Mangling The Spaces

Everyone here has done it: it’s the natural thing to do when you read poetry – or anything sufficiently like poetry. You come to the end of the line, and you pause.

In a lot of poetry, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Limericks would never have the impact they do (or be as memorable) if the basic rhythm of the form didn’t practically enforce a pause at the end of each line. Of course, the pause also works rather well to highlight what’s usually a punch line in the final line (and with the limericks I know, usually a double entendre or something worse).

With other poetry, especially the likes of Shakespeare, it doesn’t work so well.

The example that comes to mind for me is the opening of Richard III – I saw Antony Sher’s iconic performance (Anyone who is interested in acting, building a character, and how he built that role and made it his should search out Year of the King by Antony Sher – it’s well worth the read). He talks about the famous opening line: “Now is the winter of our discontent” and how nobody understands it – because we read it and pause.

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” Pause, take breath. “Made glorious summer by this son of York”. Even though spoken by the same character, it comes across as two separate thoughts, neither of which stands alone.

On the other claw, if you remove that line break and the pause that goes with it because it’s a deliberate line break (part of the mostly iambic pentameter with variations that Shakespeare used so often and well – not least because when well-written it simply flows), you get a full sentence that actually makes sense.

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Sher spends a fair amount of time on this because it’s one of the iconic openings – not least because (as I recall from the book) the movie of the play with Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III was so bloody iconic – and because it’s the kind of thing that can make or break a performance. Do it well, and the rest will flow. Muff it, and you’ve got something that’s at best mediocre.

Not helped by theatrical folks being possibly even more superstitious than some writers can get (incidentally – high stakes plus low control over the outcome will always generate superstition. When you can give the best performance of your life and the rest of the thing is a complete shit show, or you can produce a gem that gets sunk by screwed up anti-marketing, you’re going to get a whole lot of superstitious folks in that field). A lot of the lore about Macbeth falls under that, although I’ve got to say Sher’s cursed run of “the Scottish play” gives plenty of reason to wonder if the actors have it right.

So, he wrote a lot about different ways to handle the opening, to differentiate his performance from a “normal” performance, and how he tried a variety of different ways to speak it, varying the emphasis and the pacing of the words.

In the end, he went for a conversational tone, as though what he said was simple common knowledge that everyone who heard him would completely agree with – and it worked. Brilliantly.

The use of the crutches was by then well known – Sher’s performance in the play had been half way around the world in something like six months by the time it ran in Brisbane – but the impact of seeing it in the theater was… phenomenal.

The lights came up with Richard sitting on a low wall or bench. He started speaking as though he was in the middle of a conversation with someone off-stage, just chatting… And then he moved. And the way he used those crutches it really was reminiscent of a spider. They’d become extensions of his own arms, and completely shifted the frame of reference. I’d swear everyone in the audience held their breath at that moment.

That was a masterful performance. It cost me a week’s income and happened the night before an exam – but it was worth everything. With simple but well-thought out props and acting, Antony Sher became the clever, conniving last king of the Wars of the Roses. And a lot of the way he did it came down to looking at the spaces between common assumptions and how he could twist them into the image he wanted.

We can do that too – although I freely admit I’m nowhere near good enough at my craft to do anything like that with the written word. Yet.

(Today’s cat photo is Buttercup on her scratching thingy – which is going to be replaced soon because she’s so enthusiastic about using it and needs a new one)

13 comments

  1. Got to see James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer in Othello on Broadway. The moment that stands out for me was Plummer as Iago (of course) talking quite matter of factly about what he was going to do to destroy Othello, obviously looking forward to the pleasure he would get out of it, and quite suddenly making it plain he was speaking to us, inviting us to join his fun. Change of body language, change of tone, and the audience realized we were being offered the chance to be Iago’s accomplices. It got very quiet in the theater.

    1. Oh, that would have been awesome. Moments like that are rare – it’s a privilege to be part of them.

  2. incidentally – high stakes plus low control over the outcome will always generate superstition

    This sounds useful…

    ::takes note::

    1. It’s something that’s well worth knowing. And at times reminding yourself of. Frequently.

  3. So, what’s the difference between a comma and a cat? One is a pause at the end of a clause, the other has claws at the end of its paws.

  4. The Pledge of Allegiance has a similar problem because if the way kids are taught it, with a pause after “Flag”. And libs who criticize it over this (“How do you pledge allegiance to a FLAG?!”) take advantage of the misunderstanding that pause introduces.

    1. I wonder whether that has something to do with my attitude.

      The way that I was taught it (which is not the “official” way, much less the one prescribed by the Socialist that wrote the first version) goes: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

      Two sentences, four short pause commas (the extra one between “nation” and “God” is where my instruction deviated).

      Fun fact – until WW2, the prescribed gestures were for all persons to begin by performing the military salute, then extend their right arms, with the palm down, towards the Flag when starting the phrase “to the Flag.” Yah. THAT got changed in a hurry!

      1. Ooh, that military salute thing would have changed really fast around then. Can’t have anything that might remind people of the enemy, after all. They might get the wrong idea.

    2. Pretty much, yeah. That pause after “Flag” mentally separates the Flag from the United States of America, which in turn makes it harder to recognize that the pledge is to the flag as proxy for the nation.

      Of course, I also think the “under God” breaks up the important part about “One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – which is a damn fine thing to aim for even if, being human, we’re probably not going to get it right. (I also see religion as a private matter between each individual and their deity, and do not appreciate having someone else’s idea of righteousness shoved down my throat. My lifespan in certain locations would be short and very unpleasant).

      1. When you say the pledge in Spanish (as one of my Spanish teachers required us to learn how to do), it flows more naturally. “Prometo fidelidad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America. [pause for breath] Y a la republica que representa bajo Dios con libertad y justicia para todos.”

      2. Back in the Pleistocene, when I was a kid in California, the “under God” part wasn’t there. Rumor has it, that was added because we weren’t the Godless Communists, but that may be an urban myth.

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