25 September 2017

I’ve been working on my discography of the Adès label – and, as usual, buying some (preferably) cheap CDs from the label along the way. One of those is not music but theatre – one of Adès’ points of focus was spoken word, and some of their recordings have been brought back to CD, not always easy to find, and of course not listed on the customary classical music websites where I find some of my information. So I went ahead and bought a recording of Racine’s Phèdre, given by the Compagnie Marie Bell in 1965 – a very parochial French taste, that: Shakespeare is universal, you don’t need to be an English native to enjoy Orson Welles’ Othello or Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, but I don’t think Racine travels well. In fact, I don’t think Racine travels well even in France, these days…. French classical theatre (“le théâtre classique”, 17th Century theatre, in the age of Louis the 13th and Louis the 14th, the heydays of that art form), and the alexandrine used to be an essential element of French cultural identity, together with the baguette, camembert, wine, congés payés, the baccalaureat and the left-right political polarization (but the beret never was, only in Hollywood movies). Now, for the alexandrine at least, no more. For the younger generations, this is old, dusty, boring stuff… Even theatre people, actors and directors, find Racine, Corneille and the alexandrine verse boring…

Well (and I must face what it says about my age….), one of my pet centers of interest, other than classical music, is French classical theatre and the diction of the alexandrine verse. The “alexandrin”, or 12-syllable verse, is a poetic form straight-jacketed with rules, most of them, seen today, entirely arbitrary (but they weren’t considered so at the time), and most of them ignored today, even by the theatre people, actors and directors.

But it is my contention that if French classical theatre and the diction of the alexandrine verse sound boring to contemporary audiences and even to the theatre people of today, it is not because of those rules, but because they are ignored. I contend that the aim of the actor should not be to try and dodge the rules and declaim the alexandrine as if it were contemporary prose (that never works), but to so master the rules that they will become entirely natural to him, and being natural to him, he will convey to his audience a sense of complete naturalness of that language, however strange and alien it may seem. Badly declaimed, by people who don’t know what they are doing, the alexandrine can be, indeed, terribly boring. But delivered with complete mastery and understanding of the rules, I claim that it becomes elegant, poetic, and beautiful. And after all, our daily, contemporary language is also straight-jacketed with rules! Rules of construction, syntax, grammar, pronunciation. Try learning a foreign language, and you’ll know! Only, these rules are so natural to us, that we don’t perceive them as constraining rules any more. It is my credo then that an actor should not, so to speak, try to “lower” the alexandrine to the level of day-to-day prose, but elevate himself to the demands of the alexandrine. He should not try to dodge the difficulties and discipline of the alexandrine for sake of “liberty”, but find his liberty in the strictest discipline.

Needless to say, I’ve rarely heard the alexandrine delivered in a manner that gave me satisfaction, if ever…

That said, there are many parallels between the diction of the alexandrine and the interpretation of music, and it is probably not coincidental if I have a passion for both. A score of music is also an extremely constraining and straight-jacketing thing. The composer orders you to play certain notes, certain rhythms, certain tempos, certain dynamics. But perfomers of classical music are trained, not to dodge the difficulties, not to slow down the tempo when there are many notes to play and accelerate when there are no technical hurdles, not to smear their runs, not to play just according to “feeling” and “instinct”, but to pay close respect to the score, to be expressive and find their liberty on the basis of close adherence to the score, not against it.

Arthur Schnabel was once asked (not exact quote, speaking from memory) if he was of the school that considered important to play in time, or among those who played according to feeling. To which he responded: “why couldn’t one feel in time?”. That’s my ideal of the music performer, liberty not at the expense of discipline, but within discipline and thanks to discipline.

And another aspect where music could teach a lot to actors in the art of declaiming the alexandrine, is the art of phrasing. One reason why classical theatre often sounds boring is that actors declaim it very mechanically and monotonously, in a simplistic 12/8 triple-meter in which all twelve syllabes are given equal value. But there are so many phrases you can build within a 12/8 bar! Singers, instruentalists are trained to do that. Classical music should be mandatory in theatre schools.

Anyway, with all that, Phèdre is such a parochially French interest that this is the one review I wrote in French. For readers not familiar with the language, suffice to say that, on all these counts and some others as well, that 1965 performance of Phèdre does not give satisfaction.

Comments are welcome