Presentational acting and Representational acting

‘Presentational acting’ and the related ‘representational acting’ are critical terms used within theatre aesthetics and criticism.

Thanks to a highly idiosyncratic use by a particular strand of acting theory, however, the terms have come to acquire often overtly contradictory senses.

In the most common sense (that which relates the specific dynamics of theatre to the broader aesthetic category of ‘representational art’ or ‘mimesis’ in drama and literature), the terms describe two contrasting functional relationships between the actor and the audience that a performance can create.

In the other (more specialized) sense, the terms describe two contrasting methodological relationships between the actor and his or her character in performance.

The collision of these two senses can get quite confusing. The type of theatre that uses ‘presentational acting’ in the first sense (of the actor-audience relationship) is usually created by a performer using ‘representational acting’ in the second sense (of their methodology). Conversely, the type of theatre that uses ‘representational acting’ in the first sense is usually created by a performer using ‘presentational acting’ in the second sense. While usual, these chiastic correspondences do not match up in all cases of theatrical performance.

The actor-audience relationship

In every theatrical performance the manner in which each individual actor treats the audience establishes, sustains or varies a particular kind of actor-audience relationship between them.

In some plays all of the actors may adopt the same attitude towards the audience (for example, the entire cast of a production of a Chekhovian drama will usually ignore the audience until the curtain call); in other plays the performers create a range of different relationships towards the audience (for example, most Shakespearean dramas have certain characters who frequently adopt a downstage ‘platea’ playing position that is in direct contact with the audience, while other characters behave as if unaware of the audience’s presence).

Presentational acting

Conventionalized presentational devices include the apologetic prologue and epilogue, the induction (much used by Ben Jonson and by Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew), the play-within-the-play, the aside directed to the audience, and other modes of direct address. These premeditated and ‘composed’ forms of actor-audience persuasion are in effect metadramatic and metatheatrical functions, since they bring attention to bear on the fictional status of the characters, on the very theatrical transaction (in soliciting the audience’s indulgence, for instance), and so on. They appear to be cases of ‘breaking frame’, since the actor is required to step out of his role and acknowledge the presence of the public, but in practice they are licensed means of confirming the frame by pointing out the pure facticity of the representation.
Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, p.90
‘Presentational acting’, in this sense, refers to a relationship that acknowledges the audience, whether directly by addressing them or indirectly through a general attitude or specific use of language, looks, gestures or other signs that indicate that the character or actor is aware of the audience's presence. (Shakespeare's use of punning and wordplay, for example, often has this function of indirect contact.)

Representational acting

‘Representational acting’, in this sense, refers to a relationship in which the audience is studiously ignored and treated as 'peeping tom' voyeurs by an actor who remains in-character and absorbed in the dramatic action. The actor behaves as if a fourth wall was present, which maintains an absolute autonomy of the dramatic fiction from the reality of the theatre.

Robert Weimann argues that:

Each of these theatrical practices draws upon a different register of imaginary appeal and "puissance" and each serves a different purpose of playing. While the former derives its primary strength from the immediacy of the physical act of histrionic delivery, the latter is vitally connected with the imaginary product and effect of rendering absent meanings, ideas, and images of artificial persons' thoughts and actions. But the distinction is more than epistemological and not simply a matter of poetics; rather it relates to the issue of function.

The actor-character relationship

The use of these critical terms (in an almost directly opposed sense from the critical mainstream usage detailed above) to describe two different forms of the actor-character relationship within an actor's methodology originates from the American Method actor and teacher Uta Hagen. She developed this use from a far more ambiguous formulation offered by the seminal Russian theatre practitioner Constantin Stanislavski in chapter two of his acting manual An Actor Prepares (1936).

Stanislavski's typology

In "When Acting is an Art", having watched his students' first attempts at a performance, Stanislavski's fictional persona Tortsov offers a series of critiques, during the course of which he defines different forms and approaches to acting. They are: 'forced acting', 'overacting', 'the exploitation of art', 'mechanical acting', 'art of representation', and his own 'experiencing the role'. One symptom of the recurrent myopic ideological bias displayed by commentators schooled in the American Method is their frequent confusion of the first five of these categories with one another; Stanislavski, however, goes to some lengths to insist that two of them deserve to be evaluated as 'art' (and only two of them): his own approach of ‘experiencing the role’ and that of the ‘art of representation’.

The distinction between Stanislavski's 'experiencing the role' and 'representing the part' (which Stanislavski identifies with the French actor Coquelin) turns on the relationship that the actor establishes with their character during the performance. In Stanislavski's approach, by the time the actor reaches the stage, he or she no longer experiences a distinction between his or her self and the character; the actor has created a 'third being', or a combination of the actor's personality and the role (in Russian, Stanislavski calls this creation artisto-rol). In the art of representation approach, whilst on-stage the actor experiences the distinction between the two (the philosopher and dramatist Diderot calls this psychological duality the actor's 'paradox'). Both approaches use 'living the role' or identifying with the character during rehearsals; Stanislavski's approach undertakes this process onstage, while the 'art of representation' incorporates the results of the rehearsal process in a finished artistic form.

Confusion of terms

Stanislavski's choice of the phrase 'art of representation' to describe an artistic approach that diverges from his own is unfortunate, given that the theatre that results from his own 'experiencing the role' approach is 'representational' in the wider critical sense. Uta Hagen's decision to use 'presentational' as a synonym for Stanislavski's 'experiencing the role' served to compound the confusion.

Denial of the presentational

The term 'presentational' is available to Hagen's reformulation because, like Stanislavski, she fails to acknowledge the existence of the presentational dimensions of drama at all. Both Stanislavski and Hagen promote a mode of theatrical performance that imposes an absolute autonomy of the dramatic fiction at the expense of the reality of the theatrical event; or, to put it in other terms, that maintains the fictional reality of the character by means of an exclusion of the actual reality of the actor. Stanislavski and Hagen recognize no 'outside' to the dramatic fiction (or, at least, none that functions positively). Many types of drama in the history of theatre, though, make use of the presentational 'outside' and its many possible interactions with the representational 'inside'—Shakespeare, Restoration comedy, and Brecht, to name a few significant examples.

Shakespearean drama assumed a natural, direct and often-renewed contact with the audience on the part of the performer. 'Fourth wall' performances foreclose the complex layerings of theatrical and dramatic realities that result from this contact and that are built into Shakespeare's dramaturgy. A good example is the line spoken by Cleopatra in act five of Antony and Cleopatra (1607), when she contemplates her humiliation in Rome at the hands of Octavius Caesar; she imagines mocking theatrical renditions of her own story: "And I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the posture of a whore" (5.2.215-217). That this was to be spoken by a boy in a dress in a theatre is an integral part of its dramatic meaning. This complexity is unavailable to a purely 'naturalistic' treatment that recognizes no distinction between actor and character nor acknowledges the presence of the actual audience. Nor is it only a matter of the interpretation of individual moments; the presentational dimension is a structural part of the meaning of the drama as a whole. This structural dimension is most visible in Restoration comedy through its persistent use of the aside, though there are many other meta-theatrical aspects in operation in these plays. In Brecht, the interaction between the two dimensions—representational and presentational—forms a major part of his 'epic' dramaturgy and receives sophisticated theoretical elaboration through his conception of the relation between mimesis and Gestus.

See also

Related terms and concepts

Related practitioners and dramatic genres

Representational actor-audience relations:

Presentational actor-audience relations:


Works cited

  • Counsell, Colin. 1996. Signs of Performance: An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415106435.
  • Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0416720609.
  • Hagen, Uta. 1973. Respect for Acting. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0025473905.
  • Roach, Joseph R. 1985. The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting. Theater:Theory/Text/Performance Ser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472082442.
  • Stanislavski, Constantin. 1936. An Actor Prepares. London: Methuen, 1988. ISBN 0413461904.
  • Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801835062.
  • ---. 2000. Author's Pen and Actor's Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare's Theatre. Ed. Helen Higbee and William West. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521787351.

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