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Should we really care for the greatest actors of the past could we have them before us? Should we find them too different from our accent of thought, of feeling, of speech, in a thousand minute particulars which are of the essence of all three? Dr. Doran's long and interesting records of the triumphs of Garrick, and other less familiar, but in their day hardly less astonishing, players, do not relieve one of the doubt. Garrick himself, as sometimes happens with people who have been the subject of much anecdote and other conversation, here as elsewhere, bears no very distinct figure. One hardly sees the wood for the trees.

Q) The doubt referred to in line 7 concerns whether

A. the stage personalities of the past would appeal on a personal level to people like the author

B. their contemporaries would have understood famous actors

C. the acting of famous stage personalities would appeal to us today

D. Garrick was as great as he is portrayed

E. historical records can reveal personality

Correct Answer: A

I think the correct answer can also be D because it is mentioned in the passage that

Garrick himself, as sometimes happens with people who have been the subject of much anecdote and other conversation, here as elsewhere, bears no very distinct figure. One hardly sees the wood for the trees.

which implies that he is an ordinary person. People hardly see the details of his personality as they are too involved with his triumphs.

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    A or C. It depends on how one understands "we" and "us" in both the question and the answers. I don't think the sentence you excerpted strongly supports your position on D, but I see what you mean. These test-makers deserve their own circle in Hell, actually, two circles, very similar circles, and for eternity they must decide between them. – TRomano Jun 4 '15 at 18:02
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    @TimRomano Yeah, I'm not quite sure why A is preferred over C.... perhaps they're implying that "one" applies to the author? – Catija Jun 4 '15 at 18:07
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    A is ambiguous on the face of it. C is the correct answer. Though the style indicates that it was written in the early years of the 20th century; the question has pretty much been laid to rest by now. We would certainly find Garrick and his ilk unsatisfying and quaint. – John Lawler Jun 4 '15 at 18:26
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    Whatever, it's very poorly written. Though perhaps that's the intent, to test you ability to read and interpret the drivel produced by English major PhDs. – Hot Licks Jun 4 '15 at 21:55
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    The passage was written by Walter Horatio Pater. (books.google.com/…) – TRomano Jun 5 '15 at 10:23
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Winnowing out the also-rans

Garrick is mentioned in the excerpt specifically in the context of his being one of "the greatest actors of the past"—so I don't think that any doubts regarding whether modern audiences would consider Garrick's acting melodramatic or histrionic or unrealistic are conceived by the author of the excerpt as evidence of his not having been a great actor after all. If greatness in acting depends on the ability to touch the hearts of one's audience, Garrick's greatness is settled by the fact that he did have that effect on contemporaneous audiences. If no actor who has ever lived would be able to have that effect on every audience throughout history, it doesn't follow that there are no truly great actors but rather that effective acting is closely tied to popular tastes and expectations. For me, option D is not a very tempting choice.

Options B (their contemporaries would have understood famous actors") and E ("historical records can reveal personality") simply aren't the focus of the question (or "doubt") that the author of the excerpt is trying to raise—so we can dismiss them from consideration.


Option A or option C?

That leaves option A ("the stage personalities of the past would appeal on a personal level to people like the author") and option C ("the acting of famous stage personalities would appeal to us today") as viable possibilities. The author formulates two questions in the excerpt:

Should we really care for the greatest actors of the past could we have them before us? [Or s]hould we find them too different from our accent of thought, of feeling, of speech ...?

It seems to me that the crucial task in understanding what the author is asking about in the excerpt is to determine what he means by the phrase "care for the greatest actors of the past." If he means "care for the acting of the greatest actors of the past", then it follows that option C, with its focus on whether "the acting of famous stage personalities would appeal to us today" is the stronger choice.

On the other hand, if the author means "care for the actors as people," then option A (which makes no mention of the actors' acting) might arguably be the right choice.

But this GRE question's presentation of options A and C has a couple of serious shortcomings. First, it uses the term "stage personalities" in both answers—but that term is not used or defined in the excerpt or anywhere else in the question. What is a "stage personality"—an exact synonym for actor? a persona that exists on-stage but not off? a performer with a distinctive character or mannerisms, like Jimmy Durante or W.C. Fields? We don't know because the test deviser introduces the term without explaining it.

Second, the question introduces a sneaky distinction in relevant audience between option A (where the relevant audience is "people like the author") and ption C (where the relevant audience is "us today"). As Tim Romano points out, the excerpt is from an essay by Walter Pater titled "Their Majesty's Servants," reprinted in the April 1911 issue of The Mask. The GRE question deviser doesn't expect anyone to know that the excerpt is more than a hundred years old, but in a discussion of whether acting greatness would be recognized by audiences of later ages, it seems at least significant that the wording of option A links the "doubt" expressed in that option to people like the author," whereas option C links its doub to "us today."

Obviously, Walter Pater writing in 1911 can't have any well-defined doubts about the reaction to Garrick of audiences in 2015. So is this whole question an exercise in misdirection hinging on the time frame implied by "people like the author" and the time frame implied by "us today"?

I don't know. Nor am I clear on what the test deviser means by "stage personalities," although it seems to me that the farther we take that term from simple equivalence with "actors," the less connected to Pater's actual comments the GRE question becomes.


Conclusion

In my view, Pater is primarily interested in the acting of the great actors of the past—not in their personas or personal magnetism or whatever. For that reason, I think that option C, which focuses on the acting of the "stage personalities" and not on the "stage personalities" as things in themselves, is the better answer.

But whether you agree with that assessment or not, I hope you will agree that option A is very far from being obviously preferable to option C under any fair-minded analysis of the two options' merits. And that in turn means that this test question does a lousy job of evaluating reading comprehension, or whatever else it is supposed to be doing.

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    I agree with this answer. For me the strongest reason to favour A over C is that the style of writing gives away the fact the author is not contemporary with us, so "us, today" can't be the focus of his concerns. But I personally preferred C to A since the "we" at the start seemed to purposefully include the writer's audience, rather than narrow down to the author's personal view. – Silverfish Jul 13 '15 at 9:57
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Since doubt appears at the end of the sentence, it refers to something that was mentioned before it (unless it appears in the middle of a sentence that then explains what the doubt refers to, e.g. "cannot relieve one of the doubt that ___").

In this case, the doubt is expressed in the first two questions. The example of Garrick is used as a specific example to illustrate this general doubt expressed in the first two sentences.

The reason C is a tempting choice but not correct is because it says "the acting" of famous "STAGE PERSONALITIES" - a stage personality is already an act, so this doubles down on the "acting" meaning. It essentially means "the acting" of "acting," which is not the right answer, not what the author is trying to convey.

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    An actor can't be a stage personality? – Greg Lee Jun 4 '15 at 22:14
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    I agree that the first two questions express the doubt. But your argument against C seems ill-founded. The second question of the paragraph, in asking about "accent of thought, of feeling, of speech", is referring to the very rudiments of acting. The doubt is whether "we" would really care for their style of acting. The work by Dr. Doran does not dispel this doubt because it doesn't bring Garrick to life; in the work, Garrick "bears no distinct figure". – TRomano Jun 5 '15 at 10:18
  • @GregLee I'll accept that C seems a strong contender. But I do think that "stage personality" refers to the character on stage that an actor is trying to portray, not the actor him/herself. An actor can have his/her real life personality and a separate "stage personality." Given this, my argument against C still holds. – Elaine Jun 5 '15 at 20:50

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