I learned from Aesthetic Realism that men will have real self-expression when we go by our deepest desire, there from birth: to like the world, to see meaning in what is not ourselves—and this very much includes other people.
The thing that stifles and chokes expression is also explained by Aesthetic Realism. “The greatest danger or temptation of man,” stated Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism,” is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” Men think they express themselves by beating out other people and feeling superior, but this is fallacious and inevitably makes a man feel empty, constricted and like a failure.
I’ll speak in this paper about what I have learned and about a young man who is studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations.
And I’ll discuss instances from the life and work of the great English actor who, in the early 1800s, electrified audiences with his passionate, intelligent performances of Shakespeare’s characters and others: Edmund Kean. Kean’s acting stands for the expression men want today—to be unfettered, all out, and tremendously exact, too.
Expression Is a Oneness of Inside and Outside
In his 1949 lecture “Aesthetic Realism and Expression,” Mr. Siegel explains that the original meaning of the word expression is “the pressing out of something from ourselves.” He says:
In every instance of expression the self must be put outside…The business of the self doing a murky job in itself is not expression. In fact, it’s poison…To express means that you see yourself as an outside thing, and you send yourself abroad.
And so when a person expresses himself truly, I learned, he puts together inside and outside—what is deep within him comes out and joins with what Mr. Siegel later calls a “friendly outside.” But the self can object to this, can want to stay inside and hide contemptuously. Discussing this lecture in a class, Ellen Reiss asked: “Do we have a self to hug and caress it, and stay in the self armchair? Or do we have a self to go forth, to see meaning in what is not ourselves?”
That is the debate I was in growing up in South Florida in the 1950s and 60s. In the early love I had for acting and performing, my self did go forth. At Pine Crest High, I was excited to be in The Singing Pines, putting on shows of songs and dance at school and all around Ft. Lauderdale. I relished the hours of rehearsals, learning the tenor parts and the choreography. I was proud because I was using my voice, my feelings to try and be fair to what was not me—notes, rhythms, dance steps, my partner.
But most of the time, even though my parents were fairly affluent and we had a nice home, I felt stuck in myself, lonely and ill-natured.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that I had unknowingly used my family to be snobbish and look down on other people. And there was an unspoken agreement between my mother and me—which I now see as really hurtful and also unintelligent—to feel that people who expressed themselves outwardly were vulgar and gushy, and lacked the proper refinement. I came to see any showing of large feeling, whether pleased or angry, as distasteful and embarrassing. Secretly I envied people who could express large emotion, but mainly I lived by what Mr. Siegel describes:
One thing people do is imagine that they are expressing themselves by restraining themselves…They think that by keeping themselves to themselves…they are expressing themselves. About that, Aesthetic Realism says very carefully, even solemnly, and most decidedly: Phooey!
I went for that restraint which is really contempt—taking the true life and vigor out of things—and it nearly took the life out of me. At one point when I was about 20 I found it so hard just to talk with people that I was afraid I was going to stutter. I felt more locked up inside with every year.
I love Ellen Reiss for what she has taught me on this subject, and feel so fortunate to be her student. In one class at a time I was having difficulty singing a song in a musical presentation, in which a man has passionate, tender feeling. Ms. Reiss asked if showing such a large emotion would make me feel foolish? I felt that, and Ms. Reiss said:
The important thing here is accuracy—it isn’t so much tremendous emotion, but accurate emotion. And if there is that in the world that deserves [large emotion], the only accurate thing to do is to give it.
And she said that in having feeling and expressing it, I needed to feel “never was I so tough, so savvy. A person is being born right now,” she continued. “Would it be good for that person to have great feeling or little feeling?” Hearing this question articulated, it is so clear the answer is great feeling. And this is true in every aspect of my life—in the work I love as an Aesthetic Realism consultant, as an actor, husband, son, friend. This has me feel expressed in a way I once thought would be impossible, and I am enormously grateful.
What Can Acting Teach a Man about Expression?
In his 1951 lecture, “Aesthetic Realism as Beauty: Acting,” Eli Siegel describes acting as “the known showing of another feeling than you, as you see yourself, are disposed to have.” This has every man’s hope in it whether he goes on the stage or not: to see the feelings of another person so well you become that person. And Mr. Siegel says about the man I now speak of:
The actor on the whole in England who most electrified audiences, and who got the most intense reaction, is Edmund Kean. There is something unexplainably amazing about him….as we read what Kean could do, we feel the strange power, the power which is like an oak, and the power in sparks.
That power came from a life-long drive in Kean that, I believe, men today are desperate to have. As an actor, Kean felt he would take care of himself only if he gave his all, that the giving was the same as getting his own bedrock integrity, and also the same as terrific precision. Kean didn’t hold back. He shows the truth of what I am learning from Ms. Reiss, and also from my acting teacher, Aesthetic Realism consultant and actress Anne Fielding: great, accurate feeling about the world is the same as selfishness, stature, expression.
Edmund Kean had, as Mr. Siegel said, a “rather troubled childhood.” He was born at Gray’s Inn, London, in early 1789, the out-of-wedlock son of Ann Carey, a poor young woman who led a turbulent life in the streets of London. At two years old, when, according to Giles Playfair in his biography Kean, “he would…have died of starvation and neglect,” the little boy was taken to live with Charlotte Tidswell, an actress at the Drury Lane Theatre who took a deep interest in Edmund’s life. Playfair writes that Miss Tidswell:
had him taught singing…and fencing by…masters at Drury Lane….She gave Edmund his first groundings in the study of Shakespeare, encouraging him to feel as well as understand the lines he repeated after her and making him rehearse his speeches for hours on end in front of a mirror.
I believe that in the plays of Shakespeare, Edmund Kean early found a beauty, a structure in the world he found nowhere else. Even as a child he became known in London for his readings from Shakespeare, and then when he was nine, his mother, seeing that he could make money, reclaimed her son and again, says Playfair, “he became the child vagabond.” She had him travel with shows to fair-grounds where he learned tumbling and clowning, and had to scrape together whatever food he could find.
Early, Edmund Kean met a confusing world. Playfair writes that by fifteen, “he had been buffeted and caressed…praised and insulted and in sum he had learned that the world was cruel and relentless and had to be fought back hard.” Kean endured terrible things, and I believe that along with his mighty impulsion to art, unknowingly he also saw the world as an enemy, an opponent he had to beat to get anywhere. Here he was like many men.
Over the next nine years Kean and the woman he married, Mary Chambers, were strolling players in the provinces of England, often penniless and hungry, trying desperately to feed and clothe their two young sons who performed with them, one of whom died. Yet Kean maintained a burning desire to express himself with grandeur, and in his biography Edmund Kean, Howard Hillebrand quotes Kean’s wife saying that he would go off for hours “thinking intensely on his characters,” that he “studied…beyond any actor I knew.”
The Whole Self Taking An Outside Form
In his lecture on expression, Mr. Siegel says:
Expression is never expression until it’s complete and also accurate…True expression is that which shows the whole self taking an outside form. If the whole self is not taking an outside form, it doesn’t join with a friendly outside…anytime part of the self is expressed and the whole self is not, we are saying, Unhappiness, come to me, and ailment, join me.
When Edmund Kean, after hardship that had him destitute and frantic, made his debut at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on January 26, 1814, the audience saw the self of a man taking an outside form in a way that was tremendous and new. At this time when a formal, restrained style of acting was in vogue, Kean astonished the audience with his fire, his subtlety, his spontaneity and naturalness, all of which brought new honesty to his Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, had traditionally been played as a villain, instantly recognizable as such in a stock red wig and dirty costume. But Kean refused to go along with this convention, making Shylock more ordinary in appearance in a black wig and clean costume, a move the other actors thought was courting disaster. This was because he saw in Shylock, in his evil, “the human touch that made him kin to all men,” said one critic. As Hillebrand tells more we see Kean’s beautiful impulsion to have his whole self walk the boards. Kean was:
…alive, alive with energy, in every muscle, glance, and intonation. The arms and hands were eloquent, the whole face spoke before the words were uttered, the eyes, the marvelous black eyes which were Kean’s most precious instrument, darted intelligence. As the familiar lines fell from his lips they seemed to be rediscovered, as though for the first time was revealed their true meaning.
“Line after line bit incisively into the hearers’ ears,” writes Hillebrand, and one of the hearers that night was the young critic William Hazlitt, then a reviewer for the Morning Chronicle. Hazlitt, who said he did not think it possible for Shakespeare’s characters to be acted truly, loved what he saw then and for years after, saying that Kean’s “life and spirit…fill[ed] the stage, and burn[ed] in every part of it,” that he displayed, as no other could, “the tumult and conflict of opposite passions in the soul.”
Here, Hazlitt is seeing and describing something which Eli Siegel was to make clear for the first time in history in his magnificent principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Two great opposites in Kean’s acting are passion and control, and these are throughout an essay which Mr. Siegel said is “The most valuable description of acting perhaps in the world,” by the American writer, Richard Henry Dana. Dana saw Kean act in what Mr. Siegel referred to as “careful Boston” of the early 1800s, and felt the honesty of Kean changed him, made him a better person. He says that to see Kean was an “intellectual feast,” and writes:
In his highest wrought passion, when every limb [is] alive and quivering, and his gestures…violent, nothing appears ranted or over-acted; because he makes us feel that, with all this, there is something still within him vainly struggling for utterance….[he] runs along the dizzy edge of the roaring and beating sea, with feet as sure as we walk our parlours.
Commenting, Eli Siegel described the essence of Kean’s appeal when he said, “He makes us feel art consists of hanging about necessary precipices that you never jump over.”
Kean played Shakespeare’s Richard III, Shylock, Iago, Othello, Hamlet and Sir Giles Overreach in Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The poet Lord Byron was at a performance of this latter role when, near the end of the play, Sir Giles is cornered by his enemies, lashes out and goes mad. Kean was so utter the audience thought he was “possessed by the devil.” Writes Giles Playfair, Kean:
Even the actors on the stage—hard-boiled professionals …were frightened. And then the pit rose up in a body and cheered and went on cheering…
“By God he is a Soul,” said Byron.
Kean became “the fullest expression in [acting]…of the Romantic Movement,” says Howard Hillebrand, whose book Eli Siegel reviewed forScribner’s Magazine in 1933, praising Hillebrand’s “live and scholarly words,” and saying of Kean:
This acting person had something; a new, big and divine something. I can say, without putting on, that this…famous actor, teamed with Shakespeare, put me in a pleasing, definite tremor—in 1933. Kean brought a new excitement to England.
What Kean’s acting shows powerfully—the whole self joining with what is not oneself—stands for the expression men today hope to have in their everyday lives.
Aesthetic Realism Consultations and the Real Self-Expression Men Are Looking For
Jonathan White, a young man who cares for sports, has spoken deeply about hoping to express himself with sincerity as an actor, with the woman he cares for, and as a son. But like many men he has felt hemmed in, unable to give his mind to people and things in a steady, deep way. Instead, he has banked on a kind of expression men can go for—charm and kidding people along. He once wrote to us, “I have betrayed myself thousands and thousands of times because I wanted to get people’s approval.”
Mr. White told us he was having a hard time with his father. His parents had been quarreling and he was bitter, somewhat blaming his father, who worked in a non-profit company and was not a “go-getter” in business as Jonathan White thought he should be. In a document he wrote for one consultation he said:
My relationship with my father…is not something of which I am proud. I feel like a cold person almost every time someone asks how my father is doing…because…I have put him out of my mind so much….I feel terrible saying this, but I often think of him as a downer, a loser.
To have him see his father’s feelings from within, with depth and respect, we asked him: “Why do you think he chose work that is more in behalf of justice to people than in making profit?—do you think there is something to respect there?” And “What do you think your father cared for in your mother when they first met?”; “Are you a snob about your father?”; “Do you want him to feel he’s a success or a failure?”
Mr. White wrote assignments such as “A soliloquy of James White at age twenty two” and “10 places I am the same and different from my father.” He told us recently, “I’m happy to say my relationship with my father has improved a lot in the last weeks,” and Mr. White’s life as a whole is blooming—he feels more sure as an actor and more hopeful about love than ever. He wrote to us:
I’m extremely excited by the world that’s opening up to me, or I should say that I’m opening up to, as a person and a n actor. I feel very fortunate to be studying Aesthetic Realism—it is enabling me to see so much more than before.
Should We Be Impressed by the World or Fight It
“Expression,” Mr. Siegel said, “is activity, but it begins with how we think.” And he says this which I love: “We have to be impressed before we can be expressed.” Hearing this, you know it is something true that was never put in words before. That sentence, too, describes Edmund Kean’s tremendous, untrammelled expression—he was said to be the best listener on the stage.
In a matter of weeks after his Drury Lane debut, he went from poverty and obscurity to fame and great wealth—nothing like it ever happened in the history of the theatre. Yet, as men have, Kean also had come to see his expression as fighting the world, seeing it as an opponent to vanquish. Said Mr. Siegel, “Kean was more sensible as an actor than a human being: that happens to be the moral of most actors’ lives.”
Kean could apparently be brutal to anyone he saw as a possible threat to his new position. “The throne is mine,” he wrote,” I will maintain it,” and there are accounts of his fierce competitiveness with other actors. Kean never knew that desire to squash a seeming rival came from an utterly different source than that which made for great expression in him.
The early years of poverty and the death of their child took its toll on Kean’s marriage. And I believe he did not relish thinking about the depths of his wife the way he thought about a character in a play. Early, their marriage became one of distance and bitterness, and they eventually lived apart but never formally divorced.
I am immensely fortunate to be learning what men have ached to know for centuries about love—that the true, scientific, romantic purpose a man needs to have for love to go well is to use a woman to like the whole world.
Like many men, I thought a woman should make me feel I was wonderful just by being me. And I was in a fight between being honestly impressed, swept by a woman and proud that my self was, as Mr. Siegel said, going “abroad,” and wanting to use her to serve and make much of me. And so, when I was interested in a woman I would be strategic—”How can I get her to show that she likes me?”—while acting cool myself. To my great shock every time, the woman objected. Once, when I asked a woman out in this offhand way, she said “No” in no uncertain terms, and I was mortified. In an Aesthetic Realism class when I spoke about this, Ms. Reiss said:
You have a manner which can…seem very at ease…But at a certain point what a person wants is passion. You find it hard to say passionately, “I want to know you for the purpose of being fair to the world, and you can be sure that I want that for you. We may have only one conversation, or we may have them all our lives, but you can count on this.” You don’t like yourself for not being able to talk that way, being passionate, assuring a woman you’re the man to have her like the world. No woman worth her salt will trust you if you don’t.
Ms. Reiss was right and I have changed! I have a different purpose with the woman who I hope to have conversations with all of our lives—my dear wife of one year and three months, Meryl Nietsch, who is studying to teach Aesthetic Realism. I need Meryl’s perceptions of the world and of me, her beautiful radiance and depth, her criticism and kindness to be a fully expressed man, and I am proud to say so. And I love Meryl Nietsch’s meaning for women all over America through what she has seen and presented through her study of Aesthetic Realism about the cause of eating disorders and how they can end in a woman’s life, and for wanting this urgently needed knowledge known.
Edmund Kean’s life—his greatness as an artist, his hopes as a man—show the magnificent truth of Aesthetic Realism and what it can teach every man about how to have the honest, vibrant, joyous self-expression men have longed for. I am so glad that people from Washington state to Florida, from Texas to Michigan, are meeting this great education at last!