Roberta Reads

In 1997 Roberta and Terry Ross attended a colloquium at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater entitled "Speak the Speech: The Language of Shakespeare in Contemporary America," which was intended to "address Americans' ability to express, exploit, and 'handle' Shakespeare's language." An announcement about the program was posted here.

The case against Americans performing Shakespeare was advanced by the critic John Simon, whose two main points were
  1. American English is much flatter and less musical than English English; thus Shakespeare's lines when spoken by an American are much less lyrical than when spoken by an English actor.
  2. By and large American actors are incapable of performing verse because they know nothing about poetry, they care nothing about poetry, they never read poetry. This does not hinder their performing the works of Arthur Miller or David Mamet, but it does leave them unqualified to perform Shakespeare.
Simon did not say that these generalizations applied to every American actor -- he named as one exception Kevin Kline, who was present, and he also thought Sidney Poitier could have done Shakespeare well had his inclinations led him that way -- but he did think that most American actors, by virtue of their language, training, and indifference to poetry, are unable to perform Shakespeare as well as English actors.

The English director John Barton responded that not all the poetry in Shakespeare is lyrical and that Simon is wrong to suggest that English actors are better trained or more interested in poetry than Americans.

Most people at the colloquium disagreed with John Simon; some people booed him. Roberta did not speak at the colloquium, but Simon's opinion nettled her, and she was determined to prove him wrong in her own way. She taped herself reading an eclectic set of American poems, thereby defending both American verse and the ability of an American actress to read verse aloud.

Here are her readings:

1. "Wonder--is not precisely Knowing"Emily Dickinson
2. "Mending Wall"Robert Frost
3. "Picture Writing" (from The Song of Hiawatha)Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
4. "The Accusation"James Wright
5. "Sow"Sylvia Plath
6. "Casey at the Bat"Ernest Thayer
7. "A Cosmogony"Terry Ross
8. "This--is the land--the Sunset washes"Emily Dickinson
9. "Poetry"Marianne Moore
10. "An Ancient Gesture"Edna St. Vincent Millay
11. "The March into Virginia"Herman Melville
12. "Snapshots of A Daughter-In-Law"Adrienne Rich
13. "The Cremation of Sam McGee"Robert W. Service
14. "The Sins of Kalamazoo"Carl Sandburg
15. "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun"Emily Dickinson
16. "Barbara Frietchie"John Greenleaf Whittier
17. "Sympathy"Paul Laurence Dunbar
18. "Speech to Those Who Say Comrade"Archibald MacLeish
19. "The Marshes of Glynn"Sidney Lanier
20. "The Dry Salvages"TS Eliot
21. "The Gift Outright"Robert Frost
22. "The Eye"Robinson Jeffers
23. "My country need not change her gown"Emily Dickinson