Research Stream


Glen McGillivray (2014-2015)
The University of Sydney

Forms Forced to their Conceit: Semiosis and Affect in Eighteenth-Century English Acting

This project explores the relationship between gesture and emotion in eighteenth-century English acting.

Forms Forced to their Conceit: Semiosis and Affect in Eighteenth Century English Acting

David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in 'Macbeth' by Johann Zoffany (1733‒1810), 1768.

Studies of eighteenth century English acting have been unavoidably inflected by the inspiration versus externalization debates that emerged in the century that followed. This project argues that there was no conflict, that despite the rhetoric from advocates on both sides, the gestural and vocal codes used by actors were remarkably consistent across the long eighteenth century, and when actors were really good, audiences responded emotionally to their performances. In this research, Glen McGillivray seeks to provide nuance and complexity to the questions of how and why did audiences respond so passionately to acting which, to the modern eye, seem overly contrived? The question of whether an actor “really” feels an emotion is, to a certain extent, irrelevant as it relies on a theory of emotional transaction that is predicated upon sympathetic identification with the 'internal' state of another. Such a view is based on what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls a ‘topography of the self’ which in Western cultures depends upon a relationship between putatively authentic interiors versus falsifiable exteriors. As Appadurai argues, this is not necessarily so, say, in South Indian Hindu cultures (his case study) nor is it so amongst early modern Europeans. Rather, Glen McGillivray hypothesises that the contract between eighteenth century actors and their audiences had, as Appadurai states, the objective ‘to create a chain of communications in feeling, not by unmediated empathy between the emotional 'interiors' of specific individuals but by recourse to a shared, and relatively fixed set, of public gestures’ (107). In other words, to create an affective semiosis.

Papers Given:

'Propriety and Grace: Reconsidering Eighteenth-Century Acting Conventions', Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, UWA, 10 September 2015.

'Listening for the Voice of Sarah: Sarah Siddons’ Lady Macbeth and the Eighteenth-Century Audience', 'The Player’s Passion Revisited: Studies in the Science(s) of Acting in 2015', Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies (ADSA) in association with CHE, The University of Sydney, 23‒26 June 2015.

‘Exploring the Material and Social Context of School for Scandal in Eighteenth Century London’, English Teachers’ Association Comedy Day, The University of Sydney, 24 May 2014 (invited speaker).

‘Passion and Infection: Towards a Community of Sentiment in the Eighteenth-Century Theatre’, Sourcing Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern World Conference, The University of Western Australia, 27‒29 June 2013.

‘Motions of the Mind: Communicating the Passions on the Early Modern Stage’, Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern World Conference, The University of Western Australia, 8‒11 June 2011.


McGillivray, G. 'Suiting Forms to Their Conceit': Emotion and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Tragic Acting'. Theatre Survey 59.2 (2018): 169‒89.

McGillivray, G. ‘Rant, Cant and Tone: The Voice of the Eighteenth-Century Actor and Sarah Siddons’. Theatre Notebook: A Journal of the History and Technique of the British Theatre 71.1 (2017): 2‒20.

McGillivray, G. ‘Motions of the Mind: Transacting Emotions on the Eighteenth-Century Stage’. Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 28.2 (2013 [published 2014]: 5‒24.