Friday, March 1, 2013

It is My Name...My Reputation

American in the UK

Recent events have made me think long and hard about the differences between the American and English cultures. Specifically about the differences between British plays and American plays. My flatmate who is English was reading me one of his monologues and all I could think was: man, this is terribly British. I then sent him some monologues that I thought would fit him, he told me they sounded funny to British ears. What is it that perks our ears to the difference between the two?  What exactly IS the difference between the two styles? We are both English speaking countries with similar points of views. Americans, for the most part, were Europeans what happened? 

I have had several discussions with different English tutors and classmates about this subject. At the risk of being too general...below is what I have gathered from these conversations and my own observations. ALSO please bear in mind, while I have talked to my English tutors about this, I am still writing from a female-Midwestern-Japanese-American perspective.  

SO! I have found that a lot of the differences stem from the reasons America was founded and who founded it....and what they left behind. Early Americans voiced their opinion about various issues and fought for change. We have always been able to speak our minds without the risk of getting beheaded or hanged or what have you. The Freedom of Speech is in our Bill of Rights. Expansion, exploration, change, becoming the melting pot for other cultures, the rags to riches 'American Dream'...
(FOR EXAMPLE! Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President, grew up in a log cabin. He was raised by his father who had no education and was illiterate. Lincoln received a total of only 18 months of formal education, otherwise he we completely self-taught...and became one of the most influential Presidents) oh! and we were also founded by Puritans...each of these aspects of our very young history have engrained certain qualities in each one of us...and have given us different hurdles to jump over. America became powerful very fast and didn't have its first big international failure until the 70's while, as explained by my professor, Europe has experienced many international failures throughout its thousands of years of history. Each country has seen it's heyday and decline, ALL of Americas' being within the last couple hundred years. 

From the discussions I've had, it seems big change like this is not in the English recent memory. Their culture and race have been established for a long time. They know who they are.  What has developed in its theatre is a darker more cynical edge in modern writing. Americans tend to lean towards resolution at the end of the play, while many British plays work nonlinear and  seem to just end.
 Americans tend to lean towards a journey within a story; to end up in a different place from where they started at the beginning of the play. Modern and contemporary British plays tend to end unresolved or resolved in a potentially unsatisfying way (check out the playwright Simon Stephens). This throws the responsibility back on the audience to work out the story OR the playwright was just unable to solve the problem of the play...because the problem is itself unsolvable. Of course, there are exceptions to this on both sides of the ocean. There are American playwrights who have a darker, cynical edge to them: Mamet, Miller, Williams, LaBute, name a few. 

In American culture there is a stress on what someone DOES. This may be because of the 'American Dream': being able to come from nothing and make yourself into somebody. In American history, who you fundamentally are and what you Do is so important. However, in England, there was a more rigid class system and it is harder to move around. What developed was a focus on a person's reputation (The country is also a lot smaller...word got around MUCH faster).  In English history, how you dealt with others and how others viewed you was important. You can see this contrast in Proctor's iconic line from Arthur Miller's The Crucible "It is my name" and   Cassio's line from William Shakespeare's Othello, "My reputation, my reputation".

The development and use of language is rich in the History of England. The English cultivated better rhetorical skills, constructing beautiful sentences and imagery to describe situations and feelings. They are also known for their 'reserved' attitude towards showing emotions. To be honest, it is something I have had to really adjust to. Americans are seen as very loud and direct. Emotions are not always hidden...there is no 'stiff upper lip', and whether good or bad and there is not as much of a focus on the use of language...AND OF COURSE, there are always exceptions to these generalizations. 

In trying to break my American accent and learn how to speak in an English accent I can see how these 'personality' traits bleed into how our mouths move to communicate.  The English accent is clipped, placed at the front of the mouth, you talk through your teeth more, the front of the mouth works more, MOST IMPORTANTLY there is no rhotic 'R', and the 'T's are hit...overall, the accent is lighter. Keep a stiff upper lip. The American accent is open, placed further back in your mouth (which makes us sound nasally and loud), words are chewed, the middle of the mouth including the soft pallet works the most and the accent is heavier.

The contrast with the use of language in England and America is very clear through the developments of the American Musical vs. (Musicals in England). SIDENOTE the Musical as we know it today is a truly an American construction. Prior the advent of the American Musical and it's journey overseas, theatres were producing operettas, Music Hall (the English version of Vaudeville), and variety shows and some forms of opera (German, to stray away, used singing and text). In American Musicals, characters sing because the emotions are so big that there is no other option BUT to sing. In England, the emotions are so big...that you start to use heightened way of speaking. The English, (Gilbert and Sullivan, for example)  have the words to describe how they are feeling and beautiful music to underscore these descriptions. For this same reason, America and Europe embraced physical theatre and other physical vehicles such as clowning. Perhaps clown and physical theatre never took off in England in the same way because it wasn't viewed as witty or clever enough. When used, it was used in a more controlled way. 

I do not think I have quite boiled everything down to completely understand the minute differences between the two writing styles and tones. I have been here for about six months and still have so much to learn and reflect on. But, for now, this is what I have. 

I love discussions and learning new perspectives on culture and art. Feel free to message me! 

P.S. Thank you Nick and Ben!