In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, enjoy an excerpt from our brand new book, Shakespeare for American Actors and Directors, written by Aaron Frankel.
Language as Action
Granted all its other mighty powers, for the actor Shakespeare’s language defines the actions that reveal character. That will be the beacon of this book.
Two contrasting ways about how to read Shakespeare in performance have been described: “romantic” and “realistic.” The former is lyrical, rhapsodies of cadences, singing vowels; the latter is more straightforward, sound matching sense. Ever since Edwin Booth, whose 1890(!) recordings of passages from Othello and Hamlet still sound astonishingly modern, the American way is on the “realistic” side: Richard Mansfield, E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, John Barrymore, Walter Hampden, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, all followed Booth’s precedent.
Wherever between these contrasts your personal music falls, catch what you hear as the sound of the role and move your music to it. For Richard II, Orsino, or Juliet, say, more “romantic”; for Richard III, Lady Macbeth, or Kate the Shrew, more “realistic”; for Prince Hal, Iago, Portia, Rosalind, in between. Your tuning, what you hear.
There are startling freedoms within this range. Thus, in his time, Laurence Olivier picked up a cue about the excitable Hotspur (“his speech was thick”) and produced a stammer, his thoughts too fast for his tongue, stamping his foot sometimes to get the word out. Similarly, Orson Welles did Shylock with a Yiddish accent, an outsider among the Venetians, and abruptly the play took on fuller meaning. The actor’s courage, truth, then, now, always.
Shakespeare himself will cue us, sometimes obviously so: Dr. Caius’ accent in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Princess Katharine’s and Alice’s in Henry V. More often there are broader implications, such as the high-minded, carefully spoken “second language” speech of Othello, an African Moor (another stranger in the midst), until it turns magnificently and natively savage at the end. Polonius and Malvolio are each differently pretentious and pompous, Malvolio turning even more affected on becoming a “lover.”
Fear grips many American actors and directors faced with the opportunity to perform Shakespeare live. The challenges of Elizabethan British speech patterns, the thought of using verse for hours, the debate over staging a period piece versus “updating” the Bard of Avon – all can cause psychogenic trauma on this side of the Atlantic.
Let Broadway legend Aaron Frankel show the way in Shakespeare for American Actors and Directors. This book views Shakespeare’s work through the lens of American performance, catering specifically to the learning sensibilities of American-bred talent. Its streamlined size and reader-friendly presentation make it a practical tool for actors and directors wishing to learn Bard-based performance tactics.
Aaron Frankel plunges readers into the meanings of scenes so they can envision the interplay of characters and step into a role to experiment with ways to convey those meanings. He provides scene examples through which to apply performance techniques.
To capture the spirit of the book in Frankel’s words, “What is totally current is that Shakespeare’s dramatic forte, which is the involvement of his characters with each other, and the core of American acting, which is actors affecting each other, make a perfect match.”