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Why Cockney? An actor's complaint.

From the Green Room: Speaking Like Brits

We are three weeks into rehearsal for the Actor’s Civic Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol, and I am taking a break from the British accent CD I should be listening to. At last night’s rehearsal, a dialect coach appeared and gave us some helpful hints on how to speak like 19th century English gentry; tonight he’ll be back to help those of us who are going to attack Cockney. I have the good fortune to be dealing with both. In the first act of this production I play Marley’s ghost, portrayed as an upper class ghost in this production. In the second act, I turn into Old Joe, the rag man who buys the stolen property from Scrooge’s death bed. He is about as slimy as can be, and sliminess in Englishmen is, as often as not, signified by a heavy Cockney accent.

Now, while my upper class British accent needs some fine tuning, it can pass. The Cockney, on the other hand, is a complete joke. I seem to be all over the place. I can drop my ‘aitches’ like a veritable Eliza Doolittle; I can even get rid of the “t’s” in words like better and button, substituting some sort of glottal grunt. Some of the words, however, torture me: sugar tongs, blankets, teaspoons. But even more important, when the words are all strung together sometimes they come out Cockney, sometimes something that smacks of Southern Baptist, sometimes hybrid Brooklyn (my natural accent, being Brooklyn born and bred), sometimes Scotch with a smidgeon of nasal Eastern European. The rhythms of the line are all wrong. I can’t seem to wrap my tongue around the phrasing. Besides, whenever it seems to be going well, if that ever happens, no one can understand a word of what I’m saying. My Cockney accent is a joke.

I should no doubt have my ear glued to the dialect CD. I should be practicing getting the sounds from the back of mouth where, according to our dialect coach, Cockney lives. Unfortunately, Cockney doesn’t seem to live in the back of the particular mouth residing on the front of my face, or if it does, it is clearly on life support. All I can think of are all the critical reviews I’ve read about actors, sometimes very good actors, butchering British accents. I can hear the snickering now.

“Keep at it; keep practicing.” I can hear the soothing voice of the dialect coach, a nice, gentle sort of man. “You’re getting better. I can hear the difference, already.” “You’ll be fine,” adds the director, a believer in positive reinforcement. The trouble is I too can hear what I sound like, and it isn’t pretty. All I keep thinking is Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Perhaps it’s begging the question, but wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the accent altogether, rather than make fools of ourselves (I am not the only one struggling) in the vain attempt to sound like Bob Hoskins?

Why do 19th century Englishmen have to sound like Englishmen? While it seems absurd to even ask this question, hold on for a minute. Think about it. The 19th century French men in the highly acclaimed Les Miz don’t speak in French accents. In fact they speak is beautiful British accents, and the master of the ‘ouse has a Cockney “to die for.” I remember reviewers of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie pointing out that his American accent was less jarring than other actors playing Germans with their British accents. Surely a good accent is valuable; if nothing else it helps in the creation of verisimilitude. But clearly, a bad accent does nothing but destroy.

The obvious answer here is to cast actors who can do the accents, if the accents are in fact essential. While that may well solve the problem in any particular production, it doesn’t really deal with what may be the more central aesthetic question. To accent, or not to accent: that is the question. I recently was in a play about some older Italian immigrants for the third time; we didn’t use Italian accents. The first time I did the play we all used Italian accents. The second time, none of us used them. None of the audiences seemed to care. None of the audiences seemed to notice. How should the actors in Othello speak? Romeo and Juliet? What if you were producing Moli`re or Cyrano de Bergerac? I don’t know that Jose Ferrer would have been any better if he sounded like Peter Sellers doing Jacques Clouseau. It is certainly something to think about.

On the other hand, it may just be the sour grapes of someone simply trying to avoid going back to the dialect CD. Repeat after me: “The rain in…” Where is Stewie Griffin when you need him?

About Jack Goodstein

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