Friday, January 29, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Ellen Terry's lectures on Shakespeare's women

One advantage of the actor is the learned ability to command a stage, something many speakers envy. Here's how Virginia Woolf described the great British actress Ellen Terry in action:
When she came on to the stage as Lady Cicely in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, the stage collapsed like a house of cards and all the limelights were extinguished. When she spoke it was as if someone drew a bow over a ripe, richly seasoned ‘cello; it grated, it glowed, and it growled. Then she stopped speaking. She put on her glasses. She gazed intently at the back of the settee. She had forgotten her part. But did it matter? Speaking or silent, she was Lady Cicely—or it was Ellen Terry? At any rate, she filled the stage and all the other actors were put out, as electric lights are put out in the sun.
Terry was considered the best Shakespearean actress of the late nineteenth century, and toured the world in performance. But it's her lectures on Shakespeare--particularly on the women in Shakespeare--that have given her a lasting presence in today's world.

Delivered between 1911 and 1921 in Great Britain, America, Australia, and New Zealand, the lectures came at the end of her acting career, beginning when she was 64. It's clear that she relishes the chance to relive roles that made her famous, as well as Shakespearean heroines she never got to play. From her lecture on the "triumphant women" of Shakespeare, she tackles feminism and the Bard's characters:
Wonderful women! Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of women in these fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines? Don't believe the anti-feminists if they tell you, as I was once told, that Shakespeare had to endow his women with virile qualities because in his theatre they were always impersonated by men! This may account for the frequency with which they masquerade as boys, but I am convinced it had little influence on Shakespeare's studies of women. They owe far more to the liberal ideas about the sex which were fermenting in Shakespeare's age. The assumption that 'the woman's movement' is of very recent date--something peculiarly modern--is not warranted by history. There is evidence of its existence in the fifteenth century. Then as now it excited opposition and ridicule, but still it moved!
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by
John Singer Sargent, 1889.
To place these comments, it's useful to recall that the lectures spanned the years of the suffrage movement for women's votes in both Britain and the United States.

While I say the lectures helped Terry's work stay alive decades after her death, as this writer notes, it's not easy to get your hands on the actual book of Four Lectures on Shakespeare, and in fact, this post waited until I could find my own copy. Those who can do the same will discover the insightful introduction by her female assistant Christopher St. John, who shares Terry's notes to herself on how to deliver the words, good advice for any speaker:
Get the words into your remembrance first of all. Then, (as you have to convey the meaning of the words to some who have ears, but don't hear, and eyes, but don't see) put the words into the simplest vernacular. Then exercise your judgment about their sound.
What can you learn from this famous set of speeches?
  • Share your expertise: The lectures are based on a lifetime of insight on Shakespeare's characters from the inside out, as it were. Terry made full use of explaining the roles from her perspective of a full career studying and interpreting them, and these talks are both clear and compelling as a result.
  • It's never to late to start a lecture tour: Terry began this tour when she was 64, and ended it when she was 74. Not only was it a smart way to stay on the stage as her acting career was waning, it opened a new avenue for connecting with theatre audiences. Terry notes in one lecture the conventional wisdom that, by the time an actress understands how to play Juliet, she's too old to do so--but in the lectures, that age-as-wisdom works just fine.
  • For the sake of us all, preserve your speeches: St. John notes that Terry never wanted to talk about publishing the lectures in her lifetime, preferring them to be heard, rather than read. But even with publication in book form, it can take super-human effort just to find a library copy today. Had St. John not compiled, edited, and published them, they'd have disappeared entirely.
That publication has helped the Terry lectures come alive another way: If you are in London and act quickly, you may be able to see the great Eileen Atkins recreate them at the candlelit Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe, a revival of a show she did in that theatre's inaugural season. It runs until 13 February 2016. Read this interview with Atkins about Terry, and how she was drawn to recreate the lectures, and watch the video interview below in which she discusses Terry: