1. AUDITION TIPS
2. HOW TO LEARN LINES FASTER
Each of the 17 short films on this page are free to watch, and cover subjects from Shakespeare to Learning lines, giving advice which actors may not have come across before about hundreds of issues which actors have to deal with.
Further down are excerpts from Windsor-Cunningham's book written for American actors.
Each film last an average of 6 minutes. They are:-
1. TIPS FOR AUDITIONS.
2. HOW TO LEARN LINES FASTER (cont. in Films '3 and 4').
5. THE BEST ACTING LESSON IN THE WORLD (the biggest good acting graphically explained. John's delivery of this is described by the Royal National Theater's Education Department in London as "the best in the world")
6. MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT SHAKESPEARE - one startling fact to inspire the most experienced as well as novice actors.
7. HOW AMERICAN ACTORS CAN DO A BRITISH ACCENT CONVINCINGLY (continued into Film '8-9). 10. THE MEISNER TECHNIQUE - an acting method which does not suit all actors, but which includes elements of use to all actors. This is only one of the 'methods' which Windsor-Cunningham is happy to explore, and he explains in this video exactly what it involves.
11. TWO VOICE PROBLEMS & TWO SOLUTIONS - How to be heard in large theaters, - and how to cure a sore voice.
12. UNDERSTANDING HAROLD PINTER - the 'secret' of Pinter's plays, a secret which may also help explain difficult passages in Shakespeare. (Continued in Film '13').
14. SOLILOQUIES - how to feel comfortable doing a speech on your own onstage.
15. HOW TO SPEAK VERSE IN SHAKESPEARE (and to enjoy it).
16. HOW TO ACT 'REALISTICALLY' (Cont. in Film 17).
Below is a chapter from John Windsor-Cunningham's book, 'ACTING IN BRITISH PLAYS FOR AMERICAN ACTORS' aimed to help American actors 'feel' British whjen performing the countless British plays produced in the USA every year. This chapter focusses on Oscar Wilde's plays.
Following are excerpts from other chapters, including examination of characters in HAMLET, and advice on how to write successful applications for auditions, agents, and how to write resumes.
These excerpts can be seen by scrolling down past the red printed section below.
ACTING IN BRITISH PLAYS FOR AMERICAN ACTORS
by John Windsor-Cunningham
How to perform the plays of
William Shakespeare Harold Pinter
Tom Stoppard Oscar Wilde
Alan Ayckbourn G B Shaw
Noel Coward Agatha Christie
Caryl Churchill David Hare
Robert Bolt Alan Bennett
Michael Frayn Joe Orton
R.B.Sheridan William Wycherley
(and English translations of Moliere)
HOW AMERICANS CAN 'FEEL' BRITISH, with details of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest which many may not know.
2. BEHAVIOR: The difference between British and American.
4. TOM STOPPARD: his plays, including THE REAL THING, and how American actors can sound as if they were educated in the UK.
5. TYPICAL BRITISH CHARACTERS: how to make them realisitic.
6. NOEL COWARD and his play Hay Fever.
7. BRITISH SOCIETY: more details about British life to help Americans play British roles.
8. ALAN AYCKBOURN. His comedies, including Intimate Exchanges, and the difference between marriages in the USA and the UK.
9. UK ACCENTS: including modern developments, linked to films on YouTube where all accents can be heard.
10. BRITISH FARCE - Michael Fray's play Noises Off.
11. HAROLD PINTER: His play A Kind of Alaska and how it explains the mystery of all of Pinter's plays, and even helps with difficult passages of Shakespeare.
12. SHAKESPEARE: - Hamlet; how American actors can stop being in awe of his Shakespeare's plays; - Twelfth Night, and why it may be the greatest comedy of all time.
Also Shakespeare's 'clowns', and why (unlike the rest of Shakespeare's characters), they are hard to play with an American accent. But not impossible.
And the heart of As You Like It, - what makes it a comedy.
13. PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES between Brits and Americans.
14. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW:
The TWO main characters of Pygmalion.
The Devil's Disciple - the only play Shaw set in America, and what it can teach actors about the different attitude which Brits have towards war, which applies to dozens of otgher Britgish plays.
15. CARYL CHURCHILL: Top Girls - a play about the ‘new women’ of modern Britain.
16. JOE ORTON: What the Butler Saw - British risque humor.
17. 'RESTORATION COMEDIES'
WILLIAM WYCHERLEY: THE COUNTRY WIFE
- and some help understanding the way aristocrats 'move'.
18. 'SENTIMENTAL COMEDIES'
and 'COMEDIES OF MANNERS' -
R.B. SHERIDAN: THE RIVALS
& SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
connecting to the plays of Wilde, Coward and Stoppard.
19 MOLIERE : THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES
- and how to enjoy speaking in verse.
20 AGATHA CHRISTIE:
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
- how the British Legal system makes British characters in many plays different to Americans.
21 DAVID HARE: THE VERTICAL HOUR
- the manners of politicians in the UK, and how this may help play characters in other plays.
22 ALAN BENNETT: TALKING HEADS
and THE HISTORY BOYS
23 ROBERT BOLT: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
- the power of British Kings.
HOW AMERICAN ACTORS CAN PLAY BRITISH 'UPPER-CLASS', AND THE SECRETS BEHIND OSCAR WILDE'S PLAY The Importance of Being Earnest.
Even in the UK today this play does not get the laughter you could hope for from audiences since it is supposed to be one of the greatest comedies ever written. Something is wrong. Either the play doesn't suit modern audiences, or modern actors don't know how to perform it.
Many people don't care. In America many audiences are satisfied just to hear the British accents. But there is a depth to the play with which many modern actors and directors have lost touch with. And the first task for an American actor performing this play - or any British role - is to understand how it 'feels' to be British upper-class.
One fact sums up the differences between the USA and the UK, and it is a fact which gives added meaning to every line that any British character has ever said. It is that 'Americans live for the future and British people live in the past'. There are exceptions, but most Americans do look forward to the American Dream, while British people are satisfied with the way things are.
This can make Brits appear to be rather old-fashioned, but we should remember the UK produced the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Dire Straits and Coldplay, and their fashions are copied by every designer in America, so there are exceptions to this idea of Brits living in the past. But in most of the British plays performed in the USA the characters are rarely very modern!
What an American actor needs is to see why the past matters so much to British people and why it affects their lives nearly all the time. I won't bog the reader down in history, as it only takes seconds to remember that one hundred years ago the tiny island of the UK had massive power and, in a way, had achieved its version of the American Dream already! They ruled over India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, Iraq, Egypt, most of Africa, Bermuda, Barbados, the West Indies, the Falkland Islands, Ireland, Hong-Kong and Singapore, and controlled the economies of China, Africa, and Argentina! It is hardly surprising that they regard the past as being more exciting than the future, in a way, and have developed a kind of 'satisfaction' which can be applied to every British role that an American actor plays. If the character an actor or actress is playing seems NOT to be satisfied then it will be the case that they were probably satisfied yesterday and will be satisfied tomorrow. Another way to sum this feeling up is to say that Brits do not want 'change'. Amazingly they invented television and a host of other staples of modern life but then sat back satisfied while other countries turned it into a huge industry. They invented the telephone, refrigerator, super-computer, radar, nuclear transfer, jet-engine, color-photography, color cinema-photography, heroin and viagra, but left it to others to make these inventions change the world.
So Americans can begin to feel British by simply noting how some Americans already behave this way. In the Southern States of America millions want life to be as it was a century ago, and most military families are as proud of their past as any Brit can be. Even some hippies on the west coast of America want their lives to stay the same, and it is this wish for things to stay the same that is at the heart of most characters in British plays and films.
It is fairly easy to apply this to any line in any script. Even the simple words "Sir down" in a British scene will probably mean "Let's sit down and talk about the past", while in the average American script the words will mean "Let's talk of what we are going to do next!"
Once an American sees that Brits cannot help being lost in their past to some extent it is easier to understand the British class-system, which is at the heart of almost every British play and film ever written. The advantages of being an upper-class Brit are far greater than to being a rich American. A rich American can always lose his or her money, and many families which were once famous for their power from owning steel-mills or railroads now have no place in the 'high society' of America which they once headed. But A British aristocrat can never lose his or her title of Duke or Duchess, and if they do become poor there will always be a queue of rich middle-class people (including Americans) who want to marry them to get the title for their children.
Until recently the advantages of being British upper-class included being able to get into any university with little need to study, and if any of them needed a job there would always be opportunities kept for them which involved little work and enormous pay. Even today many industries are willing to pay millions to have a Duke or a Knight on their list of board-members. The prestige of being an Earl or a Dame is unmatchable and unbeatable.
When this play was written the members of this class also had access to investments kept secret from others, and this insider trading was perfectly legal! And yet we must not look on them as a kind of pompous Mafia, as spoiled divas only interested in themselves, for they did not ask to be born into the upper-class. They cannot escape from their class, and if we do not understand that many of them use their power to good purpose then audiences will not care about them falling in love, which is what six people in this play do.
The most important fact about being British upper-class (from an American point of view) is that to belong once must have a title, (or somebody in their close family must have one). A title is inherited, passed down from one generation to the next, just as Prince William will one day become King William. If a family includes a Lord, a Count or a Duchess, then they cannot lose the title. If they tried to give iot up and called themselves "Mr" and "Miss" they would soon find their children probably choosing to use the titles, becxause of all the advcantaghes that titles bring.
The 'middle-class' refers to people who do white-collar jobs in the UK. If these people try to 'appear' or to sound as if they are upper-class, as if they had high connections then they would be behaving ion the pompous manner which Americans tend to think British upper-classses have, but in truth the genuinbe upper-class is usually a charitable and well-behaved group of people.
It is only their ignorance of other wlaks of life which makes them seem rather ridiculous, as is the case with all the characters in this play.
The term 'working-class' in the UK is meant for manual workers, and however successful a plumber becomes he will never be looked on as middle-class, and if he were a billionaire he might mix with people in London 'society', and he might be liked and for genuine friendships with even members of the Royal Family, but they will never shake off having all the characteristics of being working-class which usually boils down to their accent. Among all the hundreds of Lords and Duchesses and oltghers with titles there may be one opr two cockneys who have married into having a title, but they are very, very, very much the exception.
American actors should try to imagine how it would feel to win the 'lottery' every single week of their lives. Of course it would be highly enjoyable for most, but the constant attention from others, and the weekly reminder of another lottery-win would eventually become rather a bore, and that is what being a Lord feels like.
Actors need to remind themselves that these Brits have been born to this life and have no choice. They cannot run away and live in a hippy-community, or become a priest, or start speaking with working-class accents. It is like asking a film star to spend the rest of their life only acting with a small community theatre company! They cannot give up their position.
They get paid like Tom Cruise,and adored like Jennifer Aniston, they are as powerful as the Mayor of New York, and as well-connected as the Kennedy family, and if they tried to live quiet lives away from society they would throw thousands of people out of their jobs.
In any war they are expected to be in the front line,,in peace-time the amount of charity work asked of them can be one of the hardest jobs in the world. Prince Charles personally helps run the most successful 265 charities in the world, and if he only goes to one fund-raising dinner a year for each one, it still means he has to know about each one in order to speak about it publicly, as well as constantly organizing his staff to make sure that any charity he helps is free of and to make sure that the charities are not corrupt and are all well-run. As well as this he has personally started three of the biggest charities in the UK.
They do not in fact get paid much for their work. Their comfortable homes and life-style are managed by their own personal fortunes, and the main pay they get from the government is to cover the expenses of their Royal duties.
One of the few examples of an aristocrat trying to change led to disaster when in 1937 the King of England gave up his crown so as to marry an American divorcee. He did not want to give up being King, but had no choice as the British legal system prevented him from remaining king and marrying a divorcee. The law made sense because anybody might claim to have been the child from a previous relationship of his wife's, and be entitled to be in line to be king or queen!
They lived lonely and unhappy in France for most of their subsequent lives.
THE PLOT OF THIS PLAY.
Three couples, steeped in upper-class values, are genuinely in love with each other, but forced by the rules of 'society' to keep their love a secret.
Two of the six are deeply embarrassed about their feelings because one is a vicar. The Reverend Chassuble has longed for the arms of the demure local teacher, Miss Prism for twenty years, but been too afraid to say so. The teacher, Miss Prism, has longed for his arms too but been equally nervous of showing her feelings. The two of them have been thrilled to simply know each other. The other, much younger couples, are more open about their love, but they also know little about how to have a serious relationship, and their huge wealth makes the idea of marriage an issue for their families.
They feel, like so many young people, as if nobody has been in love before, and underneath their deliberately witty remarks the girls are as anxious as Shakespeare's Juliet, and the men almost as reckless as Romeo. They cannot keep their love a secret for long, and are planning to elope, while frantically managing to appear at ease and confident about everything.
Jack, despite his wealth, was kin fact adopted as a child and has no idea who his real parents were. He has fallen helplessly in love with Gwendolen, a very rich, upper-class heiress, and in a moment of madness told her his name is ‘Ernest’, because he knows the name is her ideal.
His closest friend, Algernon, who has a 'title' and is more definitely upper-class, has fallen in love with an even wealthier heiress called Cecily, and told her that he is also called Earnest, as she's equally obsessed with the Earnest-sounding name.
Algernon's aunt, Lady Bracknell, is understandably nervous about Jack's wish to marry into her family, as well as being against her nephew marrying Cecily because the girl lives in the country-side, and unknown to her.
The complications which ensue are not obvious to modern actors, so they are often tempted to play the characters in ways which Wilde did not intend. Gwendolen, for instance, is often played as rather bossy, and the actress playing her may justify this by pointing out that she is Lady Bracknell's daughter, and as a result missing the exact meaning of her lines. Wilde has created Gwendolen to be wonderfully innocent, an 'English rose', totally unaware that her jokes could sound bossy or absurd. Lady Bracknell herself in fact is not really bossy, and only shocked at how the youngsters behave, for she herself was not born into the upper-classes. She may behave like Queen Victoria at times, but only because she thinks that is what women in her position are supposed to do!
One central question can be asked of every line in the play, which explains the real meaning of all of them. Does the character saying the line INTEND what they say to sound funny? Are they aware and witty or completely ignorant and lost?
Before looking at these lines there are useful secrets to performing the play hidden in the opening stage-directions, which run:
Scene: A morning room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.
Half-Moon Street is a tiny street in central London which leads to a park across which stands Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria lived there at the time of the play, just as Queen Elizabeth does now, and anybody living in the area is part of a world of staggering wealth. Oscar Wilde knew such people intimately, for his own father had been knighted by the Queen for services to medicine. Wilde was in a perfect position to know the absurd side of British society, and to get away with showing it on stage in a way which modern comedians should envy.
The opening stage-directions also mention that the scene in a ‘morning-room’. The word only means a kind of sitting-room that is used in the 'mornings', (to receive guests without the surroundings being too intimate, and discouraging guests from staying all day!) But the fact that the room exists at all means that Algernon's flat is quite large, because we are told a piano is heard being played by Algernon so he must have a second sitting room - he would hardly have a piano in his bedroom. This means the apartment must have at least four rooms, and a flat of this size in that street today would sell for $15,000,000. So however humble the sets may be in a production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST actors should feel as if they are wandering round a very spacious apartment, and to remember that the building has also probably been owned by Algernon's family for generations.
It is enormously important to see just how rich these people have, not least to explain the degree of confidence they have. When Cecily reveals she has investments of “about one hundred and thirty thousand pounds” which would convert to $100,000,000 today. This is no exaggeration, for in 1895 a thousand pounds was said to bring in enough interest to live on! A large house could be rented for $10 dollars for a month, and a servant’s wages for an entire year might be only $20. The play is not about people who are rich, but who are super-rich, and this partly explains the enormous confidence with which they all speak. Rich Americans today may protect their own wealth but in 1895 members of London’s ‘high-society’ protected each other’s. If one of the upper-classes 'fell on hard times' it made all of them look bad, so they kept the knowledge of lucrative investments to themselves, and average people had no access to them at all. And if this seems dreadfully unfair it would have caused chaos and disgrace if any of the Lords and Ladies had revealed the secrets of their stocks and shares.
Let us look at one of the characters now in detail.
Modern actresses often misunderstand Lady Bracknell's character,making her a kind of 'comic turn' and raising only a small amount of laughter. She is even played sometimes by a man, which goes against the most important part of her character in the play - that she is a mother. She is often portrayed as a fool when she is in fact eccentric, and it is her cleverness which ironically brings the couples together, as we shall see. For such a dominant lady as Lady Bracknell to exist at all in an era when British women were expected to be softly feminine is what scares those around her, but what scares them most is the gap between what she says and what she means.
This is where the question arises of whether a character is intending to be amusing or not.
When interviewing Jack to decide if he would be a suitable husband for her daughter, she has a typical misunderstanding with Jack:
LADY BRACKNELL: Do you smoke?
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.
The lines may seem only mildly amusing, but this is because Lady Bracknell can simply seem to be pompous. But, as kin all her lines, and in those of all the other characters, there there is more behind her remarks than pomposity. The idea of regarding 'smoking' as an occupation may just seem absurd, and no more, but there are two very different meanings she might have, and question has to be asked - Is she a fool or a wit? Could she be deliberately making fun of men, expressing her disdain about how she regards men, suggesting that the only thing that men do in their lives is smoke cigarettes. But while she might be sarcastic, and audiences certainly like the idea that she regards men so trivially, there is another way of understanding these lines.
She might in fact admire men who smoke. She might be congratulating Jack quite sincerely. She might have so little experience do that the idea of them smoking, of perhaps having brilliant thoughts while sitting in a smoking-room, is one of the few things she likes about men at all. In other words she knows nothing. In other words she is not sarcastic, but a fool. Her words cannot mean both. She cannot be both. She is either witheringly sarcastic, or completely ignorant about life. In either case she is aggressively confident, but we need to know more about her in order to decide.
We know that she is phenomenally rich, and has probably managed to live her life without needing to learn anything outside her own narrow world. She certainly has little idea of what questions to pose to a prospective son-in-law, and the gap between her extreme confidence and her extreme ignorance becomes more startling with every speech.
Because of her social power nobody has the nerve to contradict anything she says. She is a pillar of society who may well rubs shoulders sometimes with Queen Victoria.
Another line which helps show how Wilde intended her to be played is one made famous by a British actress, Edith Evans, to the extent that modern actresses usually feel obliged to copy her. The line (when Jack tells her where is adopting Father first found him) "A handbag!" is usually said in a dragon-like, horror-filled, slow-motion. It has made a generation of actresses think she must be played as rather ridiculous, exaggerating everything. But she is upset for one good reason alone, which is that she loves her daughter and is apalled at the notion of her marrying a man who cannot care for her. The play is about people who are in love.
And the choice is very clear again,m that she might be a fool, regarding Jack's having been found in a handbag as the start of some kind of revolution, which she cannot begin to comprehend. Or she might simply be incredibly surprised and slightly upset to hear about Jack's start in life.
The original Lady Bracknell was a rather attractive woman in her 40's, who will doubtless have done her best to appear even younger on the stage. Her manner may be ridiculous, or it may be one of constant shock, but there is no reason for her to look like a battleship. The whole play revolves round her concern for her daughter.
It is easy for some to think she is an unkind woman, delivering her lines with a slight but constant anger. When, for instance, she says that her daughter will "be informed" when she is to become engaged, it is easy for her to seem over-bearing, but she may simply be shocked that her daughter could have another opinion. The difference between her being very annoyed and being very amazed makes the entire play a very different collection of scenes. And since audiences rarely laugh at characters they dislike it is important to see the mis-placed ideas of Lady Bracknell, and turn her into more than the aging, pompous diva for which she is so often mistaken in modern timers.
Self-important women who are well-meaning like Lady Bracknell exist in the USA today, of course, but her egotism is singularly British. It is based on family ties and even when the subject of money is raised it is because of what people will say about somebody and not because of what the money can be spent on!
And She may in fact be extremely foolish, but the lines where this is clear are often misunderstood. Some critics have pointed out that she never even thinks that Jack might have been the baby that her brother lost long ago. But there is no reason for her to think this, and even if there is - as I shall explain in my film next week on this site on Pinter and Shakespeare (and in a later chapter here) there are often unexplained matters in plays which should not be examined closely. (Why for example does Gertrude describe Ophelia's death in Hamlet at great length while at the same time says not a single word about possibly trying to save the girl? - These are not what Shakespeare was writing about, and Wilde, in a similar way, may leave some matters to be left in the same way.)
Another example of mis-judging her is from her not recalling her dead brother’s first name at the climax of the play. If this is taken as a sign of her insensitivity and self-centeredness then she becomes an ogre, and misses the point that she is powerful not because she is cruel but because she thinks she is right about almost everything and would like people to enjoy thje fact. Wilde allows her to forget her brothers name, just as we all sometimes forget important things, because it helps the suspense of the play.
The real life of an aristocrat like Lady Bracknell must have been a lonely one, for she is scared of intimacy, and must know few people who are as important as herself. At the risk of mentioning names of people who live in a totally different world, Prince Charles (until recently, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley hardly ever had a close friend at all because nobody else was like them.
She has married a Lord in her early twenties and her brother - who died some years before the play begins - was a Lord as well as a General in the army. Just the address of her house in Belgrave Square makes her a permanent celebrity, for it was (and is still) the most fashionable address in London. Her neighbors in such a unique street would be members of Royal Families exiled from other countries, ex-prime-ministers, retired cardinals and Dukes and Lords. And no Americans probably!
The asking price for a house in the square in 2009 was one hundred million pounds, - or nearly double that number in dollars.
She will also own a huge country-house, far from the bustle of London, with rooms to accommodate a hundred guests or more. Such a house might have fifty unused bedrooms all year round, with a ball-room (or two), and stables holding the finest horses in Europe. A staff of twenty or more will be employed all-year-round to keep the house prepared for immediate use, even though some years may pass without it being visited at all. Attached to the house would be stunning and extensive gardens, with hundreds more acres of land used by friends for hunting occasionally. Even more land may be attached to the house and rented out to local farmers, bringing in revenue which - combined with the fortune she must already have in the bank - makes her a very powerful member of Society indeed. In modern America such a woman would have to deal with the media, with heavy taxation and intrusive demands to be philanthropic, but a woman like Lady Bracknell can do as she likes. Unlike rich Americans who might want to build up wealth for the future she uses her wealth to hang on to her family’s past.
From hints in the dialogue we learn that her husband has no authority in her household, and we may assume their bedrooms are a considerable distance apart. We may imagine her lying in bed until late each morning, undisturbed in a huge, multi-pillowed four-poster, until being gently woken by ‘personal’ maids with a large English breakfast. The maids will carefully help her into a sitting position, and present her with a copy of that morning’s Times Newspaper, its pages have been ironed thoroughly to prevent any ink from staining her fingers.
She only bothers reading the paper’s ‘Social’ pages, and after breakfast in bed possibly takes a bath that has been run to a temperature exactly specified.
Two of her servants will lay out her first clothes for the day while other servants downstairs are preparing her lunch. The number of servants she has does not embarrass her in the slightest. Her ancestors may have once literally been able to afford a private army!
After bathing she rests again until being joined for lunch by her daughter, Gwendolen, after which - if the exertions of the day have not completely exhausted her - she asks for the daily mail to be brought and she dictates brief replies to invitations for dinners or balls.
It's unlikely that she often throws parties herself, for she seems to dislike even people of her own class, but she will invite special acquaintances to ‘afternoon-tea’, and at at tea-time - four o’clock - she descends to receive them any guests wearing a dress which will have cost more than a maid’s salary for a year, even though she only choose to wear it this one time.
If no visitors are scheduled, she is helped into one of the carriages she owns, and be driven around the nearby park, passing the gates of Buckingham Palace on the way. Her carriage is lead by four pedigree horses, its two drivers dressed in unique, expensively-designed uniforms, with a ‘groom’ in a contrastingly-colored uniform perched on a seat above the back wheels. She orders the drivers to stop if she spots anybody ‘important’ so as to exchange gossip with them for a few minutes, but she is careful to return home by six o’clock for it is time to change into a different dress.
She may now journey out to dinner with her daughter, and possibly even go to the theater. It is unlikely that she likes or understands plays or operas or ballets, but she is obliged to attend them in order to show off Gwendolen. She has to keep reminding society that her daughter exists and available for marriage. But this must be hard for her as she seems despise everyone she meets. She looks down on her nephew just because he is male, and on Jack for having no parents. She has little respect for her daughter, Gwendolen, as the girl does not seem to remember to do what she is told.
In a way Lady Bracknell has the air of a judge, and it is probably true that her ancestors have written some of the country's laws. She is like a Senator who has been elected for life, with the right to pass the title to her child.
So exactly why do audiences like her? They possibly forgive her haughty manner because she is honest, and more interestingly because she loves her daughter. And it is important to question any interpretation of a line which makes her seem to be actually unpleasant.
One such moment comes late in the play when she appears to be more interested in money than in her nephew’s happiness, for only seconds after deciding that Cecily is not suitable to marry her nephew she learns that Cecily is very rich and immediately changes her mind:
LADY BRACKNELL: - I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?
JACK: Oh, about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds. That is all. Good-bye, Lady Bracknell. So pleased to have seen you.
LADY BRACKNELL: (sitting down again) A moment, Mr Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.
But Lady Bracknell is not being swayed by news of a minor fortune. Her sudden change of heart is entirely logical, for Cecily’s fortune is so enormous that it will raise even Lady Bracknell’s family to a higher position in society. She feels a moral obligation to protect her family’s status, and it is natural that she is shocked by the news of such a giant fortune, and she suddenly and genuinely likes Miss Cardew. It is not her hypocrisy which Wilde wants audiences to laugh at, but at her values. Hypocrisy is not funny.
Lady Bracknell is not normally interested in having a few extra million in the bank. But this is different. A few years before the play was written there had been a 'crash' in the British economy, resulting in the 'funds' in which Cecily's money is invested being an investment protected by a guarantee from the government. The sum of money is so startling that Lady Bracknell would have to be a stone NOT to be impressed.
First - his 'title'. He is the " Honourable" Algernon Malcrief – which may sound odd to Americans but it means he is the son of a Lord and will become a Lord himself when his father dies. He does not think he is 'better' than other people because of the title, but he does know he is luckier.
Like Lady Bracknell he has little experience of life outside London society but, unlike her, he knows it. He is perfectly willing to make fun of his class, and is being deliberately ironic when he says ****** (add later).
- The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. -
He pretends to speak censoriously, like Lady Bracknell, as if he might actually be disgusted by wives who show their husbands public affection, but he expects intelligent people to know he is only pretending to be narrow-minded about women. Many upper-class people in 1895 took a very conservative view of sex, and woman rarely showed their affection in public. Married couples may well have never seen each other entirely naked. But people still had sincere longings for each other and Algernon hates narrow-mindedness but is too polite top say so, and anyway is rather shy himself.
His accent may make him sound old-fashioned, but one cannot judge a person by their dialect, and his is not something he has been able to choose.And by making humorous remarks which will not be understood by people like Lady Bracknell he gets away with having what were then 'modern' views.
AUTHORS NOTE : Issues about other characters in the play will be added here at a later date. For now let us just take a break from Wilde and say a few words about another writer -
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ON
If you are directed to play these characters differently you should, of course, always go along with the director's view, especially if you are able to include your own feelings about a character at the same time, but let us look at Ophelia and Horatio.
OPHELIA It may help in an odd way to know that her name means 'help'. She obviously goes ‘mad’ eventually and some actresses may detect signs of this in her earlier silence in the face of insults from hger father, brother and Hamlet, or there may be no sign at all when we first see her of eventually hearing voices, or that she will end up singing accusations at the king and committing suicide.
So while an actress may be tempted to play her as already anxious in her opening scenes, Shakespeare has put no indication in the lines. Instead he paints a picture of a girl who is open and honest with her father and brother, and who seems to love Hamlet.
The word 'love' is so casually used that it's easy to forget that the word can sometimes be deep and real. And unrequited love is a painful issue to try and act. It is often misunderstood by modern men and women, and I will explore this in more detail in the chapter on TWELFTH NIGHT, but it is extraordinary how differently people viewed love a few hundred years ago. Ophelia is willing to give up Hamlet when her father demands it, quite unlike Juliet's reaction to her own father. Of course Ophelia is a ‘commoner’ which makes her marriage to a prince extremely unlikely, but she is healthy, intelligent, attractive, loyal, sensible, well-known to Hamlet's family, quick-witted and charming. If she is played as nervous and insanely in love from the start then the actress playing her is not respecting the words that Shakespeare has written. But she is no fool.
Here she warns her brother to take his own advice about discretion:
Do not as some ungracious pastors do
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles like a puff’d and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
Her language is strong. This is no naïve girl shyly asking her brother to live the saintly life which he, Laertes, has just prescribed for her. Her reference to an “ungracious pastor” clearly shows she does not hold church-officials in awe. She uses the daring phrase “reckless libertine” with soem confidence and seems to give her brother advice quite calmly. Her words may suggest she knows about her own awkward position in the 'court', but that is not what Shakespeare has her show at this early stage. Her words are in fact a verse from the Bible, and the actress playing her should probably sticks to that.
Shakespeare shows her first as the most balanced and fair-minded character in the play. She has as much wisdom than even Horatio, and possibly more than her brother Laertes or her father, and Hamlet probably sees her as the best part of his life until the ghost appears and starts to drive him mad.
When she sings her warnings to the King and Queen towards the end of the play, her madness should be – at least for audiences new to the play - not only a tragedy but a huge surprise.
Horatio is described by Hamlet as his best friend. When Hamlet fails to recognize him for a moment Horatio says nothing. When Hamlet says Horatio is the best man he has ever known Horatio says
HORATIO: Oh my Lord.
He might be too overwhelmed to say more, but his words suggest he is - as Hamlet later simply calls him - "a quiet man".
He becomes a part of Hamlet’s scheme to catch Claudius but says little even then. He asks Hamlet about the death of Rozencrantz and Guidenstern but does not ask why when Hamlet offers no real explanation. Horatio does caution Hamlet against the duel with Laertes when Hamlet himself confides to him that he feels unsafe, but Horatio accepts it when Hamlet shrugs off his concern and changes the subject.
When the two meet the gravediggers there are few words from Horatio, and some actors are tempted to explain this by playing Horatio as embarrassed by homersexual feelings for Hamlet. Others portray Horatio as a philosopher, seizing on Hamlet’s single use of the word to justify a 'distanced' character, lacking much emotional life. But, unlike Hamlet, and very unlike Ophelia, Horatio is not “passion’s slave”. He is described by Shakespeare as the man whom Hamlet would like to be.
It is sad and hard for actors to play Horatio if they have never experienced close friendship themselves. Horatio is everything Hamlet says he is: he accepts whgat his friend says without argument, always.
Hamlet is not exaggerating when he says:
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
And could of men distinguish her election,
Hath seal'd thee for herself, for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled ***???
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
Hamlet has a friend. We only see them together when Hamlet is at his most vulnerable and troubled, and Horatio might be a joyous, skittish person at other times. Close friendship between heterosexual men is not as common as it should be in modern times, perhaps, and we should realize that Horatio’s arms are a wonderful cushion for Hamlet when he dies.
Detailed thoughts like these about one character in a play are only meant to help an actor find his own view of a character, and Horatio might have private views he longs to express to Hamlet, but we never see them, nor any hint of them, for if it were needed Shakespeare would have included that.
There is a difference between men who completely hide their thoughts and those who have none to hide.
LETTERS AND RESUMÉS .
A few people have asked for advice on how to write letters and resumés to get auditions. The best advice in the whole of the USA regarding who to write to, and when is better obtained from the great Brian O'Neill, whose website www.ActingAsABusiness.com, for he has far, far more specific knowledge about Agents and Casting Directors than anyone else, and a brilliant ability to match actors with the right directors and agents. But I have a fewe ideas which may help land auditions.
The way a resumé is written can help, as well as knowing how to write good letters.
First the resumé. If it is written clearly it can look better impressive than those of actors with more experience.
And you should add or change things on your resumé to suit the job, anything which shows experience in the kind of production for which you are you are applying. Even if some of the roles you have to quote were played at school -at least it shows extra interest in the audition.
And pof course a resume for theatre work should have everything you can fit kin about your theratre experience, and ponly the basics of tv or film work.
And if you have done enough there is no point in listing plays you have done by Agatha Christie if you are auditioning for Shakespeare!
But the biggest help is to make your resume tidy, and by that I mean "VERY tidy indeed" please!