Speech is perhaps one of the most potent facets of human activity. Whether you are communicating your thoughts on Spinoza to a class of philosophy students, or expressing your views on the current situation in Libya in a seminar — or playing a part in a drama — your speech is of utmost importance.
Some actors get so carried away by their desire to find the precise motivation behind every single line that they show little interest in the spoken word. They either mumble their lines or so drown themselves in what they regard to be ‘psychological’ acting that they fail to respond to the language of the play.
The quality of a great play is that you can find almost everything you need in the text. The text is, of course, brought to life by the actor. It doesn’t matter how powerful the visual images and how brilliant the lighting and the sound effects may be, the spoken word is central and if the actors are not speaking the words intelligibly, and audibly, the play is on the floor. The first duty of an actor is to be heard.
When I direct a play the main substance of my first week’s work is to get the actors to come to grips with the text of the play. Each play is written in its own way, in its own particular language and it is crucial that the actors build a shared understanding of how that language works.
The playwright, David Mamet has declared that: “The actor does not need to become the ‘character.’ There is no character. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character on the stage.”
You may argue that Mamet has gone too far in diminishing the role of an actor, but there is a lot of truth in what he says.
Once you have established a basic understanding of the text, it is necessary to attend to its intricacies, its inflections, cadence, rhythm and punctuation. Shakespeare’s highly structured verse, the iambic pentameter, that is to say the five beat line (Ti-tum Ti -tum Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-tum) may appear to be artificial, but it also has a direct connection with everyday speech, the speech of his era, that is. You have to learn to discover a way of speaking his verse which is true to its rhythms, musicality and poise, without sacrificing its meaning. I cannot offer you a better example than Romeo’s speech at the opening of Act V:
“If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand
My bosom’s Lord sits lightly in his throne
And all this day an unaccustomed spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts…”
(I have underlined the words that need to be inflected).
You can divide most lines into two distinct clusters of meaning. “If I may trust the…” what?
“the flattering truth of sleep”… and breathed such life…” how? “with kisses on my lips.” etc etc. The only real danger with such a clearly marked ti-tum ti-tum structure is that some actors begin to count beats. They then lose the meaning and the musicality of the stanza.
With Shakespeare it is a good idea to ask your actors to go through their part, line by line, putting everything they say into their own words. Paraphrasing encourages the actor to concentrate on the meaning of what is said. It is a way of releasing the quality of the dramatic action and helps him discover its vernacular energy. When he now returns to the original text he embraces the words with alacrity and the increased appreciation of its particular qualities. He also begins to realise that Shakespeare says the same thing much better than the paraphrased version.
In drama schools one of the exercise pupils are usually made to go through is to click their fingers every time there is a new beat in the language. To make it easier for my readers I shall insert the word ‘click’ in the following two lines. The opening speech of Richard in Richard III is:
“Now is the winter (click) of our discontent
Made glorious summer (click) by this son of York…”
As long as the actor does not click his fingers during a performance the cadence will be communicated to the audience.
In prose the click is more difficult to pin down. But my drama teacher Edward Burnham gave us a reading of Lady Bracknell’s famous ‘handbag’ speech from Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest which was absolutely riveting:
“The line is immaterial (click) Mr Worthing.
I confess I feel somewhat bewildered
by what you have just told me. (Click)
To be born (click) or at any rate bred (click) in a handbag whether
it has handles or not (click) seems to me to display a contempt
for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds me of the worst
excesses of the French Revolution (click). And I presume
you know what that unfortunate movement led to?”
Try this clicking exercise at home. You will discover that it will enable you to give the pause clarity and precision. Your speech then will have a decisive energy.
Amazingly enough, it was Shakespeare (in whose times acing was a bombastic affair) who wrote the most definitive lines about an actor’s work: “Speak the speech, I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air thus with your hands, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…” He was not heeded for nearly three centuries until realistic drama came to the fore towards the end of the 19th century.
It’s not just Shakespeare or the dramatists of the West who demand loyalty to the text. In our own drama (whatever its weakness and faults) the text is of paramount importance. Whether it is the hyperbolic prose of Ahsan, Murad, Zarif, Betaab, Munshi Abdullah, Hashr, or the more realistic contemporary plays of Bano Qudsia, the actors have to show a respect to the written language. You could argue that the language is verbose and hackneyed but if you deviate and make up your own text you would be doing a grave injustice to the style of the playwright.