Speaking the Speech

When American grit met Shakespeare, it brought the Bard to life.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

It was the stigma of being considered a “blue-jeaned slobbermouth” that drove Marlon Brando to bellow himself hoarse in an Omaha cornfield. Woodshedding for the role of Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brando was urged by his mother to do classical (read: respectable) work. He joined a largely British cast—including veterans John Gielgud and James Mason—with enough Shakespeare experience to have Brando shaking in his boots.

His was the plight of the American actor with impostor syndrome: Ill-prepared by an education that stresses the sciences, sports, and quantifiable skills, coupled with the hazing inherent in junior-high-school round-robin readings of Romeo & Juliet, American actors find themselves howling in a proverbial cornfield when confronted with blank verse.

They’ve been prepared to bare their most raw emotions, gnash their teeth, and curse madly, but the depth of verbal soul-power required to “speak Shakespeare” is often underdeveloped. (The exceptions are those kids who grow up freestyling and reciting intellectual strains of hip-hop, an art rarely taught in schools, but one that prepares actors at an early age to deliver the speech.) American actors and audiences, then, often approach the most-performed plays in the world as if they’re written in Esperanto.

And yet…those poised British actors struggle with the street-fight style that American actors learn playing Sam Shepard, Lynn Nottage, and Arthur Miller and watching Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, and Girls. We bring an emotional muscle to the words at which those pretty talkers marvel.

Acting Shakespeare’s plays requires a sense of poetic weight to tickle the frontal cortex and a brawn to work the gut. It should look easy and hit hard. The Brits are masters of keeping the ball in the air on feverish rising inflections, whereas here we ground every sentence with a turgid “dying fall.” I spend a lot of time reminding my students at Duke that the argument hasn’t ended just because the line has. Keep setting up the shot, I tell them, and only take it when you’re sure you’ll kill with it. Once freed from their linguistic shackles, American students can use their natural swagger and optimism to full effect.   

Yet American actors (spoken-word artists excepted) still fear unfettered language that sounds like what it represents. We’re taught to administer direct statements of fact rather than debate a point with ourselves. The twin pillars of Shakespeare’s language are that each word contains an aural hieroglyphic of what it stands for as well as its own antithesis.  “To be or not to be” is not just a question. It’s an accidental, college-aged detective’s tactic to shake a murderous suspect off his trail. You can’t just belt it out like a Broadway song and expect the audience to feel the waves of meaning nested within it.

As for Brando in Julius Caesar: He’s the best thing in it.

Mason and Gielgud are transmitting from a mannered stage somewhere in the West End, while Brando is like a dockworker between two gangsters in a black sedan. He brings the raw psychology of twentieth-century acting to the politic Antony while holding his own with the text.

Ironically, he asked Gielgud to record his part for him and learned the inflection and cadence through imitating the more seasoned actor. His method would be frowned upon by purists, but a genius like Brando never held much regard for acting rules. Instead, he overcame a Nebraskan education during which more time was spent milking cows than reciting Shakespeare. And so he united rhetorical eloquence with homegrown gumption.

O’Berski teaches acting, improv, Shakespeare and Black Theater Workshop at Duke and teaches acting in China and Africa with Incubator International Actor Training.