( Originally Published 1938 )
BY GROUPING TOGETHER some of the mediums through which the director and his actors restate the printed play on the stage, and by ascribing to these mediums more or less definite values in the play as acted, the director may be able to approach his task with one more useful yardstick, with one more standard to help him in selection and creation.
Line Reading Values
More important than any other medium is the spoken line; most important of the actor's tasks is the reading of the lines for their full value.
Scene 5, Act II, of Romeo and Juliet opens with Juliet in the garden of the Capulets. She speaks.
Juliet. The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse;
This is not a difficult speech to understand; yet, ask a student actress to study the speech and bring out the values that are there to be brought out in a good reading of the lines, and what will be the result? Save in exceptional cases, our young lady will assume something of the character of a lovelorn maiden, and will give us the general idea that Juliet is waiting for the nurse and is impatient over her tardiness, and that will be about all. Such a reading will be to a complete reading as a line drawing is to a painting in color. Our actress will begin to fail on "perchance she cannot meet him"; and from there on, values will be lost, right and left. The figure of love's heralds, the "three long hours," the "warm youthful blood," all will be spoken with only a fraction of their possible values.
Our actress is not to be blamed too severely. She probably doesn't know how to find the values in the lines. She hasn't been taught to look for the full meaning of lines. The fear in Juliet's heart on "perchance she cannot meet him," the hush in her voice, the stress on "cannot" and "meet," do not appear in her reading. The "three long hours" are not three long hours, but only three short words as she speaks them. "Warm youthful blood" is not warm and is not very youthful.
In a line being spoken from the stage, is full significance being given to the words? Are the words filled with color and suggestion, or are they no more than the sounds of our language, spoken accurately and clearly? There is much hidden richness in what are often very simple lines of dialogue.
Many values—meanings, shades of thought, emotional background, beauty of words, revelation beyond the literal signification of words—are lost in the reading of lines by amateurs. When the director rereads his play carefully for perspective during the latter days of rehearsals, he has an opportunity to refresh his mind on the values of some of the lines; and he will find time well spent in working with his actors on these values.
In speaking of tone, we generally have reference to the character of the sound which gives it its individuality.
A distinction may be drawn between tone character and tone quality. We think of a violin as possessing a tone character which is different from that in a cornet; yet a tone quality of harshness or softness may be found in either violin or cornet. The same is true of the human voice. The character of the tone denotes its personal distinction—that which makes it different from other kinds of tones; the quality de-notes its timbre, its color. One human voice may have the character of the flute, another the character of the bassoon, yet both may possess the quality of freedom.
On the stage then, tone has two values : the value found in its own character and the value found in the changes in the quality of the tone.
The tone character has an aesthetic value. It is easily seen that a cast of ten actors, each possessing a pleasing tone character, will be easier on the ears of the audience (and there-fore of greater value to the play) than a cast whose tone characters are reminiscent of the Chinese clarinet.
We cannot easily change our tone characters; we can change our tone quality, and therein lies its value in stage work. One of the chief vocal tasks of the actor is the expression of emotional meanings. Tone quality is frequently the symbol of feeling. If the quality is harsh and guttural, we make the interpretation that the speaker is angry, perhaps to the point of uncontrolled rage. If the quality is deep and sonorous, gloom or sadness is usually suggested. A light tone quality denotes gaiety. The soft tone is an accompaniment to the emotion of pathos. The hollow, somewhat breathy quality suggests an anguish or despair akin to physical pain. The sharp, metallic tone indicates bitterness or hatred, while the mouth tone, the tone which has only a mouth resonance, suggests not so much an emotion as a lack of emotion on the part of the speaker.
Changes in tone quality, therefore, are of value in suggesting changes in emotional meanings. Variations in quality have very little to do with conveying the logical meaning of the line; pitch and inflection are of value here. Tone quality, however, has one other definite stage value. In so far as the physical condition of the body and the emotional capacity may give a characteristic quality to a tone, tone quality may be of value in the revelation of character. A weak, tired body is expressed through a thin, unresonant quality; a mean, snarling disposition through a nasal quality; old age or effeminacy through the falsetto quality.
Tone quality will be variable in different speakers, for it is colored by the natural character of the tone. In calling attention to tone, we wish to do no more than suggest the possibilities of tone in stage work.
The stage possesses depth as well as width. The actors may be close to the audience or some distance from it, and this distance from the footlights to the back wall of the set has a greater illusion in seeming to remove the actors from the audience than the mere fifteen feet would indicate. The actors may also move from center stage to extreme left or right, and this again suggests a withdrawal much greater than it actually is.
These few obvious statements bring to mind the fact that stage positions have certain positive values which are useful to the director, not only in composing his stage pictures, but in increasing and lessening his dramatic effect. Without attempting to prescribe the exact boundary of each, we may designate six rather definite sections of the stage, as down-stage center, upstage center, downstage right, upstage right, downstage left, and upstage left.
These sections have values for emphasis. The three downstage sections are more emphatic than the upstage; downstage center is the most emphatic position; upstage left and right are least emphatic. The sections also have values in suggesting intimacy and remoteness. Downstage left or right is a good place for a quiet, intimate scene : The actors seem to be taking the audience more into their confidence than if the scene were played upstage. Downstage center is not so good for an intimate scene unless the scene is one of unusual importance and needs a strong emphasis. The downstage sections are always stronger positions than the upstage. A weak actor may, momentarily, appear stronger if the director moves him downstage (though this suggestion is dangerous if the actor's weakness is something which will be more noticeable if he is brought close to the footlights). Because of the traditional manner of using the stage, down-stage center is the "hardest" position on the stage. The stage tends to grow "soft" as it recedes from the footlights.
This general charting of the stage must be amended when platforms are used which raise a portion of the stage above stage level. Height gives emphasis. A platform gives to a particular section a strength greater than that of the territory immediately surrounding it. A platform at upper right in-creases its emphasis value over the upper left section; in fact, it gives it a value equal (in emphasis, remember, not in intimacy) to the lower right section; and a platform upstage center changes the "feeling" of the section, making it harder and adding to its strength.
The director not only may find help in working out his stage business if he gives consideration to the values of the different sections, but they may also offer him suggestions for the disposition of the furniture of the scene.
The lines of a set have a rather definite meaning. A tall, narrow door produces a different effect on the spectator from that produced by a low, wide door. An actor (though he has not spoken or revealed his character through movement or pantomime) standing upright on the stage with arms raised above him produces a different effect upon the spectator from that of a man lying prone upon the stage floor.
The vertical line suggests, in the mind of the onlooker, life, hope, aspiration, courage, expectation. The horizontal line gives him the suggestion of lassitude, despair, stagnation, death. The diagonal line suggests uncertainty, insecurity, doubt, bewilderment, vagueness. The curved line gives the character the feeling of comfort, stability, pleasantness. The straight line is more suggestive of action, of for-ward movement, of clarity of thought. The crooked line brings to mind the idea of instability, derangement, disordered reason. The frequent repetition of the same line gives the impression of monotony.
The symbolic meanings which we ascribe to these lines have their bases in lines found in the natural world or in the world of man's own building. Growth, in general, is up-ward from the earth; death is horizontal; and if a tree leans too far from the vertical plane toward the ground, it is in danger of becoming uprooted and falling.
The director perhaps makes his first application of the meaning of line to stage setting. It is most useful in giving significance to the design of the set; but it is also useful in the disposition of his actors. Let the director imagine ten actors standing in a straight row that extends across the stage; let him next imagine the ten halted and bent forward as they ascend a stairway which runs upward and off at one side of the stage; and let him imagine them in single file, one behind the other, standing upon a stairway which ex-tends from downstage straight upstage center. The three lines of actors will convey three distinct meanings to his spectators.
In the stage production of Hamlet, the curtain is often brought down upon Horatio's "Good night, sweet prince" speech, immediately following the death of the melancholy Dane. This curtain brings the play to an end on a note of pessimism and depression. (There are enough horizontal lines represented in the bodies of the dead figures about the stage to create these feelings without the aid of the speeches!) In a French production, the text was played through to the end as Shakespeare wrote it. With the en-trance of Fortinbras, six soldiers in white mail, with six tall, white lances and pennons, appeared and stood on the raised platform at rear stage. The curtain descended as these six, raising the body of the dead Hamlet to their shoulders, started to mount the steps upstage center.
In this instance, by the use of six upright, vertical lines appearing clean-cut against a dark background, the mood was changed from one of pessimism, and the curtain was brought down on a note of hope, almost on a note of triumph.
At some not too remote period, after the amateur theater had taken cognizance of the significance of settings and costumes, the ancient discovery that color has a meaning began to be recorded in the books for the amateur. So color has been catalogued and the beginning director may now pick up his book and, reading that each color is a symbol of an emotion or a state of being, may choose brown for the color of his set (since he believes the mood of the play is suggested by brown), white for the dress of his mistreated little heroine, a blue suit for his hero, and a red dress for his seductress. Then he is deeply hurt, and he harangues against the stupidity of his audience when one of its members exclaims: "What are you trying to do—represent the American flag in your three costumes?" This prompts the remark that, though we can read much about color, it is not so easy and simple to handle as line.
Color has two theater values: its value as symbolism and its aesthetic value when used in combination with other colors in a color harmony.
The director who uses color for its symbolic value, choosing colors because of what they are supposed to mean, is treading upon dangerous ground. First of all, when he is as obvious in his handling of color as in the case we have just mentioned, the colors fairly yell their intended meanings from the stage; and when one color yells, "I represent virtue," and another, "I am fidelity," the intended effect is lost. Such use of color is nothing different from the use of riding clothes, whip, and black mustaches, which announced the character of the villain in the old melodramas. Secondly, color has not only one or several related meanings, as has line, but many different meanings. One book lists the symbolism of clear red as follows: cruelty, guilt, hatred, anarchy, excitement, warmth, shame, hurry, passionate love, ardent zeal, creative power, divine love, patriotism, purity, honor, royalty, and cardinals. An investigation might reveal the basic relationship of these meanings, but that does not take away from the fact that, according to the list, a red costume may suggest both sacred and profane love! Third, pure color is one thing and color in the many different textiles is another. We may have a costume of black cotton flannel, black velvet, black silk, or black oilcloth; and the different textiles change the meaning of our costume from gloom, through dignity, wealth, and vivacity. Finally, color cannot (as our last illustration suggests) be considered, except in connection with light; and stage light can change the tone and effect of a color in a very surprising manner.
We are not maintaining that red is not warm and exciting, blue cool, and yellow gay; but we are maintaining that the director, attempting to use color for its symbolic meaning, is running into so many complications that his intended effect is more than likely to be lost. He had better employ color symbolism sparingly, if at all. Perhaps in pageantry, a type of drama in which the audience expects and looks for the symbolic, and in which, because of its form, color can speak in much stronger, simpler accents, the meaning of color may be employed advantageously. Perhaps occasionally in a play, one character may be emphasized or ex-pressed through the color of his costume; but this, too, should be approached with discretion, since such costuming may give the one character a pronounced visual advantage over the others.
The aesthetic value of color is another matter. We know that certain color combinations are agreeable, and others are not. The planning of costumes with a view to a harmony of color (the color harmony embracing scenery as well as costumes) is, all in all, a safer and more profitable way of using color than that which the director uses in an attempt to ex-press symbolism.
Costumes planned with a view to color unity, or to the utilization of different values or intensities of a certain color, may be effective. In a recent play several characters were a unit in their attachment to one of the important characters. They had very few speeches in which to express their attachment; yet the spectator left the theater with a strong consciousness of the group as a unit and of its firm loyalty to the important character. This effect of unity was created by dressing all the actors in the group in different values of the same color.
The element of rhythm is applicable to all arts. We hear that a dance, or a picture or even a building, has rhythm; therefore, we find the word used frequently in reference to the speech and movement of actors. Although we have a definite reaction to that which is rhythmic, although we generally agree with one another about whether something has or has not rhythm, when we attempt to explain what we mean by the term, we get no further than, "Well, it seems to be right," or, "It seems to give me a sense of complete satisfaction."
If we may brief a section in a recent article on bodily rhythm (H'Doubler, Margaret, "Rhythm," Players Magazine, March—April, 1932, Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 4.), we find:
... Rhythm suggests motion. When motion takes place, it implies the idea of change of position . . . and also the idea of direction, distance, and duration. . . . No matter what distance is covered or what direction taken, time is consumed and effort expended. . . . Time and stress, then, are the distinguishing characteristics of muscular sensations by which we know movement. . . . Rhythm is measured energy. It is action and rest, control and release. . . . Every activity has intrinsically a proper proportioning of its time and intensity phases, according to the nature of the impulse and the end to be accomplished.
Rhythm, as we know, is not alone applied to bodily movement; it is the "universal force back of all phenomena," and the elements of rhythm exist in all things; it is, we find, a constant fundamental in all dramatic performances.
Therefore, with a strong justification, we speak of the rhythm of a play; there is (or should be) present a subtle but sure rhythm which we experience, even though we can-not analyze it and explain its elements or its laws. There-fore, we speak of the rhythm of the speech as spoken by the actor, of the rhythm within the character which is being portrayed, and of the rhythm expressed in the colors and lines of the setting. In each case there is something that corresponds to this action and rest, this control and release, this time and regular stress. There are, within the composition of the acted play, several rhythms—some harmonizing with others, and some at just enough variance to produce the sense of clash and conflict so necessary in a dramatic action.
A character has its rhythm. There is a unifying of the mental, emotional, and bodily characteristics and an expression of this unified character in the rhythm found in the movement and speech. Sometimes an actor seems to inflect lines correctly and suggest, by looks, gesture, and behavior, the character he is attempting to portray; yet what he projects is not wholly satisfying, and we feel that something is wrong. It may quite possibly be that the rhythm, the "beat" for the character has not been found. Again, the character, judged by itself, may give complete satisfaction; but it is wrong, because it swings too strongly against the rhythm of the play. The "beat," in other words, is too pronounced. Since the play is greater than any of its parts, the rhythm of the character should be brought more in harmony with the rhythm of the play.
Sometimes we remark of an actor: "Isn't his timing good?" Just what do we mean by this remark? We mean that the element of the time and the element of stress are in proper relation in the rhythm. The proper proportionment has been made. This measured beat, in the speaking of a line or in the movement of a body, is not an arbitrary unit, remember; it is determined by the character concerned. A right timing in one character might be a wrong timing in another.
Lastly, we would mention the break in the rhythm occasioned by the pause in movement or speech. We have seen an actor pause before he spoke, and our feeling was that the pause was not right. What he did bodily was right—the downward look, rubbing of the hand, slow raising of the eyes—but the result was not satisfactory. What was wrong?
During the pause the rhythm is suspended; after the pause it is taken up again; but during this interval the rhythm should not be destroyed. Our actor destroyed the rhythm. A pause that is either too long or too short destroys the rhythm. We had this in mind when we asked that Hamlet enter and take three steps before he begin his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. The right timing for a pause is one that is in harmony with the rhythm and that permits the rhythm to be resumed upon the proper beat.
Rhythm is something which, for most of us, is more easily sensed than analyzed. It has a reality which is generally accepted without thought or comment when it is present, but missed when it is absent. The value of rhythm in the play is found in the pleasure and the sense of "rightness" it is able to give to the audience.