Though the acting of plays at schools has been universally supposed a very useful practice, it has of late years been much laid aside. The advantages arising from it have not been judged equal to the inconveniencies; and the speaking of single speeches, or the acting of single scenes, has been generally substituted in its stead. Indeed when we consider the leading principle and prevailing sentiments of most plays, we shall not wonder that they are not always thought to be the most suitable employment for youth at school; nor, when we reflect on the long interruption to the common school-exercises, which the preparation for a play must necessarily occasion, shall we think it consistent with the general improvement:—But, to wave every objection from prudence or morality, it may be confidently affirmed, that the acting of a play is not so conducive to improvement in elocution, as the speaking of single speeches.
In the first place, the acting of plays is of all kinds of delivery the most difficult; and therefore cannot be the most suitable exercise for boys at school. In the next place, a dramatic performance requires so much attention to the deportment of the body, so varied an expression of the passions, and so strict an adherence to character, that elocution is in danger of being neglected: Besides, exact propriety of action, and a nice discrimination of the passions, however essential on the stage, are but of a secondary importance in a school. It is plain, open, distinct, and forcible pronunciation which school-boys should aim at; and not that quick transition from one passion to another, that archness of look, and that jeu de theatre, as it is called, so essential to a tolerable dramatic exhibition, and which actors themselves can scarcely arrive at. In short, it is speaking rather than acting which school-boys should be taught, while the performance of plays is calculated to teach them acting rather than speaking.
But there is a contrary extreme into which many teachers are apt to run, and that is, to condemn every thing which is vehement and forcible as theatrical. It is an old trick to depreciate what we can not attain, and calling a spirited pronunciation theatrical, is but an artful method of hiding an utter inability of speaking with force and energy. But though school-boys ought not to be taught those nice touches which form the greatest difficulties in the profession of an actor, they should not be too much restrained from an exertion of voice, so necessary to strengthening the organs of sound, because they may sometimes be too loud and vociferous. Perhaps nine out of ten, instead of too much confidence, and too violent a manner of speaking, which these teachers seem so much to dread, have as Dr. Johnson calls it, a frigid equality, a stupid languor, and a torpid apathy. These must be roused by something strong and excessive, or they will never rise even to mediocrity; while the few who have a tendency to rant, are very easily reclaimed; and ought to be treated in pronunciation and action, as Quintillion advises to do in composition; that is, we should rather allow of an exuberance, than, by too much correctness, check the vigour and luxuriancy of nature.