I was recently listening to yet another fabulous Matt Baume podcast on his Sewers of Paris channel, an interview with Jeffrey Masters, trained Shakespearean actor who instead shifted to journalism and podcasting when he came from New York to L.A. and realized that Hollywood didn’t give two warm shits about the Bard.
Kind of a shame, really, but a question did come up in the podcast, clearly asked by a non-actor.
“Isn’t Shakespeare harder to do?”
And Jeffrey eventually end-ran his way around to the answer I would have given: No. In fact, Shakespeare is actually much easier to perform because, face it, he was so much better a writer than any of our modern English language playwrights, and I’ll peg “modern” as having started as soon as British theatres reopened after the restoration of King Charles II.
Honestly, given the choice between having to learn all the lines for a major role in Shakespeare or a one scene walk-on by… name any major Broadway playwright of the 20th or 21st century — O’Neill, Hart, Miller, Simon, Shepard, Hansberry, Norman, Churchill, Hellman, Miranda, Vogel, Rebeck, Wasserstein, Kushner, Mamet…
Well, while a lot of them are amazing writers, with the first five only doing “White people theatre” and the last practically being a Jewish neo-Nazi, if we leave all of that out and just focus on the words…
Shakespeare is still far, far easier to memorize, learn, and put some real emotional power behind.
Well, number one is that Shakespeare did tend to write his stuff in iambic pentameter, so that you had lines on a regular meter: “ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM, ba-DUM-ba-DUM-dum.”
Note that there are five emphasized syllables there — the “DUM” bits, and each of those is preceded by an unstressed syllable. We can ignore that dangling “dum” at the end. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.
But fill this phrase up with words, and here’s an example of what you get:
“To be or not to be, that is the question…”
Of course, he didn’t always do this, and really messed with things in MacBeth. For example, the witches spoke in trochaic tetrameter — four syllable feet with the first emphasized, as in “BUBB-le, BUBBLE, TOIL and TROUB-le.” But what really made things weird in the play was one particular and yet very common word…
Which appeared three times in that paragraph.
It wasn’t just the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s words that made his stuff easy to learn and perform, though. It was that he gave his characters rich inner lives and strong needs, and that went from his leads all the way down to his spear carriers.
One great example was when I played every single spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors, and although it was really only two characters combined who physically appeared in multiple scenes but only spoke in a few, Willie Shakes had me covered, because he left enough breadcrumbs in those lines to give me a motivation and a through-line.
Basically, my character was a rent-a-cop only motivated by the money, which became really important in those moments when I suddenly had to deal with the leads in the show.
“He is my prisoner, if I let him go, the debt he owes will be required of me.” Note that “prisoner” is two syllables here; pris-ner. And I still remember that goddamn lovely line almost twenty years later — which my director made me deliver in an over-the-top bad 50s Broadway Irish accent.
But somehow my plea worked, the wife of Lead #1 paid me off, and life was good for my character from then on.
Another time I stuck Shakespeare in my head came after that show and when I somehow managed to lock myself out of my own car radio, but my dealer couldn’t fix it. Since it was in the days before Bluetooth and I had a 20-minute commute from home to Dreamworks SKG every day, I did the only logical thing.
I learned every single monologue delivered by Gloucester aka Richard III in all of the history plays he appeared in — which, was basically all three Henry VI plays, plus the Richard III one. And then I recited them over and over on the way to and from work for months.
Now? I don’t remember a lot, but that’s only through lack of repetition.
As for other roles by other playwrights I’ve done? Good luck. They have neither rhyme nor reason and, quite often, no greater motivation or inner life if they are not the lead characters.
A quick example of a play in which I also played a jailer character was Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” which in general was an amazing story documenting exactly why A) Jailing sex-workers and drug users was totally ridiculous, and B) Why the way they were treated upon release all but guaranteed they would wind up back in the system.
Anyway, I was one of the two guards dealing with her in prison in the flashback wraparound, and while it kind of felt like there was supposed to be a “good guard”/”bad guard” dynamic going on because I was kind of nice to her in one scene, there really wasn’t enough to hang that on.
Why? Because in all my other scenes, I was just as dickish to her as the other guard. I was a fucking prop, and nothing more. Boring!
Simon, O’Neill, and the other perpetrators of WYPIPO theater? Okay, I guess that your stuff was really important when Irish immigrants and Jews were in the non-represented classes, but guess what?
Just during or after WWII, the Irish (my people!) fucked their way such a big dent into culture that we actually earned our “whiteness” after having been considered sub-human up until the 1920s. No, seriously — Irish immigrants used to be classed about one half-step above people labeled as Negroes. Don’t ask — it was a really, really ugly era in American history.
Meanwhile… Jews were also treated equally badly and, again, it was only after WWII, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally revealed that Americans did yet another “Oh, shit… that’s fucked up dance.”
End result? In the late 40s and 1950s, American Jews took over the film and TV industry (in a good way) and changed the face of American humor forever.
Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Sid Caesar, and on and on and on? Do any of those names sound familiar?
But… back to the point… if you’re afraid of Shakespeare and speak English, then you do not belong on stage at all, period.
Flash back to the aforementioned list of Jewish creators and, guess what? Every single one of them was probably deeply steeped in Shakespeare.
I know that Brooks, Allen, Bruce, and Caesar were, at least.
Again, though… the problem with trying to learn dialogue from modern playwrights is that there is no damn poetry in it. Not that I can’t memorize those lines. It’s just that it takes a metric fuckton longer to do so.
And… no matter how many words you write, they are never going to be as pretty as those from the Bard of Avon.
BTW, as a produced and published playwright, I include myself on that list. Yeah, I probably have written some interesting shit, but it’s nowhere as easy to learn as what the Bard put down,