Denis Diderot 1713-1784: “Conversations on the Natural Son” (1757) and “The Paradox of Acting” (1773-1778)

October 29, 2007 at 5:39 am (Uncategorized)

                All that Diderot ever really wanted was GOOD theatre. He wanted to experience authentic plot, to encounter genuine characters and to feast his eyes upon naturalistic costumes, true to the period and setting being depicted. Was this too much to ask of the theatrical community? Apparently so, because it is evident that it took many, many years to finally see a blatant disregard for the strict rules of the Unities, character portrayals and true-to-life costumes.

One specific example comes to mind. I remember watching a film of Romeo and Juliet, done in the 1960s. Elements of 60’s fashion and style radiates through the dialogue and classic Shakespearean acting style depicted in the film. Juliet’s hair is a bouffant style, her makeup is extremely colourful with 60s flair and large false eyelashes. The costumes on both the men and the women characters in the film were the shape of 60s fashionable clothing. The director quite obviously did not attempt to render the play true to the unities of time, place and action- the styles of the 60s shine through in the physicality of the actors. Diderot would not have approved. He wanted rejection of the adoption of modern day costumes, behaviours and lifestyles on stage. He believed that “the falsity of everything that takes place on stage” was deadly, (Gerould, 190). He recognized the dullness and restrictiveness of the French theatre and critiqued it, arguing that like paintings, (his first love) theatre ought to have strong emotion and to have the qualities of both violence and tumult. (Gerould, 190). Theatre should be as colourful as the paintings he so cherished and coveted. He found this possible after witnessing famed British actor David Garrick, who was acclaimed for his discipline as an actor, true-to-life in his performances and portrayals. Like Zola, Diderot advocated for naturalistic elements on stage- not only in the set, but in costuming, character portrayal and they both would have argued against the use of the Unities. Diderot exclaims “AH, THOSE CRUEL CONVENTIONS, HOW DECORUS AND HOW PETTY THEY MAKE OUR PLAYS!” (Gerould, 194).

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