IF in the past anyone had told me that I was likely to be awarded a gold medal for diction. I should probably have first screamed with terror and then retired to my study to find out what was the matter with my method of speaking.
This I suppose is because I always imagined that people who got medals for diction were those who spoke beautifully. It used to bo so in my early days. When I was a very obscure member of an elocution class the students who got medals for diction spoke wonderfully. Their diction was so unmistakable that you could almost see the medal moving towards them of its own volition; and before they were halfway through ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ the medal was firmly between their teeth. It is hard to eradicate these early impressions. But I am bound to conclude, and I do so with great satisfaction, that those Directors of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, this world-famed institution, who are responsible for this award have a far different appreciation of the art of the actor from the judges of my student days. When I reflect that amongst those who have already been similarly honored by this Academy are Otis Skinner, Walter Hampden, Julia Marlowe, and Wynne Matthison, I realize how vastly public taste and judgment have changed. These actors and actresses speak so easily and naturally that I doubt whether any of the judges of the past would have dared to grant them an award for diction.
It is difficult to overestimate the service that the honorable judges of this Academy have done to the stage in acknowledging the splendid diction of those ladies and gentlemen I have named. I don’t believe that any ordinary theatregoer listening to Otis Skinner would say, ‘Isn’t his diction perfect!' He would be far more likely to say, ‘Gee! Ain’t Skinner great!’ And that is precisely the react ion we want.
If an actor speaks particularly well, and knows it, he should at any rate conceal from his audience the fact that he does know it. Indeed, it is part of his art to render them if possible entirely unconscious of it. There are actors of whom we say, ‘He has a beautiful voice, but he is always listening to it.’ That means that he is not only conscious of this superior quality, but wishes the audience to be aware of it also. It is, in my opinion, a great mistake for an actor ever to appear to rise superior to his audience. Such an attitude annoys them and distracts their attention from the subject matter.
When I am rehearsing a part and meet a word about which there may be some difference of opinion as to pronunciation, I do not consult a dictionary in order to find out which is right; I endeavor to discover which is the most general way of pronouncing it, and I adopt that way. I always try to avoid teaching an audience anything — or at any rate I make a great effort not to be found out. For it is well known in my business that the public will run a mile from a theatre if they think there is going to be any attempt made to teach them anything.
That is why plays written as propaganda are always failures. An audience resents being corrected or coerced or in any way ‘done good to.’ If, for instance, the American Academy of Arts and Letters said, ‘We are interested in a campaign for better spoken English, and, regardless of expense, we will form a company of actors which shall comprise all our gold-medalists for diction and suppose they did it, and sent the company round the country, with such advertisements as ‘ Come and hear how English should be spoken’ or ‘Listen to the silver-tongued gold-medalists’ — do you think the people would come near the theatre? I assure you I should be very sorry to be on sharing terms.
There is no doubt that good diction is far too rare. By ‘diction’ I mean the speaking of words correctly and easily. That is what we are concerned with at the moment, although I suppose the word ‘ diction ’ means a good deal more than that.
Of course we are handicapped, because English is the language of a diversity of people scattered in many parts of the globe. But there are only three kinds of English that I am familiar with — the English of England, the English of America, and the English of the telephone operator. This last I do not propose to consider, because it is almost a language of its own, and is, moreover, spoken more or less in confidence. But the difference between the English of England and the English of America is mainly one of diction. It is futile to assert that the English of the two countries is not one language. There are some differences in pronunciation of certain words and occasionally a given word will have a different meaning. But as a rule it is only the difference between the English of England of to-day and that of one hundred and fifty years ago. America has frequently maintained the purity of the language which in course of years has become vitiated in England. We all know that many Old English words and phrases are now regarded in England as Americanisms.
The chief fault in speech in America I should describe as sloppiness, and the outstanding defect in England as snippiness. The English of England has been distorted by people who really ought to know better. Oxford University, for instance, rather prides itself on the fact that you can always tell an Oxford man. It reminds me of those ‘Distinctive Styles for Men’ which the tailors advertise and which the welldressed man tries so steadfastly to avoid. The only reason why one can always tell an Oxford man is that his diction is not absolutely pure. It is by no means bad, but it has certain distortions for which there is no excuse. Unfortunately the less educated class, particularly in the suburbs of London, in an attempt to ape their betters become so refaned that at times they arc hardly understandable.
The American is never guilty of this straining after superiority. But in my opinion he errs on the other side. He is so afraid of being meticulous in his speech that he allows himself to become careless. I have noticed amongst the youth of to-day that there is frequently a decided objection to speaking well, a feeling that there is something unhealthy in good articulation. I know nice parents — well-spoken parents — with children who speak vilely. Frequently when a boy speaks very badly the mother looks at him with pride and says, ‘Is n’t he a little man!’ I can see no good in this. There is not hing clever in speaking badly — anybody could do it with a little practice. One can speak well and still be a little man — or a big man.
I say nothing against slang. I rather admire it; it enriches the language. But I can see no excuse for a lazy and careless delivery of words. Laziness in diction leads to laziness in phraseology — to the perpetual use of the words ‘ fine’ and ‘grand’ and ‘sure’ — monosyllables which can hardly be said to be a healthy stimulus to conversation. If we arc going to have better spoken English we have to work from the bottom. Schools and colleges and parents have to take a hand. Where bad diction is a matter of ignorance it is excusable, but in the case of people who have all the advantages of education and decent environment it is little more than culpable negligence and laziness.
I have said that actors must never appear to be making an effort to teach anything. But what we should do is to set a worthy example which the youth of to-day may be inspired to follow. And with the advent of the talking pictures our responsibility becomes far greater than ever it was before. For every person who sees an actor in the regular theatre, a thousand see him when he appears in a ‘talky.’ I worked for thirty years and more as an actor and remained practically unknown to a very large section of the public; now that I have made two or three talking pictures I can seldom walk many blocks without someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Excuse me, ain’t I seen you in the movies?’ I recently opened a new cinema in London, ' in person,’ and when I appeared a young lady looked me up and down and then turned to her friend and said, ’Is n’t he like him?’ I mention these facts to point out how much more far-reaching is the influence of the talking pictures than that of the stage.
In my opinion the value of the talking screen in the improvement of the diction of the masses cannot be overestimated. Not that the masses would go to the movies to learn how to speak; but young people are inclined to be very imitative, particularly of those actors and actresses whom they especially admire.
I am not familiar with the working of other studios, but it may interest you to hear of the care which is taken in recording the voice in my own studio — that is, the Warner Brothers — during the making of one of my pictures; and I have no reason to suppose that the same serious attention is not devoted to the work by others.
A scene in the studio seldom lasts more than six or seven minutes without a break — sometimes it is longer, but not often. Immediately after we have finished acting one of the scenes before the camera I go to what is called the ‘play-back’ room. With me come the director, the recording mechanics, and the actors who are concerned in the scene. We cannot, of course, see the picture of the scene we have just done, — that takes many hours to develop and print, — but we can hear the ' playback,’ which is the record of our voices precisely as it will be heard in the theatres when the picture is finally exhibited. We sit in perfect quiet; the lights are put out, in order that our sense of hearing shall be more acute; there is a grinding sound, and then out of the darkness come our voices reproducing the entire scene which we spoke only a few minutes before.
When it is finished the lights arc put up and the director says to me, ‘Well, what do you think?’ If I think I was particularly good I say modestly, ‘Not so bad. What do you think?’ ‘Well,’ says the director, ‘it: seemed to mo great, except — you know where you say, “I heard him mutter”?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, it sounded to me like “butter.”’ ‘Did it? I didn’t notice it. Did you notice it, Miss So-and-So?’ ‘Well, it did n’t sound to me like “butter,” but I thought it a little muffled.’
And then, after some further criticism, we say, ‘We’ll hear it again.’ If at the end of the second hearing there is the slightest difference of opinion, we all troop out and do the whole scene over again — which of course has to include photography as well as voice in order to get perfect synchronization.
This same inquest is held after every scene throughout the entire picture. Nothing is ever hurried or left to chance. Unfortunately, when the picture goes through the country we are in the hands of mechanics who can do to one’s voice what the passport photographer can do to one’s face. But there is no doubt that it is quite possible to reproduce, almost perfectly, the voice and diction of an actor, and it would be a great satisfaction to me if the stage and screen could be so far improved that they could be regarded as the recognized standard of pure English.
It is unfortunate, in this respect, that most of the plays to-day are concerned with characters which compel the actors to reproduce in their speech the worst faults of the average man. But I have reason to hope that the time is approaching when we shall have more and more classical plays. I believe that the detective play has about had its day, and that we shall have plays that will at any rate give the actors an opportunity to speak better English.
Although I have said that I do not think it would be a commercially sound venture to send a company on the road with the object of teaching the masses, I can see no reason why some talking pictures should not be made with the object of using them in schools and universities as examples of perfect English and desirable diction. I commend the idea to your directors as being perhaps worthy of their consideration.