The English Actor: From Medieval to Modern

Reaktion. Apr. 2023. 400p. ISBN 9781789146998. $27.50. THEATER
Historian Ackroyd (The Colors of London: A History) turns his attention from a broader English history to the specific craft of British stage acting. He follows the art he describes as magical, from the dramatic oratory of early bards, religious plays, and 16th-century “academic acting,” to the appearance of public theaters and a move toward naturalism in 1612. When women first appeared on stage in 1660, there were more diverse plots, and the craft began to take its modern shape. Spanning from Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage to modern-day John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the book explores the styles and backgrounds of actors throughout the centuries. It notes their influences, career highlights, and how fame or film careers impacted their presence in the theater. Each sentence is infused with British aspects in a wonderful way, but it may be difficult for contemporary readers to appreciate actors whose work they can never see. Since the focus is on performative art, many early plays are mentioned with little to no backstory, which is understandable but unfortunate.
VERDICT Magnificent writing, but for a very niche audience.
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