Plays, Acting and Music: A Book of Theory

by Arthur Symons with a new forward by D.L. White


Many years ago when dreams of rock stardom were still dancing in my head I asked my music teacher if I should learn to read music.  First, he asked me what I wanted to do with my music, to which I replied ‘I want to be a songwriter.’  He then told me something that has been one of the driving forces behind every artistic endeavor I have undertaken since then.  He said simply ‘you need to learn music theory. 

It is a wonderfully useful thing to study what others have done before you in any endeavor, but especially so in the realm of the artistic.  This is how most people learn their particular trade.  However, that person is limited by the experience of their teacher.  It is one thing to know what someone else wrote (using the songwriting example), it is an entirely different thing to know why it works.

The same holds true for acting and actors.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that lessons and books on acting technique are absolutely necessary to get one started on their creative path.  However, I feel that once those areas have been explored, it is imperative to begin to learn to find your own voice.  If you rely solely on your training in technique, the best one could hope to accomplish is to reproduce what others have already done. 

From Stanislavsky to Meisner, Adler and Strasberg, they all taught their versions of acting technique, and they are all wonderful vehicles, but those master instructors could not have developed their techniques without first knowing the underlying theories behind them.  That is precisely what made them great, and further separates them from all of the others that followed.  Most have merely rehashed what those early pioneers brought to the acting world, which becomes readily apparent when you see the mish-mash of those aforementioned techniques in the local guru’s acting school ad.

All great artists first learned the theory of their respective art forms
before they went on to become the geniuses of their time.  I had an opportunity to visit the Van Gogh museum in Holland and was struck by the body of work that came before the masterpieces that he is known the world over for now.  Although, somewhere deep in my psyche I knew that Van Gogh didn’t start as a master painter, it had never really occurred to me consciously until that moment. 

Van Gogh painted portraits, still subjects (like bowls of fruit…literally) and landscapes
exactly the way any beginning painter would today.  These works literally span years of his early career, but the fundamental knowledge that he gained during those formative years allowed him to find greater avenues of expression.  As he studied why different shades and textures gave rise to different feelings and emotions in him, he could then apply that knowledge to the newer art movements of the time.  Thus, when he learned the theory behind the impressionist and post-impressionist era, his genius was released and the world is forever a better place for it.

This is precisely where this book falls into place.  Arthur Symons was a raconteur, a poet, a critic and a madman.  The consummate traveler, writer and gentleman, he translated the works of several of Europe’s finest plays and musical pieces for English audiences and became the recipient of wide acclaim and fervent criticism.  It was in his beloved Venice, Italy that he had a nervous breakdown and though he eventually recovered, he was never able to achieve the notoriety he richly deserved. 

I was fortunate to stumble across his works innocently enough and was instantly struck by the clarity of them.  The tone of the work was most poignant and brought to my conscious mind my deeply held belief that all of the creative arts are interconnected by their humanity.  And, by humanity, I mean that deep-rooted truth that lies in all of us and that everyone can relate to on the most primal of levels.  It is my firm belief that art in any form is just that…a person who is willing to show the world their truth, honestly and without self-consciousness.  Arthur Symons was a prince in this regard and brazenly spoke about many of the taboo subjects of his time.  His work is indeed timeless and is more than worthy of study.

The text is at times archaic, but so instantly recognizable as relevant today, that it was shocking to me.  Written in an age when actors were still elevated to the realm of painters and composers, long before our brethren were relegated to the scrap heap of tabloid television, Arthur Symons explored the very fundamentals of why actors ‘connect’ with an audience or not.  Through his learned theory, we can see that the basics have never changed and that all artists are, and will be, forever connected in our search for human truth and enlightenment.

It is, for me, so refreshing to realize that the artists of today face the same obstacles and interferences as those of yesteryear…and that the struggle will always continue into eternity until our hearts, souls and physical beings are all rectified with our universal selves.  In that moment, the artist will cease to be an artist; rather he (or she) will just be what we are…human.  Until then, the artist must constantly strive to be that universal voice that allows even the most stubborn of humanity to see and feel what that universal message implies.

To this I say, empower yourself with the knowledge of why you do the things you do and feel the things you feel.  That understanding will give you that wondrous ability to find in you that unique method of sharing your truth with the rest of the world.  It is here that we serve our art, rather than merely capitalize on it.

Most of the actors today seek ways to better ‘capitalize’ on themselves…I say learn to allow your unique vision to radiate out to the world and through that, manifest the change that you would bring.  Embrace this, and you embrace your art. 

Always remember, knowledge is power…but tempered with your unique point of view, it becomes more than that.  It becomes memorable…from a practical standpoint, isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

Arthur Symons visionary works transcend the ages, and now you too have a wonderful opportunity to embrace them and apply them to yourselves.  Make no mistake, your contemporaries understand these fundamental theories and apply them daily.  That is why you know them by name…and by deed.  It is only when you learn to think and speak on these terms that you will attract those that already innately do so themselves.  Through this you enable yourself to elevate yourself to their level…and hopefully surpass them and share with everyone your unique vision that the world will forever remember.

The truth is it’s in you…it’s in all of us.  It takes an artist to bring it to life.  When you become that person, you become all people on an emotional level.  Further, you become the person that is ‘magnetic’, and others of a similar stock will flock to you.  In this, you almost can’t help but find success in acting.  You don’t need a degree; you just need a cohesive, conscious theory to draw upon.  Arthur Symons was, and is, perhaps one of the best in the history of man to make that available to us.  I’m eternally grateful that he made it available to me, and thus, I share it with you