The Weekly Machen
For the most part, Arthur Machen avoided the cinema. During the first decade of the twentieth-century, he played on the stage, and personally remained dedicated to the “legitimate theater” for the rest of his life. In his capacity as a journalist, a post-acting career for which he felt a strong dislike, Machen was sent on assignment to a pioneer film studio in order to fill the ever-demanding column space of the Evening News. Though he remained skeptical of the “dumb commedia dell’arte” of the “shadow-play” and its ability to outdo the stage, he did experience and express a sense of awe in witnessing the inner workings of the new art-form.
Machen did not furnish his readers with names of participants or a title for the film, but the article does leave enough clues as to its identity. The short film Jasmine was produced in September of 1912 and later released in November of that year. Gladys Sylvani (1885-1953) played the title role. Originally a stage actress, she played in the flickers between 1911-1913. After retirement, she settled in the United States. The director, Warwick Buckland (1863-1945), who worked in films between 1911-1920, also began on the stage. In the following article, Machen presents him as a confident and experienced voice as he describes film theory and practice.
Though it is possible that the film stills exists, it is unlikely. I hope I am wrong. It would be fascinating to watch the film and imagine the Apostle of Wonder standing behind the hand-cranked camera whilst scribbling his thoughts on a well-worn writing pad and creating his own brand of magic.
A New School of Acting:
The Cinema’s Lesson to the Real Stage
September 9, 1912
“But how are you going to manage the scene before the old mill?” I asked the stage manager.
“Why, we shall go to an mill, of course,” he replied. “We’ve been looking for a good mill for the last week or so, and we’ve just found what we want. The company will go over in a car – the mill’s about ten miles from here – and we shall manage quite all right,”
This was one of many “startlers” I had the other morning. I have been in many rehearsals in my day. I have watched many rehearsals, and I couldn’t realise that the scene I was witnessing was not a rehearsal – not the sort of rehearsal, that is, with which I am familiar.
Yet there was a scene set; actors in costume came on and went off, and they were speaking their lines in the usual fashion – speaking them very well indeed, by the way.
But then, just as I was feeling comfortable and at home, as it were, I was certain to get a shock. Who ever heard of a company travelling ten miles to rehearse a scene in front of a real mill, for example? What did the stage manager mean by telling me that he sometimes stuffed up his ears to prevent the dialogue distracting his attention from the piece? And then sometimes one said: “Shall we go ahead now?”
The person addressed opened the door and looked anxiously at the sky.
“Better wait a bit.” he said. “There’s a big cloud just now, but it will have passed over in a few minutes.”
And one asked another whether she liked being “in this film.”
While the Sun Shone
The fact is that I was watching a rehearsal of Hepworth Manufacturing Company at Walton-on-Thames, and the work I saw done not for the ordinary boards, but for the cinema theatre. The stage was set under a roof of frosted glass, frosted glass walls were on either side of it, and above it and before it hung serried lines of lamps, from which a pale violet issued when buttons were pressed.
“You can hardly see the light from these lamps,” said the manager: “they give not common light, but photographic light, only visible to the camera. You see I have turned on two of them by the window of the set; in the picture that will make a blaze of sunlight.”
Just then the real sun came from behind the cloud. The stage-manager shouted “ready?” the actors and actresses went with a rush to their places; a button clicked, and the mechanism of the camera began to buzz and hum like a giant bee. A couple of scenes were captured while the sun was shining. This, in the art of the cinema, answered to the “production” of the ordinary theatre; the first night of the play: and also the last, so far as the actors were concerned.
When I began to discuss the art of the cinema with the management – thus was before I witnessed the rehearsal – I put my foot in it badly. I said: “I suppose you have to make up for the absence of words by a certain exaggeration of gesture?”
No Exaggeration of Gesture
“Please get that right out of your head. On the contrary, violence of gesture is the one thing that we have to avoid. Many of our people have been actors of the theatre, and in most cases we have to get them to moderate their gestures. We deal, you see, solely with movements, and therefore all movements that are not significant are distracting and spoil the effect. On the ordinary stage gesture counts for a great deal, but the words count too, and the expressive tones of the voice are of immense importance. These two latter elements don’t exist for us; we have to rely on gesture, movement, and facial expression and hence all three must be of the very best; they tell the story.
“Nearly all of us who take to the work have a notion at first that it’s a sort of stage business. We get to learn that the cinema plays is in relation to the stage play, and in relation to the picture, and yet it’s different from either. It’s a new art of expression, and stands at a tangent from both play and picture.”
I asked whether they preferred trained actors for the cinema plays.
“Well, there is this to be said: the actor ‘knows his notes,’ as it were, just as a lad who has learnt to play the piano is so far equipped for the study of the violin. But, on the other hand, the actor’s technique is quite different from our technique, and therefore the experienced actor is almost always obliged to unlearn a great deal before he becomes really useful to us.
Old Theatre Tricks Valueless
“Of course you must remember that we are absolutely in the experimental stage. The old tricks of the theatre are no good to us; but we have got to have tricks of our own; and we are finding out what these tricks are by the process of trying this, that and the other; we find that this is effective and that isn’t. Our technique is being formed by degrees. Did you notice how I stopped those two people moving at the back, while the principals were down stage?
“There is an instance, in the theatre the two principals would have been talking and holding the interest of the house; the two servants might have crossed up stage and no one would have noticed them. But in the cinema movement would have been fatal; it would have taken every eye in the house from the miller and Jasmine who are standing still to the housekeeper and the miller’s man: the drama of the scene would have been lost.
“And as the cinema is developing a new art of acting, so, we hope, it will develop a new art of writing. The cinema plot may be the same as the stage-play plot; but it requires a different technique, a new method of handling.
“So with our scenery. You see we work in black and white and not in colour; and we don’t allow our walls to flap and quiver when a door is shut. Where necessary we substitute for the canvas and battens of the stage anew material; wood cased in cardboard. And instead of painted mouldings on canvas we are just beginning to use solid mouldings on wood.”
No Playing to Gallery
Well, I had an extremely interesting morning with the cinema actors and their manager, and as a lover of all experiments in art – excepting the experiments of post-impressionism and cubism – I liked the zeal and keenness of these people, their sense that they were explorers and adventurers in a new world. But, personally, I cannot think that their shadow play can be a substitute for the real play; that this dumb commedia dell’arte can ever rise to the height of true drama, acted by substantial men and women, with articulate speech.
What I do hope is that the cinema may reform and purge the theatre, both in little things and in great. It is a little thing, perhaps, that in a costly scene, a Norman keep, with walls that pretend to be ten feet thick, should shake and quiver in a draught as if the massy stones were aspen leaves; but such odd doings of the scenery distract the attention and shatter the illusion that they are meant to provoke. They destroy the drama which scenic art is designed to illustrate and intensity and enhance.
And in greater matters; I believe that many play-actors would immensely improve their art if they would serve a term as cinema actors. I heard not one false tone from the actors and actresses of the Hepworth Studios; the reason being, I suppose, that heir improvised text was only uttered in order that true facial expression might be gained. Thus, what they said they said naturally, without a thought of any stage convention, or of capturing foolish applause by frantic exaggeration of accent. And so the cadences were convincing; the actors spoke like human beings, not in vocal hieroglyphics, darker than any Egyptian night.
And so, I believe, the real stage may learn profitable lessons from the cinema stage.
Previous: Into the Great Deep
3 thoughts on “A New School of Acting”
It’s interesting to read Machen encountering an art form, the cinema, that was and (I suggest) still is far from the form(s) of his own, literary, art. So far as I know, no one has tried to adapt Machen’s stories for the movies. May that remain the case. It might be possible to retain much of the plot of one of his stories, but there’s more to his best work than plot.
(I suppose some little tale that Machen wrote early in his career might be filmable, but I for one do not look forward to a short film of, say, “A Double Return.”)
Offhand I’m not aware of evidence that Machen ever went to see a movie. Is that correct?
But now if he had read one of his shorter stories to make a recording for radio — ! I like his voice:
As someone who enjoys film and film history, I was quite delighted to find and post this article. I am unaware if Machen ever watched a movie as a paying customer or that he completely abstained from doing so. He testified that he was filmed in the role of Dr. Johnson in a lost film that may have never been completed. That was in in the early 20s. Later in life, he befriended C. A. Lejeune, a prominent film critic, and he enjoyed reading her reviews.
As for the filming of Machen’s work, very little is evident. In the 1910s, there was interest in filming Hill of Dreams, which seems to me to be a fool’s errand. Even now, there are rumors of such a project, but I hope nothing comes of it. No one needs or wants a current, post-modern Hollywood adaption of it. In the 1940s, Machen sold the film rights to The Terror to a fellow Welshman, but nothing came of it. Of his novels, that one may be the most “filmable.” Supposedly, there is a script, but I haven’t been able to locate it.
As far as I can tell, only The Islington Mystery, a short story, has been filmed. Surprisingly, it is quite good, if not completely loyal to the source material. It is an excellent example of 60s of Mexican cinema. https://darklybrightpress.com/the-islington-mystery/
Thank you! – and Dale Nelson for the link! What a lot of tantalizing ‘matters’! To see him as Dr. Johnson! To hear him as Dr. Johnson! (I wondered while reading if anyone ever made gramophone records while filming silent films – it would be fascinating to hear those convincing cadences.) If he saw films, it would be interesting to read his impressions as sound came in, and other technical details changed – and his thoughts on the refinements of filming in black and white, which went on for decades.
And Warwick Buckland’s comment, “It’s a new art of expression, and stands at a tangent from both play and picture.” I wonder what-all he included under “picture” – my first thought was of the interesting things John Masefield said about the narrative qualities of some paintings.