My friend Tim Frances has just reminded me of some of the most acute words about the acting profession ever expressed – worth a few minutes of your time, I think:
‘PLAYERS are “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time;” the motley representatives of human nature. They are the only honest hypocrites. Their life is a voluntary dream; a studied madness. The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. To-day kings, to-morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing. Made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter’s call, they wear the livery of other men’s fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own. They are, as it were, train-bearers in the pageant of life, and hold a glass up to humanity, frailer than itself. We see ourselves at second-hand in them: they show us all that we are, all that we wish to be, and all that we dread to be. The stage is an epitome, a bettered likeness of the world, with the dull part left out: and, indeed, with this omission, it is nearly big enough to hold all the rest. What brings the resemblance nearer is, that, as they imitate us, we, in our turn, imitate them. How many fine gentlemen do we owe to the stage? How many romantic lovers are mere Romeos in masquerade? How many soft bosoms have heaved with Juliet’s sighs? They teach us when to laugh and when to weep, when to love and when to hate, upon principle and with a good grace! …
Actors have been accused, as a profession of being extravagant and dissipated. While they are said to be so as a piece of common cant, they are likely to continue so. With respect to the extravagance of actors, as a traditional character, it is not to be wondered at. They live from hand to mouth: they plunge from want to luxury; they have no means of making money breed, and all professions that do not live by turning money into money, or have not a certainty of accumulating it in the end by parsimony, spend it. Uncertain of the future, they make sure of the present moment. This is not unwise. Chilled with poverty, steeped in contempt, they sometimes pass into the sunshine of fortune, and are lifted to the very pinnacle of public favour; yet, even there, they cannot calculate on the continuance of success. With respect to the habit of convivial indulgence, an actor, to be a good one, must have a great spirit of enjoyment in himself—strong impulses, strong passions, and a strong sense of pleasure; for it his business to imitate the passions, to communicate pleasure to others. A man of genius is not a machine. The neglected actor may be excused if he drinks oblivion of his disappointments; the successful one if he quaffs the applause of the world in draughts of nectar. There is no path so steep as that of fame: no labour so hard as the pursuit of excellence. If there is any tendency to dissipation beyond this in the profession of the player, it is owing to the prejudices entertained against them. Players are only not so respectable as a profession as they might be, because their profession is not respected as it ought to be.’
An extract from William Hazlitt’s “On Actors and Acting”, first published in The Examiner, January 5, 1817. Hazlitt was a writer and philosopher, and a passionate advocate of the theatrical arts.