François (Alexandre N. C.) Delsarte (1811–71), French teacher of singing and acting, known for being the founder of a method of expression known as the Delsarte System.
The Delsarte System
Acting in the early 19th century was mechanical and stereotyped; Delsarte represented one of the first modern attempts to develop a dramatic technique in the actual physical process of acting rather than by instilling routine imitation. Over many years he observed and codified the gestures and attitudes which people instinctively assume—covering almost all situations and emotions. It was much more than a lexicon of gestures, however: he attempted to discover and formulate general laws and principles of art and expression. He believed his ‘science of applied aesthetics’ revealed the basic principles that affect every form of art – although today he is best known for his system as applied to acting and dancing. Movements were categorized and the body subdivided into parts, the combination of different movements and parts expressing a great variety of emotion. For example, the bowing downwards of the head, expresses ‘affirmation’; hanging downwards expresses ‘submission’; oblique upwards movement: ‘rejection’. An almost infinite array of combinations were possible, covering all emotions and sentiments. Although the popular version of his system was sterilized into a series of positions, each equating an emotion, the mastery of this ‘grammar’ of expression was meant to lead to effortless movement and expression. ‘First, you must master the principles of this philosophy, second, there will be a period during which you will consciously apply those principles; third, as the result of habitual application, you will apply them spontaneously and unconsciously.’ Delsarte believed that his system was based upon the laws which govern the use of the human body as an instrument of expression; he sought to discover ‘the innate science of all art.’ One may view the system as Delsarte’s solution to the perpetual challenge facing artists, and especially performers: that of consciously eliciting inspiration and creativity. For Delsarte, art was not an end in itself, but a means of bringing forth the true ‘self’ – the soul’s ‘primitive purity’. And the means were ‘nature’s way’.
He taught his system principally in the period 1839–59 and received much recognition and many honours during this time. He was famous for his mastery in acting and in pantomime, and many great actors and actresses came to him for private tuition. Due to ill-health, however, he semi-retired around 1860, and died before having trained more than a few people in his system. His principle pupil, the American Steele Mackaye, designed a system of gymnastics to prepare the student physically for Delsarte’s system; ‘harmonic gymnastics’ were, however, easily abused, and Delsarte’s name was misapplied in the late 19th century, mainly in the USA, to many theories, gymnastics and even commercial goods which had nothing to do with him or his philosophy. Delsarte’s system became stereotyped and other methods seeking to develop emotional authenticity, e.g. Stanislavski, supplanted his system.
Alexander and Delsarte
To which extent Delsarte’s teaching influenced Alexander has been debated, with some claiming the influence was insignificant and others claiming Alexander plagiarised Delsarte.
It is known that Alexander’s letterhead (c. 1900) refers to him teaching ‘The famous Delsarte system as applied to dramatic expression, deportment, gesture and vocalisation’ among others. Alexander’s prospectus for his Sydney Dramatic and Operatic Conservatorium (1902) advertises the Delsarte System as a special feature of the full course of study.
Alexander, in his teaching, would guide pupils on their toes, and might have got the idea of applying the Technique to raising on to the toes from Delsarte. A book on Delsarte’s system in 1892 states that ‘if correct position is attained, the rising on the toes can be accomplished without swaying the body forward – a good test of correct position.’
Writings on Delsarte and the Alexander Technique
- In a letter in Direction John Coffin asks where is the evidence that Alexander plagiarised Delsarte for his Technique. Robert Rickover replies in the same issue.
- ‘Delsarte, Dewey and Alexander’ by Malcolm Williamson examines possible influences of Delsarte’s teaching on Alexander.