Stage Accents vs. Real Accents

Queen VictoriaAs per recent discussions of American actors doing British accents, I’d like to make an important distinction: Authentic accents vs. stage dialects*.

For about 90% of situations in which an American actor needs a British accent, that accent is probably Received Pronunciation (or Standard British). I’d say most of these circumstances center around Victorian or Edwardian playwrights: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan, not to mention any number of modern plays set during that era.

Actors use Received Pronunciation because that is what people spoke back then, right? Not quite.

Take a listen to this recording of Virginia Woolf, who grew up in the late Victorian era:

This accent, often referred to as high RP or more colloquially as the Queen’s English, is quite different from what your average dialect coach teaches. The Received Pronunciation that I and other actors learned in drama school is a modern variant that became widespread after WWII.

There are, in fact, even more anachronistic uses of this accent. Restoration comedy is typically performed in RP, even though English as it was spoken during the Restoration would have have hardly sounded like modern British English.

So why do we use a modern accent for plays written a hundred (or 300) years ago? Convention.

The world of a play (or film) is not the same as the actual world. Hence the notion of stage dialects. We use slightly artificial accents because the real thing would be distracting or incomprehensible.  If we Americans watched a production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Ms. Woolf’s accent, it would drive us toward the exits in about fifteen minutes.

On the other hand, there are times when I think stage dialects are taken too far. I have read the work of dialect coaches who recommend using a standard Irish accent for the plays of Seán O’Casey, which I think waters down the power of his plays. I find it absurd to use something other than a Dublin brogue for plays clearly written in the vernacular of that city.

I think there are indeed some situations where 100% authentic accents don’t serve the needs of a particular play or film. On the other hand, I don’t think you should discard reality entirely. It’s a tricky balancing act.

*This is technically an erroneous use of the word “dialect,” since the only thing you are learning is an accent (i.e. way of pronouncing words).  But “stage dialect” is nevertheless the more frequently used term among voice and dialect coaches.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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9 Responses to Stage Accents vs. Real Accents

  1. John says:

    “If we Americans watched a production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Ms. Woolf’s accent, it would drive us toward the exits in about fifteen minutes.”

    I don’t agree with that. I think it would be really cool to hear it in that accent. I wish they would try to use authentic accents in more plays and movies. They could at least experiment with it. It would be really neat to hear Shakespeare plays in a more authentic accent, rather than in an RP accent. I get really tired of that.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s a very subjective thing, but I would probably find an entirely high-RP production of “Earnest” quickly grating. It might be different with film (the adaptation with Michael Redgrave, in fact, more or less WAS entirely in this accent). Theatre, though, can require a bit more work on the part of the audience. But it’s very much according to taste.

      Interesting you mention Shakespeare done in a more authentic accent. The Globe in London has actually done entire productions in Elizabethan English. I haven’t seen them, but from what I’ve read it’s incredibly difficult to understand the Bard when you perform his words in the type of English spoken during his lifetime.

  2. A stage performance, or indeed any public performance that is intended for a wide audience, has to take into account the need to balance accent authenticity with subject comprehension. Unless the key theme of the play is about a character’s accent, it would be be senseless to stick to an authentic accent if that meant the message was obscured. The accent of folks from Glasgow is both iconic and impenetrable. For example, many years ago, there was a popular TV show from Scotland called “Rab. C. Nesbitt,” which at one point was actually subtitled for the English! Although hilarious, it took lots of effort to watch. (For an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k7VoFiagfs) At a personal level, I can say that my wife stopped watching it because she “couldn’t understand” – which is somewhat ironic as she had a very strong Lancashire accent that was similarly incomprehensible when we moved to the US.

    So in a play where a Scottish character is needed, clarity of message may have to take precedence over accuracy of accent, and a “Mrs. Doubtfire” twang as opposed to a “Rab C. Nesbitt” may well be the better approach.

  3. John says:

    “Interesting you mention Shakespeare done in a more authentic accent. The Globe in London has actually done entire productions in Elizabethan English.”

    Do you know where I can see this without going to the Globe in London? I’d really like to hear that because whenever I hear people do Shakespeare their accents never sound rhotic enough to me. They also often seem to have the TRAP-BATH split, which is wrong if they’re trying to be authentic.

    • trawicks says:

      Not sure if they’ve done this stunt anywhere besides the Globe–you’d probably need a top notch linguist on staff, so it’s probably not the easiest thing to pull off.

      Regarding non-rhoticity in American Shakespeare: Unfortunately, for decades we were under the influence of something called “Standard American,” an artificial accent constructed by voice and speech guru Edith Skinner. “Standard” it certainly is not. Skinner’s prestige accent is actually just Received Pronunciation with one or two slight concessions to General American. Up until very recently, this accent was the standard for American Shakespeare. It’s only recently that the American theatre community seems to have come to their senses and chucked this overboard. You can read dramaturg Daniel Mufson’s excellent (and quite long) article about the rise and fall of American standard here.

  4. Erica Walch says:

    Oh dear. That’s not at all the voice I hear in my head when I read Virgina Woolf.

    • trawicks says:

      I know! I always imagined her sounding headstrong and youthful–Emma Thompson, perhaps. She sounds to modern ears more like Dame Edith Evans.

  5. Erica Walch says:

    Or worse — Dame Edna Everage.

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