“The Most Valuable Description of Acting”

Introductory Note by Anne Fielding: I’m glad to post this important report by my colleague in the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, Carol McCluer, of a great lecture Eli Siegel gave in which Mr. Siegel read what he called “the most valuable description of acting perhaps in the world.” Eli Siegel’s knowledge in this field—writing on acting—was comprehensive:

Richard Henry Dana on Edmund Kean’s Acting

 By Carol McCluer

The following is a portion of a report I presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation on a class Eli Siegel gave on November 8, 1970, titled “American Poetry Says Something about Poetry.” I respect Mr. Siegel for his passionate desire to see and value what the human mind has done as he looked at work largely forgotten today, including an essay by the American novelist and essayist, Richard Henry Dana.

Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787-1879)

Born in New England in 1787, Dana was a lawyer and literary man who lectured on Shakespeare, and was the father of the author, also named Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the book Two Years Before the Mast.

Dana’s essay is about the great 18th century English actor Edmund Kean. Mr. Siegel called it “perhaps the most important single theatrical criticism in the 1820s in America,” and “the most valuable description of acting perhaps in the world.” In 1824 Kean came to America, and appeared on the stage in Boston.

Titled simply, “Kean’s Acting,” the essay begins:

Edmund Kean
Edmund Kean, 1818

I had scarcely thought of the theatre for several years, when Kean arrived in this country; and…I went to see, for the first time, the great actor of the age. …The simplicity, earnestness, and sincerity of his acting made me forgetful of the fiction, and bore me away with the power of reality and truth… How can I describe one who is nearly as versatile and almost as full of beauties as nature itself… Our faculties are opened and enlivened by it…the very voice which is sounding in our ears long after we have left him, creates an inward harmony which is for our good.

Mr. Siegel pointed to the large value of this essay as he commented:

It is very seldom a critic says, “Through seeing this acting, I become a better person.”…Dana was troubled because there were so many impressions in his mind and he could not get them all together with the large things. Kean did deal in the way he acted with the niceties, the subtleties, and also the masses…Dana says “See how Kean, with all his variety, is constant. That gives me hope.”

Dana was proudly swept by Kean, deeply stirred—and as he writes about what he saw and felt witnessing this great acting, he describes opposites being put together beautifully—intensity and calm, wildness and control, the unbounded and the precise…continued


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