Language Origins and Performing The Role
An exercise for actors, directors and playwrights
In my book, The Tao of Acting, I mention how language origin theories can aid the actor in the performance of his role. The following exercise is intended to improve the interpretive intonation and pantomimic dramatization of the actor by applying the onomatopoetic and yo-heave-ho theories of language origin to performing a speech.
The onomatopoetic theory says that language developed as a result of man imitating the sounds that he heard. It is a short a stretch from there to reading lines with meaning by exaggerating the meaning of individual words by making them sound like what they mean. Added to that in this speech is the help the descriptive meaning word or phrase that introduces each comment gives too the interpretative intonation. The descriptive words are part of the speech and should be read using the onomatopoetic theory also, then make the sentence following sound like what the introductory descriptive word means by making each word sound like its meaning.
The yo-heave-ho theory says that language developed as a result of man imitating vocally the actions he witnessed. At the same time as doing the onomatopoetic interpretation of the lines, act out with gestures the yo-heave-ho action implied by each word and the meaning of the entire line. Look up the meaning of any words you do not know. Then use your imagination to discover how every word, not just the introductory ones, might be onomatopoetic and how you might pantomime the implied or virtual action of each word, and perform the speech that way. You will also discover that the language origin approach to the line helps you remember it and contributes to learning your lines quickly.
While this is part of a single speech by Cyranno in the play, I have added spacing between the descriptions for purposes of this exercise.
Directors, as well as actors, must be aware of these techniques. The playwright translates the entire action of the play into the words of the dialogue. The playwright creates this special language that tells the story of the play not just in words but also in the actions that the words represent. The playwriting process is to first tell the story in the form of action, making a list of what happens from the beginning to the end of the play. Then the playwright translates that action into the dialogue of the script. The yo-heave-ho interpretation of the dialogue then recreates the action of the play which the actors do while saying the lines.
Finally, I must add that this approach does not interfere with the “no acting” approach of The Tao. When fully understood by the actor, the application of language origin theories to his reading becomes part of (and even enhances) the instantaneous response to the stimuli that causes the character to say the line and is done instinctively without planning.
Aggressive: I, sir, if that nose were mine, I’d have it amputated on the spot.
Friendly: How do you drink with such a nose? You ought to have a cup made specially.
Descriptive: ‘Tis a rock, a cape, a craig--a craig? Say rather a peninsula.
Inquisitive: What is that receptacle? A razor case, or a portfolio?
Kindly: Ah, do you love the little birds so much that when they come to sing to you, you give them this to perch on?
Insolent: Sir, when you smoke, the neighbors must think your chimney is on fire.
Cautious: Take care, a weight like that might make you top heavy.
Thoughtful: Somebody fetch my parasol. Those delicate colors fade so in the sun.
Pedantic: Does not Aristophanes mention a mythologic creature called hippocampoelophantocamelos? Surely here we have the original.
Familiar: Well, old torchlight, hang your hat over that chandelier. It hurts my eyes.
Eloquent: When it blows the typhoon howls and the clouds darken.
Dramatic: When it bleeds, the red sea.
Enterprising: What a sign for some perfumer!
Lyric: Hark! The horn of Roland calls to summon Charlemagne.
Simple: When do they unveil the monument?
Respectful: Sir, I recognize in you a man of parts, a man of prominence.
Rustic: Hey, what? Call that a nose? Naw, naw, I be no fool like what you think I be. That there’s a blue cucumber.
Military: Point against cavalry.
Practical: Why not a lottery with this for the grand prize?
Or parodying Aristophanes in the play: Was this the nose that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Illium?
PS. Some of the nose descriptions in Roxanne starring Steve Martin as the Cyrano character were priceless. But this translation of the original play is the best I ever found.
Do this exercise on your feet. Let me know how you get along with it.