LILLIAN GISH: AN INTERPRETATION – By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT (1987)

  • Stars of the Silents
  • By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, NJ., & London 1987
  • Copyright © 1987 by Edward Wagenknecht
  • Manufactured in the United States of America

LILLIAN GISH: AN INTERPRETATION

Just what it is that makes a fine artist in the theater is a subject on which probably no final decision will ever be reached, but at least it is now clear that the popular impression of the great actor as a chameleon-like creature who wholly sinks his own individuality in the role that he plays, who nightly reduces himself to putty and then proceeds to construct a new and alien character from its foundations, is an excellent definition of what such an artist is not. Without great personality, great art simply cannot exist, and this truth has long been recognized in connection with the other arts. The individuality of the great painter is evident in all his canvases: a Corot cannot be mistaken for a Millet or a Van Dyck for a Frans Hals. In literature too it is only the second- and third-rate stuff that might have been written by anybody: Chaucer and Fielding and Conrad are “there,” visibly and incontrovertibly “there,” in every line that they wrote. It is so also in the theater, for the creative process is essentially one in all the arts. An actor may, according as his experience of life has been wide or narrow, according as he himself is simple or complex, single-or many-sided, work in a wide field or he may specialize within a comparatively narrow range. What is worth remembering, however, of a really versatile player like David Garrick, as against the limited portrayer of a type, is not that Garrick has submerged his personality, but rather that, through sympathetic comprehension and intelligence, he has enlarged it to embrace a much wider segment of life. Zola conceived of art as a corner of nature seen through a personality. If acting is in any sense among the arts, why should we not grant to the actor this same privilege—to re-character his material in terms of his own personality—which we impose upon the poet as a duty? We may grant it or not as we choose; we may even justify our obtuseness by the cant that acting is not “creative” but merely “interpretative.” Still the actor will continue to do it, as he has always done it, because it creates the only condition under which acting can exist at all.

Lillian Gish photo by Witzel L.A. – 1920

I admit that this is dangerous doctrine, but I do not happen to know any true doctrine that is not dangerous. I am not trying to absolve the actor from “faithfulness” to the author whose plays he presents; I am simply suggesting that in acting itself there is a larger creative element than is commonly supposed. The plain truth of the matter is that unless a play is purely a “closet-drama”—and therefore devoid of all essential dramatic quality—it is not finished at the time it is printed: it does not really come alive until some man or woman of genius makes it live upon the stage. The very great plays—Hamlet, for example—are never completed. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s exclusively but the world’s, and it will not be really finished until the last great actor has presented his conception of it.

Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms

In short, I believe that the actor, like the poet, cannot possibly create anything greater than his own soul. It is precisely this experiential quality that marks the difference between mere vulgar impersonation—which is of no significance—and genuine portrayal of character—which is of value because it assists in the understanding of life. That which the actor does not understand, and which has not been passed through his own alembic, may indeed startle for the moment through technical brilliance; but in the long run it is ineffective, like the famous legendary sermon which the devil once delivered with great energy against all the hosts of darkness, and which won no converts, simply because the preacher himself did not believe in it.

The bearing of all this upon my subject is, I trust, fairly obvious. Miss Gish is not, in the usual sense, a versatile actress. Her temperament is not naturally and obviously “dramatic,” and she always claims the right to make her roles over to suit Lillian Gish. Yet she has come to be accepted as the outstanding serious artist of the screen, the authentic, incomparable interpreter of the drama of the shadows. As far back as 1920, John Barrymore called her an American artist worthy to rank with Duse and Bernhardt, an American girl who had equaled if not surpassed the finest traditions of the theater.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

I hope I may not be misunderstood. I am not saying what the unenlightened so often say: that “Lillian Gish is always the same.” Each of her portraits is an individual achievement: he who feels or who pretends to feel that her Mimi and her Hester Prynne are the same person, or that her Angela Chiaromonte is not an essentially different girl from her Henriette Girard, is surely completely blind to other than very elementary and wholly obvious distinctions: fine shadings in art are not for him. Versatility, in the usual sense, is comparatively easy for the character actor: he presents, one after another, wholly different types, and he has all the resources of makeup to sustain the illusion. But Miss Gish is not a character actress. She has played only sensitive young women, most of them about the same age, many of them facing not wholly dissimilar problems.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

The business of differentiation for such a player is ten thousand times more difficult than it is for the character actor; I think hardly any careful student of acting will deny that she has triumphantly met the test.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”

But what is more to the point for my argument is that in and through all her carefully differentiated characterizations , she has expressed also her own point of view, a distinctive something which is Lillian Gish and nobody else on earth. Her Hester Prynne is not precisely Hawthorne’s Hester: she is Lillian’s Hester. This point has sometimes been cited against her; as a matter of fact, it is the highest praise that could be given. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne exists in Hawthorne’s pages: why should Lillian Gish seek to create her over again? Is it not better to begin under Hawthorne’s spell but to go on from there independently to work out her own conception as he did his?—a conception which, precisely because it does represent the reaction of another individuality, will help us better to understand not only Hawthorne but the life experience which both artists, and which all artists, seek to interpret?

Lillian Gish before the trial – Hester Prynne – The Scarlet Letter

This, I believe, is the essentially “poetic” note in the work of Lillian Gish—a thing to which so many have referred but which hardly anybody has understood. The girl’s work seems “poetic” because she is a poet, that is because she is a creator. She is like the poets in that there is something distinctive in the way she apprehends life, and she uses her roles as the poet uses words and the musician tones—not to reproduce what somebody else has done but to express directly her own authentic impression. Hence also the marvelous sense of completeness, of perfection that she gives you. The part and the actress are one: there is nothing extraneous. In a very deep and very true sense, she is the profoundest kind of actress: that is to say she does not “act” at all; she is.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

This is not of course what most people mean when they refer to Lillian as “poetic.” Usually, I am afraid, they mean that she is pretty. Sometimes—God forgive them!—they are even trying to say that she is weak. The novelist Joseph Hergesheimer was one of Lillian’s most ardent admirerers, yet he would seem to have been blind to some of her most important qualities. Hergesheimer objected strenuously to The White Sister, for example, which he claimed he never went to see. “I had no wish to see Lillian’s pale charm against the rigid whiteness of a nun’s headdress.” But it was precisely the qualities which repelled Hergesheimer in The White Sister that attracted Lillian: she wanted to do the story, as she once told me, most of all for the privilege of filming the assumption of the veil, a ritual which she considered one of the most beautiful things in modern civilization.

Lillian Gish – An Innocent Magdalene

I do not, however, wish to convey the impression that I am in any sense unmoved by Lillian’s beauty. She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name. The affinity between her given name and her spirit is a commonplace; if there were only one thing in the world by which to symbolize her, one would instinctively choose the lily. To most persons I suppose her surname means nothing, but this is their misfortune. It should mean romance, the pathos of distance and of faraway perfect things; it should carry them back to buried Babylon, to the Gilgamesh epic and the marvelous adventures of Gish.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Lillian’s physical frailness–her Dresden china quality- connects here, and it is this which is commonly regarded as her most serious limitation. Actually it is nothing of the kind. It is true that it bars her from playing coarse types— which make up the most of life—and that it limits her capacity for heroic expression. It is hardly conceivable that any other producer than D. W. Griffith could have discerned her gifts at the time she entered pictures: to anyone else, the pale child she was then must have seemed, as a dramatic actress, the world’s worst bet. Griffith, with his passion for delicacy and his uncanny knowledge of his craft, perceived at once that what might have handicapped her on the stage was precisely what would make her on the screen. In a large auditorium, physical coarseness of feature is no handicap; it may even be an advantage. But the merciless camera, with its magnified features and its enormous close- ups, brings the actor almost on top of his audience, registering every movement, showing up inevitably the most trifling defect. Except Mary Pickford, there is nobody whose contour quite suits the camera, quite stands the test, as does Lillian’s. And it would be difficult to find two actresses who appear in more radically different lights. Mary photographs always with cameolike precision: she stands out against her backgrounds with crystal clarity, like Lucrezia Bori at the opera. Lillian’s outlines, on the other hand, are dreamlike, subdued; she seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.

Lillian Gish in 1922 – Photograph by Pach Bros.

This lyrical coloring in Lillian seems immensely precious: doubly so because she lives in an age when most girls have definitely outlawed overtones, when everything must be frank and open, everything ruthlessly displayed, no matter how ugly it may be. Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does, glorifies it with the interpenetrating quality of the imagination, makes it impossible for her to be drably realistic, no matter what her role. Frequently she plays what are called in the movies “cotton stocking” parts. But what she gives you of poverty in these instances is never its drabness and hardness but only its singleness and sweet humility.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The star example is the scene in Way Down East in which Anna Moore, her mind oppressed by the dread dogma of infant damnation, herself baptized her dying child. Miss Gish played the scene with utter realism—her walk, her expressions, the very arrangement of her clothes all suggesting the strain of recent childbirth. Many an actress could have done that, but I do not know who could have followed her in the next step she took, who could have lifted the whole scene, as she did, away from squalor, beyond the physical, who could so beautifully have suggested the age-old miracle of the girl become mother.

But Lillian’s lyricism could never have served to win her present place for her had it not been coupled with a dramatic intensity all the more striking because the body through which she expresses it seems so frail. The effect is virtually to blot out the flesh: when she really lets herself go, she is like nothing so much as a pure white flame.

Though she has done finer things since, her closet scene in Broken Blossoms, the helpless child’s pitiful terror of the brutal father who was hammering against the door, trying to get in and kill her, will remain in the memory of all her audiences as the best single expression of her wonderful capacity for utter surrender to emotion. It was hysterics photographed, yet it was fine art; hysterics are not naturally beautiful.

I have already touched on the exaltation, the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing. Even her beauty is not a thing in itself: you never think of her as a “beauty” in the sense in which you think thus of many women of the theater. She is essentially the Puritan in art: there are many phases of experience that she does not care to touch. It is indeed because of her own sensitiveness, because through all these years in the theater she has, in a sense, kept herself in a world apart, that she has become so incomparable an interpreter of the experience of sensitive women. In the ordinary, vulgar sense of the term, there is no more sex in her screen manifestations than there was for Dante in the Beatrice of the Commedia.

Miss Gish’s work on the screen is pure emotion: there is no suggestion of mind in it, and here, as always, she is profoundly right, for the visible presence of intellect in acting can only rob it of spontaneity, make it labored and self-conscious. But all who have watched Lillian’s development know that the mind is there notwithstanding: nothing could be farther from the truth than to imagine that the lovely things she has created came into being spontaneously, as mere emanations of herself. And she is still growing, for each appearance marks, in some respect, an advance. Twelve years ago, in The Birth of a Nation, I did not indeed find her extraordinarily effective; of all her more important characterizations, this of Elsie Stoneman seems to me the least. But as Annie Lee in Enoch Arden, released that same year, she did immensely fine work, running the whole gamut from youth to age, and doing it with splendid sincerity and with poignant, touching sweetness. As the French girl Marie in Hearts of the World she went even deeper, and after I saw her in Broken Blossoms in 1919, I told her, out of my ignorance, that I did not see how she could ever equal the performance she had given here. Yet Lillian has gone far, far beyond what then seemed unutterable perfection.

In four of her recent pictures, Miss Gish has been engaged in a profound and beautiful study—the study of woman’s attitude toward her love. In La Boheme it was the love which gives blindly, eagerly, in answer to desire. In Romola it was the austere love which, precisely because it loves, will accept nothing from the beloved except the best. In The White Sister love and God were in conflict, and God won.

And in The Scarlet Letter the love was tainted with sin and worked its way out, through suffering, to salvation.

Lillian Gish in “Hearts of the World”

Of these four characterizations, it is difficult to make a choice, but I think the one which moved me most was precisely the one which has been the least popular—Romola. This film surely did not earn very much money for its sponsors, for it was enormously expensive, and it wholly lacked the melodramatic appeal which a great costume film must have if it is to capture the movie public. Lillian’s own role, too, was not essentially dramatic, there was no furniture broken, and the general public could not do other than remain comparatively indifferent to her quiet, gently incisive baring of a woman’s soul. Lillian herself—the artist’s divine dissatisfaction upon her—did not quite share my enthusiasm for this picture. “I hope you will like Romola when you see it,” she had written me. “It caused me so much trouble and there are so many things in it that I would have different from what they are that I can never think of it now without a great feeling of sadness for what we might have done with that beautiful story.” Nevertheless, it is here that she has given us a characterization worthy, in its perfections, to rank with Mary Garden’s portrait of Melisande in Debussy’s ultimate opera. For the first time, as I watched Romola, I felt that I was really beginning to understand what supreme devotion, what never-failing effort it must have cost Lillian Gish to develop her art to the point to which she had brought it here. The old-time violence, the occasionally hysteric quality that was the hangover from her Griffith days, was gone, but the dramatic intenseness that had accompanied it and saved it and made it beautiful remained—repressed, quivering with life. A twitch of her expressive mouth, a shift of expression in her eyes, and she had accomplished what in the old days it took all the resources of her body to achieve less perfectly. The finest example of all this in Romola comes at that moment in the house of Tessa when Romola first realizes that Tito has been unfaithful to her. Actually Lillian did nothing in that moment save look at Tito and then back at Tessa’s baby which she was holding in her arms. Slowly the realization dawned that her husband was the father of this child, and the tears welled up in her eyes, but they did not overflow. Amazement, incredulous wonder, wounded pride, and the pure woman’s instinctive recoil from an unchaste man—they were all there in that look; yet beneath and above them all were love and pity—for Tito, and for Tessa, and for the child.

Lillian Gish – Romola (mid)

In Romola, Lillian appeared to be turning inward—more self-contained than she used to be—an entity complete. In a measure this may have been due to the accident of material. But in a deeper sense I do not believe it was, for Lillian is growing daily, broadening, developing, shifting the stream of her life to deeper channels. If this tendency continues she will in the future be less of an “actress” than now; she will be rather a symbolist, an “essentialist”—if there is such a word—and her screen images will be not so much characterizations as projections, pictures, embodiments (I know not how to name them) of the varied aspects of the spiritual life. One shudders to think what effect such a process might have upon Lillian’s box-office popularity, but what a sense of wonder she could bring to our souls, what deepening and beautifying of this amazing mystery we call life. And Lillian could do it if her managers would give her the chance, could leave behind her “pictures of the floating world” which might well live as long in the imaginations of men as Homer’s portrait of Nausicaa.

Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936 – detail

Indeed, I believe Miss Gish to be capable of much greater roles than any she has yet played. She has etched a precious number of lyrical and dramatic moments, but frequently the ‘stuff from which she has wrought has been the veriest melodrama. Imagine what she might be in Lancelot and Elaine or as Melisande or Francesca da Rimini. Imagine what she might do with Ophelia or with any of the later spiritualized heroines of Shakespeare with Miranda or Perdita, for example. She is not easy to fit with roles that shall be at once adaptable to the screen and suited to her genius. for the mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited by “emotional” actresses—is simply not for her.

Sometimes I am inclined to be a little impatient about these things: I suppose everybody, now and then, feels that the careers of his favorite artists are being less intelligently managed than he himself could manage them. Yet the last time I saw Lillian, one night in Chicago, when she and her delightful mother left for California, it came over me suddenly that all such fretting was futile. What difference does it make what Lillian plays so long as she is Lillian? That at least no casting director can ever take away from us. Here is the source of the impression she makes, for she herself is among the poets. She may bring us art and literature from the treasure houses of Europe, or she may float on an ice cake down some river of her native land. Whatever she does, she will always be beauty—emotionalized beauty, through which one catches sudden, radiant glimmerings of the wonder of life.

*Copyright © 1927 by Edward Wagenknecht, copyright renewed by Edward Wagenknecht, 1955.

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