Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Curse of Ham

I find ‘ham’ a dispiriting old term. Partly because most of my favourite actors have been accused of it: the curse stretches from Freddie Jones to Charles Laughton; from Bela Lugosi to Bette Davis. But then, I’ve heard even Paul Scofield accused of ham – so it’s not just the usual suspects who suffer. And yes, I’ve also been accused of ham – only a few times directly, more often by implication. There’s a frothing semantic bog of semi-related words, with a ham-shaped hole at the centre… ExaggerationDistortionCaricatureManicGrotesque… Such descriptions can be taken negatively or positively: the context is all. But ‘ham’ – baldly used – is rarely if ever meant positively. It’s always a slight; always a detraction. Yet ham represents much more than an attack on someone’s acting. It’s an attack on that person’s integrity; an arch and scurrilous questioning of motives and inner lives.

Does that sound overblown? I should jolly well hope so. But I can back it up. Just look at how Patrice Pavis defines ‘ham’ in her Dictionary of the Theatre, flinging it into nefarious union with ‘showing off’:

An actor who falls prey to the temptation of showing off or ham-acting puts himself in the spotlight at the expense of his colleagues, the character, theatrical illusion, and the poor spectator who is expected to admire the monster. Apart from the social perversion of ham acting, it entails a demagogic complicity with the audience, who is aware that the acting is a virtuoso who masters his role and is even capable of interrupting himself to prove it.

The above consolidates what ‘ham’ is generally thought to mean. It’s also devastatingly cruel. A ‘monster’ flinging itself at the ‘poor’ unhappy audience! A ‘monster’ succumbing to ‘temptation’ – and therefore ‘perversion’! The whole carries a disgustingly biblical whiff of original sin: the Curse of Ham among us still. These hysterical ejaculations sit uneasily with Pavis’s concession that, actually, yes, fourth walls can be broken, and ‘theatrical illusion’ is far from quantifiable. At least, that’s what I take the unwieldy ‘demagogic complicity’ to mean. It seems that ham, even in the abstract, can drive the most obtuse academic into sputtery, maybe-more-coherent-than-usual rage. Personally, I can’t stomach this sort of cruelty, even when it’s so easy to deride. Ham stirs much rage in me also – just on the other side of the debate.

In terms of usage, ‘ham’ might be considered the antithesis of ‘luvvie’. Both are pathetic non-words, but ‘luvvie’ is used almost exclusively by non-actors to beat up actors (the tabloid press have been most vigorous in this regard). It’s those on the outside attacking those on the inside. That doesn’t give it the least value, but it does render it understandable: fear of the unknown, proceeding from ignorance and non-engagement. By contrast, ham is the eternal stick with which those on the inside beat up others on the inside: actors (or writers, or directors, but usually actors) bitching about actors. Such internal subterfuge is best avoided. The job carries enough challenges already.

Furthermore, the word ‘ham’ might indeed be meaningless. For starters, we’ve no idea where it came from. Etymologists have linked it to everything from ham fat (an ancient makeup remover) to Hamlet (unlikely) to the word (h-)amateur (which in any case means ‘enthusiast’ and deserves our respect). Small wonder that no one can decide what ham means today. It’s become a soggy catch-all word for ‘bad’. But ‘bad’ doesn’t have any meaning beyond the individual saying ‘oh, well, I think that’s bad’. ‘I consider that acting bad, and therefore it is ham.’ Is this really good enough? It puts me in mind of Stephen Fry’s laudable moan (and no one does laudable moaning better) about the word ‘offence’:

It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’. As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more – it’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be ‘respected’ as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that’ – well, so fucking what?

Fry’s point is an important one. People too often cut off their engagement with a productive argument by throwing out a meaningless word. ‘Offence’ is one such chimera; in the theatrical sphere, ‘ham’ is another. But if you’re going to use a word as ammunition, do yourself a considerable favour and pick apart what it means. Or at least what it means to you. You stand to make some remarkable discoveries.

So: if ‘ham’ doesn’t just mean ‘bad’, what does it mean?

I suspect ‘ham’ is a euphemism, actually – for a feeling of embarrassment.

This troubles me. I find some of the most rewarding moments in watching actors (and in acting myself) to be those that make me uncomfortable. It forces me to question why I’m embarrassed, and I very often find it’s a defect in me. I’m not being receptive to what’s being thrown out. Whenever I’ve been tempted to call something ‘ham’ it’s usually been because it simply wasn’t to my taste. I can think of many a performance writ large that didn’t quite fly for me. But then, I’m massively prejudiced. Because I am an actor who does big things, I can never quite remove myself from the picture. I’ll sit there thinking ‘Well, I could have done that type of performance better.’ Or, more resentfully: ‘Well. That’s good – good of a sort – but I’d have done it differently.’ Or, worse yet: ‘They’re better than me at what makes me me. And I hate that.’ I feel discomfort because I may, after all, be looking at only a cracked reflection of myself. Which carries me to the worst thought of all: ‘Oh. Good. God. Am I really that bad?’ Perhaps I really am Patrice Parvis’s monstrous, perverted show-off.

But perhaps not. I still believe that doing the big things is eminently worthwhile. I think of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor and Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson. I think of Freddie Jones’ horrifying Bytes in The Elephant Man, and Charles Laughton’s pitiable grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted. The only reason for fear is social – a dread of not being accepted by your fellow actors; of being seen as somehow illegitimate or outmoded or unfashionable or just very, very stupid. Well, I say that those pursuing acting – a craft that’s closer to worms than shopkeepers on The Great Chain of Being – have no right to worry about what people think. Least of all those in the same mad game. As long as ‘ham’ is carelessly made a generalised put-down, actors will become more and more unadventurous, unimaginative, unwilling to take risks. More and more grey, in fact.

Beyond all else, the word ‘ham’ points to such poverty of imagination. For in another distressing pattern, ‘ham’ is often applied to works that are considered a throwback. Shakespeare in the grand style and blood-and-thunder melodrama, subjects on which I’ve recently written, are two such pursuits. Well, I don’t have much time for those who refuse to engage with anything outside the present. At least be open to the treasure-house of the past! It’s not about how much you know or don’t know – it’s just about remaining open to the multifarious alternatives! It’s so easy – too easy – to claim that something’s simply ‘bad!’ But why not remove the log from your own eye? Why not use that log to smash Caliban’s looking-glass? Why not question why you think it in the first place, instead of assuming the world will appreciate your opinion because it derives from you? That is egotism!

I don’t exercise this self-control nearly often enough. But I would hope I’m getting better at it. I would hope that others would challenge themselves to get better too.

And none of this is to say we should put up with poor acting. Sometimes an embarrassing performance is just that, and no accommodation can make it otherwise. As David Mamet asks, time and again, in many and various permutations: why – why – why accept the second-rate in yourself or in others? A bit dangerous to go looking for the second-rate in others – that’s the Patrice Pavis approach, and suggests we have insights into others’ souls – but entirely legitimate to interrogate yourself. We all know when we’ve done less than our best work. And if we don’t, we should! Unfortunately, Mamet, for all his considerable virtues, is another person who chronically abuses the word ‘ham’. In 2012, I wrote about Mamet’s True and False, at some length and with (for me) unusual clarity. That clarity was likely because I was just as riled up as I am now.

Mamet’s eternal quest is to wrench theatre from the navel-gazing practitioners and restore it to the audience. So it’s funny that whenever I’ve spoken to audiences, ‘ham’ is invariably used as a compliment – by those who aren’t involved in theatre themselves. Something to the order of: ‘Ah! I liked that! You really hammed it up!’ This occurs most often in Yorkshire, where, for all I know, ‘ham’ carries a legitimately different signification – although I’ve known it in England’s nether regions also. I’ve asked the terse follow-up questions: and yes, it genuinely was meant positively. I’d like to see ‘ham’ and ‘luvvie’ more widely used as good-humoured banter between actors. Rather like ‘duckie’ seems to have been used among the old guard, before they all died off and left the likes of us to fill their places.

Alas, principles must remain. With times as they are, I can’t very well countenance any use of the word. Unless it’s fabulously well-justified. Or triumphantly reclaimed.

The latter is, at least, a possibility. Looking back on a piece I wrote in 2010, I find myself scribbling this on ‘ham’:

What sort of images does this simple word evoke? Abundance; plenty; generosity; flavour; robustness; in short, a feast. Hang on a minute… And these are the things we’re meant to apologise for in our acting?

Damn it all, four-years-ago me! You were occasionally very right!


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Neo-Gothic Shakespeare

Over the last few weeks, my brain’s been pleasurably clogged with Henry Irving. He’s become my window onto a brave new world of theatrical adventure. Of course, it’s also an old world, defined by the ruling structure of the Victorian repertoire. At Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, this meant alternating Shakespeare with catch-penny melodrama: Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III strolled hand-in-hand with the likes of Eugene Aram, Richelieu and Louis XI. In the past, I’ve thought about melodrama as ‘the extra-textual theatre’ – that theatre in which the greatest effectiveness lies outside the spoken word. Certain critics have called it the Romantic theatre, with Edmund Kean as its hard-drinking, mass-sexing embodiment. And some are content to deride melodrama as actors’ theatre – a term that trivialises the glories of restoring the actor to the centre of a theatrical event.

But I think it’s Jeffrey Richards who hits on the best of all terms in this thrilling summation:

Audiences shared a love of spectacle and a fascination with crime and criminals, a profound sentimentality, and a belief in retribution. They were devoted to a hallowed canon of established melodramatic favourites: Willson Disher calls them ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’, the Romantic Victorian equivalents of the Bard, their stories looted from Scott and Lytton, Hugo and Dumas, Goldsmith and Dickens, and ‘the calendars of crime’; their heroes The Corsican Brothers, The Courier of Lyons, Louis XI, Eugene Aram, Sydney Carton, Ruy Blas, the Master of Ravenswood and Vanderdecken the Flying Dutchman.

I’ve no idea where Willson Disher came up with it, but ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’ is an exceptionally fine coinage. Now, the accepted response to melodrama is to cry ‘How ghastly! How embarrassing! Thank goodness this tommy-rot died out!’ Quite understandable. It’s every generation’s self-righteous prerogative to feel their theatre’s the best it’s ever been. But how many nay-sayers have bothered to read these melodramas? I’ve been steeped in their creepy world, via novels and films, for some time While the old melodramas certainly don’t make for good reading, the form clearly answers some very deep need. Perhaps it’s actors who feel that need more deeply than most.

But first: what constitutes Neo-Gothic Shakespeare? I’ll do a quick ‘Notes on Camp’ – like Sontag’s celebrated bullet-points, nothing should be taken too seriously – and try to fix on what melodrama means to me:


1. Visual revelation is central to the event. It could be a hiding-place; a secret passage; a dream shown through gauze.

2. A medieval attitude to villainy. The villainy of the aged, the ugly, the rich, the powerful, the diabolically blood-lusting. Boucicault’s bastardised Louis XI is all of these: the ultimate melodramatic villain.

3. Goodness definitely exists. And is touching for that very reason. Go with it, without cynicism, and it’s wonderful.

4. Guilt ostentatiously presented. The Hand of God ever-present, in ways much more potent than clergymen. In The Bells, Mathias is literally struck dead by guilt.

5. Beautiful (and often highly coloured) fairytale scenery. Gothic castles, with chapels and dungeons; villages at May Day, with rustic cottage interiors. The Castle Spectre is one such pictorial drama. Although even urban melodrama should be prepossessing. It’s as E.W. Godwin said: ‘Even a burlesque can be beautiful.’

6. A relish for the fustian. Swirling mists; swirling capes; a sculptor’s delight in the gargoyle-like leer. Harry Furniss’s caricatures of Henry Irving convey this very well (see below for his Louis XI).

Furniss - Louis XI

7. Tumultuous weather. Pathetic fallacy, yes, but also drumming up a more elemental thrill. Observe the storm in Maria Marten: the murder is made both horrifying and (however shamefully) exciting.

8. Talismans really work. Often crucifixes, but wider than that. Finding lost objects may be key to the plot. Buried treasure. Some lingering sense of the Catholic relic.

9. Emotional ‘surfing’. Hopping from wave to wave. Pity and terror from unexpected places. Louis XI’s fits of religious torment create sympathy for even the devil.

10. Revenge is everyone’s motive. It can be good, it can be bad. But come it shall!

11. As in Dickens, there are serious people (usually heroes and heroines) and unserious people (the buffoons and villains). They can be yoked together in a fashion that’s quite galvanising. Or undergo surprise transformations. The great nightmare of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is that it discovers the humanity of even Bill Sikes: the ogre made three-dimensional.

12. Melodrama delights in the absurd. It’s camp, in that it’s aware of this dimension. Sweeney Todd is the prime example: the winking line ‘I’ll polish him off!’ was high camp at the instant of conception.

13. Melodrama has an infinitely greater sense of humour than its critics. Tod Slaughter always suggested as much. Witness the intertitle that opens The Face at the Window (1939): ‘this melodrama of the old school – dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy.’

14. By the same token, melodrama is given to greater flights of fancy than its critics. It enjoys a free imaginative play. The throwing together of disparate elements – much as a child might do – is theatre in its purest sense.

15. Phantasmagoria. Impressively low-tech special effects: gauzes, smoke bombs, coloured light, Pepper’s Ghost, Sweeney Todd’s revolving chair. The spectator reduced to a child-like state. The joins are plainly visible, but all the more wonderful for it.

I confess that the above makes my actor’s heart soar. Melodrama is an anti-literary form; a form in which the text is negligible. The written word does little more than sanction a free-wheeling romp through the possibilities of theatre. In operating around the text, attention is drawn to those things that make the theatre unique. And it falls to the melodramatic actor to bind these unwieldy fragments together – by sheer force of enthusiasm, imagination and belief.

The simple existence of melodrama is the great answer to those who marginalise the actor’s contribution. Here, Laurence Irving reflects on Bernard Shaw’s hatred for Henry Irving’s acting style:

Bravura acting left him unmoved; he was unable to comprehend what Irving described as the actor’s power ‘to arouse the intelligence by the vibrations and modulations of organized sound’. He was constitutionally immune to the spell which an actor of genius can, with the poorest literary material, cast upon his audience; his allergy to the world of romantic illusion upon which the curtain of the Lyceum rose was incurable.

The quotation from Sir Henry is especially thought-provoking: the Wildean idea that melodrama is a form in which sound precedes and even creates sense. Most people don’t have a great feel for Shaw’s text-sodden plays. I certainly don’t. I can vibrate to them as cavalcades of fine and often quirky ideas, but they seldom come alive as drama. Don Juan in Hell has been my best experience of Shaw – and that was a sound-only recording of a platform piece. Some drama!

The most fun I’ve yet had with Shaw has been through A Victorian in Orbit, the autobiography of Cedric Hardwicke. In anecdote after anecdote, Shaw suddenly comes alive: a warm and witty human being. It’s clear that Shaw and Hardwicke were great friends. Yet the greatest surprise is that the book is any fun at all. In his film performances, Hardwicke was invariably dry and dusty. His book’s frolicsome joie de vivre is nowhere to be found in his roles in Things to Come (1936) or The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); it’s only slightly more apparent in The Ghoul (1933). Hardwicke did make an excellent Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), but that’s probably because his go-to persona suited the repressive, self-denying judge so well. Little wonder that Shaw treasured Hardwicke as an interpreter of his plays. No attention wasted on the actor; all focus on the text. These movie melodramas begged for a different attack.

I suppose my point here is that a text-dependent drama is always, on some level, limiting. That goes not just for Shaw but Shakespeare. Unless we find ways to keep doing Shakespeare justice, I don’t see the point in carrying on. For one thing, it’s dangerous to go on parading inferior Shakespeare before a public of finite indulgence. Surely Shakespeare is great art because it’s of great importance? Months could – and, ideally, should – be lavished on rehearsing one scene. It really is that serious.

Although I so often read that King Lear is unplayable – from Irving himself and in articles such as this one – that I begin to wonder. How far do actors feel caged by these enormously weighty texts? Moreover, what does ‘unplayable’ mean? Does there exist some measurable scale of playability? Is Hamlet just about playable if you’re really, really good? Surely it’s easier to say that all Shakespeare is unplayable – and let’s be honest, it’s much harder to do justice to a messenger or a spear-carrier than a fantastically bewarted monarch who gets to massage half the play’s text between his toothless gums.

For me, as for many, there’s a cloud of inaccessibility around Shakespeare. It’s something to do with the age of the work; something to do with the verse: the sense that meaning, even with diligent research, is slipping between my fingers. It’s not for lack of trying to engage: I’ve read or seen virtually every play by Shakespeare. I’d love to be carried away by his work more often. There are things that do it. It’s usually those things that are Neo-Gothic, by virtue of the uncanny atmosphere they conjure up: the fourth acts of Richard III (‘revolving this will teach thee how to curse’) and Timon of Athens (‘I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands’); the marginal characters, such as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet and the Porter in Macbeth; the stranger tracts in the late Romances. The Merchant of Venice occupies that atmospherically charged space more than any Shakespeare – a fantastic, picturesque weirdness colours most every scene – which is probably why it’s my favourite of his plays.

Funnily enough, it’s the Sonnets that I find most freeing, and they weren’t intended for the stage. They withdraw from me all of my yearning to do Shakespeare justice. To be a light and deft and tripping being; an Apollonian actor, who can write romance on the air with a tripping quill. I fear it’s not for me (and I hope I’m not talking myself out of a job here): I’m too rough and too plodding to be a great Shakespearean.

Whatever the answer, I’m certain that you can’t take ownership of Shakespeare. Not really. I happen to love Donald Wolfit. The idea of him, at any rate: a flawed, insecure, egotistical, spat-upon monster of a man, who also turned in the greatest Lear of the twentieth century. But whenever Wolfit claimed ownership of Shakespeare, he became absurd. Take this, from when Wolfit played Falstaff and clocked that there was time between appearances to remove his padding:

Brilliant craftsman, Shakespeare. Knew the actor would want to pee and constructed the play accordingly. A Master, a Master!

Or this, justifying his deletion of Malvolio’s imprisonment in Twelfth Night:

I cannot learn it, and if I cannot learn it, Shakespeare did not write it!

Those who claim to be on good terms with Shakespeare should be treated with suspicion. Shakespeare’s not a comfortable author. His plays tell you about being a human being, but in such a way that he takes you far outside yourself. His dramatic situations are gigantic emblems of humanity. Lear on the heath. Hamlet hovering over Claudius with the dagger. Even Falstaff in the buck-basket starts to seem colossal. The Sonnets, by comparison, are chamber pieces: emotion lyrically and seductively transmitted.

One of the refreshing aspects of the Victorian theatre is how differently Shakespeare was represented. Alan Hughes has helpfully whittled down their Shakespearean repertory to the following: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Henry V, Henry VIII, King John, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. Other Shakespeares were revived, yes, but seldom more often than The Two Noble Kinsmen is in our time. The omissions are stunning. No Lear and no Fool. No Coriolanus, no Volumnia. No Richard II. No Imogen. No Prospero or Miranda or Caliban or Ariel. No Angelo and Isabella. No Cleopatra and Antony. No Autolycus; no Leontes and Hermione. No Viola or Malvolio; no Sir Toby, Sir Andrew or Feste. No Oberon and Titania and Puck; no Quince and no Bottom and most certainly no Snug. No Brutus and Cassius; no Caesar. No Falstaff – no, not even the watered-down clone that haunts The Merry Wives of Windsor. Yet for all that’s lost, it’s freeing to find yourself blinkered to Shakespeare. Clipped of its endless expanses, the work feels oddly comfortable. Perhaps it’d make sense to borrow this leaf from the Victorians. The other way they made their Shakespeare comfortable was by uniting it with melodrama.

At its best, melodrama restores the reciprocal relationship of actor and audience. Melodrama is the actors’ theatre, but in a way that’s practically driven. It’s because the words of the melodrama are roughly hewn that the flesh-and-blood performer is invested with new responsibility. No text is perfect: even the unplayable King Lear could be better (as Simon Gray once remarked). Great theatre is not an essay but an event – and an unashamedly rough text can remind us why we’re there in the first place. The Irving literature often draws attention to the idea of ‘creating’ a part. (It was a new term in Victorian England, steeped in the exoticism of the Comedie Francaise.) Creation is the actor’s special gift. Charles Laughton often spoke of creation as the cornerstone of his acting: ‘Great artists reveal the god in man, and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation.’ Laughton, working in Golden Age Hollywood, had some thinly written scripts to contend with. And his best performance – sparring with Hardwicke as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – required very few words at all. It wouldn’t have done for Shakespeare: his Caliban talks more in one speech than all of Laughton’s remarkable Quasimodo.

Irving - Cardinal Wolsey

In closing, it’s interesting to note the deepest way in which the Victorians got on with Shakespeare: by plundering his works for blood and thunder. Just peruse the Shakespeares that got the most exposure in the Victorian age. Richard III is melodrama by any standard, the archetypal ‘villain play’ – and a no-nonsense Shylock transforms The Merchant of Venice into much the same thing. Macbeth can be a rip-snorter, as can Hamlet, with their glut of castles and ghosts and witchcraft and murders (according to James Agate, Wolfit staged both as melodramas). There’s enough of the macabre in Romeo and Juliet and Othello to keep any ghoul’s interest. Even Henry VIII, with its endless parades and pageants, satiates the melodramatic thirst for show-stopping spectacle (Wilde certainly approved). There are few sights more tantalisingly Gothic than Irving’s vampiric Cardinal Wolsey.

I’d love to see a season of Neo-Gothic Shakespeare – beginning, perhaps, with Titus Andronicus. If all else fails, I’ll start a company.

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