François Alexandre Nicolas Chéri Delsarte (November 11, 1811, Solesmes—July 20, 1871, Paris) was a French musician, born in Solesmes, France. He was a pupil of the Conservatoire, was for a time tenor singer in the Opéra Comique, composed a few melodies, and wrote several romances, but is chiefly known as a teacher in singing and declamation. He went on to develop an acting style that attempted to connect the inner emotional experience of the actor with a systematized set of gestures and movements based upon his own observations of human interaction. This “Delsarte” method became so popular that it was taught throughout the world, but particularly in America, by many teachers who did not fully understand or communicate the emotional connections behind the gestures, and as a result the method devolved into melodramatic posing, the kind that Stanislavski would later develop his inner psychological methods in response to.
Delsarte studied singing at the Paris Conservatory and became unsatisfied with the arbitrary and posed style of acting taught. He began to study how humans actually moved, behaved and responded to various emotional and real life situations. He achieved this by observing people in real life and in public places of all kinds. Through his observations he discovered certain patterns of expression, eventually called Science of Applied Aesthetics. This consisted of a thorough examination of voice, breath, movement dynamics, encompassing all of the expressive elements of the human body.
Delsarte’s work inspired modern dancers such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. Rudolph Laban and F.M. Alexander also studied and taught Delsarte’s teachings until they later developed their own methods (see external links for more information.) Unfortunately, Delsarte never wrote a book explaining his method firsthand, and neither did his only protégé, actor Steele MacKaye. However, MacKaye’s student Genevieve Stebbins did write a book in 1885 titled The Delsarte System of Expression, and it became a wild success.
Ironically, it was the large success of the Delsarte System that was also its undoing. By the 1890’s, Delsarte was being taught everywhere, and not always in accordance with the emotional connectivity that Delsarte originally had in mind. It seems that no certification was needed to teach a course with the name Delsarte attached, and the study regressed into empty posing with little emotional truth behind it. Wangh concludes, "it led others into stereotyped and melodramatic gesticulation, devoid of the very heart that Delsarte had sought to restore."