‘Rude am I in Meh Speech': Vocality and Victorian Shakespeare
Brian Willis's doctoral thesis is entitled 'Text, Subtext, and Vocal Resonance: Speaking Shakespeare on the Twentieth-Century English Stage' and examines the changing personal and public methodologies for actors speaking the text of Shakespeare since the beginning of recorded sound. In addition to the Ph.D., he also has an M.A. from The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-Upon-Avon, both under the supervision of Russell Jackson. He has published articles and reviews in Cahiers Élisabéthains regarding the performance of Shakespeare on stage and screen. For the past fifteen years, he has played a variety of Shakespearean roles on the stage, both in Los Angeles and in the U.K. They include Macbeth, Othello, Cassius, Feste, Benedick, Petruccio, Henry V, and the Bastard in King John. He is currently working on the reconstruction of Shakespearean vocality before the era of recorded sound.
This article refutes some of the assumptions, most often associated with Peter Hall and John Barton, that colour accounts of the vocality of verse actors before the emergence of contemporary stylisations. It focuses on the earliest recordings of late Victorians actors – in particular, Edwin Booth, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving – performing Shakespearean roles. By examining the social, political and cultural evaluations of the actor's voice from the period 1870-1901, it emerges that the actors who dominated the English-speaking stage of the period spoke with a voice unaffected by Received Pronunciation, which was becoming increasingly dominant through the education system. By timing the rate of speech of existing recordings it becomes clear that the application of pejorative terms – such as 'declamation' – to the actors' vocal styles is inaccurate because their voices progress through the text at a rate in the median of twentieth-century dramatic speech. Most importantly, their training – rooted in the repertory system and the late nineteenth-century forms of elocution – required the use of a different resonance centre than that used by contemporary performers, which lends to their voice a timbre more suited to the space of a large auditorium. The article asks for a reconsideration of those voices as more recognisably 'natural' to the actor and to the nineteenth-century audience than they are to their contemporary counterparts.