Even if my friend did not hit upon the exact truth, he hit upon a great possibility. This penetration will surprise you less, perhaps, if you fancy that everyone who walks through a picture gallery is really unconsciously acting the part of a deaf man who is amusing himself by examining the dumb who are conversing on subjects familiar to him. This is one of the points of view with which I always look at pictures, and I fancy it a sure means of divining ambiguous actions and equivocal movements, of being at once aware of the frigidity and confusion of an ill-arranged action or of conversation, and of seeing at once, in a scene rendered in painting, all the faults of languid or exaggerated acting. The term “acting” which I have just used, because it expresses what I mean, calls to my mind another mode of studying which I often employed and which taught me more about actions and gestures than all the books in the world. I used to frequent the theater, and I knew by heart most of our best plays. On the days when I meant to examine actions and gestures, I would climb to the gallery, for the farther I was from the actors the better. As soon as the curtain was raised and the rest of the audience disposed themselves to listen, I put my fingers in my ears, much to the astonishment of my neighbors; not knowing my motives, they looked on me as a madman who only came to the play to miss it. I paid no attention to their remarks and kept my fingers obstinately in my ears as long as the gestures and actions of the actor corresponded with the dialog which I remembered. When I was puzzled by the gestures, I took my fingers from my ears and listened. Ah, how few actors there are who can stand such a test, and how humiliated the majority would be if I were to give the world my criticisms! But judge of my neighbors’ surprise when they saw me shed tears at the pathetic passages, though I had my fingers in my ears. That was too much for them, and even the least inquisitive began to question me. But I coolly answered that “everybody had his own way of listening, and mine was to shut my ears to hear the better,” and found some silent amusement in the comments caused by my real or apparent eccentricity and in the simplicity of some young people who also tried putting their fingers in their ears to hear as I did, and were surprised at their lack of success.
Whatever you may think of my expedient, pray consider that if, to judge correctly of intonation, we must listen to an actor without looking at him, it is very natural to watch an actor without hearing him, if we are to judge correctly of his gestures and action. I may add that the celebrated writer of plays, Le Sage, the author of The Lame Devil, The Bachelor of Salamanca, Gil Blas of Santillana, Turcaret, and a number of plays and comic operas in which his son, the inimitable Montmeny, took part, became so deaf in his old age that people had to shout into his ear trumpet. Yet he was in the habit of frequenting the theater to see his pieces played, and could follow them almost word for word; indeed, he said he was a better judge of his plays and their action when he could no longer hear the actors, and I am certain, from my own personal experience, that he was right.
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