Theatre and Language, Part A

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  ( ). 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. 🙂



  1. How much time ya got? This is a discussion that may take a millenium. Harold Pinter was asked what one of his plays meant. He answered that he didn’t know and felt that it was the job of the actor to imbue (Correct word?) the words with meaning. Is ‘To be or not to be’ understood to mean the same thing to all English speaking people? Think of the millions of students who end up HATING the Bard because they had an “understanding” forced on them in a sitinrows classroom rather than seeing his works up on their feet in all their messy misunderstood glory!
    As you know, I’m presently studying Noh theatre, and I can tell you that the more I learn the less I feel I understand, but the more I love and want to explore it. As I study my dance and chants here, I am provided with translations. However, I have read a word for word translation of Hagaromo (from which my dance comes) and it is packed with puns that have delighted and confused me. Do I need to understand every bit of the play in order to portray a celestial maiden who finally gets her feathered robe back? Dunno(h). Hope not because I don’t have time before I die, let alone before I perform – and yet these plays are only a few pages long. (Five acts, I’d never be able to handle.)
    I read an account of a great Noh actor who overheard a teacher give a description of the play he was to perform that afternoon. “So that’s what it’s about, ” he remarked. The rhythm (or lack thereof) of the chants is quite exact and doesn’t always seem to fit the context – even to Japanese ears. The actions don’t always make much sense either – even in the Japanese culture. If a female character stamps in a Kyogen play, it means she’s pissed off, but in a Noh, a stamp is felicitous! I have never seen a Japanese woman on the street or in a home stamp AT ALL.
    You and I have a shorthand in our communication born of our common context. Does one need to understand the context to sense our relationship?
    And while I’m down this rabbit hole, let’s face it, for many of us who make our lives and living in the theatre, theatre is akin to religion. No, not akin; it IS religion – a way of life. “It’s a mystery!” Is explaining a great play any easier than explaining the Trinity or Enlightenment? My sensei in Kyoto would speak of striving for purity in practicing Noh. Does one understand purity? Does one understand art? (Do we even know it when we see it?)
    I don’t particularly want my audiences to understand, but I sure do want them to feel. When a Noh actor dons the mask and that encumbering costume, he enters a communion with those obstacles that takes him to an intangible, inexplicable place – If he is very very good, he takes the audience with him. They don’t understand what happens to them, but they can’t forget it either. That’s art. That’s a miracle.
    Ama no hagaromo mare ni kite – Heaven’s robe rarely comes.
    I get to sing that — in Japanese.
    Every time I do, it means something different to me, but I’m passionate about that line. I pray for that rare thing when the audience enters that communion with me and takes flight.

  2. “Is ‘To be or not to be’ understood to mean the same thing to all English speaking people? Think of the millions of students who end up HATING the Bard because they had an “understanding” forced on them in a sitinrows classroom rather than seeing his works up on their feet in all their messy misunderstood glory”

    One of my personal pet peeves, as you know, Kate!! Teaching Shakespeare like it’s the same as any other literature is just plain wrong! In fact, treating ANY play like any other literature is just plan wrong! Plays are written for the stage, not for readers, so why do we treat them like they’re meant to stay dead on the page? This could be a whole separate entry….

    “As you know, I’m presently studying Noh theatre, and I can tell you that the more I learn the less I feel I understand, but the more I love and want to explore it. ”

    SUCH a healthy attitude! Too many students–in any discipline–allow themselves to give up when the going gets tough. Understanding is not the same thing as success. In fact, in many cases, the more we think we understand, the less we truly do. By allowing ourselves to not understand, I think we actually end up with greater knowledge.

  3. Hey, I just happened upon your blog… I’ve just finished the MFA in Staging Shakespeare at the University of Exeter, and am moving back to the States in October… Basically, I’m looking to sell some stuff! 🙂 Quality pots and pans, dishes, a slow-cooker, a small space heater… the list goes on (and on). I know this is really random, but if you are going to be in the market for cheap, lightly used stuff, let me know.

    Good luck on the course! It’s what you make of it. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s