04 January 2014

The Father of Actor Training: François Delsarte

Four years ago, I posted an article on ROT called “Psychological Gesture & Leading Center,” devoted to two acting techniques I learned in a class called How to Do Homework taught by Aaron Frankel at HB Studio.  PG, as the first technique is usually called, is from the system developed by Michael Chekhov, the actor, director, and highly respected acting teacher who was the nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov.  But long before Michael Chekhov (1891-1955), a student of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and the Moscow Art Theater Studio, began teaching his methods in the 1920s (he brought his school to England in 1936 and then to the U.S. in 1938), the man who first tried to codify a system of training actors developed the origins of the second technique in my blog article, the Leading Center.  (I won’t revisit that discussion in any detail; I refer the curious reader to the original ROT article of 27 October 2009.)  That man was French singer and singing teacher and ultimately the most influential acting teacher until the advent of Stanislavsky: François Delsarte (1811-71), the father of actor training.  Overlooked today by most theater histories, acting texts, and theater reference books (he gets no entry in The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre and nothing he wrote appears in either Barrett H. Clark’s European Theories of the Drama or Bernard F. Dukore’s Dramatic Theory and Criticism) and largely disparaged by the few who remember him, Delsarte had a massive influence on modern dance.  Though a study of Delsarte’s records reveals that not one dancer studied directly with the master, dancers like F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Rudolf Laban (1879-1958), Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), and Ted Shawn (1891-1972) studied or were influenced by Delsarte's teachings.  Shawn, who studied with a woman who’d learned the master’s techniques from his son, Gustave Delsarte (1836-1879), who succeeded his father, even published Every Little Movement (1954), subtitled A Book About François Delsarte, intended to explicate the influence of Delsarte’s discoveries on American dance.

François Delsarte started out as a singer and teacher of singing (though he also had some success as a composer), having studied at the Paris Conservatoire between 1825 and 1829.  He sang tenor at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, but improper vocal training, ironically, had damaged his voice.  The style of acting being taught by the teachers he observed was unnatural and unconnected to reality.  He believed the laws of stage expression could be determined by scientific observation and set down as precisely as the laws of physics and mathematics.  He began a study of “dramatic expression,” the way real people’s gestures and movements are influenced by their emotions and how those physical manifestations communicate feelings.  A later description called the concept “motion to emotion,” though it might better be phrased “motion from emotion.”  “To depend entirely upon inspiration,” Delsarte declared, “is as bad as waiting for a shipwreck to learn how to swim,” lamenting the same problems Stanislavsky saw in the acting of his era.  “To leave everything to natural spontaneity,” continued the French master, “is as bad as to make everything the result of mechanical pre-determination.”    In a letter to the King of Hanover he wrote, “I had learned how vain is advice dictated by the caprice of a master without a system!”

I had learned the inanity of individual reason in a matter of experience.  I knew that certain laws existed, that those laws proceeded from a Supreme Reason, an immense centre of light, of which each man's reason is but a single ray.  I knew without a doubt how ignorant my masters were of those laws to the study of which I meant to devote my life.  I possessed facts which I saw could be applied in countless ways, luminous doctrines radiating from the application.

Thenceforth,” he declared, “I had the nucleus of the science I had so vainly asked of my masters, and I did not despair of formulating it.” 

Delsarte watched all kinds of people, both the normal and the abnormal, the distressed and the happy, the calm and the agitated, the wealthy and the poor, in every conceivable emotional situation, even traveling long distances to observe people in unique circumstances, watching with the dispassionate eye of a scientist.  He noted how they moved, gestured, spoke, and changed facial expression.  By his observation, French actors depended entirely on declamation and rhetoric, divorcing their performance from physical behavior.  Delsarte declared in one of his writings (collected in Delsarte System of Oratory):

Gesture is the direct agent of the heart.  It is the fit manifestation of feeling.  It is the revealer of thought and the commentator upon speech.  It is the elliptical expression of language; it is the justification of the additional meanings of speech.  In a word, it is the spirit of which speech is merely the letter.

Delsarte developed a set of aesthetic principles, what he called the “laws of expression,” that coordinated the voice with the movements of all parts of the body, creating an acting system that depended not on mental action but physical expression.

Until Delsarte, young actors learned by apprenticing with older actors, often a relative, learning on the job and essentially copying their masters.  (In this country, Edwin Booth, 1833-93, the most famous and respected American actor of his day, learned his craft by apprenticing with his father.)   Even at the Conservatoire, students learned by imitating their teachers, perpetuating their personal acting styles, idiosyncrasies, and practices.  As the repertory system declined in the early 19th century, eliminating the opportunities for novice actors to gain experience, most French (indeed, most Western) actors still received their training this way, even though studying at the Conservatoire was becoming progressively more important.  François Delsarte’s was the first important attempt to reform actor training to make performing a more precise means of communicating thoughts and feelings.  “The finished artist,” he theorized, “is one who has full and free knowledge, possession and control of that whole apparatus by whose means the sensations of life, ideas of mind, and affections of the soul are revealed.”

In 1839, he taught his first Cours d'Esthétique Appliqué (course in applied aesthetics—the principle, to paraphrase Delsarte, that art is the generalization and application of scientific standards of empirical truth), becoming the first true acting teacher in Western theater.  The master taught the rest of his life, but his most active period was between 1839 and 1859; his last public appearance—he presented annual recitals of his work with his most illustrious students—was at the Sorbonne in 1867.  The stars of the European stages, actors and opera singers, came to Delsarte for private lessons and the King of Bavaria sent the leading performers from the state theater to him to be coached.  The renowned teacher received all the honors and awards available to a civilian and an artist in France, including the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration, and the Duc d’Orléans, the son of King Louis-Philippe I, invited him to perform at a party in honor of his royal father.  His performance at the palace was so well-received and the king paid the singer such special attention that the famous artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres declared, “One might declare in truth that it is Delsarte who is king of France.”

By the end of his career, many famous performers such as Jenny Lind (1820-87), Swedish soprano; Mademoiselle Rachel (née Élisa Félix, 1821-1858), French tragedian; Henriette Sontag (1806-54), German opera singer; William Charles Macready (1793-1873), renowned British actor; and Steele MacKaye (1842-94), American playwright, actor, theater manager, and inventor, became Delsarte’s students.  Others, from among the socially and politically prominent of Paris society and around the world, included painters, sculptors, singers, musicians, lawyers, statesmen, preachers, and critics; famous writers and composers (including Delsarte’s nephew Georges Bizet, 1838-75, the composer of Carmen) attended his salons and lectures, many returning yearly.  By the 1880s and ’90s, Delsarte’s name, said Ted Shawn, had “become a common noun in our language.”  (According to Shawn, advertisements began appearing for “Delsarte corsets,” “Delsarte cosmetics,” and “Delsarte gowns”; “one manufacturer even advertised a ‘Delsarte wooden leg!’” exclaimed the dancer.) 

MacKaye, who studied with Delsarte in Paris every day from October 1869 to July 1870, brought what he’d learned back to the United States; he proposed to bring the Frenchman here to head a great acting academy but the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which had cut MacKaye’s training with Delsarte short, also made it necessary for his teacher to flee Paris with his family.  Before MacKaye, who sent the now-impoverished Delsarte proceeds from the lectures and programs he conducted, could engineer the immigration of Delsarte, the master died ill, broken, and out of fashion on 20 July 1871, so in 1872-1873, MacKaye started what was possibly North America’s first actor-training program at his St. James’s Theatre in New York.  MacKaye launched the Conservatoire Esthétique, or School of Expression, in 1877 (followed by two other schools in New York and one in Chicago over two decades) to promulgate his teacher’s system.  At each of his theatres, MacKaye, who of all Delsarte’s disciples had what Ted Shawn characterized as “the greatest amount, and the purest, of his master’s philosophy, science and principles and laws,” established an actor-training program.  The program at the Lyceum Theatre in 1884-85 became the most noteworthy because it developed into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the oldest acting school in the English-speaking world.  (Full disclosure:  I studied at AADA for a semester almost 40 years ago.)  AADA, the most prestigious acting school in the United States until after World War II, was founded explicitly to inculcate the techniques of François Delsarte.

Although MacKaye was the only American known to have studied directly with Delsarte, the actor’s own students Charles W. Emerson (1837-1908) and Samuel S. Curry (1847-1921) founded the Emerson College of Oratory (1880; now Emerson College, 1939) and the Curry School of Elocution and Expression (1879; now Curry College in Milton, Mass., 1943), both in Boston and the two most important of MacKaye’s several disciples’ academies in terms of the dissemination of Delsarte’s ideas in the U.S.  Largely due to these three educators, Delsarte’s ideas spread around the country like wildfire, becoming immensely popular (if not always correct) on this side of the Atlantic.

Delsarte’s system spread throughout Europe as well.  The London Academy of Music (now the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, or LAMDA), the oldest acting school still operating in the U.K., adopted it as the basis of its actor-training regimen.  In the first decade of the 20th century, however, as emphasis on external expression gave way to psychological motivation, Delsarte’s methods declined in popularity.  They nevertheless retain an important position in the history of actor training.  An important step in the search that began at the end of the 19th century to find a more realistic, truthful style of acting, the concepts still exert considerable influence, though often unacknowledged, in the teaching of acting.

Delsarte himself never wrote a book on his theories and techniques, though he planned one; so did MacKaye, who conceived an eight-volume study.  But MacKaye’s own protégée, Genevieve Stebbins (1857-1914?), American author, teacher, and Delsartian actress, published The Delsarte System of Expression in 1886 and it became an instant success.  Some of Delsarte's writings are included in Delsarte System of Oratory (1887), a compilation that incorporates books about Delsarte by two of his students, Angélique Arnaud (1799-1884) and L'Abbé Delaumosne (dates unknown; curate of the Church of St. Genevieve in Nanterre).  (Over the next 50 years, other books invoking Delsarte’s name and theories came out, especially in the U.S., but few, in Ted Shawn’s estimation, were “of any value whatsoever” with respect to accuracy or usefulness.)

By the 1890s, Delsarte’s system was being taught all over the western world, but often incorrectly, leading to the kind of stiff gestural acting we associate with silent-movies today.  A whole system of “Delsartian gymnastics,” for instance, was promulgated, but Marie Delsarte-Géraldy (b. 1848), the master’s daughter, explained that her father never taught gymnastics.  Ted Shawn recorded that Percy MacKaye, Steele’s son, claimed that his father invented the gymnastic system.  Steele MacKaye revealed his program to Delsarte who approved it.  There’s no record, insisted Shawn, who studied all the existing documents related to the master, of any lesson by Delsarte which contained instruction in gymnastics.   

This isn’t what the innovator had in mind when he developed his theories.  In her 1892 book, Americanized Delsarte Culture, Emily M. Bishop, director in the 1880s of the Delsarte Department of the School of Physical Education of the Chautauqua Assembly, insisted:

There is no Delsarte walk, no Delsarte standing position, no Delsarte way to sit down, no Delsarte way of doing anything.  The only way Delsarte sought is Nature’s way.  Man can no more make natural things than can he create truth.  He can create unnatural ways and falsehoods; at best he can discover Nature’s way, and live and express correctly the truth.

Shawn believed that the bowdlerization of the master’s ideas was due to “the lack of long and thorough grounding of the teachers in the principles and laws of Delsarte, and the resultant superficial passing on of copied externals, as ‘exercises’ having value in themselves.”  The dancer continued, “Even a gymnastic exercise must be done ‘because’ it is an expression of a principle, and not just imitated from a demonstrating teacher without understanding of the cause and effect relationship.”

The 19th century is renowned for inciting all kinds of scientific inquiry.   Not just in the hard sciences like chemistry and physics, but the methodology of scientific examination was deployed in fields that became known as sociology and anthropology and even in the arts and humanities.  Literary Realism, as exemplified by French author Émile Zola (1840-1902), which invaded the stage with the work of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), was the outcome of the application of a scientific view of behavior and environment.  (Not all the understandings were correct according to what we believe today, but the approach was deemed objective and scientific.)  What was known as antiquarian stage production, with attention to historical and cultural details of set and costume, came from the same impulse.  Delsarte, too, was influenced by this movement and began to look at how emotions and thoughts are expressed physically.  It was probably inevitable, considering the prevailing attitude of the age, that someone would apply an analytic and “scientific” approach to acting.  Delsarte believed that the laws of the stage could be determined empirically, analyzed rationally, and inculcated as precisely as the laws of physics and mathematics.  As L’Abbé Delaumosne characterized the master’s formulations:

There is no science without principles which give a reason for its facts.  Hence to teach and to learn the art of oratory, it is necessary:
1. To understand the general law which controls the movements of the organs;
2. To apply this general law to the movements of each particular organ;
3. To understand the meaning of the form of each of these movements;
4. To adapt this meaning to each of the different states of the soul.

Toward that end, Delsarte arranged to observe patients at insane asylums and took a medical course in anatomy, dissecting corpses to see how the human body worked.  Ironically, he was driven to this search because he’d become increasingly dissatisfied with the haphazard and idiosyncratic performances that populated the stages of Paris; every actor and opera singer was doing whatever he or she wanted, irrespective of either the other performers or the realities of the play or opera.  (I say this was ironic because it was the same motivation that sent Stanislavsky off to invent his system of actor training, based on then-new revelations in psychology, and it was the misinterpretation and misapplication of Delsarte’s ideas that created the late-19th-century situation that motivated Stanislavsky.) 

The French theorist observed that people behaved similarly under similar emotional circumstances and that the gestures, expressions, and movements associated with various thoughts and feelings could be extracted objectively and codified so that actors and performers could reproduce them to communicate their interior circumstances.  The problem was that no two people behave exactly the same way under the same circumstances.  Delsarte had tried to describe a universal gestural vocabulary that was applicable to every actor and every character, and though it seemed to work for some performers—Steele MacKaye was the prime success—it didn’t work for all and others were led into mechanical and formalized gesticulation.  It was this codification that led Delsarte’s disciples to perpetuate the bowdlerized version of the master’s theories and techniques, generating the kind of programmatic, almost robotic acting—American dancer Ted Shawn calls this “statue posing”—that became associated with Delsarte’s name.  As Shawn asserts, MacKaye taught Delsarte’s techniques to make the actor “a more proficient” performer, but that “his pupils, and pupils of his pupils, with a smattering of this knowledge, evolved something that was not only never intended by François Delsarte himself, nor Steele Mackaye—it falsified and travestied and made ridiculous what was then, and is now, the most complex and perfect science of human expression.”  Delsarte’s death in 1871 at 60 prevented him from correcting the misunderstanding and by the time Stanislavsky’s ideas took over the field of actor training in the West, it was too late to combat the disparagement Delsarte’s ideas suffered.  Again, it’s ironic that the theories of Stanislavsky were also corrupted after his death in 1938 when director, acting teacher, and Actors Studio-co-founder Lee Strasberg (1901-82) derived the Method which, in turn, was misused and misunderstood.  What Delsarte had meant as an on-going process of exploration and discovery for each actor and student became a fixed structure applied by rote, virtually the very thing he’d endeavored to combat. 

Nonetheless, some of Delsarte’s theories are still used, folded into other, more contemporary ideas about acting.  (Stephen Wangh’s 2000 acting text, An Acrobat of the Heart, for example, ostensibly a treatise on physical acting inspired by Jerzy Grotowski, 1933-99, still makes reference to Delsarte, one of Grotowski’s acknowledged influences.)  Delsarte was, after all, the first person to attempt to systematize actor training, and he began his training regimen with the basics we recognize in all of today’s theater conservatories and studios: relaxing the body, good breathing technique, correct posture, stress-free vocal production.  A number of Delsarte’s techniques are familiar to contemporary actors and acting students—I recognize many from my Uta Hagen-based early classes and from her book.  (Hagen, 1919-2004, was one of the most respected acting teachers in the United States.  My earliest professional teachers were Hagen’s students.)  Delsarte made his students paraphrase the text, analyze it for subtextual meanings and emotions.  He even incorporated the encouragement of the actor’s spiritual qualities, which aligns somewhat with Grotowski’s approach to acting, for Delsarte, a deeply religious man, believed that while there were scientific truths that had to be examined and proved, there were also “revealed truths” that were matters of faith and couldn’t be proved.  Art, for Delsarte, was divine because it came from God.  As Ted Shawn expressed it, “His lifetime of study convinced him that there is an inner world of ideas and principles, and an outer world of visible, tangible manifestations of these ideas and principles in material manifestation,” though not all the master’s students accepted this aspect of his work.

Grotowski also shifted in the second part of his career to exploring the Method of Physical Actions, letting the actors’ physicality govern the psychological or emotional content of the performance.  This is not unrelated to Delsarte’s original concept.  Even Stanislavsky, who’d early on rejected external approaches to character (a so-called technical approach to developing a role, not uncommon among British actors, most notably Laurence Olivier), rediscovered later in his career what Delsarte had taught almost a century earlier: that movements of the body can generate emotional and psychological responses.  In her treatise on Delsarte’s system, Genevieve Stebbins quoted the master as saying, “A perfect reproduction of the outer manifestation of some passion, the giving of the outer sign, will cause a reflex feeling within.”  In Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting (1973), she described the phenomenon this way:

Actions themselves, verbal and physical, can generate strong emotions and can sometimes be as stimulating to an emotional release as any remembered inner object. . . .  The simple act of just banging my fist on the table can bring about a feeling of rage. . . .  Motivated pleading with someone for forgiveness, and sending a verbal or physical action of begging, stroking or clutching may produce a waterfall of tears.  The act of tickling someone gently can make me join in a fit of giggles.  I don’t mean to recommend that you make a practice of predetermining the expression of the action of the emotion but there is a continuous feeding of the action by the sensation or emotion, and the emotion is furthered by the action.

As Stephen Wangh, a teacher of acting himself, noted, we all have different backgrounds and encounters, so the same physical movement won’t provoke the same response in everyone.  But since the body’s mechanisms for movement and thought are all the same physiologically, and most of us have undergone the same or similar emotional experiences, a lot of us have developed analogous responses to them.  So it is possible,” Wangh theorized, “to point to some patterns that can serve as signposts during your personal search for body-emotional connections.” 

For instance, many of us were admonished to “be quiet!” when we screamed and stamped out feet as children, so even now gestures of biting and kicking can stimulate the release of our anger.  And since almost all of us once had to strain upward toward our mother, most people can locate wellsprings of unrequited yearning by reaching into the air with open arms.

The twin pillars on which Delsarte’s system rests are the Law of Correspondence and the Law of Trinity.  The first law, in Delsarte’s words, states, “To each spiritual function responds a function of the body; to each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act.”  The trinity principle is, quite simply, that, like God in Christian dogma, all nature is divided into threes (as we’ll see shortly).  In his rather thick prose, Delsarte says: “Man is a hypostatic trinity, the immanent activities of whom are revealed by means of a triple organic apparatus.”  He goes on to repeat this maxim twice more—threes, remember—in increasingly dense terms.  (Hypostasis, by the way, is defined in theology as “the essential person” and in philosophy as “the underlying reality or substance of something.”  Does that help any?) 

(You should understand that in Delsarte’s day, this kind of approach didn’t seem as flaky as it might today—after all, Ibsen accepted the common “scientific” belief that children could inherit the moral corruption of their parents, not to mention the medical “fact” that a son could inherit syphilis from his father, and that moral corruption would be manifested in some adverse physical condition or malady.  I need also to say a word about the words used to discuss Delsarte’s concepts, both here and in published resources.  Since the master left only fragments of his own writings, many of the terms in use are not only translated from the French, but they’re imprecise, approximate, and idiosyncratic to the student or disciple who recorded the ideas.  Delsarte, for example, appears to have used mind, or esprit; soul, or âme; and life, or vie, in place of “mental,” “emotional-spiritual,” and “physical”—the words that Ted Shawn used, for instance.  I use terms that aren’t Delsarte’s, either; I learned them from one of my own acting teachers—and I assume they are his, alone.) 

“Man,” the theorist maintains, “considered from the point of view of art, presents three orders of essential functions, each one depending upon a proper and determined organic apparatus.”  In other words, leaving aside the trinity for the moment, the performer’s body, what some acting teachers call the “instrument,” must be well-trained and disciplined—not an outrageous principle in today’s actor-training regimen.  “These apparatus,” Delsarte continues, “engender three orders of corresponding products.  Thus, there results in the phenomena three states, three species of acts, three languages, each one of which should be studied in itself and in its relations of association, of succession, and of hierarchy.”

In his system, Delsarte defines “Zones of the Body” and “Realms of Space” by which he divides the body into three general areas or centers: head, heart, and gut.  The Zones of the Body correspond to the regions of the body above the shoulders (“head” or mental), the torso from the stomach to the neck (“heart” or emotional-spiritual), and lower torso, or the belly and groin area (“gut” or physical), and are, respectively, the centers of thought, intellectuality, and mental activity; sentimentality, emotions, and spirituality; and action, visceralness, and physical appetites.  The legs and arms are our contact with the outer world.  The legs are attached to the physical zone and have a strong physical quality; the arms are attached to the emotional/spiritual zone and have that quality.  Ultimately, Delsarte developed a complex system by which he described how every part of the body should be used to communicate specific feelings, attitudes, or thoughts. 

Delsarte went on to subdivide these Grand Divisions into head-heart-gut, too.  In the Grand Division of the head, for example, the back of the head (where it joins the spine) is the physical Sub-division, the top of the head (including the upper forehead) is the mental Sub-division, and the face is the emotional Sub-division.  The face is further subdivided so that the forehead and eyes form a mental zone of the facial Sub-division, while the nose and upper cheeks are the emotional zone of the face, and the mouth, jaw, and lower cheeks are the physical zone.  All the centers can be subdivided this way.  For instance, the hand, as we’ll see, is generally in the “heart” area, and the palm, which is soft and can be used to caress, is a “heart” region.  The index finger, however, is a “head” part because it’s used for pointing; the fist is a “gut” part because it’s a weapon used in anger.  While the upper cheek, for example, is the “heart” part of the head and the jaw, a “gut” part because it’s used to show strength or stubbornness (and is where blows are aimed).  Here are the other Sub-divisions in Delsarte’s taxonomy:

In the Grand Division of the torso (emotional-spiritual zone), the upper chest is the mental Sub-division, the seat of honor and conscience; the middle torso is the emotional Sub-division, the seat of the affections; and the lower trunk (abdominal portion) is the physical Sub-division, the seat of the appetites (stomach, intestines, sexual organs).

For the arms and hands, which are related to the emotional center, the upper arms are physical zone; the forearms, used for embracing and a mother cradling her baby, are emotional zones; and the hands and fingers, because they perform trained tasks, are mental zones.  The back of the hand and knuckles are physical areas, the palm is emotional, and the fingers are mental.

The legs and feet are related to the physical zone, and the upper leg (thigh) is physical, while the foreleg is emotional and the foot and toes are mental.  Of the foot, however, the heel is physical, the arch and instep are emotional, and the toes are mental. 

The Realms of Space concern the space surrounding the body which is divided into coinciding zones: The space surrounding the legs and lower torso, for instance, is the physical and sexual realm; that surrounding the upper torso, the emotional and spiritual zone; and the space around the head, the mental and intellectual zone.  (Above the head is supernatural, and gestures in that realm will express ecstasy, aspiration, and prayer.)  Gestures get their meaning, Delsarte believed, not only from the body zone from which they originate, but also the spatial zone in which they end.  Terminating a gesture in a “head” area will help establish an intellectual character, say a Hamlet or a Portia; a “gut” gesture might help create a Kate or an Othello; a “heart” motion might generate a Romeo or a Juliet. 

From the perspective of applicability of Delsarte’s techniques, you don’t have to believe in his pseudo-science (as we’d see it today) to make use of the ideas on stage or in rehearsal.  “Whether you reject the metaphysics of Delsarte or not,” noted Ted Shawn, “the system is workable, and has the exactness of the multiplication table.”  You also don’t have to follow the whole regimen—you can cherry-pick what’s useful and effective for you.  Michael Chekhov’s PG is a popular technique, used by many of his own students (and their students) as well as other actors who’ve been introduced to the technique.  The same’s true of LC, which can be used to create some truly wonderful physical characters.  (My own training was Stanislavsky-based for the most part, but I found both these techniques useful in many roles and situations.  I taught it to my acting students, too, because it’s a useful tool to have.)  One danger, however, is that a too-literal reliance on Delsarte’s gestural alphabet can result in what some acting teachers and directors call “indicating”—using an empty and clichéd gesture to communicate (or “indicate”) a thought or emotion, like pointing a finger into the air to suggest having a bright idea or snapping your fingers to say “I’ve got it!”  “Nothing is more deplorable,” the master asserted, “than a gesture without a motive, without meaning.  Let your attitude, gesture and face foretell what you would make felt.”  (Oddly, we often exhibit this behavior in real life without thinking about it or being criticized for doing it.  I can’t count how many times I might have been walking down the sidewalk and realized I’d forgotten something or changed my mind about where I was going, turned on my heels, and snapped my fingers to tell passersby that I’d had a new thought.  Doing that on stage or screen, however, can look artificial and stilted.)  What Delsarte was aiming at, according to Ted Shawn, was “Control at the centre, with freedom of the extremities”—by which I understand that the core of the actor’s preparation is exact and set during rehearsals, but the specifics of the stage behavior remains flexible and changing.  That’s still the essence of most modern actor-training techniques.

In the United States, the name and reputation of François Delsarte were forgotten or made into a subject of ridicule even while he lived, and even more so after his death.  Years after Delsarte’s passing, Jesse Feiring Williams (1886-1966), an American expert on physical education, dismissed the French theorist as “a passing fad.”  Delsarte’s immense popularity was a nonce phenomenon here, lasting only until the turn of the 20th century as his American followers distorted and misrepresented his ideas and his techniques.  But in France, he remained an honored and significant figure.  At his death, Delsarte was eulogized not only in the Paris press but in the newspapers and magazines of the entire country.  His hometown, Solesmes, Sarthe (in the Pays-de-la-Loire region in northwestern France), to which he and his family returned when the Prussian army occupied Paris in 1870, named its main square “Maître Deslarte” and the house in which he’d been born was identified with a commemorative marble plaque in 1925.  His popularity and the preeminence of his theories over those of his rivals in the field of actor training, elocution, declamation, and singing generated considerable jealousy among those other teachers, especially the faculty of the Conservatoire, where Delsarte first studied (to nearly disastrous effect) and where Steele MacKaye intended to train until he met the master.  Some schools simply refused even to acknowledge Delsarte’s theories and even attacked them.  The most imminent teacher at the Conservatoire, with whom MacKaye had originally intended to study, François-Joseph Regnier, dismissed Delsarte as a “magnificent sayer of beautiful nothings.”

The important thing, I think, is to carry away from this brief discussion of François Delsarte and his acting theories the notion that, first, he’s not the fusty old fuddy-duddy some of the theater histories—those that mention him at all—would have us believe and, second, that some, even many, of his concepts and ideas about acting can still be useful if understood correctly and applied with the 21st-century understanding of behavior and performance.  It’s also important to see that Delsarte was a pioneer in the field of acting theory and actor training.  He started something that, even if his specific practices have been left behind, has proved worthy and useful for almost 175 years.  Although Delsarte’s techniques were eventually regarded as mechanical, he remains important as the first significant person to systematize the process of an actor’s training.  Delsarte’s techniques have contributed to most subsequent efforts to devise training programs for actors.   Had it not been for Delsarte, Stanislavsky wouldn’t have had shoulders on which to stand and the likes of Vsvelod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Richard Boleslavsky, Maria Ouspenskaya, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg, Sonia Moore, Sanford Meisner, Herbert Berghof, Uta Hagen, Morris Carnovsky, Richard Schechner, Michael Shurtleff, Eugenio Barba, Jerzy Grotowski, and Augusto Boal (or the numerous excellent teachers my friends and I worked under, such as Terry Schreiber, Elizabeth Dillon, Lee Wallace, Carol Rosenfeld, Aaron Frankel, Bill Hickey, Hal Holden, and Curt Dempster), and the many others who have followed might never have borne such great influence on Hollywood and Broadway and beyond.  If George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, was named the first modern director, François Delsarte was surely the first modern acting theorist and teacher.  However badly his followers interpreted his ideas and methods, we ought not to forget him for the foundation he laid.


  1. excellent article, Rick. I have only read half of it and must dash off to work. I have been making efforts to revive this system of training for nearly 20 years now, and have had considerable success with my pupils' accomplishments. I would like to have conversation with you when I have finished reading this work of yours.

    1. Mr. Williams--

      Thanks for the compliment; I hope you come back to finish the article. I doubt a conversation with me will prove very useful: I'm no authority on Delsarte by any stretch (I didn't study his methods, though one of my teachers drew on them a little) and I've pretty much covered what I know and understand in the blog post.


  2. I tried to write a lengthy response, and it just vanished when I posted it. :-(

    1. I'm terribly sorry you had tech problems, Mr. Williams. I'd have been interested in what you intended to say.


  3. fabulous piece of writing Rick that ties many ends together. One question I have - do we know if Stanislavski got hold of any Delsarte at all and rejected/adopted it?

    1. Mr. Bateman--

      I don't actually know if Stanislavsky knew Delsarte's teachings, but I have to assume he'd at least have been familiar with them. However badly misinterpreted Delsarte's principles were after his death, they were still the prevailing theories of acting and actor-training in Europe and the U.S. at the time Stanislavsky was developing his own system--essentially in response to the results of the misapplication of Delsarte's techniques.

      As far as I know, Stanislavsky never mentioned Delsarte or his theories specifically, but it's curious that Jerzy Grotowski, whom many see as a response to Stanislavsky, named among his direct influences both Stanislavsky and Delsarte (among many others).

      Sorry that I can't be more helpful. It would be interesting to hear from anyone with citations of Stanislavsky mentioning Delsarte or his theories--if any exist.


    2. A Sergei Volkonski, former director of the Russian Imperial Theater, and colleague of Stanislovski published a Delsarte book in 1913 in Russia. It was a well respected part of Russian theater technique. I have been meeting lately with a former Michael Chekhov teacher who is now interested in the direct line of thought between the multiple techniques of training.

    3. Thanks for sharing your experience with Michael Chekhov and François Delsarte. If anything further develops from this, I'd be curious to hear about it.


    4. re-typing. I was typing too fast and that is not good. :-)
      I'll be glad to try and keep you up to date. The Chekhov teacher has so far been somewhat blown away at recognizing how many of the ideas were Delsartean. I hope that she and I will continue our conversations. I have a website. DelsarteProject.com. My email address in on it, and you are welcome to contact me that way also.

    5. Excellent. Thank you.


  4. Super helpful essay for my theatre solo project. Thank you! Do you know if Delsarte had any specific exercises that can help me understand how to put his theories into practice?

  5. "Unknown" (Really?)--

    Thanks for writing in.

    Yes, there are books that describe (and even diagram) some of Delsarte's techniques. (I don't know where you live, but a good university library or, best, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, will have additional material plus librarians that can help locate them.)

    Two books of which I know off hand include, first, the one I mention above, 'Every Little Movement' by Ted Shawn (Dance Horizons, 1974). If you can find a copy, there's also Genevieve Stebbins's 'Delsarte System of Expression' (Edgar S. Werner, 1886).

    (The Stebbins is available on line at https://archive.org/details/delsartesysteme00delsgoog. I also see that Delsarte's Wikipedia page lists Eleanor Georgen's 'The Delsarte system of physical culture, 1893, also on line at https://archive.org/stream/cu31924100649080#page/n7/mode/2up.)

    Good luck.


  6. Hi--

    I have a collection of seven 9"x6" Delsarte movement photographs of women taken ~1900 or so. Do you know anyone who may be interested in them?

    1. Ms. Oberski--

      Aside from the N.Y. Public Library for the Performing Arts, I don't. LPA maintains a large collection of photographs of theater productions, personalities, and activities in the Billy Rose Collection (theatrediv@nypl.org). (If the Theatre Division isn't interested, you might try the Dance Division; Delsarte is as significant to dance as he is to theater.)

      Several city library systems have a performing arts collection (L.A., Minneapolis, Chicago, just to name three) and some university libraries do, too. If you want to keep your donation close to home, try contacting a facility near you.


    2. Thank you for your time and attention!

    3. You're more than welcome, Ms.Oberski.


    4. I would be insanely giddy with delight. Delsarte is my major study, for over 20 years, and I collect all paraphernalia. They would be treasured if they should come to my collection.
      Joe Williams

    5. Mr. Williams:

      Are you referring to a private collection? I have no idea how Ms. Oberski would respond to that, and I have no way to contact her. Maybe she'll check back in here and find your Comment.

      Thanks so much for writing in in any event.


  7. My private collection is pretty intense, and includes many original items. It edges toward being a museum already. I hope that she does check back in. I have a few original photos already.

    1. I can only wish you 'Good Luck,' Mr. Williams. I hope something works out for both you and Ms. Oberski.