Saturday, April 10, 2010

Applying Shakespeare Study to Other Dramatists

A facebook friend posted the following notice on her wall. She allowed me post it here.

Actor friends: how have you applied Shakespeare training to other work you've done? Anything about having worked with language that dense and meaningful when approaching other playwrights? (I'm writing a paper and got stuck. Thank you, you're awesome.)

Learning Shakespeare means (among other things) learning how to work magic with your voice. It isn’t just “language” that you learn; rather it’s the communicative power of the voice: Sound values, rhythm, assonance/dissonance, consonance, the onomatopoeic qualities of words, intonation, pace, emphasis, even the principles of rhetoric as they are communicated in vocal/sound qualities, and so on and so on.

And these give the actor clues to character, to relationships, to mood, to situation. Shakespeare teaches these elements most forcefully because his poetry is at the forefront of his dramaturgy. Compare Macbeth’s language (metaphor, imagery, multi-syllabic Latinate words—
the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green one red; If th'assassination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success) with Lady M’s (no great metaphors, single syllable Anglo-Saxon words—my hands are of your color though I shame to wear a heart so white; Shame itself,/Why do you make such faces? When all's done/You look but on a stool) and you contrast their very characters.

In Cleopatra’s confrontation with Antony, a look at who completes whose lines and who gets to speak more lines and when, etc. gives clues not only to their relationship but to the very tenor of the conflict between them.
And so on.

The language of all good plays is heightened language that has some of the clue-giving qualities of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Take a look at Agnes’s language from the opening of Albee’s
A Delicate Balance:

Speaks usually softly, with a tiny hint or a smile on her face: not sardonic, not sad…wistful, maybe)
What I find most astonishing—aside from that belief of mine, which never ceases to surprise me by the very fact of its surprising lack of unpleasantness, the belief that I might very easily—as they say—lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even…nearby…

He speaks somewhat the same way)
There is no saner woman on earth, Agnes.
Putters at the bottles.)

AGNES: …for I’m not that sort; merely that it is not beyond…happening; some gentle loosening of the moorings sending the balloon adrift—and I think that is the only out-weighing thing: adrift; the…becoming a stranger in…the world, quite…uninvolved, for I never see it as violent, only a drifting—what are you looking for, Tobias?

TOBIAS: We will all go mad before you. The anisette.

A small happy laugh) Thank you, darling. But I could never do it—go adrift—for what would become of you?

And so on.

An actor who has studied Shakespeare and who has then developed an awareness of the significance of sound, of the meaning of intonation and rhythm, of the organic connection of vocal qualities to the character of the human being they are the natural voice of—such an actor will find Albee as revelatory in his language as Shakespeare is.

Take a look (as I suggested above with
Antony and Cleopatra) at line length and frequency between characters in the Tobias/Agnes scene, the Tobias/Claire scene, the Tobias/Julia scene. What do you discover about Tobias’s relationship with each of them? Can you discover something about the mood of each scene just from the implied music of the language?

Consider any really good playwright from this perspective: Mamet, O’Neill, Williams, Shepard, Suzan-Lori Parks. (I’m citing only playwrights who write in English. One of the great short-comings of translations, however good they are, is how much of this very life-stuff of the original language must be lost in translation.)

Discovering the real communicative power of sound values can help an actor find better ways to express what’s happening in a scene than simple volume and emotion. In Pinter’s
Old Times, for example, Deeley gets more and more frustrated with Anna as the two of them square off at the beginning of Act II. Kate is in the bath and Deeley and Anna wait in the bedroom, locked in a contest over Kate. He can’t just shout out his anger, he can’t just spit out his frustration, for in the world of Pinter so baldly expressing those feelings is tantamount to losing the very combat you’re engaged in that is producing them. And so those desires to lash out, to strike, must dive down; they are held back, they are repressed. And they consequently exert great pressure to be heard.
They find their way into word choice, sentence length, consonants that bite and vowels that spit.
And finally, in this sequence, they nearly burst out of him Alien-like:

DEELEY: Of course she’s so totally incompetent at drying herself properly, did you find that? She gives herself a really good
scrub, but can she with the same efficiency give herself an equally good rub? I have found, in my experience of her, that this is not in fact the case. You’ll always find a few odd unexpected unwanted cheeky globules dripping about.

Say the speech and really clip the crisp consonants. Emphasize the short vowels. This is an ugly speech. The sounds want to strike Anna. The sound values are trying to humiliate her even as Deeley’s physical behavior must maintain the externals of social protocol.

By the end of this sequence, Deeley loses the round. (Staccato sentences, harsh, sharp consonants, short ugly vowels.)

DEELEY: Listen. I’ll tell you what. I’ll do it. I’ll do the whole lot. The towel and the powder. After all, I am her husband. But you can supervise the whole thing. And give me some hot tips while you’re at it. That’ll kill two birds with one stone.

To himself.

DEELEY: Christ.

And it’s all expressed in the vocal qualities of the language.

Some final thoughts to keep us searching:
*How does studying the music of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dramatic poetry help you better to discover the dramatic music of the language of Tennessee Williams? Of Samuel Beckett? (I saw the Gate Theatre production of Waiting for Godot and the music of those voices shamed me with my previous thoughts of how clunky some of those lines seemed to me—I had forgotten that I was imposing my own American language rhythms on the play.)
*How could you help the Gate Theatre actors discover, create, communicate
Glengarry Glen Ross?
*Rehearse your next Moliere scene with French accents.
*How does the study of Shakespeare help an actor prepare to do a speech from Shaw? Any sequence of Booth and Lincoln from Top Dog/Underdog? Henry's "cricket bat" speech from The Real Thing? Aston’s major monologue from The Caretaker?

There’s lots more to be said about this, but I shall stop now.
Perhaps we’ll get some good stuff through comments from others.

Post Script:
Here's part of some notes I once wrote to students about Agnes:

A quality/capacity of Agnes that [Student A] must add to her characterization is one [Student B] will need absolutely, as it is the characteristic that Agnes starts the play with in that extraordinary “What I find most astonishing” sequence. Albee refers to it as “bemusement” and “wistfulness”. I would add “whimsy” even.
For Agnes, it is a true tactic of engagement of others. It’s one of the ways she disarms you and wins you over. When she begins a thought, Agnes gets your attention and then she allows herself to be caught by an implication of some word she has spoken and then she follows it along a tangent—“Tangent”? Yes, I suppose…. Or perhaps “nuance” is more accurate, though “side-track” would be too strong a word, I think—and then she returns precisely to where she was before she let herself follow that nuanced side-tracking tangent. While she does this for her own bemusement, she is absolutely aware that her listener is just outside the whimsy of her thought/word process and is compelled to follow along the twisting path—perhaps “twisting” is too extreme; rather, “meandering” I think—of her mental processes. And she knows her listener is being ultimately won over by her. Whimsied into submission to her point of view. Bemusement? Certainly. But there is a quiet joy in her ability to circle around her listener thus. Real amusement too I think. She does it with/to Tobias at the beginning of the play and she tries to do it with Julia in their first encounter in Act Two.
Something that goes along with this quiet amusement of hers is a firmness, a steadiness, even a determination, that has no acidity in it. She is not tart or sharp in her manner, however self-possessed she may be. [Student A] was getting perilously close to becoming too much of a lemon when Agnes is actually a peach of a woman. Agnes loves these people. Or at least she cares deeply about them. She may have to scold, she may have even to be hurtful—or as Hamlet would have it with Gertrude, “cruel only to be kind”--but she does it from maternal, sisterly, wifely duty and, yes, love. She harbors no uglying level of resentment toward any of them—even Claire. Deep disappointment maybe, personal resentment no. A most complex human being.
By the way, neither peach nor lemon is probably a good metaphor for Agnes, but I just couldn't help myself.


  1. Beginning work as an actress again, I have been told on a couple of occasions that there is too much musicality in my delivery. While my natural speech patterns are more musical (Southern), I like to think I am making choices about such things. What do you suggest to guard against creating a tonal habit versus a choice?
    And on a separate, but related note, shouldn't all characters have a music of sorts - whether softly rhythmic like Agnes perhaps or clipped and ugly like Deeley?

  2. Judy:
    I'm not sure I know exactly what the problem is. I mean, I can't "hear" what your voice might sound like when you do what you and the teacher describe as "sing-song". It seems to me that if you know exactly what it is you're trying to do to the other character, precisely what response you're trying to get out of him/her, your voice will do what it needs to unconsciously.
    If you're not really sure, then you might let your voice wander and perhaps get sing-songy because it won't "know" exactly what it's trying to do to the other person. So it's just out there wondering what to do with itself.
    Sometimes it helps to clarify if you add a word or two at the end of the line that describe what you want your partner to do when the line hits him: "I was at concerts or the ballet I imagine (Swallow that, you jerk)"
    ""Waiting to put a towel around her (get a clear image of *that* and squeal in pain)"
    Also, when you rehearse, try actually literally doing to him what you want your words to do--touch him, slap him, poke him, what have you and let your voice follow, become the vocal equivalent. And make sure it all leads to one big action on the last word of the line. (Land the line)
    Let me know if this helps.
    Does this make sense?

  3. You mentioned in an email that you were working on the "Old Times" scene that I talk about in the blog posting.
    Anna might be a bit difficult to use the suggestion of engaging with your scene partner as she is sitting comfortably and refusing to engage with Deeley. She looks right at him and answers his words with her words as her eyes tell him that she's perfectly aware of what he's implying though not saying, and that she will beat him at his pathetic game. Simple, direct, confident--no singsongyness at all.

  4. I was leading a tour at Ten Chimneys yesterday, in their summer studio where they would rehearse before taking a new play to New York, and I thought how tragic that the Lunts never did DELICATE BALANCE. They were even the right age. Magic, I think, it would have been.

    1. The Lunts were Albee's and Schneider's first choice to play Agnes and Tobias. They agreed to do it, but they wanted to premier in London and do a limited run. Albee wouldn't agree to it.