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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: February ::
Re: Shaw on Actors' Accents
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0379  Wednesday, 26 February 2003

[1]     From:   Peter D. Holland <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 Feb 2003 12:07:40 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accent

[2]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 Feb 2003 21:54:59 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accents


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter D. Holland <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 Feb 2003 12:07:40 -0500
Subject: 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accents
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accents

Charles Weinstein quotes Shaw on actors' accents without comment. Does
he mean that he wants to hear Shakespeare in the accents of the 1890s?
Everything we know about early modern pronunciation suggests big rich
round vowels, though not with the intrusive connective 'r' of which Shaw
was complaining. Shaw would probably have complained about the voice of
the 1590s as of the voice of the 1890s (and Weinstein of the 1990s and
after).  Bad voices deserve no defence but I am far from convinced that
the narrow vowel range and tight throat and consonantal forms of English
RP of the late 1950s and early 1960s -- when I started going to the
theatre and heard great actors (about whose brilliance Charles Weinstein
and I might well agree) -- are preferable to the vowels good actors now
have at their disposal.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 Feb 2003 21:54:59 -0500
Subject: 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accents
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0368 Shaw on Actors' Accents

>Be it ahnce, aw cat, aw be-ah/ Pahd. aw boa-ah, with b'istled hai-ah/In
>thy eye that shall  appea-ah/When thou wak'st, it is thy dea-ah.

Shaw had to make do without the rigorous subtleties of IPA (not, alas, a
kind of beer, but the 170+character International Phonetic Alphabet,
which allows linguisticists in Kuala Lumpur and Boston and Montivideo to
share reasonably accurate information about the pronunciation of
languages and dialects and regional accents in print).  Unfortunately,
his transcription of what he calls "Piccadilly " seems to me to
represent an upper-class old-school Bostonian who for some reason went
to college at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. and is remembering getting
drunk and going on a visit to the zoo during his student days.  But why,
after all, should Oberon not choose Piccadilly as his favorite haunt
when he's visiting London?  Where should he have gone instead?

This is to say that from the perspective of the intellectual elite in
London around the turn of C20, when the way you pronounced English
might, indeed, give fairly reliable clues to your social class (cf.
*Pygmalion*) and, for the less privileged, the locale where you grew up,
it made some sense in theatrical performances mostly patronized by
members of that elite to use those phonetic cues as an economical way to
locate the characters socially.  When the
social-educational-economic-regional distinctions begin to lose their
force, however, such a narrow system becomes problematic.  (I say this
as somebody who has in the past recommended the systematic use of
American regional accents as a way to help audiences grasp the social
relationships in Shakespeare--having the Greeks in *Troilus* speak in
the way of educated New Yorkers, and the Trojans like graduates of the
University of Mississippi, for instance.)  How on earth can one settle
on a Right Way?  My friend Barrie Rutter, formerly a company member at
both the RSC and the National, the artistic director of the very
well-received one-trunk company Northern Broadsides, who grew up on the
docks of Hull and is proud of it, believes the best way to do
Shakespeare is in broad Yorks--you jettison the social distinctions in
order to let the strongly voiced consonants and relatively short vowels
of that accent give the speaking more energy than most other regional
and class accents can.  (Their productions, not much cut, typically run
2 hours, not much more.) The conviction also ties in with the company's
conscientious effort to take Shakespeare to audiences that would not
normally see these works.  The position has the merit of being based on
a stated principle.  But most American auditors, and many British ones,
would at least initially find it strange, maybe even inaccessible.  Does
that make it wrong?

Phonetically,
David Evett

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