would feel on his own account. She is oppressed in a scene of continued grief, is transported in another scene, and becomes wearied with the condition, especially when the emotions correspond with those natural to her.

Artistic emotion has, however, the two peculiar characteristics of being always agreeable and of being subject to the will. The answers we have reviewed are very precise. Othere are less definite; and some of the comedians to whom we have applied have simply answered that the factitious emotions inspired by the parts are less intense than real ones; but M. Mounet Sully is of the opinion that the emotion is lived and felt as if it were real.

We come now to Diderot's principal argument, that one can not be moved by emotion and be critical at the same time. Without availing ourselves of the fruits of recent researches on complex consciousness, we will merely refer here to what we have learned concerning the case in hand. M. Got found no difficulty in supposing the combination of the two functions, in dramatic representation or in oratory. M. Le Bargy regards the emotions of the theater as very much like those of real life. When we are sincerely moved on our own account, we nevertheless remain critic and judge; and only in exceptional circumstances, when the passions are very strong and absorbing, do we lose the critical sense. Madame Bartet finds the thesis of Diderot so far correct that an excess of emotion may restrain the actor and paralyze his resources. He must not be dominated by his emotion, but must control it. But to be in emotion while one controls it implies no contradiction; one can duplicate himself in the theater the same as in life. In the highest anger one has within himself something that says, "I am in too great passion, I am going too far, I must not say that." Yet sometimes, notwithstanding that inner voice, we do not stop in time. The same, in substance, exists in the theater. We watch, we judge—we duplicate ourselves.

Regarding the exact nature of this duplication, Madame Bartet says that during the period of preparation she feels the personality of her part taking possession of her till it substitutes itself for her own as to all the interests of common life; in the scene the doubling is very clear, but under control: "I am all the time seeing and hearing myself; I attend my play. I duplicate myself enough to hear the sound and intonations of my words, the succession of my attitudes, movements, and gestures, but not so far that I cease to appropriate them to myself. The duplication is intensified when, instead of playing, I read." The forgetting of personality varies with the nature of the parts and with numerous other circumstances. M. Truffier relates that once he was obliged to play two characters in farce in the evening after the sudden death of his infant son. He played the first piece automatically, but gradually warmed up to the situation, until his second character took possession of him, putting aside the father's grief. It did not extinguish it, but remanded it to a secondary position. Many like observations are known in science, but this is of special interest, because I got it at first hand. Exceptional circumstances are evidently required for the actor to forget his personality wholly. It is an ideal which some pursue but not one in a hundred reaches. We may remark that when the actor incarnates the personage within himself, he ceases to duplicate himself, but becomes another—the personage. The doubling occurs only when the incarnation is incomplete. Furthermore, the relations between the rival personalities are not fixed once for all, but probably vary from day to day, and with the parts. Then the characters of the actors, their moods, and their relations with the audience have much to do with the matter. Madame Bartet says that she communicates directly with the audience, and feels very distinctly whether it is in sympathy with her or opposed to her. "If I feel that I have not gained it over far enough, I make an intense physical effort to accomplish this. At the climax of emotion, the public appears quite indistinct, like a collective mass; but when my part only half possesses me, I discern the slightest movements occurring in the hall. I have a very clear perception of the silence that denotes that the attention of the audience is fixed, as I have also of its wandering."

We come now to the illusion of the theater as it is felt by the spectators. Taine's description of it as something that is alternately excited and destroyed is not sustained by the persons whom I have interrogated, and so little resembles the reality that I suppose it is a purely theoretical and systematic explanation, invented in all its parts, perhaps unconsciously, by one who was nothing less than he was an observer. As I interpret the teaching of observation, we most clearly and curiously perceive the illusion side of the spectacle when we enter the theater after the curtain has been raised, and are still in the lobbies regarding from a distance what is passing on the stage. At that moment we have a very strange impression that the actors are playing false, and all that there is of the conventional in the theater stands out before us. This impression is strongest at the beginning, and is gradually dissipated as we listen and comprehend the piece. Leaving aside this somewhat exceptional circumstance, and describing what the spectator usually experiences at the theater, we may theoretically, after the manner of Taine, distinguish two different states of consciousness in our minds: we are moved by the piece, and are aware that it is a fiction. But these two states of consciousness in the large majority of cases have not each an independent life, and do not take each other's places by turns. Our real experience is a complex, composite feeling, in consequence of which we are captured by the emotions of the piece while still vaguely aware that it is a fiction. There are not two contrary acts of the mind, two antagonistic attitudes, but everything is mingled and fused. There are at the same time, in our minds, an emotion of the spectator, a feeling of the illusion, a critical judgment on the actor's playing and the merit of the piece, and a good many other things.

About ten years ago, when hypnotic experiments in psychology were in great favor, the thought sometimes occurred of transforming the personalities of subjects and giving them parts to play. M. Charles Richet took the initiative in these ingenious transformations. A woman, a mother of a family, was by his suggestion metamorphosed into a general, an archbishop, a ballet dancer, or a sailor, and we are assured that she acquitted herself in her parts with a perfection which the most accomplished actor could not attain. The superiority of these subjects of suggestion, so ignorant in most things, came, it was said, from their sincerity; they believed in the part they were playing, while the actor knows he is an actor. Our inquiry among the world of comedians has not confirmed these theoretical views. In the first place, we are not convinced that an actor of genius would be so inferior to a poor hysteric on whom the same part had been imposed by suggestion; and then this question of sincerity seems to us now susceptible of a very large number of gradations. We can not affirm that an actor plays without believing; it is true that when he has returned to his dressing room and has put away his burden and become himself again, he no longer believes in the personality of his character, although he may still retain a part of it; but in the scene, in the heat of the action, he may be moved on account of this artificial personage. The artistic emotion of the actor exists, it is not an invention; it is lacking in some, while in others it rises to paroxysm. Now, is not emotion an essential element of sincerity? In short, we believe there is no radical difference, only a shade, between the actor and the subject of suggestion.—Translated and condensed for the Popular Science Monthly from L'Année Psychologique, vol. iii (G. E. Stechert, New York).