The Third Week
( Originally Published 1938 )
WE REPEAT that many amateur performances, which have only the stage in readiness and the actors speaking and behaving in character with lines and stage business well memorized, are looked upon as complete. And we emphasize once more, and very earnestly, that such performances are not complete. In a performance of this sort, all the di-rector has done and everything the actors are doing may lack the essentially dramatic element (except as some of the dramatic in the author's dialogue has been carried over into the acted play).
The effect is not complete when the dramatic dialogue has been spoken from the stage. The whole meaning of the play should be presented, not a part of it; and the whole meaning should be presented clearly, vividly, emotionally. The written play must be turned into "theater." The re-statement of the drama of the text must be done in terms of voice and movement, gesture and tempo, tone color and silences.
We have tried to make clear that during the first two weeks of rehearsals, the director has very little time to de-vote to this matter; and, even if he did find time, his actors, intent upon the fundamental work of memorizing and trying to get into character, would not be free to think of high-light and shade, variation of tempo, and the tightening of a scene. Therefore, the week of rehearsal devoted to polishing, to giving "theater" to the play, becomes necessary.
The Pace of the Play
Such a performance as that to which we have referred, at the beginning of the chapter, almost invariably drags; by the middle of the third act the audience is in a state of semi-coma and is no longer thinking of the play, but of getting home. The director, then, should spend time in pacing his play properly.
A habit common to all of our amateur actors, based in part upon the phonetics of our language, is the habit of pacing their dialogue too slowly. The professional actor does not talk as rapidly as he should; the amateur drags his scenes at a snail's pace. There probably has never been a director of amateurs, sensitive at all to the presentation he is making ready for the audience, who has not been acutely conscious of the slow pace at which his rehearsals are proceeding.
No lengthy dissertation upon the effect of pace is necessary. A slow pace suggests deliberateness and heaviness; as in music, it is in keeping with the serious and the thoughtful. A slow pace, when it is not in harmony with the action, gives the audience too much opportunity to take its mind off the play. A rapid pace suggests brightness and gaiety and is the legitimate pace for comedy and farce; it may likewise suggest excitement and becomes the appropriate pace for melodrama. In fact, as we contemplate the fundamental idea of the dramatic—emotionalized speech and action—we see that the rapid pace is much more in keeping with our idea than the slow pace.
The mood and spirit of the play suggests an appropriate playing pace. Thus Riders to the Sea proceeds at a deliberate pace; Outward Bound at a moderate pace; Candida at a moderately brisk pace; She Stoops to Conquer and The Plough and the Stars at a much more rapid pace. Yet, every general pace has variations within itself, variations which are suggested by the specific mood of the scene. There is a speeding up of movement and speech just preceding the en-trance of the Examiner in Outward Bound; a slowing up of speech near the close of the third act of Candida. Even if the different scenes did not suggest variation, we would want to alter the pace to avoid monotony.
We would call attention to another use of pace. Confusion, or a change of emotion or idea, is emphasized by a sudden break in the prevailing pace and the abrupt substitution of another.
Sometimes the actors seem to be speaking rapidly enough and still the scene drags. What is probably at fault in this case ?
Let us attend an amateur performance. We listen to a speech. Then we see how many numbers we can count be-fore the next speaker begins to speak. The count will run from one to three. The fault lies in the slowness with which the actors pick up their cues. Speed is lost between speeches. During an act, ten minutes of time is spent in waiting to speak; during the three acts, a half hour.
So, we repeat, in the third week of rehearsal the alert director will give attention to pace. In most cases his problem will be to pace the speech and actions more rapidly. The magic method for securing speed has not been discovered. Routining and reroutining of scenes, constant insistence that the cues be taken rapidly, rehearsals given over to the one object of pacing the scene are about the only means the director can find to use. He will soon discover that it is difficult to get speed out of his amateurs.
Sometimes the director, listening to a scene, is not disturbed by the pace, but by a monotony of rhythm which seems to be flattening out the scene. Upon investigation he finds that one of his actors, who, it may be, has a strong voice or whose speeches have strength and importance, has set a rhythm for his speeches which one or more of the actors who are playing with him have taken up. An inexperienced or a careless actor may easily take the rhythm of his speeches from the rhythm of another speaker. If this continues, we soon have a repetition of beat which is not in the least helpful to the theater of the scene. The offending actor has to be made .aware of just what he is doing and has to hear the rhythm he has unconsciously adopted, before he can break himself of it.
The Reading of Dialogue
Pace and rhythm may need attention; but as the director begins to watch his rehearsals during this period, he will discover that more polishing needs to be done on the reading of the dialogue than on anything else. There are thirty thousand words in the play, and it is not reasonable to assume that after only two weeks of work, every word will be spoken in a way to convey its full, intended meaning.
Just what did the author wish to convey by a particular expression? Shall it be taken figuratively or literally? Has this line a double significance? Did the author wish to carry one thought to the character spoken to and another to the audience? If so, we have to be very careful and exact in the inflection. Is this line a veiled accusation or only a statement of fact? Is it satirical or straightforward? Is it supposed to get a laugh or would a laugh at this point tend to disrupt the scene? Where is the emphasis to be placed in this speech?
Of course, many of the questions of meaning are disposed of during the early rehearsals; but many others, such as are represented by the above, may not be; and the director, in this period of polishing, once more focuses attention upon the speeches to determine whether his actors understand what they are talking about and whether they are conveying their understanding to the audience.
In dramatic dialogue some speeches are left incompleted. The actor begins his speech: "gut do you believe that I ..." and the next actor interrupts with "I believe whatever I like." The author intended that the second actor should break into the first speech. But what frequently happens in this case? The first actor stops speaking abruptly on "I"; there is a slight pause; then the second actor begins his speech. The effect is one of awkwardness. Under the circumstances, the audience can see no reason why the first actor didn't finish what he started to say. The play temporarily loses its reality.
To maintain reality and be effective, the incompleted speech needs the attention of both actors. The first can help by fixing in his mind the remainder of the unfinished sentence; by having several words following "I" ready at hand to be spoken; by even speaking some of them if the second actor does not interrupt on time. The second actor can be ready for the interruption; he can start his interruption a syllable or two before the first actor finishes "I." Like so many other things, the incompleted speech needs going over several times until the two actors are sure of themselves.
The director occasionally finds that the dialogue has no "give and take"; the lines seem to be spoken smoothly enough and the cues picked up quickly, but there is not the effect of a real conversation, and the scene does not have any forward motion. It may be that the actors have not been impressed with the necessity for one speech leading to the next, or they may have routined the scene until they have forgotten about its meaning, or it may be that they are simply not thinking about what they are doing. A speech is not an isolated unit, having no connection with what has gone before and what is to follow. Take a few simple speeches in dialogue form:
A. Do you think I could do this thing?
B. Yes, I do. If you don't, you know what will happen to you.
A. What will happen?
B. You'll find yourself without a job.
A. I don't believe it! I can't! But if they do kick me out
B. Look here; it's not that they want to kick you out
Here, we do not have six units, each unit corresponding to
the speech given to each speaker. Rather, the units are something like this:
1. Do you think I would do this thing? Yes, I do.
2. If you don't, you know what will happen to you. What will happen? You'll find yourself without a job. I don't believe it. I can't.
3. But if they do kick me out— Look here; it's not that they want to kick you out
There is a direct connection between "Do you think I would do this thing?" and "Yes, I do." The question prompts the answer; the question leads directly to the answer. B should listen to the speech of A. His "Yes, I do" is a reply to A. Then he introduces another idea, which again prompts the next speech of A.
The dialogue cannot seem to grow naturally nor can the action move forward if the speeches represent the disconnected links of a chain. There must be a joining of the links; or, to be more literal, A says something which reacts on B who says something which reacts on A who says some-thing which reacts on B. When this reaction takes place in the speaking of the dialogue, the play moves forward.
The subject of speech units leads to the question of the de-livery of long speeches. An amateur, as we have said, has a tendency to see a speech as a unit. He memorizes it as a unit, and it seems to remain in his mind as an isolated thing with one attack, one tone, and one speed. Nearly every long speech embraces several ideas (sometimes entirely unrelated) and several emotional backgrounds. Take the following speech of Captain Boyle from O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.
Boyle. Chiselurs don't give a damn now about their parents, they're bringin' their fathers' gray hairs down with sorra to the grave, an' laughin' at it, laughin' at it. Ah, I suppose it's just the same everywhere—the whole worl's in a state o' chassis! [He sits by the fire.] Breakfast! Well, they can keep their breakfast for me. Not if they went down on their bended knees would I take it—I'll show them I have a little spirit left in me still! [Takes out a plate and looks at it.] Sassige! Well, let her keep her sassige. [Takes the tea pot and gives it a gentle shake.] The tea's wet right enough.
Upon reading the speech, we easily see that it divides itself into certain definite units. Knowing Captain Boyle's character, we discover the different attacks and the tone applicable to the different divisions.
The speech begins with a tone of mock sorrow and builds with increasing force of voice through the first unit :
Chiselurs don't care a damn now about their parents, they're bringin' their fathers' gray hairs down with sorra to the grave, an' laughin' at it, laughin' at it... .
The next sentence doesn't follow immediately. A slight mental calculation is made before it is spoken, so we have a brief pause and a tone of greater sadness but of less force:
... Ah, I suppose it's just the same everywhere—the whole worl's in a state o' chassis!
Movement now breaks the speech as Boyle sits by the fire. The sad tone leaves his voice as a new thought enters his mind: the thought of eating. The attack is varied and perhaps the pitch, and the pace can be increased as this unit proceeds:
... Breakfast! Well, they can keep their breakfast for me. Not if they went down on their bended knees would I take it—I'll show them I have a little spirit left in me still. . .
The emotional background has shifted from mock sadness to comic boastfulness. Again there is the pause and movement, then a slowing of the pace on the first word and a speeding of the pace on the remainder of the unit:
... Sassige! Well, let her keep her sassige...
Once more comes the pause. Then a new tone and pace as on the next line we know that the captain is going to have his breakfast, despite his brave words :
. . The tea's wet right enough.
He then puts the sausage in the pan and sets it on the fire.
This speech has two main thought units and two main emotional backgrounds. Instead of one unit, it is several, broken by pause and movement, given color and variety by change in tone, pitch, and pace. What a long speech needs, in a word, is variety; and this is what we have tried to give it.
Naturally there is the exception to this rule. In Act III, of this same play, Boyle says:
The boyo that's afther doin' it to Mary done it to me as well. The thick made out the Will wrong; he said in th' Will, only first cousin an' second cousin instead o' mentionin' our names, an' now everyone that thinks he's a first cousin or second cousin t' oul' Ellison can claim the money as well as me, an' they're springin' up in hundreds an' comin' from America an' Australia, thinkin' to get their whack out of it, while all the time the lawyers is gobblin' it up, till there's not so much as ud buy a stockin' for your lovely daughter's baby!
The long, unbroken sentence suggests the unity of this speech. At this place in the act the pace is swift, the tone loud, the drama tight. Therefore, the delivery of this speech does not call for pause and variety; it calls for great speed and force, accompanied, it may be, by swift, staccato movement and gesture on the part of the speaker.
As the director, sitting in the auditorium, listens to the dialogue as spoken by his actors, he will undoubtedly be struck by the fact that here and there the significance of the scene is not brought out strongly enough. The right emphasis is not there.
For instance, an important line occurs in the dialogue, but it has no importance as it is spoken. The line may be a signpost, pointing to something that is to happen later, or it may be a necessary revelation of character; at any rate, it holds a significance for the audience. Such a line calls for stress (and remember that stress may be secured by pause, inflection, and force of tone). Usually the line may be made significant by giving emphasis to the key word or words of the sentence.
Again, a line may hold a subtle meaning that is of some significance to the audience. If it is spoken too casually, the audience may miss it; if it is hit too hard, the effort involved becomes obvious, and its effect is destroyed. Of course, the pointing of a subtle line is largely dependent upon the inflection given it by the speaker; but such a statement is not of much practical help. We may suggest that the actor, as he gives the line the vocal inflection which points its meaning, may help clarify the meaning by his facial expression; we may further suggest that some reaction from another actor on the stage—a knowing smile, a look, a gesture—can sometimes help in its proper interpretation.
Another difficulty is encountered with laugh lines. An old rule of vaudeville stated, "Raise the right eyebrow and wait for the laugh." On the legitimate stage, acting cannot be quite so crude and obvious as this rule suggests; but on any stage, at times the audience has to be made aware that the line is funny, has, in some way, to be told that it is funny. The way to speak a laugh line cannot be explained in words; the delivery is largely dependent upon the comedy sense, which is something the actor either does or does not possess; but, even granted that an amateur is capable of speaking a comedy line, he frequently fumbles it.
The first half of the old rule, namely, "raise the right eye-brow," suggests that the actor do something which indicates that the line is funny; in the case of the legitimate theater, the rule may be adapted to "tell the audience by a slight expression or movement that you mean for the line to be funny, but almost immediately cover up this expression." The last half of the rule, "wait for the laugh," suggests a pause which gives emphasis to the line. Emphasis may be given, as we have said, in several ways; and among the effective ways is the pause. Of all times for an actor to drop a line or permit it to roll down hill, when he is speaking a comedy line is the very worst time. The line must be kept up.
When the laugh is in the line itself and is not dependent on character or inflection for its projection, an emphasis (plus the employment of the comic sense which is always essential) is generally sufficient; when the laugh is dependent upon the character who speaks the line or is brought forth only through the inflection of the actor, then the di-rector has a problem on his hands. He has to be clever in order to get an actor with little or no comedy sense to speak the line for its comic effect.
A good hint for amateurs in handling the laugh line is to suggest that they don't kill the laugh, but that they give the laugh a chance. When an actor has delivered a line intended for a laugh, the next actor should pause and allow time for the audience to get the comedy and for the laugh to rise. But the second actor must be ready to go on, Nothing is more embarrassing to actors than standing on the stage waiting for the laugh that doesn't come.
Lines may sometimes be spoken to convey either of two meanings: their logical meaning or their emotional meaning. There is the thought content of the line and there is also the way the speaker feels about it. Take, for example, the simple sentence: "John Jackson's horse has run away." The logical meaning here is simple and clear; the fact is stated without equivocation. But, think of the several ways in which the speaker may feel about the runaway. He may be happy or angry or filled with fear. And the line may be spoken so that the fact that the horse ran away is all-important, or so that the presence of fear or joy or some other emotion in the heart of the speaker is the significant thing.
In every play there are speeches in which the logical meaning is meant to be subordinate to the emotional meaning. The majority of amateurs, especially if they are unimaginative or if they see the lines as something to be "read," lean toward giving the line its logical meaning. The director should be on guard. He should be quick to sense the scene in which the sweep of emotion is the more important. When he finds such a scene his admonition to the actors should be: forget about a clear expression of the idea in the line; feel your reaction to the idea; and express your feeling.
During this third-week period the director's most important task, we reiterate, is to make the dialogue more significant and effective. Next in importance is the task of tightening and sharpening the scenes of crisis and clash.
Tightening and Sharpening the Scenes
Think for a moment on how a play is constructed. There are scenes of explanation, scenes of introduction and revelation of character, scenes of preparation, and scenes of suspense in which the clash is withheld. These scenes may be interesting and important; but they lead to the scenes in which the clash can be withheld no longer, in which emotion is strong, speech is swift, in which issues are decided and wills triumph or go down in defeat.
These scenes of action and high tension demand a swifter tempo, a shorter rhyhm, a sharper delivery of lines, and often a vocal force and stress far greater than are found in the other scenes. They demand an effort on the part of the actors beyond the effort demanded in the scenes of preparation.
An audience is likely to forgive a cast an hour of undramatic acting if the actors give it fifteen minutes of tense, tight drama; and a director will do well to take note of this. How often do the actors fail to do justice to these crisis scenes! The climax is passed over with the same pace and on the same level as the scenes preceding it. The actors are partly to blame for their sin of omission, but the director must bear the greater blame. It is his business to make the dramatic scenes dramatic.
We know by now that the dramatic, in this sense, is not one thing but many; we know that a crisis scene may have as its center physical violence or high emotion or stunning revelation. No formula which will be universally applicable for making the scene dramatic can be offered. The director first considers the scene. It may be that he begins to visualize the mounting action in terms of music and applies the principles that govern rhythm, tempo, and crescendo to the scene; he turns to pictorial art and, to increase his climactic effect, he employs significant movement and a grouping which converges near the center of the stage; or he uses the principles of the arts in combination.
One thing is certain; these scenes call for a steady, unbroken concentration on the part of the actors, a sharp give-and-take, and a sure synchronization of movement and speech beyond the demands of the other scenes.
Other Defects of the Amateur
We have in mind four other defects in amateur acting which, while of lesser importance, require the services of the director during this period. We would speak of them briefly and then pass on to several less obvious matters which need a word.
The first of these defects is the lack of coherence between speech and movement. In our methods of direction and memorization, speech and movement have a tendency to become two separate things, with no connection between them. In the early rehearsal days we give out stage directions, saying, "Move up right stage on this line"; or "Go up stage on her entrance." We are hurried and haven't time to explain the motives for every movement. The actor is hurried for he has to memorize all of his lines in the act in three days, and when he sets about memorizing in his room, he is often not thinking of the stage directions but only of the speeches. Therefore, when we observe a rehearsal at the beginning of the third week, the speech and the accompanying movements are sometimes two separate entities.
It must be remembered that neither speech nor movement is a cause, but a result. There is a thought or a feeling, and from the feeling grows, first, the physical reaction (usually a facial expression and a gesture), then, the speech. Emphasis upon motivation, realization of the common cause of both speech and movement, should be called to the actor's attention.
The second of these defects is the actor's inability to be in the scene when he is not speaking or being spoken to. The beginner, unaccustomed to thinking about the stage, unconsciously takes the attitude that the speaker is the important personage and that an actor who is not speaking has nothing to do. We have asserted that the average amateur is intelligent. If he is, he can readily be made to see that he always has something to do while on the stage. When he is not speaking, he should be listening or contributing to the scene in some way. Suppose a member of the audience looks at him and finds him completely out of the scene while another actor is speaking. His inattention may de-tract to a marked degree from the effectiveness of the speaker's speech. He cannot be a neutral quantity. He is either supplementing the speech by his concentration and attitude of attention, or he is subtracting from its reasonable effect. If the actor is normally intelligent and possesses an average amount of the power of concentration, the director will not find his case difficult. He needs only to be convinced that his silent acting can be a help or a hindrance to the play.
Some few actors do not act with sufficient restraint. We grow uncomfortable when we see an actor exerting him-self physically and vocally. He may think that tensed muscles and a loud, forced tone are manifestations of acting, but they are not. The actor who, on the stage, possesses no reserve power, who gives his "all" to a scene, cannot be broken of this habit in one rehearsal. Our third week is necessary if we are going to help him. He has to be free from thought of lines and business and character before he can concentrate on the habit and consciously tone down his work. One actor, playing without restraint, can throw an entire scene off key, and the director occasionally has one such actor who demands some of his time during this period.
The last of these defects, which concerns the handling of properties, may be remedied simply. The first two weeks are full weeks. The properties are either imagined, or any-thing which happens to be at hand is used. If the dress rehearsals follow immediately, the actor will have no opportunity to become accustomed to his properties, and either the speeches will suffer, because his attention is upon untying the package or lighting the samovar, or his manipulation of the properties will be uncertain and awkward.
The actor should have time to work with properties. He should be sure that he can handle them easily. Often when the properties are brought into the rehearsal, a piece of business that is illuminating or significant is suggested to the director; something in the handling of a particular jewel box, in setting the table, in stirring the fire, or in turning the leaves of a book may be made an integral part of the restatement of the text for the stage.
Central Reality and Spontaneity
These are rather simple and obvious things which the director of experience will not only want to do, but will find time and ability to do. Beyond them lie several other matters which are waiting for the director—matters which call for his more careful thought and greater ingenuity, if the design of the play he has created in his imagination is to be realized on the stage.
There is a quality within the play that is its most living quality, what we may call its central reality. The director has had to give his time to many matters during the first weeks, and his attention must be addressed to still other matters during dress rehearsals. Central reality has probably been neglected. It may be an idea, a brilliance of dialogue, an impending doom, or the revelation of a human soul; but whatever this central reality is, he ,may now turn his attention to it. He asks: Have I given this reality such strength and importance that it will be a part, and an essential part, of the experience of the audience ? Or does it need more or different emphasis through a different pointing of lines, a restraining or heightening of emotion, a change in stage business ?
Spontaneity—an illusion of directness, of unstudied living, of untaught movement and speech—is another quality• which the evolving play should possess. Attention to many details may have caused the actors to lose that naturally fresh attack they made upon the lines during the first rehearsals when the play was new and they were living its story (even though they were acting it badly). Spontaneity once lost is not eternally lost. Yet the amateur actor, going his way alone, often cannot recapture it. The director can help him. The play is still what it was before. The actor is in the position of the traveler who can no longer see the forest because of the trees. The director needs to lead his traveler-actor out of the trees to some hill from whence he can again see the forest.
And, lastly, there is the pattern of the play and the pattern of each act of which sight must not be lost. The director may conceive of each act as a unit, similar to the movement of a musical symphony. Each will possess its pace and tempo, its proportionment into loud and soft scenes and legato and staccato scenes, and its climax and conclusion. A scene at the beginning of the act, if the director remembers his whole pattern, will proceed not only with the scene itself in mind, but with the climax of the act as well. This coordination and unification of the pattern of the play adds to the ease and pleasure with which the play is received.
Surely, the director is unwilling to believe that his work is done when the actors have memorized their lines. At this point his most important work is just beginning. He will have a meager imagination and a poor power of observation if he cannot find plenty to do during this third week of rehearsal. He will give a poor presentation if he neglects some of the matters we have just touched upon.