November 2, 2010

Talk like a Shakespearean

Things have changed a lot in the past four hundred years.  Electricity, indoor plumbing, penicillin, bifocals, fountain pens, artificial teeth… all things which have come into being since the death of our beloved Bard in 1616.  Despite all this, perhaps he most significant change during this time-period is the shifting of the English language.

We’ve come a long way from the non-standard spelling and punctuation of Jacobean England.  We now have rules about writing and books to tell us what those rules are.  Because Early Modern English is so literately close to Modern English in the grand scheme of things (go read Beowulf in its original Old English then tell me I’m wrong), I don’t think that modern critical readers of Shakespeare put perhaps enough thought into the important changes that have occurred in the language since its inception.  This is especially true of actors and directors.  The great shift in language since the Bard wrote his immortal words is frequently far out of their ken.

Professor Paul Meier at the University of Kansas is working to change that.  Have a look at this article and the accompanying videos for further details.

Professor Meier’s work centers around the re-creation of what he calls “OP” or “Original Pronunciation”.  Shakespeare’s English was different from our own, and different from contemporary British pronunciation as well.  This is evidenced by the sheer amount of rhymes within the canon which simply do not work anymore (“tears” with “hers”, “bear” with “fear”, “there” with “sphere”, “eyes” with “qualities”… etc.).  Meier contends that by restoring OP to Shakespeare, we can return to our roots as Americans and reclaim the work for ourselves (since the earliest Americans would have spoken in the same fashion that Shakespeare did).  With this in mind, Professor Meier is working to create a Shakespearience that captures this OP.  On November 11th, his OP production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens at KU.

The project is, beyond a doubt, an interesting one especially due to the auditory nature of Shakespeare’s plays.  We are reminded that the root of the word “audience” lies in the word “audio”.  In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would have gone to “hear a play” rather than “see a play”.  Our culture today, a world of television watchers and movie-goers, is so visual-centric that sometimes this is easy to forget.  In that regard, I do believe that a modern audience is at a disadvantage sometimes when walking into a Shakespearean production.  Without any sort of priming, the audience is expected to shift themselves from their normal visual-centric lives to the auditory world of Shakespeare.  Instead of seeing the bank where the wild thyme blows, they must listen for it and allow the words to paint the imagery for them.

Frequent visitors to Shakespeare’s world are perhaps better suited to this audio sensitivity.  Rather than struggling to acclimate to the environment, they are already prepared to immerse themselves in a well-known story and have a completely new yet utterly familiar experience.  Like donning a favorite sweater, going to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream is exciting not because it is new, but because it is different.  What will this Puck think about Oberon?  What new and hilarious antics will this Bottom think up?  How will this Helena handle her sometimes misguided speeches? 

In this way, the OP production is an interesting exercise.  Scholars, surely, will appreciate the new landscapes that such an endeavor opens up.  It is a new way to experience these familiar works; and one, we are reminded, which has never been done in the United States before.

But there’s part of me that still feels that Meier’s work misses the point.  First and foremost, it alienates a theatre-going audience.  By pronouncing these words in a fashion entirely different from anything the audience has ever before heard, it creates a situation in which the audience is looking into a world they cannot hope to become a part of.  It solidifies the fourth wall into a rigid, unyielding structure which keeps a modern audience at arm’s length.  Most audiences already have trouble delving into Shakespeare, why make it any more difficult for them?

In addition, setting this burden upon the actors means that they are unable to fully explore the emotional depths which an otherwise unaffected performance would have allotted them.  Concerned so for an unfamiliar usage of language, the actors are not free to allow the production to flow naturally.  Just as the OP alienates the audience, it also alienates the actors.

The author of the article seems to believe that by producing an OP show, the audience will be offered an immersive experience, “Thanks to the work of Paul Meier, audiences can get a sense of what it might have been like to eavesdrop on opening night of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theater in London or to listen in on a shipboard conversation on the Mayflower as it approaches the shores of the New World”.  The problem is that the audience is “eavesdropping”, “listening in”, they are not experiencing.  The show, then, becomes a movie and not live theatre.  The energy of the text and live actors is cut off, they become a spectacle rather than a catalyst for human connection.  The theatre, one of the last vestiges of our communal humanity, becomes instead a glorified movie theatre where we go to observe the follies of mankind without experiencing them ourselves.

This is not to say that I do not see value in Meier’s work, simply that I do not believe it should be viewed as the next step for American Shakespeare, nor should it be widely marketed to an average audience.  Too much will it encourage the already rampant notions of Bardism which prevent so many people from entering the Shakespeareverse.  “This is clearly above me, I didn’t understand a word they said.”  “I don’t get it.”  “Why are they talking like that?”  Meier’s work belongs in a museum, not a theatre.  It should be under glass, not living and breathing. 

1 comment:

Lyzard said...

Rather than alienating the audience, it could simply serve to highlight the performativity of a play. I find it far more distracting and alienating when modern adaptations of Shakespeare take it the other way and try to restate everything in the vernacular. I would be very interested in seeing/hearing an OP performance of a Shakespeare play. It would force me to immerse myself and listen more attentively.

While I agree that if the actors are alienated by the language then the audience can immerse all they like to no avail - I am of the opinion that this is a bit of a cop out. It seems similar to the use of an accent - a good actor can make even the most difficult accent consistent and believable (Brad Pitt in Snatch comes to mind) but a poorly performed accent is distracting (Keanu Reeves comes to mind).

Of course, I have the luxury of speaking as a non-actor. I firmly recognize that I will slip in and out of accents based on what I hear around me and this is just one of the many things that would make me an awful actor.