Advice to actors from George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, vegetarian, socialist, and crusader for spelling reform, wrote 25 plays -- and, unlike most playwrights, reviewed innumerable others. ``Pygmalion'' became a movie which won him an Academy Award in 1938 and later turned into the popular musical ``My Fair Lady.'' He won the Nobel prize in 1925 after his play ``St. Joan'' appeared. In drama reviews for London's Saturday Review, Shaw felt no compunction about criticizing Shakespeare. Here the music lover (he also wrote music criticism under the name ``Corno di Basso'') emerges in an excerpt from a review of the Irving Dramatic Club's 1895 London production of ``All's Well that Ends Well.'' Powerful among the enemies of Shakespeare are the commentator and the elocutionist: the commentator because, not knowing Shakespeare's language, he sharpens his reasoning faculty to examine propositions advanced by an eminent lecturer from the Midlands, instead of sensitizing his artistic faculty to receive the impression of moods and inflexions of feeling conveyed by word-music; the elocutionist because he is a born fool, in which capacity, observing with pain that poets have a weakness for imparting to their dramatic dialogue a quality which he describes and deplores as ``singsong,'' he devotes his life to the art of breaking up verse in such a way as to make it sound like insanely pompous prose. The effect of this on Shakespeare's earlier verse, which is full of the naive delight of pure oscillation, to be enjoyed as an Italian enjoys a barcarolle, or a child a swing, or a baby a rocking-cradle, is destructively stupid. In the later plays, where the barcarolle measure has evolved into much more varied and complex rhythms, it does not matter so much, since the work is no longer simple enough for a fool to pick to pieces.
But in every play from ``Love's Labour's Lost'' to ``Henry V,'' the elocutionist meddles simply as a murderer, and ought to be dealt with as such without benefit of clergy. To our young people studying for the stage I say, with all solemnity, learn how to pronounce the English alphabet clearly and beautifully from some person who is at once an artist and a phonetic expert. And then leave blank verse patiently alone until you have experienced emotion deep enough to crave for poetic expression, at which point verse will seem an absolutely natural and real form of speech to you. Meanwhile, if any pedant, with an uncultivated heart and a theoretic ear, proposes to teach you to recite, send instantly for the police.