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Text, Rhythm, Action!

New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance

Research Findings

Historical Action


Following the inspiring lead given by Australian researcher, Dene Barnett, in his pioneering study of 18th- and early 19th-century French and English theatre, today’s historical productions of early opera focus on Baroque Gesture. This elegant ballet of the hands follows the structure of the text and supports the meaning of individual words. The secret is for performers to envisage the scene they are describing, so that when they gesture towards some imagined object, the audience can believe in it too.

But for all its elegance, the effect for a modern audience can often be pretty, but superficial: for all its historical authenticity, it does not convey to us today the powerful emotions experienced by 17th-century audiences. What is missing? Is it the audience’s fault for not knowing enough about period style?

Our experimental productions, based on my studies of early 17th-century sources  from the first opera (Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo, 1600) to an anonymous guide for the artistic director of an opera company (Il Corago, c1630), from period paintings to the Art of Gesture (Bonifaccio’s L’Arte dei Cenni, 1616) show hand-gestures as just one element of stage-craft, which depended also on positions and movement on the stage (heroes stage right, villains stage left), posture (an elegant curve of the body, poised in perfect balance with the weight on one leg) and full-body acting, focused especially on the face and eyes. The complex skills of historical ‘Action’ enable performers to look like a painting, move like a dancer, and strike like a swordsman.

As Barnett showed for gesture alone, the complete Action also depends on the text: ‘suit the Action to the Word’. So we need new rehearsal methodology, not only to teach hand-gestures and link them to the imagery of the text, but to support those gestures with fully-embodied Action. To be plausible, that Action has to be physically structured with the skills of a dancer or swordsman. However much performers may know of historical theory, audiences are expert at spotting a ‘mere gesture’.

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