Stray Thoughts on Theatrical Accent Traditions

Peter Pan

Paramount Pictures (Public Domain)

Slate ran a recent piece on the history of women playing Peter Pan onstage. This got me thinking about other theatrical or filmic traditions with regards to fictional characters. In particular, should we question why certain characters are played in particular accents? For instance:

SHOULD PETER PAN SOUND AMERICAN?

I first experienced Peter Pan via the 1950s Mary Martin stage musical (produced for live television in 1960). I’ve long associated Pan with Martin’s homey Texas twang and, despite the character’s British provenance, have on some level never considered Pan anything other than American.

The strong American Pan tradition has a long history, actually, harking back to the earliest days of the story’s popularity: the first Broadway production of Barrie’s stage play starred Maude Adams, an actress from the then-frontier state of Utah. The tradition continues up to present day, of course, as the 2003 film featured young American actor Jeremy Sumpter in the role.

I find it difficult, in fact, to recall any notable British-accented Pans. And maybe that’s the way things should be. It’s hard not to see Neverland as a stand-in for America, or rather, a Victorian daydream of America in all its rugged beauty. (Note the presence of now-cringeworthy “Indians.”) So why wouldn’t Pan have an American accent?

HOW SOUTHERN WAS HUCKLEBERRY FINN?

Would Huckleberry Finn have had a Southern Twang? Or even much of one? Many film versions of the novel feature Hucks with Appalachian drawls, or something along those lines (I recall Mickey Rooney sounding downright Mississippian in the role). Still others (such as the adaptation starring Elijah Wood) feature Finns who sound more generally middle-American.

I’m of the opinion that the latter is more accurate. If Huck Finn supposedly resided in a fictionalized version of Mark Twain’s native Hannibal, Missouri, an especially thick twang might be inappropriate. Hannibal is a bit further north than one might expect (in modern times, the town is less than an hour from Iowa). Twain’s association with abolitionism and the often southern settings of his fiction belie the fact that he was more a Midwesterner than a Southerner.

That’s not to say that there would be no twanginess in Finn’s speech, just that it might be less marked as that of someone from, say, the Ozarks (Missouri is a big state). Of course, American speech has changed greatly since the 19th-Century, so it’s hard to say for sure.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: ALWAYS BRITISH English?

Has there ever been a Scottish Sherlock Holmes? I’m curious why few actors have tipped his hat to the character’s Scottish creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet Holmes is invariably English.

As far as I can tell, however, there is little in Doyle’s work suggesting where Holmes grew up, although this interesting Wikipedia subsection suggests he had some French ancestry. (If any diehard Holmes aficianadoes know otherwise, speak up!) Regardless, Holmes is quite fictional and could very well be played as Scottish or Irish without destroying the character’s integrity.

Yet Holmes has usually spoken Received Pronunciation or related accents, a trend which continues even today with the contemporary adaptation Sherlock. James Bond has had a bit of flexibility in this regard (the character’s most famous portrayer was a Scot); why not Holmes?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Stray Thoughts on Theatrical Accent Traditions

  1. DONALD SHERER says:

    Tom Sawyer’s accent would have been far more southern than midwestern. Historically the southern accent extended well into areas now considered “midwest” like southern Ohio and Indiana. Along the Mississippi the “southern” accent was common along the river at least as far north as St Louis.

  2. Tim says:

    I personally don’t find the term Indians to be cringeworthy. Inaccurate, yes, but not cringeworthy. More cringeworthy terms for native Americans IMO are redskin and injun. Actually I find them more comically outdated than cringeworthy, but that’s me.

    • Duke Margiris says:

      I’m pretty sure he meant that the portrayal of the Indians in Disney’s animated Peter Pan were cringe worthy, not the term Indian itself to refer to Native Americans, with the quotations around “Indian” meaning just what you said, that the word is outdated and inaccurate.

  3. AL says:

    I think a non-RP speaking Sherlock would be fascinating. Because it would be such a departure from past practice, as you describe, people would probably consider it a further removed adaptation. I really enjoy the American ‘Elementary’ show, which turned John Watson into an Asian-American Joan Watson.

  4. John Mclaine says:

    I think movie-goers would have a problem with Huck’s lack of a Southern accent combined with his liberal use of the n-word. White audiences (this is just my theory) are still not ready to hear 19th-century racism coming from the mouth of a non-Southerner.

  5. Pingback: ‘Stray Thoughts on Theatrical Accent Traditions’ by Ben Trawick-Smith | Rakesh Patel

  6. Rodger C says:

    @Tim: Look at DARE, or Craig Carver, etc.

    Growing up in West Virginia, I encountered Huckleberry Finn at age eight and was fascinated to find a book written, for a change, in something resembling normal English. I understand that many schoolchildren today find the dialect a barrier to comprehension.

  7. Rodger C says:

    Also @Tim: I wonder if Ben meant that the word “Indians” was cringeworthy (we have, after all, an American Indian Movement) or simply their depiction.

    • @Rodger/Tim,

      It’s the latter. I don’t object to “Indian.” True, the word derives from a geographical misunderstanding, but the term is arbitrary whether it’s applied to Native Americans or people from the Indian Subcontinent.

      What I find “cringeworthy” is Barrie’s participation in the Victorian fad for fetishizing “exotic” peoples, with all its attendant patriarchal and erotic overtones (the Indians call Pan their “Great White Father”).

  8. Mike Ellwood says:

    Yet Holmes has usually spoken Received Pronunciation or related accents, a trend which continues even today with the contemporary adaptation Sherlock. James Bond has had a bit of flexibility in this regard (the character’s most famous portrayer was a Scot); why not Holmes?

    Why not a Scots Holmes? Because there is no evidence in the canon that he was Scots, so I cannot see the point. A faithful biographer like Watson would surely have made reference to Holmes’s Scottishness, if there had been any. If Conan Doyle had wanted to set him in Edinburgh (say), he would have done so; instead, he set him in London, from where he only rarely strayed, until his retirement. There are no clues to a Scottish accent or dialect in his recorded speech; ergo, he was either English, or he sounded like an Englishman (like Tony Blair does).

    I hope you are not hinting that, next time out, he should be played by David Tennant (that man gets everywhere); Peter Capaldi might be an interesting choice, however.

    By the way, the UK now has a Welsh detective: Tom Mathias in “Hinterland” / “Y Gwyll” (recently on BBC Wales TV in English and Welsh, and last year in Welsh on S4C). I hope you get chance to see it over there. Pob hwyll. :-)

  9. Tony says:

    Robert Downey Jr put in a good performance as Sherlock. I thought his accent pretty decent but there was a scene in which he cuts and eats his meat in the American fashion that felt slightly jarring.

  10. bill says:

    Peter Pan with an American accent? Please! Next thing we’ll have an American Winnie the Poo (no corrections necessary!)

  11. Travis says:

    Along the lines of Sherlock Holmes: I found it interesting that the recent BBC adaptation was the only one (that I’m aware of) to feature an Irish Moriarty despite his name.

  12. kevin says:

    Why does it matter so much in the end?

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