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!


1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

One response to “The Curse of Ham

  1. James, I think it is great you analyze words and understand what is being said. I think your acting would only be called “ham” because you completely immerse yourself in your character and that can overwhelm people’s senses. Personally, instead of calling your acting “hamming it up” I would say you are passionately committed to expressing your character’s feeling in a deep and profound way. This could be called “ham” to the average person who might be made uneasy, but why listen to them? Any true artist will be labeled and misunderstood to a degree. I believe one should go too far rather than not go far enough, which you do, and I applaud you for it my friend.

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