Historical pronunciation, Shakespearean division

June 14th, 2010 § 9 comments § permalink

Here is the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, as read by David Crystal in his reconstruction of Elizabethan pronunciation:


The Globe Theatre’s production of the play in 2004 used this “original pronunciation” in three performances only; the following year the Globe mounted an entire production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. These were the first such attempts since the early fifties. They seem to have been fairly well received, but I see no signs that OP is about to become common practice in the performance of Shakespeare.

It does have a nice sound, at least in Crystal’s rendition, and is quite comprehensible after a little adjustment. Easier for an American to understand than a good many modern-day British regional accents. As Crystal notes, it has hints of many modern accents in it, from Irish to West Country to American to New Zealand, without sounding like any one in particular. That’s appealing: it reaffirms our sense that Shakespeare’s language is the common heritage of English speakers everywhere. That would be one clear advantage it would have over RP as a standard for Shakespeare.

On the other hand, the difficulty in “placing” the accent creates other problems. What do you do with country or lower-class speech in the plays? RP versus West Country or Cockney may not be the best solution (especially for non-British productions), but OP seems to offer no solution at all: the accents are either going to sound all the same or the differences will have no meaning that we can identify.

One possibility would be to subtly shade some of the sounds towards RP or some other recognizably “prestigious” accent for the noble characters, leaving the lower class characters to speak a purer OP. There would of course be no historical warrant for this at all, but at least it would make some sense to modern ears, since many of the sounds in OP are distinctly non-posh.

Making puns like Falstaff’s “reason-raisin” clearer is also an advantage to using OP. Restoring perfect rhyme where it has become approximate in modern pronunciation is too, though perhaps not as much as Crystal believes (and much less relevant to the plays than to the sonnets). We can’t really know if Shakespeare always rhymed perfectly. Crystal assumes that he did, and rhyme is indeed a large part of the basis for the reconstruction. It is conventionally held that the first deliberate use of approximate rhyme in English verse was by Henry Vaughan, but who knows? Even if that’s so, half-rhyme has been accepted in English rhymed verse at least since Yeats. To say categorically that rhymes like love-remove “don’t work” in modern pronunciation is a bit extreme.

Crystal’s claim that Shakespeare in OP is much quicker than in modern pronunciation is interesting. It seems to rest on the frequent contractions and elisions in Elizabethan speech (many more than are reflected in the texts, apparently), as well as many vowel sounds being shorter than in modern English (such as the common “me” for “my”). Still it seems a bit subjective. Rapidity or slowness of speech is surely not a purely phonetic matter; it involves prosody and rhythm, which may be harder to reconstruct.

We also couldn’t object to a reconstruction that makes Shakespeare’s verse scan better, but this advantage carries the same caveats as the case for perfect rhyme. Indeed, even if you think Shakepeare’s rhymes were all perfect, you might well doubt that he always preferred his verse to be metrically regular.

In all, the case for OP in Shakespeare seems a good one, but hardly open-and-shut. Using it seems to have been merely one of a hodge-podge of ideas that went into the Globe’s Troilus and Cressida production (which was in modern dress). To make OP really convincing, some fresh overall philosophy of performance that fits with it would be needed. The Bourgeois Gentilhomme production had that in abundance..

Historical pronunciations

May 20th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Eugène Green

Those familiar with my Greek recitation pages will know that historical pronunciation of languages is something I’ve devoted some time to. One of the many fascinating things about the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production was that it gave the chance to hear Molière’s lines in something like their 17th-century pronunciation. I would never have thought that the French, of all people, would get ahead of us in this. I remember years ago, when I briefly lived in France, the hilarity or disgust that a Québec accent could provoke – as it happened, I had also briefly lived in Canada. And yet here, in this production, you could hear some of that same twang (of course Quebeckers have always insisted that what they speak is pure 17th-century French).

The case for historical pronunciation in Shakespeare has often been made; indeed, his language, though not that much older, feels much farther from us than Molière’s French does to modern French-speakers, I would guess. That may have been part of the point of doing it here: Molière has been the dominating presence on the French stage ever since his own day; people know him backwards and forwards, or at least think they do. This may have been one of the few ways left to defamiliarize him and hear him freshly.

There’s clearly a different feeling about these things now, at least among the younger generation. And there’s some interesting background which, via the Wonder that is the Web, I’ve been able to learn a bit of, at odd moments. Benjamin Lazar, the director of the production, is in his early thirties; at age eleven he began studying with Eugène Green, a somewhat shadowy figure of American origins who has lived and taught in France for some forty years. Like another expat, William Christie, he seems to have gained the knack of interpreting for the French their own artistic past. He was probably the first to stage classic French works in period pronunciation, culminating with his 1999 production of Racine’s Mithridate. Apparently he had his troubles with the French theatrical and cultural establishment, but Lazar, like a number of other young French actors, many of whom were also in the BG production, became an enthusiastic follower of his methods.

Green eventually published La parole baroque, a summation of his research, which involved not only language but gesture, movement, iconography, and a whole artistic sensibility that had become foreign to modern performers of this repertoire. After that he turned from theater to filmmaking. His 2004 film, Le Pont des Arts, has shown in art houses here; the plot includes some early music performers in modern-day Paris, with music performed by Le Poème Harmonique, though the musicians in the film are played by actors.

Benjamin Lazar

As for Lazar, he has directed a number of other shows, ranging from baroque opera (Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, Le Poème Harmonique’s next large production after BG) to modern plays, and continues to act. He may be the preeminent reciter of classic French texts in period pronunciation (I don’t want to go overboard embedding videos, but there’s a nice clip on YouTube of him reciting a fable of La Fontaine that I highly recommend). It’s interesting too that a number of early music performers with whom he has worked, such as the wonderful singer Claire Lefilliâtre, also take acting roles in his shows, and that he is obviously quite musical himself and watches closely what the musicians do; but this is evidently all part of the extraodinary collegiality, breadth, and versatility of these young performers, which bore such remarkable fruit in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

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