Real Self-Expression: How Can a
Man Have It?
including a discussion on the great actor
By Bennett Cooperman
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
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.
This paper is about what I have learned,
about a young man who is studying Aesthetic Realism
in consultations, and about instances from the life
and work of the great English actor who, in the early
1800s, electrified audiences with his passionate, intelligent,
sincere 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, in behalf of fairness to the
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:
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. Miss Reiss asked if showing
such a large emotion would make me feel foolish? I felt
that, and Miss 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
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.
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
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.
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 Miss 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
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 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
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
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 for Scribner'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
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
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,
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 an 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. And I feel it describes, too, Edmund Kean's
tremendous, untrammeled 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 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
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, Miss 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.
Miss 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,
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 knowledge known.
Edmund Kean's life—his greatness as an artist,
his hopes as a man—show the 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.
presented in a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism
Foundation, New York City.