Part A of what might be a multi-part half-rant-half-analysis.
I’m heading off to England to pursue an MFA in Staging Shakespeare in just over a month. No one will ever convince me that language is not an integral part of the theatre experience, both for audience and for actor.
That being said, one of my favorite productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was done mostly in Korean.
So what exactly is the function of the text in a theatre production? How are audience members affected, positively or negatively, by hearing a play in a language they don’t understand?
Laura Barnett posted to The Guardian‘s Theatre Blog this week on this very topic ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2011/jul/26/theatre-beyond-words-language-avignon ). Her angle is one of conditional appreciation for the opportunity to hear plays in foreign languages at France’s Avignon festival: “I’m not saying that you don’t lose something in not being able to understand every word – merely that this loss is compensated for in other ways.” She speaks of noticing other production elements and better appreciating the play as a whole when she could not understand that dialogue. Her title, “Can You Understand Theatre When You Don’t Speak the Language?” speaks volumes about her thoughts on the subject: namely, you can’t understand the language, but you can understand the basic gist of things and appreciate other stuff about the production.
This is, to my mind, a rather narrow and overly simplistic way of thinking about theatre in any language, firstly because of her assumption that we, as audience, understand every word of a play we see in English. I can tell you that I certainly don’t. On average, I would say that I catch probably about 70-80% of the actual words, unless I know the play very, very well, in which case the percentage is closer to 90. In both cases I do not “understand every word,” despite the fact that English is my native tongue and despite the fact that I’ve recently graduated from a good university with a degree in English Literature and despite the fact that I’m a theatre practitioner myself and am therefore inclined to pay close attention to my fellow actors while they are onstage. I might reasonably claim 100% understanding of a play that I’m acting in or directing, but I would be cautious even of that.
When I take “non-theatre” people to see a Shakespeare, for example, they probably catch somewhere around 40-60% of the individual words, but they very often appreciate the production in other ways and/or forget about understanding every word and just relax and enjoy the play as a whole. Barnett speaks in her article about feeling relieved from the pressure of needing to understand every word and being free to just enjoy the production when she saw plays in non-English languages. Odd, since (based on my experiences) that would seem to be what people who see theatre in their native tongues feel. Why does Ms. Barnett require a play in French or German to discover that a total understanding of every spoken word in a play is not a defining factor of overall understanding or enjoyment?
Additionally, the idea that an increased understanding of individual words creates meaning for an audience strikes me as a bit absurd. Isn’t the point of a script to put words together into combinations? Why do we need playwrights–or how do we distinguish good playwrights from bad ones–if our goal in the theatre is to understand every word? We understand the meaning of Romeo’s lines to Juliet in the balcony scene even if we don’t necessarily know quite what “vestal livery” means. It would seem that, in Barnett’s view, the only thing necessary to the understanding of a play is an actor who speaks with exact clarity, such that the audience hears and understands every single word. Her argument that we “lost something[…] by not being able to understand every word” doesn’t hold much water for me.
Watching a Japanese Noh production of Medea in a seminar course last year, I realized something about language that I’m sure I had noticed before and never put into words: when you can’t understand the words themselves, you understand the music of the language anyway. English has a certain cadence to it when it’s spoken by, say, Torontonians. It has a completely different musicality when spoken by someone from Louisiana or London, England. And yet we can watch actors from each of those places perform the same text and still understand them through their use of the language and its musical qualities. The same is true of actors who speak languages other than English. Japanese, especially when semi-sung as it was in this Noh production, has a musicality to it that communicates without words. There are certainly ways of speaking and utilizing the music in language that are, if not universally, then certainly widely understood and appreciated across cultures.
Agree, disagree, question! I’d love to debate this a bit. More to follow when I’m a little less exhausted. 🙂