Ben Crystal Lecture Liveblog — Original Pronunciation

Sarah Enloe begins by introducing Ben Crystal as brought to us by good fortune and our connection with Tyler Moss and Sybille Bruun of The Shakespeare Forum in New York City. She opens by noting similarities between the work we do at the ASC and in the Mary Baldwin graduate program, and introduces Crystal as an actor, director, producer, and author. His biography and links to his books are available on the ASC website.

Crystal opens by stating that this year, he will be taking Original Pronunciation techniques into the new Sam Wanamaker theatre in London, and he begins with a history of his work with Original Pronunciation practices. There have been numerous Original Pronunciation productions of Shakespeare in the United States, but none in the UK for almost a decade. Crystal relates a conversation with his father, a linguist, and Mark Rylance about whether or not the pronunciation is recoverable, and, if so, how it would play to an audience. After two initial productions at the Globe, “it just sort of drifted away”. A few years ago, Crystal was asked to record a section of Richard III in Original Pronunciation for a museum display, so that museumgoers could hear the language while viewing quartos of the play, and to record an Original Pronunciation video for the Globe’s Open University. Last September, the video went viral, renewing broader interest in the practice.

To demonstrate the difference and how it changes him as an actor physically, Crystal delivers the opening Chorus of Henry V first in received pronunciation, then in Original Pronunciation — though he jokes that, with the opportunity to work on the Blackfriars Playhouse Stage, he might just “ignore all of you and just do some Shakespeare….and now, the entirety of Hamlet.” Crystal then asks what the Original Pronunciation reminds us of. Julia Nelson suggests “pirates,” and Crystal notes that that is the most popular response when he takes this lecture into schools. Another attendee suggests “a very broad country accent;” another “a bit of Irish;” others “Appalachian,” “upstate New York,” “American.” Crystal says he’s also heard Canadian and Australian. Matt Davies notes that with the pronunciation of “stage” in a long, open A, “you’re heading up into Lancashire.” Sarah Blackwell notes that “it seems to waver between accents.”

Crystal notes that, “the thing is, everyone is right,” thanks to the melting pot that London was at the time, mixing a broad variety of English accent of the times. From there, the accent moved out (voluntarily or note) from Bristol to the United States and to Australia. He then notes what the accent does physically — the vowel shifts tend to drop the voice into a lower register, as well as helping him to ground his feet. A visiting actor from the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory states that he “can hear the alliteration more.”

Crystal further discusses the tendency of Original Pronunciation to speed up a production. A Romeo and Juliet became ten minutes faster, awkwardly so when Romeo and Juliet, meant to finish their shared sonnet at the same time as their dancing, ran out of lines considerably before running out of dance.

Discoveries Crystal has made about the text, which he will cover in the lecture, include jokes, rhymes, meter, and “this lovely emotional quality” that he believes comes out more strongly in certain moments. Beginning with jokes, “the greatest example that we’ve found is As You Like It.” Jacques’s “fool in the forest” speech, Crystal points out, has a joke that is not at all funny in regular pronunciation — “from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and from hour to hour, we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale” — but in Original Pronunciation, the similar pronunciation of  “hour” and “whore” (both more like “oar”), the joke works spectacularly (as evidenced by the appreciation of the Playhouse audience). Crystal notes that he doesn’t think this means we should always use Original Pronunciation in productions, but that there are great discoveries to be made. Gower in Pericles and Edgar’s Poor Tom in King Lear are two examples of characters he thinks work well in O.P. He also notes the rhymes in Midsummer that don’t work in received pronunciation, and that O.P. is not the only option — it works in a rural Southern drawl as well.

The new Wanamaker theatre is giving Crystal “the opportunity to explore what this sounds like in a really, really small space”.  Since the Wanamaker is an even cozier performance space than the Blackfriars Playhouse, “We’re going to find out what it’s like to choreograph a fight for Macbeth in what is essentially a wardrobe.” He’s curious to find out how the tendency of the O.P. to change physicality will work in a new, smaller space.

Crystal then discusses how he’s sussed out precisely what O.P. sounds like: the rhymes, particularly in the sonnets; the Folio, “spelt much more like they used to speak”; and the work of linguists and translators in-period who published books discussing pronunciation. He claims that they can figure out all but 10%. “And that last 10% drives my father crazy.” But Crystal loves it, because “that last 10% is what I can fill up with me.” The accent draws him more out of the head of the standard accent and into the heart. This, he believes, brings “an ownership over Shakespeare that is rare,” both for the actor and the audience. Americans, he notes, have sometimes told him that they feel like Shakespeare isn’t theirs because “we can’t do your accent,” but that many of the vowel sounds in O.P. may in fact be more accessible naturally to Americans than to modern Brits.

Crystal then delivers the opening speech of Richard III in both received and O.P., drawing attention to the line “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. Original Pronunciation alters the rhythm of the line considerably, giving it a more active “canter”, particularly in creating a greater similarity between “feature” and “nature”.

He ends with “probably the second most-famous sonnet… which you’ve probably heard at a wedding… because it has the word ‘marriage’ in it.” Speaking it in O.P. opened up the true meaning of the sonnet for him as less to do with marriage and more to do with “the truest love that stands the test of time,” long beyond the physical.

Crystal then opens up to questions. An audience member asks Crystal to explicate further how O.P. changes actors’ movement, particularly with regard to the speed. Crystal thinks it’s “something to do with the center dropping,” less declamatory and “more fight-ready” in a way. He also thinks that O.P. brings out a lot of “directness” and a lot of the speed with which Shakespeare’s characters think. Crystal also discusses the tendency of productions to “use a Southern or a Birmingham accent to denote stupidity”, and how that affects the presentation of various characters in O.P.

Rebecca Hodder asks “How do you teach this?” Crystal answers that he’s not a voice coach, but thinks there are several avenues. The International Phonetic Alphabet is one route, though he states that the most common source on using IPA for O.P. “tends towards the Irish” accent, particularly in the vowels. His father is “up to J in creating an O.P. dictionary”, due for publication in 2016.

Patrick Midgley asks “how O.P. made your Hamlet more active” and requests part of the first soliloquy. Crystal relates a story where a friend complained that he rushed through that speech, though the rushing is really appropriate because, “He wants to leave. Oh, man, I’m really mad at Claudius, but I’m going to give a speech first.” He also points out that O.P. resolves the solid/sullied problem, since they are the same in O.P. He then examines “to be or not to be” and how slow many actors deliver that speech. “My god, look at David Tennant’s video on YouTube! Get on with it!” O.P.’s rapidity of delivery presents a different, less ponderous Hamlet — rather, a Hamlet anxious to get the audience to catch up to his own mind. Crystal delivers the speech in O.P. (then dissolves into giggles of glee). He also notes how the meter ought to drive speed, particularly when it comes to choosing pauses.

Charlene Smith asks “Have you done any O.P. works with other early modern playwrights.” Crystal answers, “I know nothing about other early modern playwrights. I slander Marlowe all the time.”

Another audience member asks about how the other O.P., Original Practice, works with Original Pronunciation, and asks what value Crystal finds in that. Crystal discusses the restrictiveness of the costumes, but thinks that his greatest discovery was regarding the pillars at the Globe and how they inform entrances and stage pictures. “I adore the pillars; I climbed one once.”

Michael Hendry asks about the future of O.P. — if it will come to dominate performance. Crystal isn’t sure, but thinks that “if in fifty years, we’re speaking Shakespeare in accents that let the rhymes work, that would be great.” As his final statement, Crystal says he hopes that the discoveries possible in O.P. will become more commonly used, even if the accent itself isn’t, helping to move further away from received pronunciation.