Click on play or author for notes –
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Oh come on! This is supposed to be one of the best comedies ever written, but – to be frank – it gets few really BIG laughs from modern audiences. So something must be going wrong.
Either the play means little to modern audiences, – or modern actors don’t know how to perform it!
It’s the second! Modern actors rarely know how to perform ‘upper class’, even in the UK nowadays, but need to know how to ‘act’ classy characters as they come up in many plays, films and tv series. So how can actors play ‘upper-class’?
These British characters are not just people with a funny accent, they are real people.
And there is one big difference between the kind of ‘High Society’ which exists in the USA and the one in the UK. The upper-class which exists in America, of people who have power because they are rich, can all lose that power if their money disappears, but British aristocrats never lose their power because they have ‘titles’ which cannot disappear. If ‘Lords’ or ‘Duchesses’ ever loses their money there will be millionaires queuing up to marry them to inherit the ‘titles’ for their children. (Most titles are inherited.)
So being a ‘Lord’ is not only like winning the lottery, it is like winning the lottery every month of your life. In fact it is better than that, for people with ‘titles’ know their children will carry on winning the lottery when they themselves die!
So titled people are usually very rich indeed, and have no worries about losing their fortune, and if a ‘Countess’ or a ‘Baron’ ever needs extra money there are companies willing to pay them millions just to have that titled person’s name listed on their board of directors. And that Countess or Baron may not have to do any real work for them!
If Americans think the idea of having a title seems a bit mad then they should realize that upper-class Brits cannot be expected to change. If they gave up their ‘titles’ it would throw thousands of people whom they employ out of work, and the British Tourist industry might collapse as most tourists mostly want to just see Buckingham Palace, and where other members of the ‘Royal Family’ live.
So these ‘aristocrats’ cannot change, plus they are rich. And before explaining how Americans can ‘act’ like them, let us look at the comedy of these characters. What is so amusing about the upper-class? The characters in Monty Python may seem funny just because they are so exaggerated, but there has to be something ‘real’ about even them. The answer – in this play’s characters and many others – is that they have the confidence of giants, and the intelligence of flies. They may have huge power in society, and maybe even in the government of the UK, but they know very little about real life!
Let us look at how the British Upper-class in this play actually live. The stage-directions which start this play show this clearly, if we examine the words carefully:-
Scene: A morning room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street.
A piano is heard from an adjoining room.
The ‘flat’, (meaning an ‘apartment’ of course), is in Half Moon Street, which is a real street round the corner from Buckingham Palace. So it is close to where the Queen lives now, and to where Queen Victoria lived at the time of this play. The surrounding houses are (and always have been) owned by Lords, Bishops and even exiled Kings and Queens from other countries. It is like a mafia for the upper-class, with a real King or a Queen as the godfather.
This apartment would sell for ten million dollars today, because of where it is, surrounded by people nearly all of whom have ‘titles’. So when American actors are acting in this play, on what could seem a very simple set, they must remember that their characters are living in the luxury of an A-list film star in fact.
The second stage-direction (above) states that “a piano is heard” from another room. This means thee must be a second sitting-room because a piano would not be in a bedroom. So the apartment must be very large, and may have more rooms in the basement where a butler and other servants live. This must add even more millions to the value of the property. It is like owning a massive apartment just round the corner from the White House. The picture shown above gives some idea of how the living-room might look.
Now let us examine one of the characters in the play.
The contrast between her huge confidence and her lack of intelligence is shown in every single line. Unfortunately this role has become a kind of ‘comic turn’ for some actresses, who sometimes play her as a kind of dragon-lady, droning every line in the same pompous way, and relying on a British accent to get a few small laughs.
Another problem with the role comes from the modern practice of her sometimes being played by a male actor. This robs Lady Bracknell of her most important characteristic – that she is a mother. She is, of course, a terrible mother, but she thinks she is the best one in the world! She is powerful and, in her own way, loving, but she knows nothing whatsoever about real life.
There are two ways in which her lines can be said. One is very funny, the other is a mistake. To see them both, let us look at the following lines. Here she is interviewing JACK to decide whether he would be a suitable husband for her daughter, and she asks him:
JACK: Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.
LADY BRACKNELL: I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind.
It might seem as if she is saying that men do nothing with their lives, and that one of the few things they are capable of doing is smoking. This makes her seem very sarcastic, and as if she is making fun of men, as if she is being deliberately funny. But she is not being very clever in her remark about men, it is just a little rude, and no audience will laugh very much. (They may pretend to find it funny and laugh out loud so as to look clever at understanding a line, but they will not laugh very much). The truth is that Lady Backnell is not capable of being deliberately funny. She is not clever enough to say anything clever about men. She knows nothing at all about men, for even her husband spends his time in an upstairs room of the house, too nervous to spend much time with her, and she has no sons. It is clear she does not like men much, and cannot even remember the name of her brother at the end of the play. She has probably forgotten the night with her husband when she conceived her daughter, an event which her husband may only have performed once! She has no knowledge of men, but what makes this funny is that she thinks she knows everything about them! In these lines, in fact, she is extremely pleased when Jack tells her that he smokes because – for the moment – she thinks he might be a fantastic husband for her daughter, because she is glad to learn he does do something, and she has no idea that men do anything else!
Her ignorance about life is logical. We can assume she has no male friends, and that none she knows does an actual job. A few of the ‘Lords’ she knows may be politicians, but she has no idea what that involves. If she expresses an opinion on anything it can be because she has overheard somebody else saying it. She has power but is ignorant, is confident but blind. All that matters to her – in the whole world – is that her daughter marries the ‘right’ man, which means the man whom she thinks is right.
Another example of her empty-headedness is when her daughter tells her that she has become engaged. Lady Bracknell replies “You will be informed when you are engaged”. Some actresses say this line with a note of cruelty, as if threatening her daughter, showing no love for her daughter at all. But Lady Bracknell, in her own way, does love her daughter, and simply thinks her daughter has made a mistake. Lady Bracknell doesn’t understand how her daughter could forget the ‘rule’ that a mother decides to whom a daughter can become engaged! She is shocked, but not seriously worried, for she is sure that Gwendolen will terminate the ‘engagement’ now that she has been reminded about the ‘rules’. The scene has some depth to it, for it is about a real girl not being allowed to marry the man whom she genuinely loves. And what makes it funny is that Lady Bracknell doesn’t have a clue that anything her daughter is talking about is serious!
Lady Bracknell has the confidence of Malvolio, the command of a general, the clarity of a Shakespearean actor, the wealth of Donald Trump, – and the brain of flea
But . . . oh dear ! . . . there is one more thing to add, which may sound so peculiar that you could wish you’d not read this section, but it is a fact about the plays of Oscar Wilde more than the plays by any other person here. But I will try to say it briefly, and leave it to you to research the subject more if you wish . . . It is that Wilde was an aesthete, which means he appreciated some art for no other reason than that is was beautiful. It did not need to be clever, and it did not need to help people be ‘better’ people, it was simply beautiful. Music is a simple example of this ‘beauty’ for the great music of Mozart cannot be ‘understood’ and it does not lead people to be ‘better’, – it is simply beauty. And in this play Wilde has created people whose conversations are not logical but merely beautiful. Personally I think all of Wilde can be explained and understood, but there is a kind of easy, frivolous, indulgence in his characters, and some actors may find it helpful to be aware of this ‘aesthetism’ – and sorry, I shall try not to be so vague in the rest of these notes.
These short notes about OPHELIA and HORATIO are to encourage actors to make their own discoveries about Shakespeare’s characters.
OPHELIA: The name ‘Ophelia’ means ‘help’. She never gets any. By the end of the play she has lost her mind. She commits suicide like Romeo’s lover, Juliet.
Ophelia may seem the sanest person in this play at first. She may seem to behave like an angel. She listens politely to her father’s insults, and patiently to her brother’s insensitivity, and she loves Hamlet without concern for her own safety. The play is called a ‘tragedy’ not just because Hamlet dies, but because Ophelia does too. She should have had a happy life, living in a King’s castle, with a successful father, married a future king, and she would have been content living in a simple home like the one shown here, (believed to have been Shakespeare’s in Stratford).
And it is no exaggeration to call her a saint. Her brother and Hamlet both leap into her grave at her funeral! ‘Love’ is a word rarely used in modern times in the way Ophelia feels it, for her love lasts for ever. Like Juliet, she cannot bear to live when she believes her man is dead.
Her death, unlike Juliet’s, but like Cordelia’s in King Lear, happens offstage, because we do not need to see her dead to believe it, we always feared it might happen.
But Ophelia is not a simple victim, for every line she speaks (and every line she hears) has variety and depth. It is tempting to think there is something tragic about her from the start. Not an easy thought for actresses playing the role to face perhaps.
Hamlet calls Horatio his “best friend”. Horatio is a friend any of us would value. Even when Hamlet fails to recognize him, when they have been apart for a year, Horatio is not upset. Nothing ever stops him from being accepting, trusting, supportive and friendly.
When Hamlet calls him “the best of men”, Horatio simply responds –
HORATIO: Oh my Lord.
He asks for nothing from Hamlet, or from anyone else. He accepts anything that Hamlet tells him. He is “a quiet man”. He agrees to join Hamlet’s scheme to catch Claudius with a ‘play’, never worrying about his own safety. He does not question Hamlet’s right to send Rozencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths. When Hamlet shows concern about having a duel with Laertes, Horatio asks him not to fight, but, when Hamlet tells him not to worry, Horatio instantly gives way.
Even when Horatio meets the gravediggers he does not interrupt Hamlet’s fun with any jokes of his own. Some actors imagine Horatio has an unexpressed homosexual love for Hamlet, but very close friendship between males was more common in Shakespeare’s day than in most countries today.
And Horatio may be what Hamlet would like to be.
Horatio gives us what may be the only moment of comfort in the play, when – at the end – Hamlet is dying and Horatio holds his head in his arms. He is a best friend. Friendship for him is not a joke, it is life itself.
Notes on three villains in King Lear
If a character feels ‘right’ for an actor, seems ‘easy’ to play, then actors may only need to follow their instincts. But Shakespeare’s characters all have wonderful or tragic depths, and they are often hard to explore in just a few weeks of rehearsal. The questions which need to be asked by actors about roles role are often unclear, and the notes in different editions of the plays are not always helpful. Actors need to have conversations about their character with other members of the company – if that feels safe – or with friends, or the director, or a coach. (That does not mean you need to come to me! There are lots of good acting coaches.) But actors should not work on roles on their own.
The three villains of this play, EDMUND, REGAN and GONERIL, are only realistic (and only interesting) if they do not seem to be villains. The more decent and heroic they can appear the more their lines make sense.
The actor playing Edmund should not show that the character is psychotic. Like the normal-looking serial killer ‘J Bundy’ Edmund does not feel evil. His private lines to the audience show he is, but the actor does not need to sneer and scowl to add to what Shakespeare has already made clear.
If Edmund even sounds dishonest then the characters around him look foolish for not noticing the fact. The audience is able to spot the ‘darkness’ that is inside him because they hear him express his private thoughts in soliloquies, but to everyone else he can appear vulnerable, decent and admirable.
REGAN and GONERIL, two of King Lear’s daughters, are too often performed as being obviously evil. They even sometimes seem like the ugly step-sisters in ‘Cinderella’! But the actresses playing them need not show the characters’ unkindness in their voices or expressions. The cruelty which may even exist in some of our own families – or at least in a family that we know – should be enough for us to remember that it is a deep and complex problem. These two daughters should sound as gentle and smooth as Cordelia. This makes them far, far more shocking, and more interesting. If Regan’s duplicity is obvious then Lear is made to seem stupid for not noticing it from the start. He should only gradually realize how cruel his daughters are. The play is about Lear being cleverly deceived by characters who are – in their own way – very, very good actors!
They can seem genuinely loving when they speak to their father, and the third sister, Cordelia, may even sound a little unkind when she refuses to play up to her father’s needs. It is because the other two sound so sincere that Cordelia is unable to convince her father of their duplicity.
But more important even than the behaviour of the daughters (and sons) in this play is that their father – wait for it – loves them! Really love them. REALLY love them.
The comedies of Noël Coward may not seem deep, but they are clever. There are meanings behind every line which need to be noticed for the plays to shine as they should, and the following short scene from HAYFEVER is a simple example of the details to be found in seemingly simple words. The scene appears only to be about a housekeeper coming into the room and opening a door for some guests to enter, but in each word is a brick that builds into a simple comedy masterpiece.
The situation is straightforward. Judith Bliss is sitting at home with her teenage son and daughter. They are waiting for four guests to arrive, and the doorbell has just rung. But even before the housekeeper, Clara, enters to answer the doorbell, there is a trouble in the air. Nobody has told Clara that four guests are coming, until Clara passes by Judith (her employer) and the two children on her way to open the front door, when Judith suddenly says:
JUDITH: Clara – before you open the door, – we shall be eight for dinner.
CLARA: My God!
SIMON: (Judith’s son) And for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner tomorrow.
JUDITH: Will you get various rooms ready?
CLARA: I shall have to.
SOREL: (Judith’s daughter) Now we’ve upset Clara!
JUDITH: It can’t be helped – nothing can be helped. It’s Fate. Everything that happens is fate. That’s always been a great comfort for me.
CLARA: More like arrant selfishness.
JUDITH: You mustn’t be pert, Clara.
CLARA: Pert I may be, but I ‘ave got some thought for others. Eight for dinner – Amy going home early! It’s nothing more or less than an imposition.
(Doorbell rings again)
SIMON: Hadn’t you better let them in?
The ten lines may appear to be nothing more than a small row, but the secret behind all the characters is that they are all selfish, – the mother, the children, the guests, the father and the housekeeper!
If examined carefully this selfishness can be seen in every line. Judith, the mother, was once a very successful actress, and usually speaks with a note of drama in her voice. In fact she is rather a diva so it would be easy for an audience to dislike her if they could not see that she secretly lacks self-confidence, shown by her fear that her career as an actress is finished because of her age. So she can be selfish and self-centered, but still likable.
She has avoided telling Clara, the housekeeper, until now that four guests are about to arrive, because she knows Clara will resent the extra work involved, – and Judith is only telling her now because Clara will know it is too late to cancel the guests’ invitations!
There is a special relationship between Judith and Clara, which allows them to be selfish wit each other, not typical of most employers and servants. Clara has been Judith’s backstage ‘dresser’ throughout her career, and they are more like ‘stage-sisters’.
This has allowed Clara, like Judith, to want to be in charge all the time. And she is in a sour mood before she even enters because a girl who sometimes helps her in the kitchen has a cold and has stayed at home. So Clara has extra work to do before she even hears about the guests coming. She is even more irritated because Judith or her son or daughter could have answered the door themselves. She cannot be openly rude to her employer, but like the housekeeper in Two and a Half Men. she has earned the right to speak fairly openly.
But not only do these two women want to be in charge of everything. Simon, Judith’s innocent-looking son, then explains that not only are there four guests arriving but that they are staying for the whole weekend. He does not want to upset Clara, but thinks he is clever to give Clara all the bad news in one go. And he has extra confidence because he is the only male in the room!
So we now have a scene in which three people want to be in charge. Clara, the housekeeper, out-ranks Simon because of her age, and Judith, anticipating an explosion from Clara, leaps in to say “Will you get various rooms ready?” to try and move things along, slipping in the word ”various” as if the actual number of guests does not matter, while expecting Clara to organize a room for each one. And this situation gets very slightly worse with every line.
Clara still fights to be in charge, rebuking Judith by saying “I shall have to – they can’t sleep in the passage”, probably keeping her voice quiet to make clear this is not the first time that the family has treated her this way. So everybody is able to pretend that everything is fine!
Clara is speaking the truth about Judith possibly letting the guests sleep on the floor in the hall, but the daughter of the family, Sorel now cuts in, seeing the chance to be in charge herself by criticizing her mother’s bad manners, by saying “Now we’ve upset Clara!”. But Sorel speaks as if Clara were no longer present, and so becomes the fourth person in the room who feels they are in charge.
Wanting to be in charge is one sign of selfishness, and the Bliss family also do not want to go to any trouble for their guests. For the moment Judith’s only aim is to keep Clara calm, so she tries to distract everyone’s attention by slipping into a dramatic speech from a play she has performed in the past, hoping the desperate words will calm everyone down: “It can’t be helped – nothing can be helped. It’s Fate. Everything that happens is Fate. That’s always been a great comfort to me.”
The audience should believe, for a few seconds, that Judith is really upset about the ‘cruelty of Fate’. It is only when the audience notices her children paying no attention to their Mother that the audience should guess that Judith is ‘acting’ from one of her plays. If Judith’s lines do not seem completely genuine, – if in fact they are delivered in an exaggerated ‘actressy’ way, – this may get a small laugh but it will lose the audience’s interest when she tries the trick repeatedly, of ‘being actressy’. She must always seem genuine, just very dramatic about everything.
All this happens with enormous speed, but working out the details of the lines needs some care. The next moment Clara, who knows that Judith is putting on an act, responds pompously: “More like arrant selfishness,” only because she is trying to take over the role of ‘Diva’ for herself.
Judith does not object to Clara’s speaking her mind, but dislikes being upstaged by anyone, so when Judith then says “You mustn’t be pert, Clara.” she is not telling Clara off for speaking, but criticizing the quality of the housekeeper’s ‘Diva’ performance! When all of these details are played at speed, and seen to be at the heart of each character, the play is like a Rolls Royce being driven at speed.
Clara wants to have the last word, and says firmly: “Pert I may be, but I ‘ave got some thought for others. Eight for dinner – Amy going home early! It’s nothing more or less than an imposition”. But even this line is a little silly, for Clara cannot match the authority of Judith’s ‘professional act’, and sounds for a moment like a Cockney version of Mrs Malaprop*, for she has learned words like ‘imposition’ and ‘pert’ from Judith, and does not fully know what they mean.
Clara finally hovers for one more moment, trying think of something biting to say, but she is interrupted by the doorbell again.
*(The eccentric character from Sheridan’s play THE RIVALS.)
And the doorbell gives Simon another chance to assert his ‘Lord-of-the-manor’ tone, by asking “Hadn’t you better let them in?”
Clara pays no attention to Simon, marching briskly to the front door, as if she had been going to do so anyway. She is anxious to get back to her kitchen as soon as possible, where she can really be in charge, and now probably swings the door open abruptly to reveal the first guests, and may turn away allowing the door to close back in their faces.
So these twelve lines, or any few lines in the play, accomplish many things – they establish the hierarchy of the family, they build tension here before the guests even appear, they show that Judith is a diva, clarify that Clara is her best friend, and make the audience feel sorry for the guests before they have even come in.
Such lines can be delivered calmly and casually, once they are understood, for the characters pretend to be innocent of anything behind behind what they say. But a family’s weekend’s journey to hell has begun!
Actors and actresses must discover these details in a comedy by themselves, or through talking with friends, or, if they are lucky, with a friendly cast-member, or pray for a helpful director, or have a suitable acting-coach, (and again I don’t mean they need me!) – but the lines must be understood or Noel Coward’s plays no longer make sense.
This is supposed to be Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, but rarely has audiences laughing very loudly! Some think this because the humor is ‘subtle’, but maybe the play needs to be understood in more detail.
But not too much detail – for it is important not to take all of it too seriously. Viola, for example, does not worry much when she thinks her brother has drowned! She asks briefly if he might have survived the shipwreck, but seems more interested in meeting a man whom her father once mentioned to her. And she makes no effort to get news back to her father that she herself has survived the shipwreck. So some of the play is not to be taken very seriously. But it does have depth, all the same.
Near the end of the play Olivia decides to marry Viola’s brother, just seconds after meeting him, but she is not mad, and she is not making a mistake. Shakespeare is simply showing that real people can behave very strangely in very unusual situations.
OLIVIA’s own brother has died a year before the start of the play, and her parents are probably dead as they are never mentioned, but Olivia is not simply sad, she has over-reacted, staying in mourning for a whole year, refusing even to see visitors, wears black, and may be a disaster waiting to happen.
MALVOLIO is also not to be taken seriously all the time. He may seem cruel when he says that Feste should be sacked from his job, but no-one pays attention to him, because he is clearly a fool. So nothing he says matters much. And in the end his pomposity has done no real harm. Olivia is either too polite to sack him, or he is not such a terrible servant, for he does whatever she asks.
Olivia accepts just one male visitor, and of course ‘he’ is a woman dressed up as a man. There is some logic to this, for there is not only loneliness among all the characters, but fear, jealousy, hope and despair as well.
At the end of the play, Malvolio might seem a tragic figure, having been teased and tortured until he shouts at his final exit: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” But this need not be the ‘dark’ ending to the play which some people believe it to be. It is true that Malvolio has not found love, but his last line may simply be another example of his pompous confidence, for he is convinced that whatever he says is always right, that he will be revenged on them all! He will probably have forgotten about his love for Olivia, and of his plans for revenge, in just a few minutes after his exit anyway, because he so loves himself!
Malvolio is absurd throughout the play. When he realizes that the letter ‘M’ on an envelope might be the start of his name he reacts as if his brain is an early version of Sherlock Holmes or Einstein! He is in ecstasy not simply because he thinks he has found a love-letter, but because he thinks he is so smart! If he truly believed the letter was meant for him he would tear it open at once and read it, but the comedy lies in the fact that he excitedly realizes the letter only MIGHT be for him, and does not yet realize that it actually is!
FESTE, the clown, may sometimes seems not very funny at all, but it must be remembered that he is a professional clown, a genuine comedian. He needs to be played by an actor who can switch between different ‘characters’ in the middle of the briefest of lines. When Olivia tells her servants to “take the fool away” , pointing at Feste, he responds with “Do you not hear – take away the lady” – a remark which could sound silly, or rude, and not terribly funny, but Feste is pretending to be silly, pretending to believe that this is what Olivia meant, sounding like Olivia’s father perhaps and speaking in a pompous tone which is not unlike Malvolio’s perhaps, and cleverly only pretending to be serious. Actors who do not think Feste is funny may be actors who do not ‘get’ his jokes, sorry!
SIR TOBY must be likable. If he is too loud and too alcoholic, he will seem selfish and boring after a few minutes. He has to love life, and drinks more for fun than anything. He teases his friend Sir Andrew, but he loves him, and he loves Maria, unaware of how perfect she is for him until the end of the play. Unless he is likable it is hard to see the play as a comedy.
SIR ANDREW, one of the best small roles in Shakespeare, may seem merely vulnerable and needy, but he is both in the extreme! He doesn’t find love, and is not noticed by Olivia, but he is too much a fool for an audience to take his loneliness seriously. His has no deep feelings for Olivia, and little idea of what the word ‘love’ really means. He forgets about Olivia in an instant when Sir Toby suggests he should look at Maria. He is a healthy blade of straw, blowing in the wind.
The duel scene confirms how pathetic he is, as he is scared of an opponent who is just as scared as himself. Of course the actor playing Sir Andrew must find reality in the character, and may be helped by seeing that Sir Andrew’s attention span is less than a minute. Within seconds of the duel being over he has forgotten about it completely! If he were to marry, perhaps attracting a woman because of his ‘title’ – SIR Andrew – he would probably never know what to do with his wife. He is just a kind man who is too trusting and too ignorant, while being quite happy!
When American actors try to perform any British plays, from Stoppard to Pinter, Agatha Christie to Ayckbourn, Shaw to Wilde, (yes, I know the last two were Irish but they wrote about England), it may help to watch my first of my three videos about a British accent, on the “Free Videos” page, because they explore what it means to ‘feel’ like a Brit.
But if one says every line, every sentence of a role thinking about the accent, conscious of the fact that the character is British it will be boring because anything we do all the time sounds repetitive, sound like the same ‘tone’.
It is the person and what they are doing and what they need and why which counts, and the accent is not going to be noticed if an actor is real. And if the accent is perfect but the character is real the audience will get bored fast! –
– Imagine me playing an American role and my American accent being perfect: if my acting is not ‘real’ you will think I am rubbish after a while and not care about my perfect accent! But if I play my character with reality, giving it emotional truth, and genuinely speak to the other characters, then you will not worry about my accent very much. I’m not saying I’m any good as an actor, I’m just reminding you that what matters.
A FEW NOTES ABOUT SHAKESPEARE’S VERSE
The rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse can show us what the lines mean. Here are two examples:
When Hamlet is asked by his mother and Claudius to stay at home, and not to go away to university, he replies:
“I shall in all my best obey you, Madam”
– the ‘beat’ of the line is simple: -/ -/ -/ -/ -/ –
I SHALL in ALL my BEST obEY you, MAdam”
– but some actors think they should emphasize the word “you” – so that it is :
“I shall in all my best obey YOU Madam”
– because they want to make clear that Hamlet is only obeying his Mother, – the “YOU” in the line. They want to make clear that they are pissed off that Claudius has asked them to stay, and only obeying his mother, the ‘YOU’. But if Hamlet shows he is not obeying Claudius then why does Claudius not get angry? Claudius in fact says “It is a fair reply”, as if Hamlet has politely agreed to stay at home. But, by following the way the verse shows us the line, we see that even at this early point in the play that Hamlet is unable to stand up for himself; and certainly not able to openly disobey his his step-father.
Another example of verse showing what a line means may be seen when Polonius asks his daughter what she thinks about Hamlet. Ophelia replies:
“I do not know my Lord what I should think”
and the beat of the line is clear: -/ -/ -/ -/ -/
I DO not KNOW my LORD what I should THINK“
– but some actors prefer to emphasize the word “what” . . .
“I do not know my Lord WHAT I should think”
which is not following the verse, and makes it sound as if Ophelia is unsure of ‘what’ her opinion is and wants to be told what to do by her father. But by sticking to the verse, (which means not hitting the word “what”), we see that the poor girl does not even know what she should “think”! It shows from this early point n the play that she never challenges or disobeys anyone, a fact which leads to her death. By understanding the line properly we might even see the start of her tragic journey towards suicide.
NOISES OFF, a very British comedy, is often produced in the USA, and includes elements which may help Americans perform other British comedies.
As in most American comedies the characters are innocent people, but in a British comedy this ‘innocence’ is more obvious! The old American idea that Brits are rather uptight is nonsense – as is obvious when one remembers that Oasis, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and the Sex Pistols are all British bands, – but there is one kind of Brit which actually is uptight and at the center of plays like this. As one example, in dozens of British farces, a male character finds his trousers falling down. This always happens to a very innocent character, maybe a vicar, and in front of somebody which makes his loss of trousers very embarrassing! He is also usually wearing bright-colored underwear, and the comedy centers on the old-fashioned idea of a British ‘gentleman’ being nervous about nakedness.
When Michael Douglas’s trousers fell to his ankles in the film FATAL ATTRACTION, forcing him to waddle across the floor like a penguin towards the beautiful Glen Close, Michael’s trousers impeded his steps like leg-irons, making him look wonderfully undignified, and the audience laughed, even though Michael and Glen were about to make love. But in a British farce it is less likely that actual sex will occur! There are exceptions in the farces of modern British writers like Joe Orton, whose humor makes most American comedy-writers look old-fashioned, but in ‘traditional’ British farces little that is risque happens. This play, NOISES OFF, is about accidents happening to Brits who are decent and old-fashioned.
Philip in NOISES OFF has a good reason for removing his trousers. He has spilled super-glue on his hands, causing a tax-demand to stick to one hand and a plate of sardines to the other, and has taken his wife’s advice of using a chemical cleaner to remove the adhesive from his hands, only to find that the cleaner is now burning through his trousers. Even then his biggest worry is that his wife might see him looking undignified, and when he politely tells his wife that the cleaner is not helping much, with one hand stuck to a plate of flapping sardines and the other to a letter from the Tax Office, he still makes point of calling her “darling” several times before gently asking if she has an alternative to the chemical which is about to burn through his manhood. His aim is not to just to stop the burning, but to stop anybody thinking anything is wrong!
In an American farce he would scream, rip off his trousers, and throw himself in a swimming-pool. British comedies are more about self-control and keeping up appearances.
Another difference between much British and USA comedy is that Americans don’t have “stiff upper-lips”. Oddly differently, Americans have ‘gritted teeth’.
Clint Eastwood has gritted teeth. The British actors who play James Bond have a stiff upper lip. When Clint plays a character in a war film who has been shot in the leg, he grits his teeth, and hides his pain, and if a nurse offers help, insists that she looks after his wounded comrades first, and his gritted teeth show his bravery. On the other hand, a British hero like James Bond aims to look calm. He also tells the nurse to look after his comrades first, but not because he is brave, but because he is a gentleman! The need to be brave is for him simply in a ‘set of rules’ which have existed in the UK for a thousand years.
Another wonderful part of the play NOISES OFF is its set.
NOISES OFF is a play about a group of not-very-good actors who are trying to rehearse a play called “NOTHING ON”. So it is set in a theatre, and the ‘set’ of the play which they are trying to rehearse is a large living-room with several doors leading to other rooms, and a flight of stairs leading up to a balcony where more doors lead to even more rooms. The number of doors makes it easy for the characters (and the actors playing them) to get lost! The entire set is turned round during the interval, so that in Act 2 the audience can see what is happening backstage.
Here, in this scene from the first act, a young man called ROGER is trying to get Vicki, a local beauty, to go upstairs “to have some champagne”. She seems very willing because she is – what in less politically correct days we were allowed to call – a ‘dumb blonde’. No sex will occur between Roger and Vicki, because this is an old-fashioned British farce, but Vicki is innocent, so appears to be willing. ROGER has told her that he owns the house, in order to impress her, though in fact he is a realtor trying to rent it out while its owners are abroad. This is his reason for not knowing which of 9 doors leads to the bedroom, where he wants to lead VICKI, – and here he has just mistakenly sent Vicki into a bathroom.
VICKI. (coming out of doorway) It’s another –
ROGER. No, no, no.
VICKI. Always trying to get me into bathrooms.
ROGER. I mean in here.
(He nods at the next door – the first along the gallery. VICKI leads the way in, ROGER follows.)
VICKI. Oh, black sheets!
ROGER. (Pulling her back out) It’s the airing cupboard. This one, this one.
(He drops the bag he has been carrying, and struggles
nervously to open the second door along the gallery, – the bedroom)
VICKI. Oh, you’re in a real state! You can’t even get the door open.
Vicki is not exactly a feminist. She probably wears a pink miniskirt, fluffy top, high heels, and looks super-stunning. But she is no fool. It is true that she trusts Roger too easily, and excited to have met an attractive young man who seems to own such a big house, but she is an essentially good person, innocent, happy, full of energy, with a big heart, and if by any chance she did end up in bed with Roger, he would be worn out in seconds.
NOTHING ON (the play which this group of awful actors is trying to rehearse) is full of panic situations, but the actress named BROOKE who is playing VICKY does not panic. She may be similar to the character she is playing – trusting that everything will work out well – but in fact neither ever fully realizes when things are going wrong! So when VICKY says, “It’s another bathroom” she’s not complaining for she thinks having two bathrooms is wonderful! Everything is fine in her view!
ROGER, however, does panic. He desperately cries “No, no, no!” when he realizes he can’t find the bedroom, but he is not shouting at Vicki. He is yelling at fate for being so unfair when Vicki seems willing to do whatever he asks. In this very British play everyone has good manners! What matters to ROGER is that VICKY does not see he is helpless. He needs, like the characters in the Noel Coward play discussed above here, to appear in charge!
Other characters in the play are also stereotypes of many other British comedies, even though their feelings must be acted for real. BELINDA – Philip’s long-suffering wife – is almost identical to Celia in Ayckbourn’s INTIMATE EXCHANGES. DOTTY, the long-suffering maid in NOISES OFF is like Clara in Coward’s HAY FEVER. LLOYD, the director in NOISES OFF who so wants to be charge, is like Lady Bracknell in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. And POPPY, the young and vulnerable stage manager in NOISES OFF, is like Sandy in HAY FEVER.
It is only by understanding the characters in NOISES OFF that it becomes possible to read the play at a first sitting. Actors reading any of these plays must remember who is oldest, who panics, who never panics and who is in charge at any point in any scene.
The plays of ALAN AYCKBOURN
Alan Ayckbourn has had more plays produced in major theaters than any other writer in the world, including more than forty on Broadway and thirty others in London’s West End. Yet many Americans do not know his plays, and probably because his plays take place in a kid of private British world.
The plays are mostly comedies about married couples arguing, and the speech below from one of his plays may help American actors understand more Ayckbourn’s characters.
But there is one unusual reason for the popularity of his plays – that he often plays a ‘trick’ on his audience which helps them to enjoy his plays before they even begin!
As one example, the ‘trick’ in his play INTIMATE EXCHANGES (in which the speech below appears) there are 4 male and 4 female characters BUT there is never more than one man and one woman onstage at the same time – AS A RESULT OF WHICH – it is possible for one actor to play all four men and one actress to play all four women, which they do with dozens of incredibly quick changes.
But to get a sense of the humor of his characters, let us examine one of these four men, TOBY, the headmaster of a classy but small provincial school, who has just been asked here – by his long suffering wife – to give his reasons for getting drunk all the time.
TOBY: Number one: I think the whole of life has become one long losing battle, all right? That’s the first reason I’m drinking. Number two: I find myself hemmed in by an increasing number of quite appalling people all flying under the flags of various breeds of socialism, all of whom so far as I can gather are hell-bent on courses of self-reward and self-remuneration that make the biggest capitalist look like Trotsky’s Aunt Mildred. Number three: on the other hand we have the rest of the country who don’t even have the decency to pretend that they’re doing it for the benefit of their fellow men.
He continues listing the people he dislikes, which is more or less everyone, with the possible exception of his wife. He enjoys being sarcastic, giving his reply with the smooth confidence of Christopher Hitchens – only not with Hitchens’s intelligence! Even his opening two words – “Number One” – show that he is about to list several complaints, and that he expects his wife to stand listening happily while he gives his opinion on youth, cricket, foreigners, health, and anything modern. He is not a bad man, and not unfaithful to his wife, and he often manages to hide his drinking, – he may even unconsciously appreciate his wife for staying with him. So, in a scary sense, it might be said they have a good marriage!
His sarcasm is clever enough to be funny, but too full of impatience and self-importance for us to admire him. He is a fool, but a harmless one. Ayckbourn’s characters are often selfish, eccentric, repetitive, stupid or naïve, but none of them intends to hurt anyone. The world of Ayckbourn’s characters is comfortable: arguing couples don’t actually get a divorce, heavy drinkers don’t actually get depressed, accidents don’t cause serious injury. A wonderful life.
The plays of AGATHA CHRISTIE
Still performed all over the USA the plots of her plays should not be taken very seriously. They may center around a murder taking place, but the characters are innocent-looking people, and the hunt to discover which of them could possibly be a killer never has much violence shown on the actual stage. It is the characters who are interesting, and that is because they are so innocent.
Audiences do not see blood or nudity, or hear rough language or much shouting. But they do see the calm, simple, comfortable life which some British people lead.
The UK is different to the USA when it comes to violence. UK policemen rarely carry guns, very few for criminals do, and of course there is no death penalty. Most people can walk at night in the streets without fear, and bars are very social and close at 11pm, so towns are less noisy at night. People eat at home, and there is less motorway speeding, and many other aspects of life are gentle and easy for most people. Healthcare is free for all, as is travel for over-60’s, and politeness has been taught to them all from an early age – or it was was at the time when Agatha Christie was writing!
So the idea of a simple and comfortable life in the UK is not so much attached to a dream of becoming rich, and while there are exceptions when the horrors of modern life suddenly appear in the UK, they do not in the plays of Agatha Christie.
Her characters are usually pleasant, polite, a little naïve, probably church-going without being very serious about their religion, probably conservative (i.e. Republican) because they do not want their world to change. And this image of a comfortable life is exaggerated and idealized so much in Christie’s plays that a murder may seem only a minor irritation, interrupting the schedule (and the numbers available) for a game of cards!