Sign Language Among North American Indians – Gestures of Actors

To look at the performance of a play through thick glass or with closed ears has much the same absurd effect that is produced by also stopping the ears while at a ball and watching the apparently objectless capering of the dancers, without the aid of musical accompaniment. Diderot, in his Lettre sur les sourds muets, gives his experience as follows:

“I used frequently to attend the theater and I knew by heart most of our good plays. Whenever I wished to criticize the movements and gestures of the actors I went to the third tier of boxes, for the further I was from them the better I was situated for this purpose. As soon as the curtain rose, and the moment came when the other spectators disposed themselves to listen, I put my fingers into my ears, not without causing some surprise among those who surrounded me, who, not understanding, almost regarded me as a crazy man who had come to the play only not to hear it. I was very little embarrassed by their comments, however, and obstinately kept my ears closed as long as the action and gestures of the players seemed to me to accord with the discourse which I recollected. I listened only when I failed to see the appropriateness of the gestures.. There are few actors capable of sustaining such a test, and the details into which I could enter would be mortifying to most of them.”

It will be noticed that Diderot made this test with regard to the appropriate gestural representation of plays that he knew by heart, but if he had been entirely without any knowledge of the plot, the difficulty in his comprehending it from gestures alone would have been enormously increased. When many admirers of Ristori, who were wholly unacquainted with the language in which her words were delivered, declared that her gesture and expression were so perfect that they understood every sentence, it is to be doubted if they would have been so delighted if they had not been thoroughly familiar with the plots of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart. This view is confirmed by the case of a deaf-mute, told to the writer by Professor Fay, who had prepared to enjoy Ristori’s acting by reading in advance the advertised play, but on his reaching the theater another play was substituted and he could derive no idea from its presentation. The experience of the present writer is that he could gain very little meaning in detail out of the performance at a Chinese theater, where there is much more true pantomime than in the European, without a general notion of the subject as conveyed from time to time by an interpreter. A crucial test on this subject was made at the representation at Washington, in April, 1881, of Frou-Frou by Sarah Bernhardt and the excellent French company supporting her. Several persons of special intelligence and familiar with theatrical performances, but who did not understand spoken French, and had not heard or read the play before or even seen an abstract of it, paid close attention to ascertain what they could learn of the plot and incidents from the gestures alone. This could be determined in the special play the more certainly as it is not founded on historic events or any known facts. The result was that from the entrance of the heroine during the first scene in a peacock-blue riding habit to her death in a black walking-suit, three hours or five acts later, none of the students formed any distinct conception of the plot. This want of apprehension extended even to uncertainty whether Gilberte was married or not; that is, whether her adventures were those of a disobedient daughter or a faithless wife, and, if married, which of the half dozen male personages was her husband. There were gestures enough, indeed rather a profusion of them, and they were thoroughly appropriate to the words (when those were understood) in which fun, distress, rage, and other emotions were expressed, but in no cases did they interpret the motive for those emotions. They were the dressing for the words of the actors as the superb millinery was that of their persons, and perhaps acted as varnish to bring out dialogues and soliloquies in heightened effect. But though varnish can bring into plainer view dull or faded characters, it cannot introduce into them significance where none before existed. The simple fact was that the gestures of the most famed histrionic school, the Comédie Française, were not significant, far less self-interpreting, and though praised as the perfection of art, have diverged widely from nature. It thus appears that the absence of absolute self-interpretation by gesture is by no means confined to the lower grade of actors, such as are criticized in the old lines:

When to enforce some very tender part
His left hand sleeps by instinct on the heart;
His soul, of every other thought bereft,
Seems anxious only—where to place the left! 1

Without relying wholly upon the facts above mentioned, it will be admitted upon reflection that however numerous and correct may be the actually significant gestures made by a great actor in the representation of his part, they must be in small proportion to the number of gestures not at all significant, and which are no less necessary to give to his declamation precision, grace, and force. Significant gestures on the stage may be regarded in the nature of high seasoning and ornamentation, which by undue use defeat their object and create disgust. Histrionic perfection is, indeed, more shown in the slight shades of movement of the head, glances of the eye, and poises of the body than in violent attitudes; but these slight movements are wholly unintelligible without the words uttered with them. Even in the expression of strong emotion the same gesture will apply to many and utterly diverse conditions of fact. The greatest actor in telling that his father was dead can convey his grief with a shade of difference from that which he would use if saying that his wife had run away, his son been arrested for murder, or his house burned down; but that shade would not without words inform any person, ignorant of the supposed event, which of the four misfortunes had occurred. A true sign language, however, would fully express the exact circumstances, either with or without any exhibition of the general emotion appropriate to them.Even among the best sign-talkers, whether Indian or deaf-mute, it is necessary to establish some rapport relating to theme or subject-matter, since many gestures, as indeed is the case in a less degree with spoken words, have widely different significations, according to the object of their exhibition, as well as the context. Panurge (Pantagruel, Book III, ch. xix) hits the truth upon this point, however ungallant in his application of it to the fair sex. He is desirous to consult a dumb man, but says it would be useless to apply to a woman, for “whatever it be that they see they do always represent unto their fancies, and imagine that it hath some relation to love. Whatever signs, shows, or gestures we shall make, or whatever our behavior, carriage, or demeanor shall happen to be in their view and presence, they will interpret the whole in reference to androgynation.” A story is told to the same point by Guevara, in his fabulous life of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. A young Roman gentleman encountering at the foot of Mount Celion a beautiful Latin lady, who from her very cradle had been deaf and dumb, asked her in gesture what senators in her descent from the top of the hill she had met with, going up thither. She straightway imagined that he had fallen in love with her and was eloquently proposing marriage, whereupon she at once threw herself into his arms in acceptance. The experience of travelers on the Plains is to the same general effect, that signs commonly used to men are understood by women in a sense so different as to occasion embarrassment. So necessary was it to strike the mental key-note of the spectators by adapting their minds to time, place, and circumstance, that even in the palmiest days of pantomime it was customary for the crier to give some short preliminary explanation of what was to be acted, which advantage is now retained by our play-bills, always more specific when the performance is in a foreign language, unless, indeed, the management is interested in the sale of librettos.


  1. Transcriber’s Note: The verses in the section on Gestures of Actors on p. 309 are loosely quoted from “The Rosciad” by Charles Churchill, which more accurately reads:

    “… When to enforce some very tender part,
    The right hand slips by instinct on the heart,
    His soul, of every other thought bereft,
    Is anxious only where to place the left;…”[]


Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881

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