Though men may not know it, each of us has a hope to be large, to have big, accurate feeling and comprehensive thought about people and the world. Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, wrote:
There is…a great tendency of the self to be as large as it can be, to be as expansive as one of our own far western states. For a self to be large is that self’s being able to become another self, to have other feeling; to identify itself with whatever is real.
Meanwhile, men have also tried to be “large,” make themselves important, by being superior, using people for one’s own advantage, making other things small. Men have undermined their own lives through having contempt, and in explaining this Aesthetic Realism is extremely kind.
I’m going to tell what I have learned and am proud now to teach men in Aesthetic Realism consultations. And I’ll discuss the fight between large and small in the great 19th century American actor, Edwin Forrest.
A Preference for Smallness
Growing up in Miami, Florida in the 1960s, I felt bigger whenever I heard Cantor Bornstein sing at Temple Israel in his resonant, powerful tenor voice that filled the synagogue. That sound made for a feeling of awe and wonder in me.
And from as early as I can remember I loved seeing and taking part in performances of singing, dancing and acting. Aesthetic Realism shows that art itself arises from the largest thing in a person—the desire to see meaning in things and give it beautiful form. An actor literally tries to do what Mr. Siegel described, “to become another self, to have other feeling.” In seventh grade I was in a school production of Christopher Sergel’s comedy Cheaper by the Dozen, my first full-length play. I was one of 12 children in a family, and on opening night, even though the entire cast lost our place, improvised, and then jumped back in about ten pages ahead in the script—I had a wonderful time, and felt something big had happened to me.
But I also had intensely a desire to arrange a small world I could own and control. Ellen Reiss describes this in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known as a “preference in everyone for a world we can tidily rule rather than a large world we need to understand.” As a boy, I daydreamed about playing with a train set that had a miniature town built around it. It was populated by real, miniature people, and I could make them do anything I wanted.
An important aspect of how I came to see largeness and smallness was how I felt about my shorter size. Rather than seeing it as a deficit, in many ways I thought it was an asset. I felt my build was compact and neat, and equated this with being wily and agile. When I played touch football with other boys in the neighborhood, I could maneuver in and out of the pack quickly, while others couldn’t. I saw bigger people as verging on clumsiness and even a little stupid.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke to a young man who was shorter than average and said that he had resented people who were tall. He asked the man:
Eli Siegel. How does a smaller person have contempt for another? It’s in the phrase, “The best things come in small packages.”… It’s a great American phrase.
That is a saying I quoted often—and hoped was true! Then Mr. Siegel said, “You feel, then, that small people have, by ordinance of the world and divine ordinance, more intelligence?” That’s just how I saw it. Said Mr. Siegel with logic and charm:
Eli Siegel. It happens that Lincoln and Napoleon both had power and also sense…You can have sense anywhere from four and a half to seven feet.
Meanwhile, that preference for smallness took in many things, including my own emotions. I often felt incapable of feeling anything sizable or passionate, both as an actor and in my life. But I was also desperate to be able to do so, and I think my desire to be an actor was part of that. I am very grateful to Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss who has spoken to me about this in Aesthetic Realism classes. These are just a few of the beautiful, life-changing questions she asked me:
- Do you think everyone is in a fight between great emotion and little emotion?
- If you had a tremendous emotion, do you think you would be a fool? Is it good for oneself, or is that when one is giving in?
- Do you like wonder? It’s related to the opposites of large and small—you want to be large, but when you are, something controls you.
And she asked did I want to have a “sense of awe, the grand feeling.” Questions like these and the education I have received for over twenty five years have changed my life top to bottom. I can certainly see more and hope to, but I have had large, grand feeling—about poetry, what people deserve economically, as an actor, and very much in my happy marriage to Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman whom I love so much. I have a conviction that large feeling is good for me, that if I don’t have it I am missing out on something luscious and bedrock.
Edwin Forrest: Acting Shows a Man Wants to Be Large
“People have acted and people have watched acting,” Ellen Reiss wrote inThe Right Of, “But never before was it seen that when a person takes on a role, the biggest hope of everyone’s life is concerned.” And that hope is in the great sentences by Mr. Siegel she quotes from a lesson he gave to actors:
According to Aesthetic Realism acting shows that you don’t have to be fettered to yourself. You can be other people …. [Acting] is a way of being somebody else for the purpose of coming back home immediately. You take a trip in order to find out who you are.
Edwin Forrest lived from 1806 to 1872, and was the first American-born star of the stage. He was immensely popular and received critical acclaim—and for very good reason. Forrest was, I believe, a great artist, and his work was big. As Richard Moody writes in his life of Forrest, “No actor could match him in shaking the rafters and lifting the spectators out of their boots.”
Forrest did so playing Shakespeare’s tragic heroes such as Othello and King Lear, and persons in history fervently struggling against tyranny, such as Spartacus in The Gladiator, and the role for which he became most famous, about which Mr. Siegel wrote in The Right Of when he commented on “the conspicuously unfettered Edwin Forrest, who stirred America with his portrayal of a sad and expressive Indian chief in Metamora.”
Forrest was impelled as an actor to become another person with all of himself. Moody writes, “Forrest never walked through a part. Either he used full steam or he did not play.” And his “full steam” often had tremendous precision.
In accounts of his acting, one sees the truth of the Aesthetic Realism principle stated by Mr. Siegel, “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” For instance, Moody says that although Forrest was “not of more than average height, spectators invariably were amazed at his seemingly gigantic proportions…and to see a giant move with such matchless grace gave them an uncommon thrill.” These are the opposites of power and grace which, when together, make for a mighty effect—as in Forrest’s portrayal of Jack Cade and Rolla.
There are description of Forrest’s booming and penetrating voice, and yet, “in the…tender passages he could sing in a soft tremolo that would move the hardest heart…The world has probably never seen a more effective speaker of words,” says Moody.
Edwin Forrest’s powerful effect arose from the most careful and exacting intellectual work. Richard Moody tells this—and it is large and small working beautifully together in a man:
He probed the play texts, particularly those of Shakespeare, uncovering the layers of meaning…Other actors marveled at the energy he applied to a microscopic and painstaking examination of a single phrase, or even a single word. No detail was neglected.
Edwin Forrest was born and raised one of six children in Philadelphia, and life was hard for the family who struggled financially. His schooling was irregular, but at fourteen he appeared in a play at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and from then on ardently pursued a career as an actor. At 20 in Albany, he worked with the great English actor Edmund Kean. He loved Kean’s fire, the way, as Moody writes, he “penetrated the inner life of the characters.” Kean valued Forrest’s work, too, and encouraged him.
One year later, in 1826, at the age of 21, Forrest made his important New York debut at the Bowery Theatre, playing Othello, and was a great success from then on. This is a portrait of him by Thomas Sully. “Forrest,” writes Mr. Siegel, “generally stood for passion in the art of acting.”
Something that made Forrest’s life large was his feeling that there should be plays by American authors. In 1828 he posted a notice in the press offering $500, “To the author of the best Tragedy, in five acts, of which the hero…shall be an aboriginal of this country.”
The winner was Metamora by John Augustus Stone, about the chief of the Wampanoag tribe and his desperate attempt to stave off being overrun by the white man. Audiences were thrilled by a new sight of a native American man—his size and depth. There was Forrest as Metamora, “poised like a bronze statue on a rocky crag, the ships on fire in the harbor,” and the firm, wide way the Indian chief speaks. When he is confronted by the council of Englishmen who have ill-will, Metamora says:
Metamora. Ye had been tossed about like small things upon the face of the great waters, and there was no earth for your feet to rest on…The red man took you as a little child and opened the door of his wigwam. The keen blast of the north howled in the leafless wood, but the Indian covered you with his broad right hand…Your little ones smiled when they heard the loud voice of the storm, for your fires were warm and the Indian was the white man’s friend.
But Metamora’s men are overrun, and in a heart-rending scene near the end, he embraces his lovely wife Nahmeeokee, tells her to look to the sky, and then stabs her so she will never know “white man’s bondage…free as the air she lived—pure as the snow she died.” In the final scene Metamora is shot. So effective was Forrest’s acting that once, when many Indian-Americans were in the audience, they were:
…so convinced of its reality that they rose and chanted a dirge in honor of the great chief who was dying on the stage.
A Mix Up of Large and Small in Marriage
The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism taught me, is through being close to another person, to like the world itself “as a large and unlimited fact.” A man needs to see, too, that his wife comes from the whole world and has reality’s opposites in her. When he doesn’t, a kitchen implement looms large and everything else is made insignificant.
Eugene Henderson, 32 years old, told us that he and his wife, Linda, had a very good time going out one afternoon, but when they got home they got into an argument:
Eugene Henderson: It started very small and escalated to really something I didn’t expect—with tears. And I felt bad especially because we had a great time, and then domestic issues pop up…She was cooking, making veggie burgers, and I have a habit, as she’s using a spatula, of putting it in the sink.
Consultants: Before she’s finished?
Eugene Henderson: Yes. But she objected and said, “Please don’t put the spatula in the sink.” Then she said why she didn’t like it, that I do this often and it’s a war–she takes it out, I put it in. And I felt, “Why is she going on about this?” So I said, “This is not a big deal.”
Soon, there was a fight. We told Mr. Henderson what we’ve learned—every argument about something seemingly small is really about something bigger. We asked, about the spatula:
Consultants: Does Linda Henderson have any feeling that you want to neaten her up? Get her in order?
Eugene Henderson: Perhaps she does.
Consultants: Men can want to straighten a woman up. Is that an ethical matter—and should a woman object?
Eugene Henderson: Yes, she should.
Later, Mr. Henderson spoke with feeling about his job at an agency working to have justice come to people, and also about the deeper feeling between himself and Mrs. Henderson. “Have big things been happening in your life?” we asked:
Eugene Henderson: Yeah, work-wise and then personally. But I don’t like getting into fights.
Consultants: Well, maybe. But we’ve seen that men and women can have a large feeling, and all of a sudden, an argument. Mr. Siegel said if love is going to go well, people have to study that in themselves which is against loving anything. Do you have that?
Eugene Henderson: Yes, I do.
Consultants: The desire not to care for anything, and the desire to care—can those two things be raging in a person?
Eugene Henderson: Yes, they can. Thank you for explaining that.
Those two things were raging in Edwin Forrest in his marriage to Catherine Sinclair. When they met in London, Forrest was 30, she was 18, and he was taken by her vivacity, her beauty and her keen mind. But soon after bringing his new bride to New York, Forrest made the mistake of many husbands—he wanted a snug haven with her apart from the world. He bought an impressive house on West 23rd Street, which, as Richard Moody writes, “sheltered the…newlyweds in solitary splendor,” and where Forrest “settled in as Lord of the Manor.”
How lucky I was to hear questions just after I was married to Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman about my tendency to be complacent—which was rather intense. In one class Ellen Reiss asked, “Is there anything in Bennett Cooperman that would like to rest now, and feel he’s achieved certain things that are valuable. Rest and get pats on the cheek?” And she asked if I wanted to use Meryl as “a harbor or a lighthouse?” It was too much the first, but I’m very glad to say that has changed!
Much went on with Forrest and his wife. It seems he mainly wanted her at home to serve and soothe him when he returned from the rigors of the theatre. Catherine Sinclair was a cultured woman and she did not like this, writing once to a friend that, “the relative position of husband and wife must be that of companions; not master on one side, and dependence on the other.”
I learned that when a couple use each other to have a separate world, and when a man lessens the largeness of the world in his wife, there will inevitably be distrust and pain. This came to a head when, at home, Forrest found a letter written to his wife by a male friend, expressing ardent feelings for her. She vehemently denied any infidelity, but once this was in Forrest’s mind it “gnawed at him day after day.” He became cold and distant, finally forcing his wife to leave their home. A bitter, scandalous divorce trial followed, which Forrest lost.
The Drama between Cheapness & Grandeur Affects History Too
At the same time that his domestic life was in turmoil, Forrest was making choices in his professional life that, I believe, were in behalf of smallness.
The famous Astor Place Riot of 1849 concerned the rivalry between Forrest and the noted English actor William Macready, close friend of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, along with something culturally large in both of these men, each had the cheap thing that can make for what goes on between two men in any office today. Writes Ellen Reiss in The Right Of:
Contempt in people hates the idea that anything or anyone should be bigger than oneself. Contempt says…”The way for me to be big is to feel someone else is small. If I can see you as less than I am…that makes me big. But if I have to see you as having largeness, if I have to look up to you, then I’m small—I’m nothing!
Macready and Forrest had very different styles. While Forrest was seen as ardent, rugged and spontaneous, Macready’s acting—also powerful—was more dignified and had a certain finesse.
In London, Forrest was one of the early American actors to be highly praised by the critics, including for his Shakespearean roles. Moody writes that Macready was “enraged” and that he “squirmed when Forrest was praised.” But Macready also criticized himself, writing once in his diary that he knew he condemned Forrest “from a feeling of envy,” and that this was “very narrow and poor and bad.”
Still, Macready’s resentment grew. Then, Forrest felt Macready undermined his performances by having people hiss him from the audience, and he went on the attack. In Edinburgh, he secretly attended a performance by Macready as Hamlet, and during the play, suddenly from the audience came a loud hiss. Forrest never apologized, and later, when Macready came to America, Forrest dogged him in every city, booking himself in rival theatres to play the same roles.
Theatrical managers saw “profits in the rivalry,” and the press licked its chops at the good copy it made for, publishing story after story.
In an issue of The Right Of, in which Mr. Siegel’s lecture “People Have Objected in American History” appears, Mr. Siegel speaks about the Astor Place riot, calling it “one of the strangest uprising.” And saying that “the warfare between Forrest and Macready is part of theatrical history,” Mr. Siegel quotes an account which tells:
Macready appeared in New York in 1849…[Anger at the insult to Forrest,] coupled with the natural antagonism of Irish-born Americans who had see their country destroyed economically by the English, prompted a demonstration against Macready so violent that the Governor of New York called out troops to protect him…The crowd [was]… extremely abusive, and a stupid…officer gave the command to fire…Many were killed.
After this and his contentious divorce, Forrest lived for another 21 years. But he never had the same expansive joie de vivre. Still, he acted as frequently as possible, and in fact seemed driven to do so right until the end—because, I believe, that is where he felt the largest thing in him could thrive. Wrote one critic who saw him as Lear in the last year of his life:
I went last night to see Forrest. I saw Lear himself; and never can I forget him, the poor, discrowned, wandering king, whose every look and tone went to the heart…I could not suppress my tears in the last scene. The tones of the heart-broken father linger in my ear like the echo of a distant strain of sad, sweet music, inexpressibly mournful yet sublime. The whole picture will stay in my memory so long as soul and body hang together.
Studying Edwin Forrest’s life and work makes me immeasurably grateful for Aesthetic Realism and the largeness, integrity and happiness it can give to a man’s life. I believe Eli Siegel himself had the most beautiful largeness—his mind was the most comprehensive and wide-ranging, and he always had the biggest, most admirable purpose with people—to bring out their strength. To study Aesthetic Realism is to become larger—and this is the happy privilege of any man’s lifetime!