Mr. York talks
about his
guide A Shake-
Actor Prepares
(Smith and
Kraus) .


Previous Writings:
Accidentally on Purpose



  Monday, April 16, 2001 at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Los Angeles

ANDREA GROSSMAN: Good evening, and thank you for coming to tonight’s WritersBloc program, "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares." I am Andrea Grossman, the founder of WritersBloc. Most of you know by now that WritersBloc is a non-profit literary series dedicated to bringing to Los Angeles my favorite writers. Since Mr. Shakespeare cannot be with us, we’ve got the next best thing: Michael York, Samantha Eggar, Charlotte Cornwell, and two of my favorite former UCLA professors, they will make you forget that the playwright is not here tonight.

Before we get into tonight’s program, I would like to thank the people who have made it possible. Thanks as always, to Cheryl Rhodin and the board of directors of the Writer’s Guild of America, West, for making the theatre available for us tonight. Thanks to my volunteers, and to Debra Frankel. Also to Hillary Mekendrick. I am so honored that these great actors agreed to spend an evening with us, and thanks to Professors Ed Condren and Michael Allen, who will bring Shakespeare into context. More about them in a minute too.

Now for tonight. We all love watching Shakespeare. The language, the action, the humor, the poetry – his plays have it all. I can’t think of better poetry than some of the speeches from Richard II, Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth or The Tempest. I don’t want to rattle on about that tonight. These people on stage with me can do that much better than I possibly could. So I’m going to introduce you to them, and tell you why I asked them here tonight.

Michael York. He’s been my favorite guy in a million movies from Cabaret to the Austin Powers series. He’s featured in countless movies, and in his spare time, he wrote a book called A Shakespearean Actor Prepares. I’m going to concentrate on his role as an author right now. Michael is the impetus for tonight’s very special program. His book contains stories, vignettes and illustrations about reading and understanding Shakespeare. It’s about how easy it is to overcome what we might see as a language barrier of sorts; how the characters in the plays are really completely informed by the details in the text, by the sounds in the language, and the rhythms in the verse.

His book provides us with a social and historical context for the plays as well as what the audience of Shakespeare’s time might have been expecting, hoping for, etc. The book isn’t just for scholars though. It’s for those of us interested in literature, Shakespeare and those who wonder what a modern-day actor goes though in approaching a complex character, and therefore, the deeper intent of the play. The book is accessible, and completely free of boring literary criticism.

Michael is joined by his colleagues Samantha Eggar and Charlotte Cornwell. Samantha Eggar is internationally known for her work on stage and film. American audiences got to know her well in her unforgettable role in William Wyler’s The Collector. She has not only starred in numerous Shakespeare roles in Oxford and in London with talents such as Anthony Hopkins and Tony Richardson, but she has appeared in so many films, from The Walking Stick and The Collector, to the new film with Johnny Depp, The Astronaut’s Wife. I’m so honored to have her with us tonight.

Charlotte Cornwell has been one of the bright lights of the British theatre for years. She’s been in so many leading female roles from Shakespeare and other plays; she can hardly remember what they are! From Rosalind in As You Like It, to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Charlotte has been with both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre in London. You might remember her as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, with Ian McKellen, which she played in London, New York, and here in Los Angeles at Royce Hall. She’s also appeared in many films and television roles way outside Shakespeare, from The Saint to The Russia House, which, incidentally was written by her brother; my absolutely favorite writer, John Le Carre.

So here we have these three wonderful actors with so much Shakespeare experience between them. Then there are the two other guys who bring so much to the party too. Ed Condren was not only my great Chaucer professor, he also taught a survey course which included a few Shakespeare plays, and was therefore, the guy who made me and scores of other English majors love reading the plays. He’s been an extraordinarily popular professor in UCLA’s distinguished English department for ages.

Not only did he offer his own expertise tonight, but he also offered the expertise of Michael Allen as well. Professor Michael Allen is one of the treasures of the UCLA English Department – of course the other one is Professor Condren . . . He is internationally respected for his scholarship and locally revered for making the characters in the plays so thrilling, so bloody – I will never forget his Coriolanus, he made it so real.

So here’s what will happen tonight. Ed Condren will lead Michael York, Samantha Eggar and Charlotte Cornwell in discussion about the challenges facing the readers and actors of Shakespeare. Professor Michael Allen will jump in when he feels like it. After the program, Michael will sign copies of his wonderful book called A Shakepearian Actor Prepares. If you’re an actor, it’s a must. If you like reading Shakespeare or going to his plays, it’s a must again. If you like literature, it’s a real treat. It is now my great pleasure to introduce Michael York, Samantha Eggar, Charlotte Cornwell, Ed Condren and Michael Allen.

ED CONDREN: Well, thank you. When I was thinking about this evening, I said to myself, "This will be a piece of cake. I lecture to groups this size all the time – no problem at all." But now that I am here looking at you, I realize that there is a very great difference. When I face most of my students, they’re sitting there like they have much more important things they could be doing. Nearly all the faces I am looking at right now suggest that you know all there is to know, and you are waiting to see what old friends have to say.

You’ll notice that there are at least two dichotomies here. Flanking the actors on either side, the two Old Farts – Academics who say things like, "You do not pronounce that correctly . . . None is a singular, don’t . . ." and so on. I am also the only one up here who speaks with an "American" vocal pattern. The rest of them – the four of them here – speak The King’s English. This is one reason why they have been invited to interpret Shakespeare. Now, one of the problems everyone faces, when they are looking at Shakespeare, is "Oh my God, that language. It’s intimidating. What are we going to do with it? I’m only an American, I haven’t got a dialect, I don’t know the way it should be done! No Oxbridge in me at all."

I’ve asked Michael York to get us going this evening by demonstrating with a wonderful single sentence by Bernard Levin, a distinguished English critic, that in fact Shakespeare has been appropriated by all of us. By common folk whom you might meet in the street. Michael could you get us going?

MICHAEL YORK: This one sentence, is particularly effective on kids who feel that Shakespeare has noting to do with them. Just listen:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare, "It’s Greek to me," you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not a wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; If you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and the short of it, if you believe that the game is up and the truth will out if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness sake! What the dickens! But me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare!

–Bernard Levin, Enthusiasms (1983)

CONDREN: Wonderful, wonderful. It humbles all of us. To touch off the first subject and that is: you’ve got this Shakespeare, who is allegedly the greatest poet in the English language, and you have this great dramatist. There’s a tension. How do we get at this famous author? Do we do it through his poetry, through his meaning? Or do we do it through his action? I’m going to throw that one out. Charlotte?

CHARLOTTE CORNWELL: Personally, for myself, I approach it through the language. I make certain that I understand every single word, because often, you’ll be reading a text and you’ll have gotten a rather general gist of it, but you have to be absolutely specific. And I have to be sure I know what each single word means. And then I – go with the feeling. His language is such emotional language. We’re all different, but that’s how I do it.

SAMANTHA EGGAR: Well I was very lucky to hear Charlotte say earlier that she didn’t take any notice of the pentameter, and I thought, "Ooh, I’m glad." Because I don’t think that I ever did either. I truly believe that Shakespeare’s words are the emotion. He spells it out, and the audience understands it. It’s there for everybody. It’s the words. All you have to do is pay attention to the words. I think the more it’s directed and the more one pays attention to it, I think the more it has a life of its own.

CORNWELL: An interesting point. I was playing Rosalind – for a month, and I can’t remember now, but there were two lines in As You Like It, and I said, "Can we cut this? Because nobody will understand what this means – I don’t know what this means." Trevor told me what it meant, and I said, "Still, nobody’s going to understand what this means." And he said a very interesting thing. He said, "If you think in your head hard enough what it means – the audience will get it. And that’s absolutely true. People get it. It’s that powerful.

CONDREN: That’s dangerous! I’ve thought some things about people I hope they can’t . . . Now, there’s been a production in town, of Romeo and Juliet, which I have not seen, but I’ve heard a lot about. It seems to be based on the premise that if you take each line of Shakespeare, and you shut down the noise at the end of the actual poetic line at the end of the text, and then resume again with the next line, that you’re doing it correctly. Michael, what do you think?

YORK: No. This is something that we get into in the book. It goes back to your original question, "How do we prepare?" The setting out point for us – doing this book – is that Shakespeare, whoever he was, whether he was a great Elizabethan aristocrat of the Oxfordian tradition or the more conventional Shakespearean candidate, whoever he was, he was writing plays for actors to interpret. And within the text are keys as to how he wanted them to be done. He’s very much on your side. He’s writing box-office. We forget – The Globe Theatre – we think of it as a cultural institution. It was something that made money. It was generating income. And it was a very expensive theatre to run.

So we forget that these are box-office. There’s a tremendous misunderstanding with Shakespeare. You have an end stop, you have old-fashioned acting deals, and you have misunderstandings. And clearly, our book was in a sense trying to help, to address some of this. Trying to be a practical acting manual. Not a "how-to" but more of a grammar of acting.

One of the things you come to understand is that in Shakespeare, the pauses come after every thought. If you go back to the first folio, you’ll see it in the text. It’s just commas and periods. Editors have cleaned them up so it looks wonderful on the page, but it’s not really much help to us. If you go back and see the thick, dense language of the Elizabethan original, then you begin to see what’s at work.

CONDREN: Well let’s bring the academy in, shall we? Michael Allen?

MICHAEL ALLEN: I’d like to take up Michael’s point about money. Shakespeare made so much money, that he was able to retire at about the age of 48, and then indulge in that most expensive of all retired occupations, which is suing your neighbor. He sued his neighbors over property issues. Whether the property was on this side of the stream or that side of the stream, and since the stream altered its bed every winter, the property issues kept the lawyers going.

Language. I’d like to ask you. I had great trouble teaching Shakespeare here in Los Angeles – until the films came along, which made things rather different. One of the reasons that I felt made it so difficult was that nobody read the Bible any longer. The language of the church, so often the language of sonorous and meaningful thoughts and images that people of earlier generations are used to, The Prayer Book and the King James Bible and so on, has disappeared. The teenagers’ verbal ken – I think that this has made things much more difficult to get across, because they don’t have that point of reference. So I think that you have an extraordinary task ahead of you, to keep Shakespeare verbally alive. Because he’s very good on film, where you see action and passion and color and splash. But the words are becoming more difficult.

YORK: That’s a very good point. We’ve lost the ability, this oral tradition that Shakespeare was writing in. We forget. There is the King James Bible. There’s this great fountain of words. A mere 6,000 compared to the 30,000 that Shakespeare coined, so you see you are dealing with this positive fountain. Just as the King James Bible is to be read in churches, I believe categorically that every Shakespeare play should be spoken in theatres! We had lost it, but we’re getting back now to the Elizabethan theatre concept. With the re-opening of the Globe Theatre in London for example, you realize how much we’ve lost. When the theatres were closed in 1642, we completely lost that knowledge. An actor being able to command a crowd of 30,000 people. Persuading them that a play taking place in daylight, that they were seeing darkness and ghosts and whatever. Speaking with a precision and a clarity and a speediness, because these plays, we’re convinced they were done very fast, without an intermission. Romeo and Juliet talks about "a two-hour traffic." I don’t see how you can do Hamlet in less than three. But certainly, they were done very fast, and audiences had an ability to listen, which we’ve also lost. Our oral acuteness has been degraded.

ALLEN: But there was an ability to listen while they were crunching hazelnuts! Because the new excavations have uncovered the immense package of hazelnuts!

CONDREN: As a practical matter nowadays, what more closely approximates that theatre you are talking about? You have two choices only. Film, of a Shakesparian play, or a person in his room, reading it and trying to understand and imagine the theatre? Because you see, they just don’t put on many Shakespearean plays anymore. Yes, you can find them in university workshop productions and so forth, but it’s not the kind of production that you would find on Broadway. So what more closely approximates it? Is film the only thing we have? Or in fact, should people be reading Shakespeare?

CORNWELL: I think the recent Shakespeare films, Richard III, which was based on the production that I was in with Ian McKellen, and the Romeo and Juliet movie, I thought they were both wonderful movies. I can only really judge them through my own daughter, who is now 19. I watched her respond to those movies and she loved them.

I am slightly at odds with you (Professor Allen), because I don’t think that it’s difficult to get Shakespeare through to young people. It depends so much on who’s teaching it. I mean what we were best at in school, depended so much on whether we had an inspirational teacher.

Now, what we’re seeing in the U.K., and I’m sure it’s the same here, is that the younger generation of teachers are not all fired up about Shakespeare, and they’re not particularly good teachers, based on my daughter’s experience, and she’s was in the public system. I don’t agree – the response that I’ve seen, with kids of all backgrounds – when they are either given a really exciting teacher or taken to a really exciting production, they love it! And they want more of it.

EGGAR: I completely agree, and it goes back to the emotion. Shakespeare was not a propagandist of his own theories. He was so involved with the actors, and we also have to remember the history of when all this was happening. Also the language. Now in England, right now, we don’t speak like I do. I am a throwback! I’d get my head chopped off if I go back to England. You speak with Essex-speak, which is estuary-speak, which is very similar to the West Country language which is the closest to Elizabethan language, which has the long "A" pronunciation. The musicality of the line was also different.

So, many times when Shakespeare is done now, it is incorrect on so many levels. It’s incorrect on pronunciation, it’s incorrect on the musicality of the line itself, and certainly the speed. For someone to stand up and say, "To be . . . or not, to be . . ." well, by that time, someone would have thrown an orange! You had to get on with it! To get back to the truth of how a production should be put on is through the children. Because children always tell the truth. And that’s why those films are successful. Because these children come in with no parameters. They are speaking the truth, and Shakespeare gave us the truth.

CONDREN: Wonderfully put. Michael?

YORK: It has to be said: one of the great Shakespeare troupes in this town is the Hobart Shakespeareans. It’s this wonderful school where every kid, from tiny tots all the way up – they get it, they get it immediately. It’s no big deal. You mentioned the films. Obviously, you’re dealing in terms of spectacle. In the theatre you can’t. Surely, you can have your fights. But Shakespeare’s operating on several levels. For your Joe Blow citizen who crosses the Thames and pays his penny, stands in the rain – he’ll see a play about murders, ghosts, revenge, battles. And equally, the person sitting next to him, a more educated person let’s say, is going to see an existential discussion on "who are we, why are we here, what are we doing?" So it’s operating on those levels. Sure, Shakespeare – box-office again – he’ll give you the battles. But he’s more interested in why that battle happens, before and afterwards.

With film, I think you’re dealing with spectacle. You can do these battles, you can do these fights. And why not? They’re very exciting. We’re talking about theatres. We’re up here on a proscenium stage. The strongest, emphatic place is upstage, center. When you go back to the Elizabethan theatre, you return the actor to the center of his cosmos. He’s downstage. You don’t have Hamlet come out and say, "Hello, my name is Hamlet, and these are my ideas on life and death." No, this is someone in torment, wanting to work this thing out – it’s active, and the speech is always that way. The second half of the line is more important than the first. So it’s always building, and moving and moving and going up. Here is someone who, once he makes contact with the audience,

Is it not monstrous that this player here
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit,

Etcetera, and the audience is with him. There’s this contact. Too many actors – and I’m sure you’ve seen it – it’s all going up into the roof. It makes no contact. Where in the text Shakespeare is desperately trying to connect with you. Great speeches are done to the sun, to the moon, to daggers, to whatever. There’s always a focal point. So the Elizabethan theatre has given us this renewed contact. You don’t need the scenery, it’s all there in the lines. He’s phenomenal. He does it all for you, and it’s all there in the framework of the verse.

There is a wonderful quote from Bernard Shaw. It’s practical: a writer to an actor. It was a letter written to Ellen Terry, who was playing at Irving’s Lyceum. He wrote,

"In playing Shakespeare, play to the lines, through the lines, on the lines, but never between the lines – there simply isn’t time. You would not stick a five bar rest into a Beethoven symphony to pick up your drumsticks. Similarly, you must not stop the Shakespeare orchestra for business. Nothing short of a procession or a fight should make anything so extraordinary as a silence during a Shakespeare performance."

It’s great. And from someone who was so rude about Shakespeare too.

CONDREN: We all love Bernard Shaw, but every time I hear his name, I only hear, drumming into my ears, a famous line of his, which is, "Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach!"

Film vs. Theatre. You all have some great credits on both sides. What do you think? Which do you like? Let’s say that your agent calls and says, "I have two offers here. One is for a film, and one is for the theatre." Samantha?

EGGAR: It’s isn’t a choice. It’s the piece that you want to do. Both have such strong merits. I mean nowadays, there are all sorts of merit in every kind of performance.

CONDREN: What about this notion of the theatre as a living thing. Audiences create the play as much as the actors do, or the director. Whereas in film, you’re locked in there. Is that true?

CORNWELL: Personally, I would always do live theatre. I love it, because I love the audience. And if you screw up one night, you can come back until you finally get it right. It’s such a treat. I love film, and I love television. But the number of times I’ve walked onto a set and thought, "There’s only a number of times before we have to get it." But in the theatre, you can say, "Oh God!" And the next night you can fly! And there is nothing like that feeling. It doesn’t happen that often, when you and the audience meet. It’s like a drug, there’s nothing like it.

CONDREN: Tells us about some of the great roles in Shakespeare.

CORNWELL: Well, I did Rosalind when I was 27, and I did that with Trevor Nunn at the Allwich. It was wonderful, because you’re playing Shakespeare’s golden woman. She’s golden. She’s funny and she’s – there’s nothing like it. To contrast that, and do say, an Arthur Miller – A View from the Bridge, which I did in the West End – when that play works, on those nights when the cast and the audience come together – it’s just so exciting. I couldn’t live without it now. It’s funny, because I am here in Los Angeles to do a little television project.

CONDREN: Michael?

YORK: I don’t mean to hog the platform, but there’s a wonderful story about Laurence Olivier that I actually witnessed. I was in his company, the National Theatre in the golden days, when he was leading it. He did a very memorable Othello, which he put on film. Unfortunately, and this is a key thing I mention in the book, he didn’t bring it down. This is why it’s wonderful to look at one thing and then the other. In the theatre, you raise an arm. In a film, you raise an eyebrow to the same effect. And unfortunately, the director on the film didn’t pull it down. His Iago was Frank Findley, who on stage, was absolutely no competition for Olivier. On film, that tiny wonderful performance of someone thinking – leaps out at you.

Anyway, in the theatre one night, there was that magical thing happened that Charlotte described. The audience was thrilled, the hairs were raising on the backs of their necks, and the actors too onstage. And so, when the curtain closed, there was this thunderous burst of applause from the audience, and also onstage. They clapped as Olivier stormed all the way to his dressing room – you could hear him slam the door. Someone got up the courage to go up and knock on the door and ask, "Larry, what’s the matter? Tonight was simply magical, sublime." Olivier shouted back at the door, "Yes, I know I was! But I don’t know how I did it, so how can I do it again?"

And there you have it. I guess that is why we go back. For the pleasure of trying to refine . . .

CORNWELL: I don’t know whether anybody here saw Ian McKellen’s Richard III, and then saw the movie. I think he’s a great actor, and he’s a great friend of mine, so he won’t mind my saying, but I was slightly concerned when I heard he was going to film it. I thought, "Jeez, he’d better pull that back, because it’s quite large." And I was absolutely mesmerized when I saw it on the screen. He had transformed that performance with all the intensity and all the brilliance; he put it on that screen. I thought that that was one of the best I have seen.

CONDREN: Let’s segue into female roles. Now originally, they weren’t played by women. Michael? Isn’t that true?

ALLEN: That’s right. They weren’t played by women. As we all know, they were played by boys until the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II came back and said, "Where are all the actresses?" And they said, "Well actually, we don’t have actresses here in England." And Charles said, "Well, I’m King now, and we’ll have actresses." So they brought over all his French mistresses and they began the tradition of taking these roles!

As you go through the canon of plays – we don’t have enough evidence to do this really well, but there is tantalizing evidence – you can plot the growth and maturation of individual actors. In one place, you can watch a play that has a part for a promising young boy of 13, and then, when he’s 14, you give him a bit more, and then at 15, you can give him some really great stuff. Then at 16, he could be a Cleopatra. Then, at 16 and-a-half, he’s hit puberty (they hit puberty later then), and his voice cracks, and Shakespeare says, "My goodness, I don’t have any actors who do women anymore, I’ll have to write them out of the plays." Until you watch another young boy – come along to play the girl’s parts. You can actually graph the rise to puberty of individual actors.

CORNWELL: It’s interesting that you talk about Cleopatra, because that is a role I would never want to play.


CORNWELL: For me, I think it is such an extraordinary role, I feel that there are very few actresses who are equipped to play it. I think it requires so many elements coming together. I think it’s an incredibly difficult role.

CONDREN: To think that a man originated it!

CORNWELL: I know! When you’re 12, you have a high voice – which makes it easier! But in the canon, I think that Cleopatra is the most challenging role – seldom achieved, really.

CONDREN: It is to women what Lear is to men perhaps?

YORK: I think Shakespeare takes advantage of the fact that very rarely can he actually have his lovers physically making love. Romeo and Juliet is one exception. But even there, she’s up on the balcony, and he’s down here. So the words count for everything. You totally have to seduce whomever with words. Then too, Shakespeare loves a conflict, so you have this marvelous battle of words. There is:

Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name I hear.

Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
They call me Katherine, that do talk of me.

You lie in faith, for you are called plain Kate . . .

And there’s this wonderful pensive logic which is a sort of a substitute, that is – dazzling.

ALLEN: Sir Michael, what happens when you have the Branagh film, and you have Hamlet in bed with Ophelia doing the late 20th Century thing?

YORK: I have a feeling that Shakespeare would have done exactly the same had he had films at his disposal. The plays are like movie scripts. The jump and skip from scene to scene, they’re fast, they’re in close-up, they’re in long-shot. He provides his own sound effects. They’re positively cinematic. The core speeches in Henry V are – just listen to this. He’s making his own movie script, he’s providing the dialogue, and he’s added the sound effects:

Now entertain conjecture of a time,
When creeping murmer and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds;
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch.
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umbered face.
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear; and from the tents,
The armourers accomplishing their knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful notes of preparation.
Proud of their numbers, and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night,
Who like a foul and ugly witch doth limp
So tediously away.
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.

I mean, you don’t need your special effects guy to come in and bang the clock – it’s all there.

ALLEN: I think word-painting is very interesting because, I mean, people of our generation were brought up on word-painting. But the kids now are not word-painters. They are so used to visuals. They’re so used to everything being conveyed visually. They aren’t able to appreciate it, as the older generation is able to do. It’s something that you have to actually train yourself to do. "Don’t look. Listen." And this is a big mountain to climb. I mean, we take it for granted – we all grew up on radio. The incredible dramas inhabited entire worlds on the radio. But kids never listen to radio. Unless it’s for the stock market . . . I’m wondering if this is a real shift in our culture. From the old one where authority and imagination was key, to a culture where everything is visible. You don’t want to listen to the President, you just want to come and see him.

CORNWELL: But you see, my understanding of what Michael just read, – that speech – and what you just said – I think that kids in school don’t know about that kind of writing. When you tell them, they become fascinated by it. Onomonopia and all the things that are used. They’re just not taught it properly.

ALLEN: Isn’t one of the problems that we – all four of us – have authoritative, and therefore authoritarian, accents? If we assume a northern accent, and say,

Tew be, orr not tew be; that iss tha qwes-chun?

In some ways we become much more accessible than if we use The King’s English. Doesn’t The King’s English sometimes get in the way of all this?

YORK: From the moment I came here in the late 60s, I was aware of this strange conception in America. Americans thought that we Brits had a lock on Shakespeare because of the way we sounded. I was always at pains to remind them that – as Samantha pointed out – that the accent of Shakespeare’s day with the Devon "rrrr" crossed over with the settlers and it took root in America. So if you want to hear – and the key word is hear – (the Elizabethans said "That we shall hear a play" not see one), if you want to hear an "authentic" performance, see it here in America! Don’t go see it in Britain, where our accents have gone through this lunatic sound change with our German kings and our whatever. See it here in America, where you have preserved purity!

CORNWELL: When I was in acting school in London, thirty years ago, it was then that regional accents – RADA and the other schools had to get their students out of their regional accents. Thirty years ago, when I was a student, I had a friend who came from Oxfordshire and he taaalked like thaaat. Somehow, he was encouraged to keep that, and he’s a very successful actor. And I have to say that if you go to a Royal Shakespeare Company production, the regional accents are all there. It’s wonderfully, wonderfully rich. Mark Rymands did a wonderful Much Ado About Nothing, and Benedick was from Northern Ireland, and it was wonderful. In fact, I went with Ian McKellen. Ian just sat there at the end and said, "I had the text completely re-opened for me." Hearing Benedick spoken with a Belfast accent. It’s changed so much now.

YORK: Oh yes.

CORNWELL: We would be considered "posh."

CONDREN: I appreciate much of what you are saying. I wonder if we could hear about your attitude toward critics. Do you read critics?

EGGAR: Well, I think that even if people lie, I think they do read the critics. It depends on whether you read them the night after, or whether you wait for "a while." They are a fact of life. Touch wood – I have been sort of lucky, and I’m sure everybody here has been lucky too. The worse thing about critics today are the attacks that they personally make – on women especially, but maybe it’s also on men – on their physical bodies. I think that shouldn’t be allowed. It’s outrageous. You’re quite entitled to talk about the play and the playwright. But to physically attack someone’s body is not correct.

CONDREN: Critics like to think that they keep acting "honest." Do you think that’s true?

CORNWELL: But the critics are so dishonest – most of them. For them to talk about "honesty" I think, is rather unfair of them. They are sort of a necessary irritation to me. I read them only at the end of a run. Except on the one occasion I told you about. I had recently been in a play at the Hampton Theatre Company. The Hampton is a little theatre company, which hangs up all the reviews outside. I came in one night, and there was this review hanging there. Now, I had a line in the play what went,

Henry will never park illegally.

Outside the theatre in huge letters, it said, "Charlotte Cornwell can make a sentence like ‘Henry will never park illegally.’ sound like the war-cry of Clytemnestra." I couldn’t say the line that night! I couldn’t say it. There was another critic who said that; "Cornwell’s Beatrice could sour milk at 400 paces." After that, I gave up on reading them. I only read them at the end.

YORK: Shakespeare of course, came in on the sharp end of critics. They called him an upstart crow with shaksie. I think it was Brendan Bayer who, on behalf of all playwrights and everyone this side of the footlights, who summed it up. He said,

Critics are like eunuchs in the harem. They’re there every night. They see it done every night. They see how it should be done every night! But they can’t do it themselves!

CONDREN: That’s true of academics as well!

ALLEN: Obviously, there are two or three ways of looking at this. Some of the critics get in the cheep shots and the global kicks and the insults. But you know, one of the most important critics that I’ve ever read, is Hamlet. In Act III, Scene II, he comes to the actors and says,

Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you moth it as many of our players do, I had as leif the town crier spoke my lines!

I don’t know how they thought about town cries back then, but I suspect that they regarded them as people who could sour milk at 400 paces!

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

It’s a very powerful critique of the actors of his own time, essentially calling for acting reform. It’s very interesting. So how do you cope with this arch-critic, in the heart of the great masterpiece?

YORK: You’re absolutely right, Michael. There’s this extraordinary thing, where there’s this cheeky young prince telling these professional actors how to do their job. But then you stand back from this, and you take Hamlet, written for Richard Burbage. This extraordinary actor who created all the roles. Behind Burbage, there’s Shakespeare, who is looking – pleading, for a new way of performing his plays. Much more natural, colloquial, fast, light, musical. As opposed to the painted periwiged fellows, who could tear a passion to tatters. You went ‘round the corner to the Fortune Theatre to see Edward Alain’s company do that.

Let it be said that Shakespeare was a great reformer. He was writing unprecedented plays. A new kind of drama that demanded a new kind of actor. It’s wonderful, and there, right in the middle of Hamlet, in this one scene, you see it exemplified.

ALLEN: Hamlet is a conservative, yet he doesn’t want to be one. He likes the tearing of a passion to tatters.

YORK: "Let discretion be your tutor." That’s Shakespeare. He’s willing to work with you.

CONDREN: But couldn’t you read that another way? Isn’t he just railing against bad actors? To encourage bad actors to become better actors?

ALLEN: Yes, but I do think it underscores the role of criticism.

CORNWELL: I’ve always entertained a fantasy that critics should always come back toward the end of the run. One of the things that I’ve always found very difficult is when you’ve put together a performance, and you’ve really put yourself into it. Then they review you next to someone else who did it twelve, twenty years ago.

In my experience, I’ve watched opening nights, when the actors are a bit nervous or whatever. And then you see that same performance three months later, six months later – a year later, because in repertory in the Royal Shakespeare Company, you could be doing a performance for 18 months, and that performance has grown and become unrecognizable. Then you go back and read what the critics said, and you think, "What was he watching?" So I have this fantasy that they should be called back.

CONDREN: Do they come back?


CONDREN: I see! Well, let’s open up the discussion to the audience. Should we do that? Okay.

QUESTION: Yes, I am a theatre director, and I teach the Shakespeare plays to kids, so I appreciate what you said on that. My experience as a young person was reading it off of a page, which I thought was completely boring! In my work with young people, I have discovered that when I engage them with the text on a visceral level, rather than having them reading it to figure out "What does this mean?" we engage them on the level of "How does this feel? What do the words say to you?" That it’s not about, "You’re going to play Prospero, and you’re going to be this banished king." Because they don’t know what that’s about. They may know what it is to have grief, or loss, and they play that.

And so what I propose is that we engage young people on a visceral level, and not in a classroom reading out of a book, I apologize, because that isn’t what the plays were intended for. As Mr. York says, they were intended to be heard. We hear a play, not see a play. Some of the best Shakespeare that I’ve seen is not to be found on Broadway. It’s to be found in the small towns around the country, with people speaking from a very visceral place and in their own dialects and their own accents. I’ve taught at the Hobart School, and it’s some of the most amazing Shakespeare I have ever seen in my life.

GROSSMAN: I’m going to interrupt. I was a student in Professor Allen’s class. We had to read Coriolanus.

ALLEN: You did?

GROSSMAN: We did. And you walked us through the bloodiest parts – do you remember? That there’s all this blood in there? I’ll never forget Coriolanus, because we sat there and this man stood there and read – I’m objecting to the comment about the classroom not being the place for Shakespeare, because a classroom was the only place I would have read Coriolanus, because it really does look pretty boring on paper. And then all of the sudden, it turns out to be the bloodiest, most thrilling thing in the world, and this man basically acted it out in front of us, and we were just rifting out the door!

ALLEN: I was actually wounded at the counter . . .

QUESTION: When you as actors are preparing for a Shakespearean role, what are some of the key things that you feel are the most important in that process?

CORNWELL: You mean in rehearsal or the night of performance?


CORNWELL: When in performance, I’ll require half an hour of silence before I go on. In rehearsal, I try and throw out every inhibition I have. I don’t actually approach it any different than when I am doing a contemporary play.

YORK: Charlotte mentioned this earlier. Before you go on, you have to make sure you know what those words mean. I know that there have been changes over the 400 years, but they haven’t changed all that much. And the great thing about Shakespeare is that his poetry is not highfalutin, like Christopher Marlow, whose poems contain subconsciously and rather humorless poetic words. Shakespeare is very simple. Yes, there are some things that change. We don’t hunt very much anymore, so we don’t know a jess is, and things like that. We don’t have fardels.

But you have to first set out to see what these words are, and what they’re doing. Why he uses certain metaphors. Why prose and not verse? All of these things. This is making your way into it. You need a good text. The Arden is wonderful, but you can’t rehearse with it. The new Penguin, you can carry around with you.

Performing, goodness. In a movie, you know that you’re not going to be able to go back and do it again. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. You’re always shooting the end of the movie first, and that’s great, because that means that you have to think your whole way through it. "If I have a chance to this here, then I won’t do that there." It means you do your homework. And then you hope for the best. A film has its organic life, it’s wonderful. It’s a challenge. It’s never the same, it’s always different. And it’s the same with a Shakespeare performance. It’s always different, because he is that kind of writer. He is not demanding that you jump through a hoop and give a definitive performance.

He says, "Listen, let’s do this. I’ll give you this situation, and some pretty good lines, but I need your help. Join with me, and let’s see where we end up." That’s why the performance is always fresh, it’s always different, it’s always relevant, and that’s why we do it today. There’s nothing old-fashioned or irrelevant about him. It’s completely fresh – and it’s still box-office.

QUESTION: It seems to me that so often, performance is compromised or language is compromised. When I see a performance, I think that I wanted to hear it, and it’s gone, so I don’t know. Is there a compromise you make between the subtlety of the staging and the understanding of the language?

YORK: This is a problem that we address. Shakespeare is a practical playwright. He writes in two’s. He loves this ambiguity. He gives you two words, so that if somebody coughs, and you miss it, he’ll give you another. Plays begin with a bag: Two lovers come on quarreling – Bam! Bam! Bam! He’s got your attention. Then you settle down. . . Very, very practical. He’ll give the lead the fourth act off. If you’re playing one of the great roles, you get time off to catch your breath, so you have something left for the Act V Finale!

Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to listen anymore. The French are much better.

CORNWELL: There’s also a very basic actor’s note. If you intend to be heard, you will be heard. That is a very basic – it’s lesson one.

ALLEN: But there is a problem. You see the full effect in the Branagh film of Hamlet at four-and-a-half hours. Except for Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors, all the other plays take at least three, sometimes three-and-a-half hours. You have an extraordinary problem. Here is our very greatest dramatist writing scripts that are a third too long for the available playing time. He speaks of two hours of traffic on the stage and three hours of traffic – somewhere between two and three hours – but virtually none of his plays can be reasonably performed in under three-and-a-half to four hours. And this is a problem.

So did he, from the beginning, anticipate that people would cut it? Or that there would be different versions in different places? Or did he just, out of exuberance of spirit, write more than the actors could possible deal with, and that it would remain perpetually fascinating? There seems to me to be no single way out of this amazing problem. The texts are a third too long – except for The Comedy of Errors.

QUESTION: I would like to ask a question about the synergy between the actor and the director. I am a self-confessed Academic, so let’s get that out of the way! Over the last two nights, I watched Olivier’s Shylock, and the PBS Shylock with Warren Mitchell, and it’s like barely watching the same play. What interests me, is that Jonathan Miller, as producer and director, talks about having spent weeks convincing Larry not to use a nose, and about giving up the Semitic overbite that Larry had spent thousands and thousands of pounds on dentures. What, in the final production, is the input of the directors’ and what is the actors’? How much will a director let you get away with? How much will a director insist on his point of view, and where does the twain meet?

CORNWELL: Having worked with Jonathan Miller, I can tell you that Jonathan likes to play all the parts himself. So that probably explains that one. He’s a wonderful director. He’s a terribly exciting person. If you are working for a director that you have worked with before, it’s wonderful, because then, you develop a kind of shorthand – you know exactly what that person wants, because you have this intense relationship.

But I think that it can be a rather sad experience. It depends on how flexible both of you are prepared to be. Sometimes when, and I’m sure that I had my part in it, there are times when I’m having a miserable time because of what the director has wanted to impose what he or she has wanted to do. Or they haven’t given me the freedom that I felt I wanted or needed. For me, it tends to be potluck, unless it’s someone I’ve worked with a lot.

QUESTION: Mr. York, how did it work with Franco Zeffirelli?

YORK: It worked very well! I think that the reason why it worked was that Zeffirelli has this extraordinary ability to bring out the Italian quality of the Italian plays. At the same time, working with Anglo-Saxons, we were able to tamp down his slightly operatic excess. We were able to achieve a balance. Of course with Zeffirelli, you’re dealing with an incredible visual eye. I don’t know if any of you have seem his films of Romeo and Juliet or The Taming of the Shrew, but all of those extras that you saw in the picture, were photographed beforehand and arranged in his camera like an old master. It wasn’t accidental. So visually, you’re dealing with something superb. But the key thing was also to reminding you that the words are doing everything for you. Shakespeare’s words are even supplying the pictures, and this is what every director – I don’t care if you do Romeo and Juliet on motorbikes or a swimming pool or whatever – you need to be hearing those words.

In this country there is a great acting tradition based on Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky has been badly translated and misunderstood. Lee Strasberg took Stanislavsky and made a "Method" out of it, and then he changed his mind . . . This "emotional recollection" is totally useless for Shakespeare. So we find ourselves working with directors who are cracking the whip and my technique is to say, "I absolutely love your idea, and then you just get on with it.

QUESTION: I wonder if Professor Allen could recount a 16th Century conception of "patience," and what that means. Because when you say, "To be or not to be" the idea of "patience" is to take action or not to take action. Many people think the line is about suicide, which is a 20th Century concept of the word. So a lot of what gets in the way is not having an understanding of a 16th Century definition of the words that we use today and how they have changed.

CONDREN: Let’s ask Michael Allen. Has the concept of "patience" changed from the 16th Century to now?

ALLEN: I’m a little at a loss for that one. I do think that it’s an interesting question. To go back to what Michael York was saying about Shakespeare being "direct" and "accessible" well, he is. But he’s also an incredible eruditionist, where you have him using extraordinary words like "incarnidine" and so on. He’s responsible for actually bringing bring into the English language thousands of new words. One of the reasons the Elizabethans loved him was that he was a wordsmith. They went to hear highfalutin, orotund, rhetorically dazzling, and totally unintelligible material mixed in with this direct, "Oh my God, I understood that!" It’s an amazing shift of registers from the immediate to the, "My God! Where did that come from?"

We still hang on to the Elizabethan sense of the word "patience" when we go to the "patient’s" ward of the hospital. Where people suffer.

QUESTION: When you are playing a villain, is it any different than when you are playing one of Shakespeare’s Heroes? Getting into the mind of the character.

YORK: That’s a very good question. You’ve hit on a key Shakespearean thing here. There are always the mighty opposites. It’s very difficult and very dangerous to take a moral stand. If you look at Lady Macbeth as a monster, or Richard II as a good king . . . Usually they have both going on inside them. There’s this tremendous duality that runs throughout his writing. Even the way the verse is structured, it often takes on the sonnet form. This is a wonderful exercise to learn Shakespeare. You have on the one hand "A" therefore "B" and therefore, the conclusion "C" thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

In the same way, the characters are always the mighty opposites. Hamlet – he can be a bloody villain, and he can act too. Othello. This majestic, noble, prince-like warrior, is also a barbaric slaughterer, worse than Caliban. And that’s what’s so fascinating! If you want to be Prospero, you also have to be Caliban. The villain’s are always – interesting, because well, the Devil has the best tunes. These villains are so human, even Iago, they have this malignity for a motivation. This is what makes then human, because Shakespeare is fascinated with what makes people tick. And he has the same preoccupations as we have. How we can’t sleep at night and how do we fall in love and so on.

CONDREN: Not only does the Devil have all the best tunes, but we recognize them in the mirror every morning!

QUESTION: What do you think of Harold Bloom’s theory regarding Shakespeare as being the inventor of the "human being" – at least in literature?

CONDREN: Well, there actually were human beings before Shakespeare.

ALLEN: This is an Academic game that we’ve been playing for a half-century. When do we see the emergence of modern consciousness or the modern notion of autonomy? Did it start off with Nietzsche, and then you go back to Milton, and then you go back to Shakespeare? Then Chaucer, and back to Sophocles, and now we have definite proof, that it was a Frenchman in a Cro-Magnon wig!

QUESTION: When you are performing Shakespeare, you say that the action is in the words. Should we simply stand and deliver? Or do we break up monologues and scenes, or should there also be action to accompany the words?

EGGAR: When you talk about standing, the first play I ever did was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tony Richardson, at the Royal Court. Tony told me to play Titania like Brigette Bardot. I thought about that, and then I thought, "Why not?" We rehearsed at a theatre called the Comedy Theatre, and he made us all lie on the ground. Every time we had to move, we had to roll over the other actor! So there are many ways to do Shakespeare!

QUESTION: I have a question about emotional recall. When you are playing Lady Macbeth, and you have to play "the act" could you talk about the emotional preparation?

CONDREN: You mean, if you’ve never killed a person, how can you play this murder scene? Isn’t it Stanislavsky who said, "Yes, but you’ve killed a fly."

YORK: This is a key point. Who of us have met our dead father’s ghost? What emotional recall are we to use for that? Chorus says,

Your imaginative forces at work

And he is talking to the actors as well as to the audience. My book has a nod to Stanislavsky in the title, A Shakespearean Actor Prepares. Deliberately, because Stanislavsky, like Shakespeare, was a reformer, dealing with the horrendous acting of his era. Trying to get these runaway Russian actors, these turgid, unnaturalistic actors and putting bridles on them – just the way Shakespeare would do it. Codifying acting. I think the key to this is that what Stanislavsky wrote doesn’t work for Shakespeare, because there is no subtext. Someone comes on and says, "I am going to dissemble." He’s quite honest and quite open. In Chekhov, someone says, "I can’t find my galoshes," and it means that, "I hate my life in provincial wherever."

CONDREN: One last question.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask the panel; there’s very strong evidence to suggest that William Shakespeare never wrote any of the plays attributed to him. Some of the most recent stories center around a certain Earl of Oxford, who lived in Shakespeare’s time, when it was not proper for a member of the aristocracy to be indulging in the arts. The Earl of Oxford had many of the experiences the "so-called Shakespeare" wrote about. How much truth does the panel feel there is in any of this?

QUESTION: There is a lot of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare wrote the plays, and no evidence that Oxford wrote them. Oxford had the misfortune of dying halfway through the canon, so that means that he could have written everything up through and including Hamlet, and after that, you have to find somebody else who wrote everything from Hamlet on. Unless you have a conspiracy theory! Once you have a conspiracy theory, we could be here until the cows come home.

We actually know an awful lot about Shakespeare, but unfortunately, what we know about him are his gas bills, his litigation, the property disputes, the amount of money he loaned Stratfordians at the same rate as Shylock charged. What we don’t have is the wonderful, poetic, colorful memoirs that say, "I read Coldridge, and then I went Nietzsche, and then eventually I ended up as Shakespeare."

YORK: There is something profoundly wrong with that. Why don’t we have those papers? What we have are four, crude signatures. And all this supposition that he probably was educated in the Stratford grammar school, because Shakespeare was educated there – it doesn’t add up. Actors over the generations, Orson Welles, Mark Twain, think there is something fundamentally wrong here. Yes, he was someone writing for the theatre, and for my money, the Earl of Oxford fits the bill exactly! A great aristocratic prince, someone who was a genius, his early writing is indistinguishable from the "so-called early" writings of Shakespeare, his metamorphoses, which is a key – all these things.

ALLEN: You’re quite right to go with Oxford. He’s the best candidate, because you can’t go with any other, like Marlow, because you’ve got existing works, which are totally incompatible with Shakespeare! The great thing about Oxford is that there’s nothing!

CORNWELL: I couldn’t give a toss who wrote what! I was fortunate enough to know, later in his life, Graham Greene. After he died, a biography appeared, which I thought was quite horrible, actually. And I thought, "What does it matter? Read the man’s books, and you will learn everything there is to know about the man – in those books." You will learn all there is to know about whoever wrote those plays – when you read the canon. We don’t need to know who wrote it.

CONDREN: Andrea? I hope you are taking notes for another WritersBloc on what we were just about to go into here. How appropriate then, to listen to some actual words from Shakespeare. What is this then?

EGGAR: This is Prospero. From The Tempest.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors.
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which we inherit, shall dissolve,
And like the insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


——transcribed and edited by Kurt Wahlner

Copyright © Writers Bloc