The Incredible Shrinking Shakespearean
Published in AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE October, 1990
A crying baby expresses its emotional truth—its breath picks up its essential survival impulses and turns them to sounds, which demand a response. If the response comes, the baby lives. If the call is unanswered, the baby dies, either literally or in spirit. Later, when words begin to come, a child's
environment either confirms that emotional expression is all right or, more commonly, inhibits such expression. The three-year-old with a life-or-death need for a chocolate chip cookie—"MOMMY, MOMMY, MOMMY, I WANT A CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE I WANT"— very quickly learns to disconnect his or her voice from emotional impulse in order to get results. The voice that coos or pleads in a sweet unthreatening high tone—"Mommee, if I'm a very good little boy (or girl) and say pretty please with sugar on it, can I have a chocolate chip cookie?"—is likely to get the cookie. That voice has begun a conditioning that disconnects it from emotion and hooks it into mechanisms that disguise the truth, thus creating a vocal behavior conformable to and supportive of the cultural norm.
When I work with an actor on Shakespeare, I have to re-condition the impulse connection back to the two-or three-year-old and wipe out mummy's training to be a good member of society. To play King Lear or Lady Macbeth, Richard III or Queen Margaret you need to be closer to the two-year-old throwing a tantrum than to the civilized good citizen.
To be believed on stage your voice must tell the truth. The questions come, though, as often in what we laughingly call "real life" as on the stage: "Whose voice am I really speaking in? What is truth? Is this what I really think? What do I really feel right now? Whose are these other voices in my head, saying 'nice little girls don't do this.' 'Big boys don't cry,' 'wrong!' 'You're stupid,' etc.? Our everyday, 20th century emotions, strained through the filter of Western Society, do not suit the passions of the Elizabethan playwright, and our everyday voices are not exercised in the extremity of passionate speaking from the heart of truth.
If Constance, in King John, had been told when she was a child: "Go up to your room and stop that crying; when you've pulled yourself together you can come downstairs and tell me what's wrong," she could probably not have said:
I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine; My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey's wife; Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost. I am not mad; I would to heaven I were; For then tis like I should forget myself. O, if I could, what griefs should I forget! If I were mad, I should forget my son. Or madly think a babe of clouts were he. I am not mad; too well, too well I feel The different plague of each calamity.
And I doubt that King Lear's mother ever said to him, "Don't you lose your temper with me. Never speak to your mother in that tone or voice." The voice must have an accustomed connection with large emotion if the vocal musculature is to serve Lear's full-throated competition with the storm:
Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drench'd our steepies, drown'd the cocks! You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head!
Our society has split the emotions from the intellect and even the expression of passionate love is problematic for the 20th century actor. I do an exercise in which my students have to say: "I like you; I love you; I adore you; I worship you!" This contains a clear escalation of feeling, but played according to the truth of the average 20th century experience of love and the tangled relationships we mostly associate with that emotion, today's actors will start boldly and be brought to a state of twisted unease by the worshipful climax. To play Shakespeare one must be able to express adoration and worship with open joy and ecstasy. Our everyday voices lack the regular nourishment of the expression of such rich emotion and lack the amplitude to accommodate the size of Shakespeare's emotion-steeped language. His language is emotion.
The English language has remained basically unchanged through the centuries succeeding Shakespeare, but we have changed—fundamentally. The language is rich and redolent—sensorially, sensually, emotionally—but our capacity to experience it has become one dimensional. We use language as a utility, functional and informational 90 percent of the time. It is linear and arid in our minds and mouths.
In 1987 I directed Hamlet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hamlet and MIT. The very pairing suggests the problem faced by today's actor when confronted with Shakespeare's text. Elizabethan English lived in the body. Twentieth-century English is experienced in the head. Elizabethans experienced thought in the organs of the body. If any of the MIT students that I worked with had experienced their thoughts in their bodies, they would have electrocuted themselves. They talked at lightning speed and their brains burned at an almost visible white heat. Their bodies were machines at the service of the brain. These walking brains, the crème de la crème of American intellect, the creators of the technological and electronic miracles that determine the kinds of lives we live and our children will live, are the extreme examples of the 20th century mind. Not that we are necessarily more intelligent than our forebears, but we are prejudiced in favor of the scientific mode and tip the balance of our humanity towards the head rather than the heart or the gut. The Elizabethans strove for balance and harmony in their inner and outer worlds.
Holding the mirror up to today's nature, actors must encompass both the sophistication of the electronic age we live in and the blitzed inarticulateness of a Valley girl or drug addict. A balanced humanity is hard to achieve and yet no one can fully play Shakespeare without a balance of head and heart, body and voice. The Elizabethans still implicitly knew that their bodies and their humors were microcosms of the great macrocosm of the universe—they were part of Nature. We are irrevocably split from Nature. Even as we seek to control and dominate her, we are surprised to find she’s gone sick on us and won’t play.
Suiting the action to the word and the word to the action, as Hamlet advises the Players to do, is not natural to us any more. It is no longer the fashion even to “stand by” our words. Instead, we hedge them about with ambiguity lest an expert should try to disprove what we say.
The Elizabethan mind was unified with the body it animated. Information was stored in human memories and between the covers of small miracles called books. It is only in the last milli-second of human evolution that communication has shifted from the oral tradition – soundwaves travelling through the air from body to body, as though the whole body were mouth and ear—to print-dominated, visually transferred information exchange.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare we tend to feel that our minds are puny weaklings in the face of a vast infinity of information. The technological capacity to miniaturize the elements of communication will continue to speed up exponentially the accumulation and storage of information. You might say with Stewart Brand in The Media Lab that eventually there will be: "submicron computers with gigahertz clock rates, nanowatt power dissipation and RAM storage densities in the hundreds of millions of terabytes per cubic centimeter." Translated this comes out as: "whole computers smaller than a millionth of a meter, going at millions of cycles-per-second on a billionth-of-a-watt of energy, with memory in the trillions of bytes."
What is the poor actor, whose job it is, Hamlet says, to "hold the mirror up to nature," to do with all this?
The great poet of the theatre of our time was Samuel Beckett, and his mirror reflects a dislocated 20th century mind, searching for identity. I was forcibly struck, almost driven mad, by the mental contrast between Beckett and Shakespeare, while driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike, from my home in the Berkshires to Boston, trying to learn the text of Beckett's Not I while in the last week of Hamlet rehearsals. How to switch from Shakespeare's iambic rhythm that picks up the heartbeat and is the natural pulse of the English language:
To be or not to be: that is the question; Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them.
To Beckett's Mouth in his 11-mintue play—the audience sees nothing but a mouth:
Out...into this world...this world...tiny little thing...before its time...in a godfor...what?...girl? ... yes...tiny little girl...into this...out into this...before her time...godforsaken hole called...called... no matter...parents unknown...unheard of...he having vanished...thin air...no sooner buttoned up his breeches...she similarly...eight months later almost to the tick...
My brainwaves were going crazy on the turnpike trying to learn this for a performance I was giving. I felt dizzy, I nearly drove off the road. There is a palpable effect on the whole organism, on the cellular sensation when the harmony and regular rhythms of Shakespeare go through one, but the jagged dislocations that reflect through Beckett the 20th century experience constitute the normal, familiar mode of the 20th century actor. This actor, in order to come close to Shakespeare, has to rediscover deeply buried harmonies and rhythms and open up wells of passionate expression that have had lids put over them so that society does not inadvertently fall in.
Recognizing our fragmentation, and seeking out the balm of Shakespeare's words, perhaps today's actor can become whole enough to do him justice. The miracle of Shakespeare is that he can still speak to us and through us. He knew he would, "So long as men shall breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
Most miraculously, he is the only truly global playwright. His plays are translated into every major language in the world. The Germans say they actually understand him better than the English. Kurosawa makes us believe that Shakespeare was a Samurai in another life. Ingmar Bergman exposes the tortured Scandinavian soul in him. The Russians (or rather, the Georgians) have produced the definitive Lear. The Chinese have an annual Shakespeare festival. The Arabs claim him as an Arab—Sheik Spear. His stories are archetypal and illuminate human lives no matter what language those lives are dressed in. But Russian, Swedish, Chinese actors are telling Shakespeare's stories in their own everyday language. The English-speaking actor has a harder road to travel, since Shakespeare's English is not the everyday English spoken by today's actors.
Understanding Shakespeare's language is not, however, merely a matter of looking up the vocabulary, and getting one's tongue around Elizabethan language structures. The fact is that when words are experienced viscerally—sensorially, sensually, physically, emotionally—they yield up different meaning from those wrestled out of the cerebrum. And it is clear that Elizabethan English was a much more robust, red-blooded affair than that of today. It was, after all, 400 years younger. Our everyday English is an anemic, insecure, elderly shadow of the language which used to sound all those letters in words that now only serve to provide sadistic pleasure for the people who devise spelling bees. If you experiment with even the smallest understanding of how this older English might have sounded, you will find how much energy it takes to say the words, and that the extra activity of the lips and tongue and throat stimulates you physically right down to your breathing center. The whole body is involved.
Today's actor has to rediscover language in order to plug into Shakespeare: become, as it were, a child again; relearn the body-and-soul expressiveness of individual vowels and consonants; remember the first knowledge of passion-words—Love, Rage, Grief, Ecstasy, Hate, Jealousy, Joy—slow down every phase of the process of speaking so that the language is reborn and the elemental particles of communication reconstruct their relationships.
Vowels and consonants were fashioned from emotions and sensations. A poetic genius such as Shakespeare consciously or unconsciously uses the sounds within the words to convey on a sub-or-intra-verbal level the effect of the content of the words. Shakespeare's images, when they travel through the body along the psychophysical paths of vowels and consonants, evoke spontaneous emotional responses. When the eye of the solar plexus accurately receives Shakespeare's image the actor feels the emotion the dramatist intended.
Actors today often have trouble understanding why Shakespeare's characters behave the way they do. For instance, it is difficult to analyze the Macbeth marriage according to 20th century psychology. Within the Elizabethan World Picture, with hell burning below one's feet and heaven shining way up in the sky and the "great chain of being" stretching between, the behavior of the Macbeths is comprehensible and playable. It is not hard for us today to revert to an experience of animal passions, lust, revenge, hate, rage, murder, ambition—living in the lower regions of the body. Redemptive love dwells in the heart and the divine soul and reason belong in the head. Hell pulls one down and heaven draws one up and we struggle between two magnetic forces. Macbeth's conflict at the center of these two opposing attractions is palpable, and if the actor playing him can embody the images, he will enter the flesh, spirit and felt dilemma of the man.
Language went through volcanic changes in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Bible was translated from Latin into English; education, law and religion were no longer conducted in Latin, and in Shakespeare's time the plain Anglo-Saxon that characterized everyday, spoken English received a transfusion of fresh blood from thousands of newly coined words concocted from the language hitherto the exclusive domain of the educated. Words we take for granted were used by Shakespeare to hit the ear with a vivid shock. He himself brought hundreds, possibly thousands of new words into the language. If the actor's consciousness is attuned to the juxtaposition of Anglo-Saxon, monosyllabic words with Latin-based polysyllabic ones and alert to the effect of deliberately setting a short, visceral, direct word alongside a longer, more intellectual one, an astonishingly emotional response may be spontaneously sparked in the body.
We can see very well how this understanding can help the actor when Macbeth begins his examination of the pros and cons of murdering his king. He cannot even say the word "murder." He first attempts to confront the act with monosyllabic directness: "If it ["it" is tiny word for a huge sin] were done [finished, over with] when 'tis done [committed], then 'twere well/ It were done [performed] quickly." But he doesn't go and do it. He tackles the subject from another, more intellectual standpoint, distancing the argument: "If the assassination [long, Latin-based word, still avoiding the word ‘murder’]/ Could trammel up the consequence [thinking hard], and catch/ With his surcease success: that but this blow [Anglo-Saxon]/ Might be the be-all and the end-all here/ But here upon this bank and shoal of time/ We'd jump the life to come [it sounds as if he is gathering enough Anglo-Saxon directness to do the deed]. But in these cases [oh, dear, he's changing his mind]/ We still have judgment here, that we but teach/ Bloody instructions which being taught return/ To plague th' inventor [head and heart are butting against each other in juxtaposed Anglo-Saxon and Latin-based words].”
If the actor allows the images to play through his emotions and experiences his belief in the "great chain of being" as feeling, he will have no difficulty in achieving the extremity of Macbeth's battle of conscience, before Lady Macbeth comes in to provide the spur. We know the rest.
Within the elements of Shakespeare's language is encoded Shakespeare's creative force. When that language is incarnated—when the words become flesh and breath and feeling—today's actors are reborn to embody the archetypal stories told by the greatest poet-dramatist ever.
Through the incarnation of language, today's theatre could rediscover the whole purpose of theatre, which is to bring healing and new life to the community it serves. The breath of life within the words, the word animating emotions in the body, the body and voice deepening and expanding the humanity of the actor, the actors revitalizing the theatre, the theatre nurturing the soul of its community, the community a microcosm of our global village, where, breathing deeply the air common to all humanity, we may one day—before it is too late—find and share words and stories that can save our universal souls.