A Report by Anne Fielding of an Aesthetic Realism Class
taught by Eli Siegel
Hamlet once more is walking in the hall,
Hamlet once more, different in the hall,
And as he walks, he’s thinking for us all.
—from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited by Eli Siegel
On a Sunday afternoon in September 1963, at a Time Enough Poetry Class, I heard Eli Siegel read the first act of Hamlet. It was an important experience in theatre. Without smoke and dim lights, supernatural sounds or eerie music, there was the platform at Elsinore, with Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio waiting. There was the mystery and wonder with the feeling of cold night; there was the poetry and the life of it.
Since January 20th I had been performing in Eli Siegel’s critical masterpiece Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited at the Terrain Gallery and the Gramercy Arts Theatre. What a time it had been! New York City had become aware of a new Hamlet. As the opening sentence of the Prologue tells:
It is a new Hamlet because it is a Hamlet who does not care for his father entirely.
This had never been seen before by any critic, and it affects all that happens in the play, and all that does not happen.
My own work as actor had deeply benefited with the months of playing. Yet, on this particular Sunday afternoon I found, to my actor’s joy, that there was more to see. For in the way Mr. Siegel read the lines of Act I—lines I knew well—there was a new mingling of the everyday and the grand, the poetic and the ordinary, the permanent and the touchable. It is this mingling every actor of Shakespeare looks for. This reading had the everydayness of prose and the grandeur of poetry as one thing. Eli Siegel understood poetry, and he understood the self; what people feel inside. He said: “The world, art, and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The knowledge he founded, Aesthetic Realism, meets what actors and people are looking for.
When we act in Shakespeare and the classics, we have these questions: How can we honor the poetry and at the same time be fresh, spontaneous? How can we be just to the music of an iambic pentameter line and to the immediacy of the moment, the lively impulse?
I had these questions when I played Juliet for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Central Park, and when I was the queen in Richard II at Stratford. These questions, as always, beautifully rage in the acting schools and on the boards of the land.
Poetry and Humanity
On that September day we heard a reading that was truthful to the poetry and the humanity. Technique and emotion were one—they were not simply present—they were one. There was no split.
In the beginning, Mr. Siegel read the lines simply and quietly. His pace was slower than I had heard before. In this reading there was something artless and almost casual—almost, but not quite.
Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
—These beginning lines came straight from a self that was engaged. Within the slowness was something arresting.—
I have seen nothing
—Here, a slight pause before the word nothing gave a sense of drama in the unknown. Throughout there were new and unexpected accents and pauses. Sometimes a word was lingered on, surprisingly. All of it had a rightness—the choices came from a source that was sure. The room was still. Thought was going on and thought had become dramatically vivid. . . read more