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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Re: Accents
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1089  Monday, 22 April 2002

[1]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <
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        Date:   Sunday, 21 Apr 2002 01:27:29 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents

[2]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Saturday, 20 Apr 2002 22:38:50 +0100
        Subj:   SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Sunday, 21 Apr 2002 05:51:34 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 Apr 2002 01:27:29 +0900
Subject: 13.1082 Re: Accents
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents

Lise Olson's reply seemed to me impressively thoughtful, on the matter
of "accents". It reminded me of how impressed I was, some years ago, by
the now defunct English Shakespeare Company's touring production of
Shakespeare's two historical tetralogies--at least, so far as the
question of "accents" (U and non-U) was concerned.

But doesn't this question open out into the more difficult question of
how modern Shakespearean actors cope with verse? The classic study, I
think, is George T. Wright's "Shakespeare's Metrical Art", and Wright
(an American critic) was brave enough to include this passage in his
brilliant book:

"On the British stage, actors are often uncomfortable with high-sounding
verse rhetoric and work to flatten its tunes. In the American theater,
metrical verse is suspect and may be concealed by those who speak it, as
if it were a shameful relic of a distant age, like anti-Semitism,
imperialism, melodrama, or patriarchal attitudes toward women. Indeed,
some critics connect it with one or more of these ensigns of infamy.

"The unhappy truth is that most American listeners to plays are deaf to
metrical verse. It is poorly read to us by the parents or teachers or
actors from whom we first   hear it. We rarely find chances to practice
reading it ourselves. Few American theater    companies relish the
verse; actors, like teachers, are more deeply stirred by other elements
in Shakespeare's dramaturgy than by the movement, the sweep, the
strength, the drama of the verse. Most of them have come late to the
speaking of verse, and they have not really taken to it. They make
adjustments and compromises; they deal with it as they can.  But they
have not grown up with it, it is foreign to them, and this shows in
their manner of evading or slurring the pulses, of fouling the metrical
line.

"In part the problem is that the blank or rhymed iambic pentameter that
Shakespeare wrote most often is indeed a foreign verse, and most of the
strongest American poets of our time have found it uncongenial-of our
language but not of our speech. They have not heard in the old British
line a suitable vehicle for the cadences of American talk. Some poets
have successfully practiced a looser form of iambic verse, and a group
of New Formalists have achieved some prominence, but for much of the
century it has seemed that if you write iambs instead of the now
canonical free verse, your work will be either derivative or comic.

"Under these conditions, it isn't easy for an American reader or actor
to form the  habit of listening to Shakespeare's metrical verse as
verse, or hearing how the meter makes or reinforces rhetorical emphases,
deepens or shifts a mood or tone, powers an emotional sentence or
period, and intensifies not only the speech but the action. Not  that
British readers acquire these skills with ease, but they do have a
better chance: the rhythms are native rhythms; their voices and
intonational systems are closer in wavelength to those of Shakespeare's
players and watchers; and they hear more often (not always, of
course)-in the theater or on the BBC-actors and actresses who do indeed
know how to hold a metrical current and clinch a metrical emphasis in a
line, a passage, or a scene." (Wright, pp.69-70)

Most contemporary critics of Shakespearean poetic drama discuss the
plays as though they were or might as well have been written in prose.
Wright's challengingly incisive commentary explains why this is the
case. Would other SHAKSPERians disagree?

Graham Bradshaw

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Saturday, 20 Apr 2002 22:38:50 +0100
Subject: Re: Accents
Comment:        SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents

Back in his early days, Sean Connery had a season with the RSC in
Stratford-upon-Avon in 1H4, as Hotspur. All the Shakespeare I had ever
heard before then was Olivier's orotund vowels and spitting consonants,
and Gielgud's all vowels and no consonant, flattened out line of
lugubrious substitute for emotion and passion - the 'voice' that had
wowed London stages and was revered as 'the Shakespeare voice' for
twenty years already.

The young Connery could not have been more than ten or so years older
than me at the time, but it had Borders grit and harshness, and rhythm
and swagger to it and in everything he said that I had never heard
before in my life. The scenes with his father, with the King and above
all with Lady Percy were a crackling revelation. I don't suppose they
meet with the approval of the 'purists', but they stunned me.

I resolved that one day I would do my producing career in the North of
England, with kids who actually pronounce the constituent elements of
many diphthongs, voiced the vowels distinctly, and hit consonants, and
made Shakespeare and Wordsworth come alive. They don't flatten it all
into a reverential RP drone, but give it voice.

Northern Broadsides under Barry Rutter have performed a superb service
in validating professionally what many schools and colleges up and down
this land do all the time, and give Shakespeare back to a linguistic
soil where it can grow again.

When you hear Puck given in a real, threatening Yorkshire accent by some
young Yorkshire lad whose father owns local abattoirs, or Ariel in broad
Glaswegian, or Cumbrian, there's nothing fey, or limp-wristed or Gielgud
about the language or the magic or the spells and incantations they
wield, nor is it pretty, nor without frisson.

I took a school (13yrs -18 yrs) cast with a Staffordshire Romeo, a
Cumbrian farmer's son Lord Capulet, a Scottish Lady Capulet, a faintly
Bostonian Juliet and a Norfolk  Sampson to USA in 1995. I did not have
to tell them to let the verse speak, make it their own. They had to: I
did not play them Lawrence Harvey, or Leonard Whiting doing Romeo: we
simply did not discuss the accent, but just played it as their accents
told them to play it, and feel comfortable with the language's edgy
power and temper, and thus give it contemporaneity. I'd never go back to
a directing situation in which that electricity was extinguished by RP.
Likewise, I have just directed a 200+ strong cast in a community cycle
of home written Mystery Plays for a village in Cumbria. The Tyneside
Jesus throwing money changers out of temples, and two Geordie lads as
guards scared out of their wits the morning after the Resurrection
surely had in your face immediacy with those accents that I could never
have achieved without diluted makeshift imitation, or by patronising
them in the RP areas of UK.

I'm with Lisa.

Stuart Manger

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 Apr 2002 05:51:34 -0400
Subject: Re: Accents
Comment:        SHK 13.1082 Re: Accents

Lise Olson writes that

'Most people in the UK do not speak in RP (the neutral accent that you
refer to). That accent calls attention to itself in places such as
Liverpool, Cardiff, Birmingham, Sheffield, Glasgow (as well as many
other places). The accent that is perceived as neutral in those places
IS the regional accent.'

Not quite. In the case of Cardiff, the 'regional accent' would be that
of the South Wales Valleys speaker of English. In Cardiff this is
regarded as far from neutral and in some situations might seem almost as
alien as the Welsh language itself --a tongue not widely employed in the
Welsh capital.  The local Cardiff accent is in fact quite distinctive,
intensely localised, immediately recogniseable and wholly appealing.

T. Hawkes

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