Speaking Shaw’s Words

SPEAKING SHAW’S WORDS

by David Schurmann

His observations were edited by ISS member Bob Gaines and re-edited by Mr. Schurmann.

The principal difficulty in performing Shaw is the language. The long speeches are so dense, the language so layered and nuanced that there’s the pitfall that the speeches become pedantic. No audience wants to be lectured, instead the trick is to make the speeches sound as conversational as possible and there are ways to achieve this. While the actor delivering the lines may have blocking (movement) that might take her/him anywhere on stage, the actor must maintain a strong relationship with the person being addressed. Next, the speech must not be broken up into sections, but rather the actor must know from the start of the speech where it is going and drive it home to its conclusion. Breaking it up into separate sections destroys the drive, the through-line of the speech. That said of course Shaw, in these long speeches, goes on all kinds of side tracks and seeming diversions, all of which however are connected to the main thrust of his argument and the actor must bear this in mind at all times and not allow himself to become side-tracked.  This can be done by purely technical means such as taking breaths, pausing, changing intonation, or emphasis, but they are not and should not be seen as separate thoughts. While every  phrase needs to have  the feeling of a completely new thought springing to mind at that instant it must still be delivered in such a way that the integrity of the speech as a whole is maintained, each new thought is prompted by the one before and piles on top of it.

Keeping the speeches conversational accomplishes several important goals for the actor. First, the speech can be delivered at a good clip which helps the actor because an audience can think faster than any actor can speak. Hence speed in delivery does not allow the audience to get ahead of the actor. An actor who adopts a pedantic and/or preachy delivery, rather than a conversational one allows the audience to reach its conclusions before the actor has made his point and thus making the actor’s continued presentation redundant, and contributing to the notion in many audiences’ minds that Shaw is boring.

In terms of the technical delivery of Shaw’s speeches the trick is in the degree of passion that the character feels for his/her subject. The more passionately committed the characters are to their subject the more that passion will inform how the lines and speeches are delivered. When the actor can convey that what his/her character is saying at any given moment is of vital importance and must absolutely be said at that precise moment so as to be understood that produces a sense of urgency and an imperative that an audience will readily pick up and is the best way of maintaining their interest and participation in the performance. Christopher Newton (Artistic Director Emeritus at the Shaw Festival) used to say “look for the sex” and he wasn’t being frivolous. There is a very strong sexual dynamic which runs through so many of the plays from “The Philanderer” to “Man and Superman”, to “Pygmalion” to “Heartbreak House” and if the actors can explore that aspect of their onstage relationships it also makes for a deeper and more complex and more fully rounded realization of the characters and the situations and gives the audience another hook to grasp on to.

Another pitfall is the “shopping list” that sometimes occurs in the middle of a speech or series of speeches. Again, like the seemingly diversionary asides that occur in the big speeches they form an integral part of the whole and must be incorporated into the speech so that they too become part of the “conversation” and not merely a recited list of items.

By way of an example of what we’ve been discussing let’s look at the last couple of pages of Village Wooing.[1] A, a man, is addressing Z, a woman. They have been carrying on a flirtation over the course of two previous scenes driven primarily by Z the woman responding to the imperatives of the Life Force and finally A has succumbed to the inevitable and declares his feelings, but in a very circumspect fashion. He begins with reference to the immediate physical senses that surround them, smells, sights, sounds as provided by the items in the village shop and its setting, and he gradually moves into the realm of the metaphysical: “we shall light up for one another a lamp in the holy of holies, the  temple of life; and the lamp will make its veil transparent”, and from there to the celestial realm, “aimless lumps of  stone blundering through space will become stars singing in their spheres. Our dull purposeless physical existence will become one irresistible purpose and nothing else.” and then to the life force,”…and when the moment comes, the world of the senses will vanish; and for us there will be nothing ridiculous, nothing uncomfortable, nothing unclean. Nothing but pure paradise,”   before arriving back where he started with the physical realm, “…tell the rector’s wife we got in some prime artichokes.”

It’s a hugely difficult and complex speech and seemingly comes out of nowhere so the actor must never lose sight of the overall arc of the speech from its mundane beginning through the soaring imagery and ideas that it encompasses at its climax and then an almost abrupt crash back to earth with the artichokes line, while at the same time the character reaches a point of transcendence followed by the rapid return to mundanity. It is in short a very sexual and climactic speech which the actor is well served to remember and convey.

[1] Shaw, Bernard. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw Collected Plays with their Prefaces, edited by Dan Lawrence, Vol.  6, Village Wooing, London: Max Rinehart, 1973, pp. 567-570.

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2 Responses to Speaking Shaw’s Words

  1. Long a fan of actor David Schurmann, I find in this an explanation of why he is so successful in his acting of Shaw

  2. Christopher Wixson says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post — I too am a longtime admirer of Mr. Schurmann’s stage work. Since I teach mainly English majors with essentially no theatrical experience at all, I will direct my students here to help give them a sense of the ways in which practitioners navigate Shaw’s verbal currents. Since they find it incredibly illuminating and useful to participate in classroom performance activities when studying Shakespeare, I wonder if I might solicit some assistance along those lines with Shaw. Can anyone recommend a specific theatrical exercise or a certain piece of Shavian text that might give non-actor university students an opportunity to experiment approaching the language as artists do? Thanks in advance for any assistance!

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