Saturday, March 20, 2010

Subtext and Rhetoric

We can't do either classical or contemporary theater without an ear for both subtext and rhetoric.  It dawned on me recently that my contemporary work has been greatly improved by the text work I've done in Shakespeare and on verse speaking; and learning to use rhetorical structures and devices has been particularly crucial.  I would go so far as to say that much of what we think of as 'character' in contemporary drama is the illusion created by an actor's clear emphasis of key words, parallelisms, parentheticals, and lists (particularly important in comedy for builds!)  Rhetoric + speed often = comedy.  Rhetoric + subtext = tragedy.  Well, not quite, but actors will get the point.

I watched a performance of Macbeth last night (I won't say where) in which all but the actor playing Malcolm had no sense of the rhetoric.  I was about to write, "no visceral sense of the rhetoric," which may be closer to the truth.  It's possible the cast had been stepped through the 'rules' of verse speaking in a classroom setting, but without the additional work of studio training, which is absolutely necessary for the intellectual understanding to translate into actable technique.  The cast also lacked more basic verse-speaking skills--e.g., breath management, phrasing--and were physically ungrounded.*  I saw no 'sawing of the air,' but I did see a lot of hands and feet moving around without any relationship to the words coming out of entirely-disconnected mouths.  The exception was the actor playing Malcolm, who's work was physically and vocally simple, but of a piece.

Rhetoric is not the only tool in our kit, of course, only the one I'm thinking about at the moment (well, I do have many thoughts about subtext, too, but they're very particular to my training.)  Rhetoric alone would turn us all back into the overblown automatons that Stanislavski was trying to eradicate.  The words have to land, of course.  Actors must viscerally connect.  And they must do so 'at speed,' in the faster and more varied tempo of dramatic (stage) time than real time.  But acting without rhetoric is mush.


*  While watching the performance I thought, "some hard-core Suzuki would help these people," but then I realized that Suzuki alone could not fix the physical problems I was seeing, or even Suzuki paired with Viewpoints, as it often is, in training (and was for me).

UPDATE:  I just read the program of this production and I now see that many in the cast have some real experience in Shakespeare, and the lead has serious MFA training, so I'm at a loss to explain what I saw.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Great stuff, David. Thank you for some good thought-provoking reading.

Do you know Peter Hall's Shakespeare's Advice to the Players. He says very much the same thing about the value of rhetorical thinking (and training) in this material, and that one reason he wrote the book was that the subject can no longer be assumed to be part of one's general education, and he wanted to do his part to stave off its dying out. And the "advice" he talks about is right there in the text, if you know how to look for it.

My favorite bit from his introduction recalls his directing Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice. DH was, he says, working full-bore American "Method" on it, getting lots of good things happening but fundamentally fighting the text -- till finally he said in despair "You can't improvise this sh*t" and agreed to work from the rhetoric too.