Some Thoughts on Derek Jacobi’s Lear
Seeing Derek Jacobi as King Lear demonstrated just how close performing a play and performing music are to each other. Both involve the realization of a written text, a manual of instructions, a dramatic constellation. We value a play not only for the beauty of its language, or the wisdom of its vision, but also for the space it leaves undefined, coloured perhaps by implications, but not by certainty. When Lear asks his daughters “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” it seems a direct and simple question. But there are many situations in which such a question might occur, and many states of mind that might lead to it – therefore the question can be asked in a multitude of ways. A great actor or musician can turn a well known phrase in a way that makes us hear it anew, as if for the first time.
Composers and playwrights often give performance instructions to direct the actor or musician in the performance of the text, but in many cases there are none. Shakespeare’s indications are minimal, as are Bach’s. It might seem that the words or notes themselves give a clear sense of their performance, as does Lear’s rage against the elements:” Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”. Surely it is unnecessary to give performance indications for these words, their mood is clear. To experience the magic of Jacobi’s whispered speech at this point however is to relish the ingenuity of man, the artistic and emotional wisdom of a great actor, free to choose the truth he sees in the words, their expression and their context. Many of the greatest playwrights choose not to limit the role of the actor with indications, either by convention or by personal choice, but the stature of their plays is certainly not diminished by this freedom – it is the space given to the human being in the role, the faith of the writer in the performer that his words will be taken seriously, and the realization that these words will need the flesh and spirit of another human being to become real. It is not least this freedom that allows the play to survive in a different age – whilst we are humans as we have always been, much of our expression must surely change with time. One of the beauties of listening to and playing Bach is the freedom he gives the performer: no other composer has been subjected to such varying interpretations, but that certainly has not lessened his stature or our respect for his achievement. His music has been a vital source of inspiration throughout many ages and artistic fashions. It is not just the genius of the writer to compose something timeless, but also not to tie it down to the present, the particular, not to dress it in a garb that will stifle its growth. For a play is a creation of its author, and like all creations it will grow and lead its own life, a life which the author, like a parent, may disapprove of. This life is both immanent in the very material of the play, and also a product of its history and upbringing, over which the author has little or no influence – all of these factors determine the growth of a play, but whether it will seem relevant to us in the present depends on whether there is space for us in it.
Another similarity between the two art forms lies in the logic of expression that colours both. In performing Bach or Stravinsky, the musician must form a picture of the changing character of the music; each phrase or motif will be expressing something. These expressions may be ineffable or intangible, indeterminate or imaginary, but they are the very stuff of music, as they are of drama. The words of a play may hold the lexical meaning that notes in music lack, but there is much more to the play than words. The words reveal the speaker, his train of thought and of expression. If a character were to say “It is raining again – I am fed up of this bad weather”, the context of this phrase makes it clear how the character may have arrived at the conclusion, not only rationally, but also emotionally. But when Lear concludes “Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower”, we can understand on a rational level how he arrived at this point, but it is far from clear how he could become so angry in so short a time as to banish his most beloved daughter in such a rabid fashion. Since this all takes place only a few pages into the drama, the actor must make this behaviour credible in a very short time – surely one of the most formidable challenges on stage. It is emotional logic that is required here, an understanding of the way a mind can work, and the appropriate realization of the whole character, not just before the event, but also subsequent to it. In a similar way, a pianist performing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata cannot merely follow instructions, but must understand how the grand and celebratory opening can be so rudely interrupted after only a few bars by the soft, timid answering phrase. It is not enough to carry it out, it must make emotional sense. The meaning that the words carry in the play do not lessen the challenge there, it is the underlying process that both the actor and the musician must understand and convey. Lear is not angry because he speaks – he speaks because he is angry.
King Lear is a unique play in reverse: the extraordinary opening can only really be justified by subsequent events, as there is too little time to prepare the audience for it. It is a play where all the action takes place in one room in the first five minutes and the remaining three hours are akin to a commentary, or inverse preparation. Only by the remainder of the play do we understand the opening. It is not so much that the play is about the consequences of Lear’s initial actions, it is the opposite: only by the consequences do we begin to understand the character and how he was able to carry out his ruthless tirade at the beginning. Jacobi carried this out perfectly: his opening ceremony was capricious and impulsive, not attempting to prepare for the breach, but setting out his character in a way that allowed him to develop in a manner consistent with his actions. It is the same gift that allows a pianist to play the opening of the slow movement of Schubert’s great Sonata in A in a way that makes the unprecedented outburst of the middle section seem not only possible, but inevitable – an understanding of character, emotions and of narrative structure, as well of course as the skill involved in communicating all this.
All these processes take place through the medium of the words, or notes, and the beauty and skill with which they are composed. It is fairly easy to speak a line of a great poem in an attractive way, or to play a pretty piece of music prettily. Aside from the importance of understanding the text, of interpreting it, there is the further challenge of familiarity. When we have heard a line of poetry many times, it becomes difficult to hear it again without it being stifled by the recollection of previous hearings. We no longer hear the poetry, we hear our image of the poetry. It is the eternal challenge of any performer to try to communicate the work itself, and bypass these images. Style plays an important role in this. There can be only a certain number of values we ascribe to a performance at any one time – values are essentially comparative, and there must always be a limited number of parameters to compare against. But within a generally agreed range of performance options, performers can interpret the work or play only a limited number of times before the image of their interpretation becomes more powerful than the interpretation itself. When this happens, new stylistic agreements have to be reached to allow new possibilities to emerge. It is not that we have discovered that Furtwängler was mistaken in his performances of Beethoven, it is just that within his parameters we can do no better, and there is no point in imitation or repetition, as they take us further away from the work itself. Our Faustian hunger for novelty is necessitated by the diminishing power of the known. Once we hear a line from Shakespeare spoken with the same inflection a certain number of times, we stop listening to the words and just hear the sound. Individual actors or musicians will perform their parts in differing ways, and that is desirable not merely because it reflects their differing personalities or interpretations, but also because it enables us to avoid falling into a reverie. Sometimes performers purposely distort aspects of the work precisely for this reason, just as Francis Bacon distorted his portraits to help us respond to his figures with more directness, more immediacy than we could by mere illustration. The technique of rubato, of distorting the pulse of the music, is partly designed to achieve this: by changing the pulse, we avoid becoming hypnotized by a steady beat and thereby stay alert. Not all rubato achieves this, of course, just as mannered acting does not make a good actor, but they both respond in some part to the danger of boredom. The idea that acting is about just saying the lines naturally, or that interpretation of great music is just playing what is written, is a simplification – it ignores the large number of conscious and subconscious contributions by the interpreter.
Some actors possess more musical qualities than others. Nowadays, actors seem to be encouraged to affect a naturalistic delivery, making the most sublime poetry sound as if were a spontaneous product of collegial banter. The more old fashioned declamatory style of acting can cause suspicion in modern audiences who mostly prefer things that resemble them and their lives. But declamatory acting, at its best, can be a very musical experience, using very similar techniques and effects as musicians might use in performance. In this sense, Derek Jacobi recalls some of the great romantic pianists: his ever fluctuating tone emphasizes long lines and phrases, grows in intensity and suddenly drops to pianissimo, much as Horowitz used to do at the piano; yet, as Horowitz, Jacobi is always masterful in his balance of the particular colour of the moment with the longer line of the speech. The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau continued to give recitals after his retirement from singing, choosing melodramas such as Strauss’ Enoch Arden, where a piano accompanies a spoken recitation. Fischer-Dieskau’s mastery of tone colour, vocal inflection and rhetoric made him ideal for these works, and it is a terrible shame he never took to acting; if he had, he would most probably have resembled Jacobi in his delivery, colouring individual words without ever losing his place in the sentence. Great poetry such as that of Shakespeare has a density of meaning and expression quite akin to the harmonic and motivic complexities of late romantic music, such as Mahler symphonies, where every phrase covers several harmonies, contains a multitude of instruments and colours, and is quite ambiguous in direction. Music such as this cannot be ploughed through; it needs clarification, care and understanding of the many threads and allusions, just as dense poetry needs very thoughtful delivery to do justice to its many facets.
Music and acting are two aspects of the same skill, employing similar techniques in two different media, using the same human processes as a basis for aesthetic and more general reflections on human nature. They both present similar questions regarding the role of the performer in relation to that of the author, regarding the authority of the author over the work and regarding the adaptability of the work in changing circumstances, and yet these questions are universally answered without reference to each other, in spite of the fact that comparison can yield many helpful ideas and better understanding of the wider processes common to both. One need only think of the completely different attitudes to authenticity in the two fields to illustrate this artificial separation of the two art forms. And yet, when an artist of the calibre of Derek Jacobi performs, one can briefly forget these distinctions and enjoy the virtuosity, the depth of understanding and the skill in communication that he shares with the great musicians of the past and the present.
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