Paradox of the Actor  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Paradox of the Actor (Paradoxe sur le comedien) is a dramatic essay by Denis Diderot elucidating a theory of acting in which it is argued that great actors do not experience the emotions they are displaying. (This contradicted the view of Horace with regard to the use of emotion in rhetoric: Si vis me flere, primium tibi flendum est (If you wish me to weep you must first weep yourself).)


The essay consists of a dialogue between two speakers in which the first speaker espouses the views of Diderot on acting. The first speaker argues that the great actor is characterized by a complete absence of any feeling; and that the art of the great actor consists of displaying the illusion of feeling. The reason is that if the great actor were to become emotional he would not be able to play the same part in the theater in repeat performances with the same success. Also, those actors who depend on feeling when performing usually give unpredictable or uneven performances.The great actor is thus guided by his intelligence, and not by his emotion. Once the great actor has studied and conceptualized his part through intelligence, he will be able to give repeat performances successfully irrespective of what is going on in his personal life.

Occasionally, the character he is playing, as conceptualized by the great actor, transcends the character conceptualized by the author. Diderot gives the example of Mlle. Clairon, who once played a character in a play authored by Voltaire; Voltaire, who was in the audience, had cried out "Did I write that?" on seeing her magnificent performance. Diderot also gives an example of the great actor's theatrical discipline:

I myself saw what i am going to tell you. Garrick stuck his head out of a door, and, within four or five seconds his face changed from delirious joy to moderate cheerfulness, from this cheerfulness to serenity, from serenity to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to dejection, from dejection to fear, from fear to horror, from horror to despondency, and from this last emotion back up the ladder to the first.


Lee Strasberg commented that Diderot's analysis in Paradox of the Actor "has remained to this day the most significant attempt to deal with the problem of acting."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Paradox of the Actor" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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