An Acting Imperative

I was recently reminded of a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Well, I don’t think I’m a monster, but I if I don’t write often enough I feel my soul will fly up and I wouldn’t want to be around what is left behind. I haven’t been writing and I find myself philosophizing to the point of losing sleep at night. Last night a question was running around in my mind – how accurate should an actor be reciting his or her lines for it to do justice to the intent of the playwright? I’m writing this essay to alleviate my anxiety so that I stand a chance of sleeping well tonight.

A brief note of why this is important to me is in order. I’ve been working on my magnum opus for nearly six years now and studying language has been an important adjunct. In particular, I’m in my fifth year of a Latin course, classes of which only occur once each week. And despite the fact that English has Germanic roots, the extensive focus on Latin grammar consistently over the years has revealed a lot of English grammar that I don’t recall learning in high school or college. The grammar rules may have been there, but applying those rules had not been. Now I find myself seeing the power and magic of words more than ever. And the subject of my concern is the potential (power) held in the voice and mood of language.

I am not a scholar of Tennessee Williams and his work and aside from watching “The Glass Menagerie” performed live once over twenty years ago, I have only read “A Streetcar Named Desire” once. So, I have to make the assumption that he was deliberate in his words and cognizant of how his words may be construed or misconstrued. And recalling the question at hand, I conclude that his words must stand alone in portraying, text and sub-text, implicit mood and explicit emotion. Thus, an actor should strive as always to recite the lines verbatim, with little variation.

The example that got me thinking of this is as follows. In Scene Three of “Streetcar”, Blanche asks Mitch if he has any cigarettes. The lines follow:

Mitch:  Sure.
Blanche:  What kind are they?
Mitch:  Luckies.
Blanche :  Oh, good. What a pretty case. Silver?
Mitch:  Yes. Yes; read the inscription.
Blanche:  Oh, is there an inscription? I can’t make it out.

Let’s suppose instead of Mitch saying “Yes. Yes; read the inscription,”
we hear “Yes. There’s an inscription.”

Two things happen here. First, Mitch’s mood has changed from the imperative to the indicative, a rather active command, becomes a passive statement. This can be (but may not be in every case) extremely important in conveying a character’s personality. For example, an overconfident macho pack leader such as Stanley Kowalski would come across more “in command” if he were to use the imperative mood. However, using the indicative mood as well as a passive voice would weaken his machismo.  But, in this example this is Mitch we are talking about so, there’s a decision to be made: how much of a boss should Mitch be? I won’t answer that question here. Only I wish to import that diction is very significant in a performance.

The second effect is more subtle. The exchange lacks virility. Notice in the case of the actual text:

Mitch: “Read the inscription.” (imperative and active)  Let’s call this voice/mood experience, A.

Blanche: “Oh, there’s an inscription?” (indicative and passive) Let’s call this voice/mood experience, B.

The dynamic of the dialog is lively going from A to B.

In the case of the following deviation:

Mitch: “Yes. There’s an inscription.” (indicative and passive)

Blanche “Oh, there’s an inscription?”  (indicative and passive)

The dynamic in this case is, well, static, B to B; there’s no change. The voice/mood is stagnant.

Of course, there’s no reason to consider that one is better than the other.  Sometimes an exchange should be static rather than dynamic. There is something subtle here.

Being true to the script is an homage to the playwright. Then again, plays are usually written for the zeitgeist of the period. Revivals are therefore anachronistic. This is what makes them potentially fascinating because there is an opportunity to play with the language, to explore a story and vary portrayals.

Enough said. I think I can sleep tonight.

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