The Passionate Pilgrim 1.15: A Little More on Burbage

Burbage’s acting style is frequently compared with the technique that many Hollywood actors use today called method acting. This comparison is imprecise, to say the least, as The Method, as it is sometimes called, relies on a modern understanding of psychology which leans heavily on childhood experience to investigate sub-text in the process of exploring and building a character.

In the Elizabethan age, to the contrary, individuals were believed to be constituted of “humors.”  As Richard C. Harrier observed:

“. . . it is necessary to work within the context of Elizabethan English in which the heart could and did think, and the fluids of the body were one with the moods of the spirit.”

Harrier, R. C., Jacobean Drama, Norton, p. viii.

Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.
Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.

In this view of humanity, individuals are taken as they present themselves, with various insights by their observers into the ways in which they behave and possibly mask their underlying intentions. The idea of searching their motives to some previous state, such as past or even primal experience, is not considered. Childhood itself, in the Elizabethan view, was a more or less neutral state and adulthood arrived much earlier than is now understood, at about the age of puberty.

Burbage and his followers, therefore, should not be confused with modern acting techniques. It is quite enough to recognize that his leap from Alleyn’s bombastic style to something that more closely held “a mirror up to nature” was revolutionary.

In fact, Burbage appears to have had an effect on the plays and playwrights as well. Jonson’s Every Man in his Humor declared this movement away from the bombast typical of Marlowe and Kyd  toward more realistic concerns and As You Like It responded. As Peter Farey points out:

“Marlowe’s style is essentially declamatory, his characters talking at people, rather than talking with them, as Shakespeare’s characters do.”

Farey, Peter,  Hoffman Prize Essay, 2008.

Burbage’s influence did not stop there. As a leading shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he had the opportunity to influence the selection of actors for the company. The apparent dismissal of Will Kempe is a major example, but he appears to have naturally sought out actors who either shared or learned to work in his innovative mode. Among the actors who joined the company under his supervision we can include:

Robert Armin,
Robert Armin,

Robert Armin, who replaced Will Kempe as leading clown and who Leslie Hotson claims: “If any player breathed, who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin.”

John Lowin, who apparently was the man who seconded {ie: understudied)  Burbage in Othello, Volpone and The Alchemist. In all likelihood it was Lowin who played Iago to Burbage’s Othello, Mosca to his Volpone, and Subtle to his Face

Henry Condell who is generally listed shortly after Burbage and Heminges in most of their productions. With Heminges, he published the First Folio.

John Heminges, who was a secondary player in the company, but was an editor of the First Folio, and also the Company’s financial manager.

Augustine Phillips
Augustine Phillips

Augustine  Phillips, one of the six sharers in the Globe Theatre when it was built, in 1598–9. In 1601, he was the representative of the company called to testify before the Privy Council about their involvement with the rebellion of the Earl of Essex; the Chamberlain’s Men had been paid by supporters of the Earl to perform Shakespeare’s Richard II before the abortive coup. Phillips’ testimony seems to have assuaged whatever anger the court may have felt towards the players; they were not punished, and indeed played for Elizabeth at Whitehall on 24 February 1601, the night before Essex was executed.

If Burbage had this much control over his actors and his playwrights, it strikes me that it is not implausible that he also had some measure of control over how his company’s plays were presented. Which is to say that moving away from  productions which featured actors who pushed their way to center stage to project their speeches, he would naturally have been interested in developing more complex stage pictures, with moving focus. This could not have reached the level of modern stagecraft, but the awareness of it would inevitably, in my view, have resulted in much more compelling staging than what came before. I doubt very much that he would have been satisfied to merely arrange the rest of his company like furniture and drapery but would have called upon them to pay attention to the speakers, to react appropriately and help the audience understand the story.

In this period of innovation, of a swiftly moving competition between artists, patrons and politicians, who were always watchful of challenges to them from outsiders, Burbage stands as a bulwark against repression and as a leader of free expression. It is no wonder that he was revered by his audience.

Next:     Salathiel Pavy and the Boy Players.

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

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