Peter Jones

No mumbling allowed

Correctness and clarity and euphony were highly valued across the ancient world

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In the audience-free world of TV, where ‘acting’ and visuals have become of far greater importance than the actual words, it is no surprise that mumbling has become the fashion. Any ancient Greek actor engaging in such self-indulgent behaviour would quickly learn all about it.

Tragedies and comedies were performed by masked actors, required both to speak and sing, and for the ‘choral’ parts to dance and sing to music, with a script that could veer linguistically from sublime limpidity to the most intense complexity.

As a result, the highest premium was placed on voice training and the correctness, clarity and euphony of the actor’s delivery. Technical incompetence was simply not accepted: an Athenian actor mumbling a part would have been booed, whistled at and hissed off to the accompaniment of drumming heels.

That did not mean the actor was insensitive to the demands of the role he was playing. Far from it. The actor Polus was famed for the skill with which he could depict Oedipus the king and a beggar; Aristotle commented on the need for the actor to be able to cover the full range of speech modes and to vary them to suit the character. What it did mean was that every actor was alert to the needs of the audience, and so his own chance of winning the acting prize.

This axiom applied across the ancient world. The 4th century bc orator Demosthenes might well have demurred at the sentiment that ‘one should judge actors by their words, orators by their good sense’. After one speech that resulting in him being hissed out of the assembly, he was approached by the actor Andronicus, who said that the speech was fine: it was the delivery that was poor. He then showed Demosthenes what he meant by performing the speech himself, from memory. Impressed, Demosthenes took him on. As a result, when Demosthenes was asked the first rule of rhetoric, he replied ‘Delivery.’ And the second? ‘Delivery.’ And the third? ‘Delivery.’

Aristotle said that visual effects had a part to play, but what really counted was the plot — the words on the page. An actor who can do no better than mumble would be better off keeping mum.