When actors land the accent but are hard to understand

A friend and I recently saw Playboy of the Western World at City Lit Theater. The characters in John Millington Synge’s play, set on the west coast of Ireland in the early 1900s, speak with a brogue and Irish idioms.  

The Reader reviewer praised the cast’s “collective mastery of the script’s Hiberno-English idiom” and offered “kudos to dialect coach Carrie Hardin.”

I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand most of the dialogue, despite wearing my new hearing aids. Authenticity is all well and good, but does a play succeed if the audience can’t make out the words?

You can turn on captions if a British accent baffles you while watching television. Operas project surtitles above the stage. Should theaters take a cue from them?

Presumably the critics who gave Playboy of the Western World “recommended” and “highly recommended” reviews understood the words, so not everyone had the difficulty I did. Terry McCabe, City Lit’s artistic director, reported that one audience member commented that she had no problem understanding the second act after getting used to the brogue. 

I emailed Hardin and McCabe not to criticize but to ask for advice about adjusting to accents and dialects. 

“I have exactly the same problem with the accents in the show, and I have seen it more than once,” McCabe admitted. “The most frequent comment I get from audience members, other than that they like the show, is that it is nevertheless hard to follow because of the accents. In fact, no one has said to me that they did not have trouble understanding what was being said.”

“Clarity is always a huge concern for me,” Hardin said, “especially with a show like Playboy, where there’s an entire world of thick brogue and antiquated idioms to sift through. It’s a really difficult needle to thread when you want to ensure the audience understands, first and foremost, while also being true to the nature of the text.” 

Making Playboy intelligible to Americans living more than a century after Synge died must be daunting. Besides the brogue, there are those “antiquated idioms” to which Hardin referred. “I’m after” means “I have just.” A gob (foul-mouthed youth) who was droughty (thirsty) would liefer (gladly) accept a supeen (drink) in a shebeen (unlicensed drinking establishment) before mitering (running off).

“When acting with accents on stage or screen, it doesn’t matter how authentic you sound if you can’t be understood, long-time dialect coach David Alan Stern wrote in a blog post. … “Your goal should be to combine the impression of authenticity with total intelligibility. … [A]fter 40+ years of accent coaching, I can now support directors’ choices to violate accent purity for artistic or aesthetic reasons.”

To violate accent purity in Playboy of the Western World, however, would be sinning against Synge intention to show the rural Irish ways of speaking English as rich, poetic, and authentic. 

“I don’t know what the solution is,” McCabe conceded.

Perhaps dated plays with antiquated language shouldn’t be staged, although some people would put Shakespeare in that category.

As I thought about what I might have done to improve the experience — reading about the play beforehand, looking for tips about adjusting to accents — the responses from McCabe and Hardin arrived. 

“[I]t’s fundamentally our job to make the play clear to the audience,” McCabe said, “not the audience’s job to have to decode it.” 

“Hopefully we will thread that needle a little better next time around,” Hardin said.

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  • You make a good point. It reminds me of taking in a play of Shakespeare's. The dialogue often has Elizabethan idioms and contemporary allusions that make it hard to understand. And yet the theatergoer for the most part enjoys the challenge. Or at least accepts it.

  • Yes, Shakespeare is a good comparison. Thanks for writing.

  • Thanks, Marianne. Your Shakespeare comparison made me think of how I have read what I've managed to read: with footnotes. In a play like the one you described, each act in the program could have a glossary -- a word, then a line featuring it. (I didn't have any trouble with the meaning of the Irish "droughty," not just because of the similarity to "drought" and lack of water, but because the Scots word I grew up around for "thirsty" was similar -- drouthy.

    The late M.C. Beaton's stories of Scottish policeman Hamis Macbeth often used Scottish dialect, and I loved reading it (especially when I couldn't hear my dad using it any more). Her solution was to have either a general narration explain a Scots word that Hamish or another character had used, or to have someone reply to the Scots word in a question with the meaning in standard English (or American, if the character was visiting). I found that reassuring so that I didn't need to ask Dad about a word I should have known -- and so that those who don't have a walking glossary could have the definitions.

    But with an established play, a new character won't do -- so a printed glossary in the programs seems to work best for me. Thank you for the review.

  • Hi, Margaret. Yes, a glossary would be helpful for the idioms, but I think I could have figured out the idioms in context if I could have understood the brogue.

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