Charlie Chaplin and Gestus

I’ve recently begun watching clips and films of Chaplin’s work. It is important for 21st Century theatre artists to check in with such a pivotal player in the creation of modern American performance. A cross between a vaudeville act and a clown, Chaplin discovered ways of using his body that was both comically exaggerated, honest, and recognizable. His performances are composed of a revolving repertoire of physical and facial gestures. By using white face make-up to pale his face, his expressions were always able to go back to a neutral tone. From there he could move in and out of various expressions that allowed him to quickly transition from one motivation to another.

Chaplin’s techniques inspired Brecht’s development of the term Gestus. Carl Weber describes Gestus or Gestik acting as “the total process […] of all physical behavior the actor displays when showing us a ‘character’ on stage…” (Weber 2000; from The Brecht Sourcebook). Brecht’s concept of Gestus includes not only the physical behaviors of an actor on stage, but correlates directly to who they are in their social reality. The actor’s entire Gestus (their physical score or repertoire) helps define their social positioning. As the Tramp, Chaplin performed a certain player within his social realm: a wandering, modern nomad of sorts. In each film, he finds himself trying out one trade after another be it a circus performer, factory worker or miner. His trademark shuffle of a walk and curious eyebrows, the constant adjusting of his hat and the way he fiddles meekly with his cane are all elements of his distinguishing himself as a unique character responding to social stimuli.

The famous ‘Table Ballet’ scene from The Gold Rush is a short, but illustrative example of the way an actor’s face can be neutralized and written upon by their Gestus. It is not the gimmick of the forks in the loaves of bread that is funny in this sketch, but the way Chaplin uses facial expressions to perform the dance. It’s as if the forks are his legs and the bread his feet. It’s as if his face is a blank page being written on before our eyes.

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