Professor Bridget Orr
‘Camouflage Labs: mimicry, disguise and presence in 18th century theatre’

Theatre is pre-eminently a site of phenomena cognate with ‘camouflage’, namely mimicry and disguise, as anti-theatricalists have complained for millennia. In the eighteenth-century, three issues seem particularly salient in this context. As systems of status differentiation via costume and social performance were increasingly undermined by commerce, the anxieties and potentials of social mimicry proliferated in play scripts and performances. New theatrical modes such as Harlequinades and pantomime exploited a novel corporeal dramaturgy’s capacity to provide uncensored satire through visual performances whose meanings could be inferred without verifiable texts. And in acting theory, a lengthy contest between ‘externalists’ who believed actors could perform universal signs of passion without genuinely feeling the emotions they represented, and ‘internalists’ who believed actors needed to embody feelings authentically, put affective mimicry at the centre of theatre’s claim to moral and social value.

Professor Bram Van Oostveldt
‘Mimicry and Camouflage in Eighteenth-Century Acting Theories’

Darwin, Bates and Wallace often use theatrical metaphors to describe mimicry and camouflage in the animal world. Wallace compares Leptalis-butterflies to actors and masqueraders, while Darwin refers to theatrical strategies to understand mimicry and camouflage in the animal world. In their turn, 19th-and early 20th-century writings on acting, such as William Archer’s Masks or Faces? A study in the Psychology of Acting (1880), R.J Broadbent’s History of Pantomime (1901) or Arthur Bleakley’s The Art of Mimicry (1911) compare the art of acting to strategies of camouflage and mimicry in the animal world. Whereas these comparisons between theatre and camouflage and mimicry in this period are merely used as metaphors, eighteenth-century theoretical reflections on acting can give us some more profound ideas about this connection. Although the words camouflage and mimicry are not used, acting is considered to be a chameleon-like activity that tries to understand the relation between character performer and spectator in terms of hiding and deceit. In this paper, I will focus on French and English 18th-century acting manuals (Rémond de Saint-Albine, François Riccobini, Diderot and John Hill) to explore these connections in terms of a methodology for acting, but also focus on how they raised important questions about social behavior.

Image: Abbott Handerson Thayer, Richard S. Meryman, Peacock in the Woods, study for book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, 1907, oil on canvas, 45 1⁄4 x 36 3⁄8 in. (114.9 x 92.4 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the heirs of Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1950.2.11