Maurice Stewart

initial printing
January 1990
Revised June 2003

Maurice Stewart
40 Fitzwilliam Road, London SW4 0DN.
Phone = (0207) 622 1356
E-mail =


Basic Premise
Questions, Questions, Questions
A Few Words About Words
Introduction from Outside

Chapter One: Preparing the Ground
Chapter Two: Getting History into Focus
Chapter Three: History Began Yesterday
Chapter Four: Conditioning Factors
Chapter FIve: More About Systems, Methods and Common Sense
Before Moving Ahead
Historical Identity Check List

Social/Financial Status
Eucational/Knowledge Status
Medical/Physical Focus
Sense of Family
Religious Focus/Crime
Town and Country
Cultural Focus
How People Talked
Do It Yourself Research

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.


Look at any collection of stage photographs, and see how easy it is to guess exactly when the play was produced. Revivals of “Period” plays in particular are stamped all over with signs of the times in which they were reproduced.

Is recreating a truly authentic impression of the past more difficult than most directors and actors care to admit?

To deliberately impose modern values on historical situations is nothing new in theatre - it is a very effective theatrical device.

But to unintentionally let the present intrude into serious attempts to recreate the past - this is a subject which deserves more attention from directors and particularly from actors.


How accurate are our ideas
about people who lived at different times in history?
How authentic are the re-creations of various “Periods” we see in movies and on TV?

How can an actor today get closer to a real feeling of living in the past?

To be more precise:

How to achieve a stronger awareness
of character forming influences
which made people from

other specific periods in history
think and act in ways
from the way we are conditioned
to react today?



The verbal tone of this book may strike you as being somewhat odd.

That’s because the text was spoken before it was written. The bulk of what I say here has come directly from tape recordings of rehearsals and "Historical Identity" workshop sessions.

I’ve decided to try and retain the informality of me talking to people I already know but, is reading words the same as hearing them?

When I’m working with actors, I watch their eyes. This way I can usually tell if they know what the hell I’m talking about or not as they listen. On paper that valuable asset is lost. We only have the words - and words alone often tell only half the story.

Most actors know that.

So, I have made no concessions in terms of verbal idiom here. Our basic subject is the way real people talked and behaved in “THE PAST”. Word Power is something we’ll explore together - because, in my opinion, we in the late 20th Century have in daily use, the most impoverished vocabulary for centuries. All through this book we will be dealing with people whose way of everyday talking was different from our own.

Actors need to do more than understand the words, they must develop the skill to become comfortable with vocabulary and syntax totally outside their everyday social usage. This ability to “take on” somebody else’s speech idiom and make it your own is the fundamental skill required of any competent actor. He/she should be able to say the words written by any author as though the character saying them has just decided to say them.

Simple as that - and that complicated.

Well - the main aim of this book is to explore ways by which you as an actor can escape from the late 20th Century into a more accurately imagined past. Enjoy the journey.


My sincere thanks to people without whose input this book would never have become a reality. They can be grouped under three headings:

The enthusiasm of Professor John Beatty (Department of Anthropology at Brooklyn College, City University, N.Y.) enables him to make exploring Social Anthropology a vivid and creative experience.

His insatiable curiosity about how and why people in various “cultures” at different points in time behaved and were motivated, is the reason why Social Anthropology and Acting connected so strongly for me.

The brief FOREWORD he has written for this book could have become a book in it’s own right. His enthusiasm for experimenting with different types of performance allows him to define clearly the acting styles needed in the operas of Wagner as opposed to Mozart, then in the next breath explore the psychological approach an actor needs to take when creating the role of a re-awakened mummy from ancient Egypt.

As an Englishman at school, my view of history was clouded by endless lists of Kings and Queens and politicians, and an overwhelming catalogue of seemingly meaningless dates. The sense of reality a real enthusiast for Social History can instil was something of a revelation to me.

Harold Cox, Professor of History at Wilkes College and past Editor of Pennsylvania Historic magazine has provided another valuable key which can open doors to the realities of the past. His summary of man’s progress through time towards the lifestyle we know today connects history to us and makes us an essential part of history.

His list of easily accessible sources of everyday details of living in different periods in American history provides a very firm basis for doing your own background research without getting bogged down. His advice for clearing paths to the past will also be a useful starting point for European actors. But, in particular, where young Americans have so little positive consciousness of the realities of their past, his comments in the final chapter are particularly helpful and provocative.

For many years, actors I have worked with whether in workshop sessions or in rehearsals for productions, have all contributed something to my awareness of the problems, strengths and weaknesses of different ways actors are trained. Many of the key ideas contained in this book have come from actors. So, to the countless number of professional and student actors, I acknowledge my debt:. they are the reason I have sustained my enthusiasm for acting and actors during the past thirty years of my working life.


Anthropology and Acting.
Prof. John Beatty.
Department of Anthropology
Brooklyn College, City University, New York.

Anthropology is not necessarily about apes or the customs of primitive tribes still living in remote areas. Social Anthropology is basically about how people lived and why they lived the way they did. By looking at developments within specific cultures (not necessarily exotic cultures) factors which motivated behaviour, sustained ideas and prompted changes in lifestyle within a particular society become clearer to us.

An important term in anthropology is “ethno-centrism” which refers to the inability of a person to see a different culture clearly because their own culture distorts or gets in the way. Thus behaviour, attitudes, beliefs in other cultures are often misinterpreted or thought of as being strange simply because we don’t do or see things that way.

The task of the professional anthropologist is to describe another culture’s way of life, its patterns of behaviour: establish its “cognitive maps” so that a person from outside can, in effect, understand the world from the viewpoint of a native of that particular culture. To put it another way, Anthropologists often define their task as describing what a person needs to know to act like a native of another culture.

In a very real sense, today we are capable of ethno-centrism not only when we look at foreign cultures, but often when looking at our own culture as it existed in earlier times. For actors, this poses a very real problem. How does one get inside the head of a person from another place or another time? This is precisely what this book is about. It attempts to help the performer to see characters from another time in terms of everyday details of their lives rather than in the broader brush strokes of “The Period”. The exciting problems of getting inside the head of a character means to explore his/her COGNITIVE MAP. A formidable sounding term - but all it means is knowing where that character “is at” and what influences made it what it was. The physical, social and cultural world in which characters operate can be brought into sharper focus through a quite simple process of fixing in your mind a series of reference points by which the course of their lives has been charted.

The actor does not need to get weighted down with extra mural research, but it can be a valuable investment to gradually build and store your own “instant” period reference library or your where-to-find-it- when-you-need-it information list. (See the final chapter for further details)



To recreate the past by travelling to find characters in their own times rather than dragging them into ours.

Chapter 1:


What I’m going to say to you is not particularly profound - and certainly not dangerously revolutionary - but it is complicated. Some of what I want to tell you - you may already know - and there’s nothing more irritating that being told something you already know. However, minor re-adjustments in thinking are often more difficult to get into focus than some grand new idea. And, as I don’t have you here to ask you what you already think about certain aspects of acting or history as a concept - this first general survey of the territory I want us to explore together will be a good investment of time and energy. So, for the purposes of clarity let’s start by fixing a few points of reference.

Not a “How to Act” book:
To simplify my life, I’m going to assume that you have already made your own choices about how you approach text study and character development. Across the world, there are a great many different theories, systems, methods and philosophical attitudes towards acting. The range of choices on offer to actors is wide, varied and infinitely confusing. Let’s just accept that what constitutes good acting usually boils down to a matter of personal opinion - and around the theatrical world opinions are dramatically divided. I have no intention of tampering with or undermining the choices you have already made. I’m assuming you’re happy with the way you act - and that’s very important. Too many people I meet think the only way towards good acting is through suffering. Although it may occasionally be physically and mentally exhausting, it should be an exhilarating and predominantly enjoyable occupation.

The simple system outlined in this book is aimed at one objective only; checking for authenticity, consistency and three-dimensional quality any character from “The Past”.

N.B. For the purposes of this book we will include in this category any play written before 1950 plus modern scripts set in a period before this date.

Text, text, and nothing but the text:
Everything I’m going to be talking about assumes we are dealing with text based performance rather than improvisation. Actors today, trying to “relate” to historical characters on a psychological and motivational level usually find the first stumbling block the words; artificial sounding language which feels uncomfortable in the modern mouth. Therefore coming to grips with relatively authentic historical verbiage and tackling it on it’s own terms rather than ours, will give you a very firm foundation on which to build.

It might be useful for you to start here by identifying several different categories of written text which you as an actor might encounter:

1) Accurately preserved record of what some real person from another time actually said. Call it the ORAL TRADITION;

2) Authentic archive material written to be read rather than spoken. Let’s call that the LITERARY TRADITION;

3) Play texts from other times which aim to represent realistically their own contemporary social idiom = THEATRICAL REALITY;

4) Play texts or literature written in heightened social language, stylised prose or verse = STYLISED REALITY;

5) Scripts or literature based on historical situations or events but written at some time in the past other than when the action takes place. For the want of a more precise term call it DRAMATISED HISTORY.

To us today the five forms may not be immediately identifiable. It’s worth storing the short list of different definitions somewhere for future reference. Then, as a first practical exercise, it might be useful for you to select a slice of apparently realistic social dialogue from any period play and compare it against either newspaper reportage or published personal letters, memoir or diary from the same period.

The unfamiliar syntax and vocabulary can be off-putting - and might act as a psychological block to a greater sense of the characters authenticity. So, first confirming for yourself that real people really did - in reality - talk in ways that to us today seem distinctly artificial is a valuable first step. Of course there is a difference between real social language and theatrical dialogue or heightened prose.

However, even in "comedies of manners' from any period, the conversation is based on the reality of the way certain groups of people chose to talk during that period. Remember, even today some people choose their speech idiom rather than it being dictated by their social circumstances. The fact that in times past the "man in the street” really did use vocabulary, syntax and idiom so different from our own way of talking can and must not be ignored.

Trying to make people from the past sound like people of today is where so many actors set out on the false trail towards recreating history. Learning to tackle an unusual verbal style on it’s terms rather than your own more familiar territory, will take you a long way towards our main objective.

Systems, Methods and common sense:

The simple process I’m offering you has evolved during HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOPS over the past 12 years. More about them later. The system (for want of a better word) is basically a check list or questionnaire which should identify the social, psychological and physical CONDITIONING FACTORS which made the character what he/she is. This check can only be applied at a late stage in your personal character development process.

In photographic terms think of it as a series of filters, each of which allows you to view the image in one very specific light. When all SEVEN filters are in position the clarity and depth of focus revealed can be startling.

However, because this process (as I already said) should happen late in your established routine for building a character - I intend to keep you waiting for more information. First we have other ground to explore - mainly your current personal perceptions of “HISTORY AS A CONCEPT” and the “CONDITIONING FACTORS” which made you what you are today.

So - let me re-assure you that my only aim in this book is to offer actors an easy-to-use process by which they can personally and privately check out characters they’re creating. This will not interfere or clash with previous training or current work in progress with directors or tutors.

Finally - a word of warning before we set out; the processes by which I’m suggesting we reach our main objective involves travelling a quite complicated route in terms of detailed creative mental speculation.

So while we’re exploring territory which is semi-familiar to you, I do ask you not to race ahead, jump to advance conclusions or shoot off at half cock - and that isn’t as rude as it sounds. To “Shoot off at half cock” is a phrase used in antique firearm terminology - and this book is about not putting modern interpretations onto historical situations.

Chapter 2:


Schoolroom history

Popularised history

Theatrical history

Contemporised history

Actors “relating to” history

Dramatised history

Social History / Social Anthropology / Archaeology

Americans and history

Advantages of increased historical authenticity in drama:

The main trouble with history is - there’s an awful lot of it. From pre-historic man to the time when your parents were young people - in global terms that’s a mind boggling backlog. Knowing what was going on in different places around the world in parallel times for only the past 300 years is a career in itself. Even professional historians usually specialise in one relatively small area of detailed knowledge. So, where do we begin? First by reviewing, briefly, our most likely personal experience of History with a big H.

Schoolroom history:

Strings of dates and a jumble of imagery which timewise doesn’t hang together in our minds (at least at the beginning); that’s the usual starting point. Enough to put most people off for life. Seldom the most popular subject on the school timetable for your average healthy minded child. Often mainly political history - and who gives a damn about “The Past” at that age? Meanwhile, at home the same young people may be avidly following events in Robin Hood’s England, Caligula’s Rome, the adventures of Caribbean pirates and spectacular doings among the pyramids of ancient Egypt - to say nothing of endless Westerns set in a largely mythical 19th century America. Even so, many young people will tell you they don’t like “history”. Certainly, school visits to museums inevitably lack the impact of popular drama.

Popularised history:

Whether on video or in the potent darkness of a movie theatre, as children or adults our most vivid and lasting images of history reached us through “entertainment”, complete with all it’s random inaccuracies. Inappropriate casting, “artistic licence”, the illiteracy of the script writer or studio boss, or even film censorship for moral or political reasons (depending on where and when you live in history). Here again the intrusion of today into recreations of yesterday leaves us with conflicting images of our Robin Hood. Highly stylistic cinematic visualisations of the same character spawned in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980 are implanted somewhere in most of our memories.

Theatrical History:

Many actors have told me that in school they responded well to history from an early age. Perhaps the theatrical potential of it appealed to a particular latent instinct in them. However, when a young actor first adventures into the realms of historical dramatic literature, the only real history they absorb is about when and how certain types of plays were first performed. Even this may remain delightfully vague on the larger canvas of world history.

When acting “Period” for the first time, style may seem more important than real character definition. A few flourishes and flounces later (remembering that young actors, like ordinary mortals, are already knee deep in the popular misconceptions bred by films and TV) an actor is usually still as far away from historical reality as Shakespeare was from Cleopatra’s Egypt.

Of course there are some very good “Period” workshops available to actors. If you’re lucky enough to study acting with someone who has the time and personal enthusiasm for accurate historical focus, you’re already ahead of me. But, unfortunately, most theatre training programs are overloaded, and Historical Context as a subject is often reduced to actors familiarising themselves with the general look of the period, and being aware of the general political climate of the time in which a particular play is set. The shortcomings of this process may often be more the fault of the students than the teachers. Young actors eager to make their own personal mark on Hedda Gabler often don’t want to be inhibited by things like the social niceties of the place and period ... in spite of the fact that this may be the main point of the story.

In some ways of course this impatience is understandable in terms of time available. Gaining a clearer appreciation of a particular point in history can seriously eat into valuable rehearsal time if approached in the wrong way.

So, unless you have a natural enthusiasm for history as a subject, I’m not suggesting that you should rush out and sign up for a crash course in SOCIAL HISTORY and SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY - not yet anyway.

Contemporised History:

There are several dramatic advantages in deliberately drawing contemporary parallels when dramatising historical subjects. To make a character live - to make it seem real - to make it natural as we perceive “natural” - it seems obvious that we should climb inside it and invest it with our own sense of reality whist retaining the period trimmings. Perhaps more importantly, a modern audience finds it much easier to relate to characters in historical situations if their behaviour and emotional interactions are presented in terms of today.

History reviewed in a modern frame of reference is a very effective and potent dramatic device ... but, as I said on page one, to unintentionally allow the late 20th Century to impose itself upon serious attempts to recreate an authentic approximation of the past is what we’re talking about. Even if subtle and modest compromises are made, many valuable dramatic opportunities are in danger of being lost.

A more drastic form of contemporising is to deliberately update the period of a text from the past into more recent times. This may be done for a variety of reasons. Jan Kott’s influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary argues the case extremely well. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar presented as a jackbooted fascist dictator may be justified to some extent. It certainly does allow a modern audience to relate to the characters more easily than if they’re all draped in bed sheets. Hamlet in black leather and riding a motorbike might sugar the pill for school children being given their first dose of Shakespeare. A heavily feminist production of Taming of the Shrew can make for a provocative evening - but is it still the play Shakespeare wrote? Yes, contemporary relevance found in old text is sometimes dramatically very valuable, but it is usually only half the truth of the original.

Highlighting one aspect of a great play may throw other interesting textures into dark shadow, distorting the overall intention of the author. Maybe the reason for shifting a familiar old script from one period to another is intended to help us view the work in a fresh light. Baz Lurman's Romeo and Juliet movie is a good example.

But whether moving a play forwards or backwards from its original time, unless the social and moral climates of the two periods correspond to a large degree, the process might create uncomfortable anachronisms.

Noel Coward’s delightful revue sketch about a director of a play set in the 1920s backdating it 30 years because the costumes were more attractive, illustrates the absurdities. This gives us Victorian gentlemen drinking Green Goddess cocktails and ladies doing The Charleston in crinolines. So - although there are often legitimate reasons for drawing parallels between our own time and the content of plays from the past - it is the opposite of the goal I’m working towards here. I propose that by using the unfamiliar quality of true historical authenticity, fresh and surprising light can often be thrown on the behaviour of the characters and the circumstances of their lives. Helping an audience to appreciate the differences between living then-and-now is full of exciting dramatic and comic possibilities. Success depends upon the actors’ creative flair for recognising and interpreting for the audience precisely how TIMES HAVE CHANGED rather than looking for present day similarities.

Actors “relating to” History:

Another form of contemporised history we should perhaps acknowledge here involves an aspect of contemporary actor training - improvisation. Performers soon discover the value of transposing an historical character or situation into the present in order to free it from the confusing trappings of “Period”. A very useful device. However, in terms of our objective, this must be viewed as an essentially temporary change of focus; an intermediate process used only to get the true period into a sharper focus. Because of its hidden dangers we will return to the subject of improvisation later in much greater detail. Our main objective being to find the characters in their own time rather than to reinterpret them in terms of our contemporary social and emotional conditioning factors, let us press ahead with our overview of History as a concept.

Dramatised History:

By this, as I told you earlier, I mean any text which dramatises a situation which was already history (even if recent history) when written. Because our basic premise argues that a lot of today inevitably creeps into recreations of yesterday - we need to look carefully at any play written about “the past”. For example, in our recent experience Peter Shaffers’ Amadeus and Robert Bolts’ Man For All Seasons may admirably evoke for us the periods they aim to recreate. I wonder how they will look to people in fifty years time? Arthur Miller’s inescapably 1950s witches of Salem in the MacCarthy era play The Crucible already must be played as something of a period piece. Plays about George Washington and Shakespeare written in the 1920s and 1930s are incredibly “dated” today. The problems of acting historical characters written out-of-their-time are not particularly relevant to us here - but of course it is an important factor to consider when watching historical recreations on film or video. This is how preconceptions (misconceptions) about history are perpetuated.

Social History & Social Anthropology:

Maybe the distinctions between these two academic disciplines are already clear to you. If not, in terms of acting, they matter only when you start to track down reference material for yourself - the books are stored in different parts of most libraries. I’ll leave Professors Cox and Beatty to define the subtle differences for you in the final chapter. (ADD)


I’m not deliberately trying to complicate your lives, but while we’re exploring the territory we might as well mention this very important aspect of (literally) digging into the past. For the actor there is much value in the discoveries and re-constructions of archaeological remains, but also a potential danger. The crumbling ruins and shattered pottery, even the better preserved museum exhibits such as 200 year old tapestries and 300 year old leather, are all relics of the dead.

As actors, we are attempting to mentally revisit the past as it was then, not how it survives now. You need to visualise an old house when it’s bricks where recently laid and the paint hardly dry; the embroidery sparklingly fresh, leather flexible and full of life and the gold braid untarnished by time. Of course in the late 20th century, modern technology and scholarship are making very serious attempts to give us this opportunity.

Academically sound projects in terms of “Living Museums” try to show us the life and times of different old sites. The results vary from plasticised tourist attractions to earnest sociologists attempting to live and farm in pre-historic or Eighteenth Century conditions for months on end. As our objective is to re-visualise for ourselves the physical, psychological and social CONDITIONING FACTORS of people living at other points in time, yes we can learn from any other efforts towards a similar aim. The main thing is to keep an open mind.

While we’re on the subject of archaeology, I will mention briefly, attempts to recreate archaeologically accurate reconstructions of theatrical performances (usually in original theatres). This should certainly be of interest to us, but so early in our journey towards our objective, I would prefer to keep a sharp focus on exploring the possibility of accurately recreating real people in specifically everyday social situations rather than obsolete acting styles.

Americans and History:

Speaking generally, the UA has always been the country where tomorrow mattered more than yesterday. The land was populated by people who at one period in history or another arrived having left everything behind to make a fresh start. However, as Shirley Lee says in her book Language in the USA, “ ... penniless emigrants brought with them in their meagre baggage a wealth of culture, crafts skills . ... and the folk memories of hundreds of generations.”. Americans have quite frequently told me “Of course, we have no history”. In American schools the subject may rate low in a popularity poll, but since the first colonists settled in Virginia (financially subsidised by Shakespeare’s “Virgin Queen”) the North American continent has been seething with history in the making.

Dramatic potential of increased historical authenticity:

Because what I’m looking for is basically such a subtle change in the mindset of the actor, the immediate impact of an unusually authentic recreation of history should not be obvious or distracting. The main value of this process of checking out a character for authenticity should usually involve only minor adjustments on the part of the actor if character preparation has been accurate and honest.

However, the actual process of checking will give the actor a more secure command of the character’s responses and offer more alternatives as the character grows. Knowing exactly where the character “is at” in terms of his/her family background, education, domestic or craft skills and general knowledge ... being aware of his/her medical status even down to state of teeth or eyesight is never irrelevant - even when the information has no direct effect on the action. Whether born in town or country may dictate the mental rhythm, the way he/she moves and looks at people or animals, behaves in a crowd or copes with an unexpected crisis. All sorts of opportunities for slightly modifying responses demanded by the script may be found in this added awareness of how the character came to be where he/she is 'at' at that moment in time.

I’m not talking about gratuitous imposition of irrelevant and distracting detail - I’m talking character depth. Many actors cover some of this ground intuitively. All I’m suggesting is that by making it a systematic process, you can verify what you have already decided about the character’s background against what you know of the time and circumstances in which he/she lived. Many of you may think I’m still talking standard actor training and common practice. I wish it were so.

If we were together in an HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOP I would ask you to run through any scene which you had already performed or worked on as a text study exercise. Having watched it I would ask the character a few relevant questions depending on what I had already learned about him/her. If you were sufficiently confident of your ground you could, in character - after considering my question - either give me an immediate answer or, as an actor make a spot decision which would be in tune with everything you had already decided about your character and how he/she was behaving within the action of the play.

This is true Improvisation; working principally from the information you already have about your character, gained from the words they speak, the action the author requires them to initiate or respond to - and what other people in the script say about them or imply.

Again you may think this is standard practice - but in a Workshop session it often becomes obvious that many character choices made by actors are rooted in their own personalities rather than being based on information supplied by the author. Here, we’re back to the old “Is acting an interpretive art or creative art?” question. Of course actors must invent and create! Unfortunately all too often, an actor’s problems with interpretation and interaction with other actors lie in character detail they’ve invented which does not fit comfortably with information contained in (or implied by) the text.

These are “EGO CHOICES” rather than character choices. So, moving ahead; when dealing with historical situations the actors instinctive reactions can benefit from being checked out in terms of period. An actor's spontaneous emotional reactions are valuable - don’t misunderstand me. The actor’s personal response to situations within the text are extremely necessary to the development process - as long as they are emotionally honest reactions rather than something based on conventional ideas about “playing period”. That’s where the danger lies. An actor’s good honest gut reaction to a dramatic situation needs to be listened to - but afterwards, in terms of period, it must be checked against everything that is known about the characters life experience in it’s time as opposed to ours.

These private mental speculations on CONDITIONING FACTORS give an actor so much extra ammunition to draw upon. The whole of PART TWO of this book is devoted to illustrating for you a variety of facets of life in the past. Small everyday possibilities which, together, conditioned people to make them essentially different from people today.

For example in PART TWO under the first heading (FAMILY SOCIAL & FINANCIAL STATUS) I touch upon the conventional theatrical or cinematic representation of Victorian domestic living. Whether this shows us something cosy and picturesque or squalid, usually it totally ignores the physical realities of heat and cold. To an audience used to central heating and easily available domestic hot water - even if we’re not talking poverty level but in a middle class Victorian house . ... with a bright fire in the domestic hearth, this could scorch the face and freeze the shoulder blades of a lady in a muslin gown. Who knows that today? What value has it dramatically speaking?

In Little Women a key scene, the scorched dress episode means very little to a modern audience unless three facts of Victorian life are appreciated by the audience:- (1) The tradition of men warming their backs before the fire; (2) The necessary presence of domestic fires as the only source and focal point for heat; (3) The harsh economic realities of there being literally no other dress available that the character Jo could possibly wear if going to a party given by their social superiors. That is where the drama and comedy of that particular situation lies. So, if an actor today has seriously mentally explored not only the social and economical situation - but also the physical, technical implications of living with live fire as the only form of heat and light - this must reinforce the impact on today’s audience.

Similar rethinks could alter the focus of many everyday situations being recreated - and make the actor (and through him/her the audience) alert to lots of meaty, dramatically potent possibilities.

However, again I acknowledge the danger that authentic historical detail being added indiscriminately could distract a modern audience from the main dramatic line of the plot development. Following this reasoning, for a moment consider a paradox: Present day designers of theatre and movie sets and costumes are expected to have precise and accurate knowledge of visual social history, and recreate it for us. But it is often argued that historically correct reconstruction of authentic human social behaviour might somehow distract or be unintentionally funny.

The values of added awareness of historical actuality (for actor and audience) will become clearer as we explore in detail the SEVEN HEADINGS which constitute the Check List. For the moment although we’re still on the subject of history, let’s return briefly to CONDITIONING FACTORS - the psychological and physical character-forming differences between living then and now.

To find this focus it will, I hope be useful to first look at elements which form and condition the actor’s own personality and social behaviour. This again may sound like standard teaching in any acting course.

However, in my experience most actors do tend to look for similarities rather than differences and perhaps view history through the wrong end of the telescope. In which case - we have now reached a point in time when, whatever your individual perception of history is at this moment, the next step forward if we are to pursue our objective together is for you to join me in looking at the past in a very specific way.



You as part of history:

In terms of the actor’s creative imagination, this is the first leap I’m asking you to make. Frankly, it’s as logical a perception as imagining history starting way back with the Dawn of Time (whenever that might have been!). Yesterday is already history, so - four questions to ask yourself:-

Question one: Are you the same person you were a year ago?

How have your opinions changed since then?

Question two: In the past five years, how have people you knew then and still know, changed?

Question three: Does the social climate and environment around you today seem the same as it was for you ten years ago?

Think about it. This is simply a mental exercise to start you looking at history as something you’re inescapably connected to. Social History as distinct from Political History immediately becomes more approachable because it concerns everyday people in everyday situations, rather than the leaders of any particular society.

Final question: As an actor, what process would you use to recreate your own behaviour and thought patterns from ten years ago?

You can soon become more conscious of how subtle changes in CONDITIONING FACTORS and experience make people behave and respond differently, by thinking the preceding four questions through systematically. As a basic principle, stepping back in time means un-learning information and removing the results of experience inappropriate to the state-of-mind you’re trying to recreate.

Our connections with the past:

Next let’s look at another situation close to home. Parents and grandparents, where they survive, are our direct links to times past. They can be re-evaluated as living history (although they may not be flattered). You may already be conditioned to dismiss them as “Has beens”, but that perception may have to change because they are your nearest and most tangible demonstration of how history works.

You may already have heard something of their childhoods, their vacations, the sense of values that were bred into them by their parents. This information you may already have rejected on a personal level as being irrelevant, obsolete and uninteresting. The changes they disapprove of, their regret at the differences between life today and the world they used to know are the signs of the sort of progression of history you may need, as actors, to begin to recognise. This is the first step in developing your own process of mentally journeying backwards into the past with ease.

Now think for a moment about what mental techniques you might use as an actor to take on the persona of your father/mother or grandparents. Not just to reproduce the way they behave - but why they behave the way they do. Here you may have more than usual historical reference material available to you. Although the character you wish to assume is so close to home, the psychological and emotional changes your personality will need to undergo may be quite drastic before you can think the way they think and respond the way you know they would respond. If this is the case, how much more difficult to set about recreating a real person from a different time period for which appropriate role models are not in front of you? Don’t panic - there are ways.

All products of our own times:

Before we move forward - one slight step back. Having absorbed the fact that we all have a direct and intimate connection with the past - let me complicate your life by warning you to beware of GENERALISATION. When equating yourself personally with somebody who lived at another time, you obviously also need to consider the CONDITIONING FACTORS imposed by different cultural and social environments. Often very subtle differences. You are a product of not only your own time, but also of your own specific set of social, economic circumstances - so watch out!

You can easily remind yourself of the subtle effects of this social conditioning by watching and listening to people close to you today who are basically similar to yourself but were born and bred into circumstances slightly different from your own. Example; different outlook of their parents, living in slightly different neighbourhood, having brothers and sisters or none. If close friends, why are they so similar but at the same time so different from you today?

The broad concept of CONDITIONING FACTORS is the key to everything which follows here. The subject gets the next chapter to itself - so before we leave HISTORY as a concept - one further idea for you to absorb and explore along the way.

By plane or train:

If you take a plane in one place and land in another - how aware are you of the distance travelled and the territory crossed? If you take a train in California, cross the Rockies, spend a day and a night thundering across deserts or prairies before reaching the fertile plains of the corn belt or bible belt, with stretches of industrial wastelands or verdant swamplands between before reaching either Philadelphia or New Orleans ... ? Even if you only glanced out of the window very occasionally during the journey, when you arrive you really will have a sense of “where you’re at”.

Mentally you can do the same with time travel. Rather than trying to pick yourself up in one century and dump yourself down a hundred years earlier - take the train and be conscious of the milestones you pass in terms of human achievement, discoveries and world events. By gradually building for yourself a compendium of basic historical “milestones” you can soon have a potent personal train window as a visual aid when mentally transporting yourself backwards in time. It’s not as complicated as it might at first sound.

The basic concept is all I want you to recognise at this point. Later you will find helpful suggestions about getting “The Past” into a manageable and unoppressive vista. Your time map, charting the social changes can be like the old route maps supplied by the railroads to help passengers identify landmarks and points of interest as they travelled across foreign territory on a long journey. In the final chapter you’ll find a lot of help towards building your own information bank. But, for the moment, let’s stay in more familiar territory. Where are you at today.



What makes us what we are?
In the late 20th century most people are aware of the basics of human psychology. That our individual personalities and social behaviour are shaped by a range of outside forces in addition to our genetic heritage is taken for granted. Actors usually know more about it than most people because we’re encouraged to delve deep into ourselves. So, I’m assuming that the mechanics of someone born into our contemporary society, absorbing information and being conditioned by it is familiar. However, as another practical exercise, I recommend that you systematically “think through” the factors which made you the individual you are; connected to but substantially different from brothers, sisters, parents and neighbours. Think about it - step by step, cradle to now. I’ll explain the sort of thing I mean.

How early in life did you begin to absorb information and respond to it? In the cradle? In the womb? Some people believe that birth trauma leaves an imprint on our emotional memory. However much we retain from the time before we are capable of communication with other human beings, from that point we certainly begin to build; consciously and unconsciously, storing responses.

Charting the progress of any individual through early life is an interesting exercise. Because the canvas is so broad - dividing the field to manageable proportions is the first step. That is why in our HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOPS we eventually devised our Check List of headings under which the full range of life conditioning factors could be grouped. Quite an undertaking to try and assemble and sort the whole range of alternative possibilities under SEVEN basic headings.

So let’s return to the idea of you retracing your early years (days) in the light of the seven headings which I will identify briefly in sequence as you quickly track through your life from the time of your first conscious thoughts.


Depending on your family’s SOCIAL AND FINANCIAL STATUS (1), from birth what you saw and heard was all you knew. You accepted everything as being the only and natural way of things. Same applies to your immediate family’s manner of behaviour towards people outside the home. Then, as you found your way out of the immediate domestic environment, this gave you new imagery and experiences to digest.

Depending whether or not you had brothers and sisters, initial school experience perhaps brought you, for the first time, into close contact with children bred in homes where the parameters of existence were different from yours. LEARNING & KNOWLEDGE (2) did not begin with school. Discovering how to get what you needed or desired, experimenting to move from point A to point B involved learning. A whole range of skills are picked up even before speech. However, the formal systematic process of “educating” young people is in itself still conditioned by the financial and social circumstances of the individual. But, whether or not what you experienced at school was supported in the home, your domestic pre-school experience certainly affected the value and potency of your formal schooling.

If you have followed me so far, thinking in terms of your own personal experience, now we reach a point where the broader influences of contemporary life began to offer you an even wider scope - because by that time you were in a position to make choices.

So the next factor on our check list of conditioning factors requires us to change the filter again and look back in terms of MEDICAL HISTORY (3). From our earliest days the health factor can modify all other experience or responses. We will explore this idea later (as we will explore every separate heading much more fully) but in making anybody what he/she is, the personal health factor is obviously very influential.

In the HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOP the next filter we look through is SENSE OF FAMILY (4) - which at first may seem to be a repeat of heading number one. Having already thought in terms of family social and financial status which is basically in relationship with the outside world and material possessions - “Sense of Family” focuses much more strongly on the emotional interaction within the immediate family, parental role models and other factors which condition an individual in terms of personality.

Random influences such as:- Atmosphere of close family unity or constant internal conflict; tribal loyalties or clan feuds; inter-family links through marriage; marital ambitions and marriages of convenience; parents planning to bring up their children differently from the way they were brought up; emotional inheritance or breaking the behavioural mould; being tied to apron strings or flying the coop.

Connected directly to this sense of family, the next heading is RELIGION (5). In the past this was usually a much stronger influence on everyday life than it is today for most people. Under this heading in our analysis, concepts of MORALITY & CRIME are also covered. Precepts received in the home or distilled from social experience colour many aspects of our adult development. Moral conscience, guilt, sense of values and social responsibility all fall under this heading.

Next, another very influential but slightly more abstract conditioning factor is whether you were born into TOWN OR COUNTRY (6). Childhood in an urban or a more rural community does seem to stay with people even after they have left one for the other. The rhythm of life and different range of values instilled in formative years somehow seems to persist.

The final filter on our basic Check List is headed CULTURAL CLIMATE (7); a rather difficult focus to achieve. Aesthetic awareness as a concept is either introduced as something staple to everyday life or it isn’t. Alternatively, some individuals may find it within themselves and this bring them into conflict with their environment. Culture with a capital C is an aspect of human conditioning that I find fascinating but illusive.

So there you have it, the basic Check List we will be working with. As it applies to your personal experience, work out for yourself if any conditioning factors which influenced your life are not catered for. Each heading will be explored in depth during the second part of this book but for the moment - WHAT MADE YOU WHAT YOU ARE - is very relevant to what comes next.

What made them what they were?

How different were the conditioning factors of people living in times past? DIFFERENT! At this point I intend to introduce a surprise element. A sociological “Wild Card” which can affect practically any and every situation that almost anyone born after 1950 must include in their calculations. So - the name of the card? One small word which transformed the world - TELEVISION.

Many other factors influence the way people live and work and think since the middle of this Century, but the real impact and influence of a TV in a home has, perhaps, yet to be accurately assessed by the Social Psychologists and Social Anthropologists.

When you thought through your life from cradle to now (and I hope you did it - otherwise we’re all wasting our time) did you identify just how many of the perceptions and images you stored away came via the TV screen? Whether it was concepts of tigers with human personalities, or what a real tiger looked like in the wild. Images of other cities, other countries; the sea although you live a thousand miles from it?

In addition you saw into the homes of other families more wealthy than yours, parents more glamorous and good natured. In your early formative years you not only saw outside your immediate environment, you observed and shared in thousands of human dramas from Popeye to James Bond enacted in your own living space.

To escape from yourself and from the late 20th century you need to learn the knack of unlearning information, purging experience and familiar everyday imagery from your brain. We’ll spend a lot more time with that thought - but for now try and live the life from cradle to now of somebody before mass communication by television, movies, radio and, for the hell of it, telephone. That puts us back only 85 years. The same time-leap will also remove from your personal experience domestic electricity, indoor lavatories, motorised transport, pneumatic tyres or surfaced highways. Where are you now? Can you sustain such a mind boggling time leap?

Imagine someone born into a modest home (in town or country depending where you were born) at the opening of the 20th Century.. The daily routine you sense your parents living, the possessions and domestic facilities you explore. What is missing? The social behaviour expected of you and the severely limited opportunities available to you for observing life. The household skills you would need to learn which today don’t really concern us; collecting and chopping wood for the cooking stove (in cities as well as country), skinning and dressing meat for the table (no supermarkets or even food packaging), perhaps growing your own vegetables for the pot or only fresh, locally grown seasonal fruit in the stores.

By the time your were (if you were lucky) able to attend some sort of school - what would you learn in what sort of atmosphere? Apply your personal health experience to someone at that time before anaesthetics, penicillin or antibiotics. Would you have survived? The church and moral climate: What leisure activities available or permissible. The rigorous taboo on sexuality in any overt form - plus lack of opportunity for knowledge. The imagination was, for most, the only route to distant places. Concepts of distance, how many “outsiders” would you have actually met? The picture we’re looking at is so fundamentally different - but it can be made real. At this point in the proceedings all I’m asking you to accept is that ... although we are making a list of what we need to speculate on in order to achieve a more vivid perception of times past - perhaps of equal importance is to learn how to unlearn or remove from our minds temporarily, contemporary knowledge and the experience we grew up with.

This is why “relating” to historical characters in terms of ourselves today can produce distorted responses. Don’t be dismayed by the gap between then and now which I’m emphasising. I need you to know it’s there before we start building bridges across it. For the moment, my advice is that you should firmly to absorb into your mind - that we as individuals are directly connected to people who lived in different time in physically different circumstances.

As an actor, quickly reassess the way you are used to imagining yourself into the character of somebody from the past. What I’m proposing does not involve altering your method of approach to building a character - but I do seriously advise you to beware of exploring the past in terms of your personal emotional experience, your preconceptions of The Past - or your own ego. It is a foreign and exotic land we’re heading for. Approach it as an alien from outer space - and question everything.



Finally, before we end Part One and go on to explore the wide variety of dramatic possibilities opened up by a more accurately imagined historical mindset - I promised you some information about HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOPS.

Over the past twelve years during rehearsals for productions and when working with students on text study around the world, I very often found myself having to take time out from rehearsals to deal with problems arising from actors evaluating characters from the past in terms of their own social experience and value judgements. With young actors in particular this often resulted in them being critical of the author for making their characters react in ways which seemed to them to be unreal or “theatrical”. Particularly where concepts of class distinctions or feminist issues were involved, being unable to find sympathy for or being unable to “relate to” characters was a common problem.

At the time I didn’t know this was called ETHNO-CENTRISM because I hadn’t discovered SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY. However, that’s where the trouble often lay. In the early days I tried various games and improvisations to try and clear the barriers and the sense of artificiality of dramatised history. The results we achieved were often highly naturalistic characters, supposedly from another time ... but still essentially modern in concept. Soon, to help us get an undistorted view of the differences and norms of living in another time, I found myself trying to coax actors to put their own experience and value judgements into suspension.

This brought me into direct (and sometimes vehement) conflict with disciples of Lee Strasberg’s “Method”. To some it seemed that I was dismissing the life work of Stanislavski himself. However, after much discussion and experimentation, our informal system for “thinking through” the life of each character in terms of life conditioning influences emerged. You may already have recognised that this is exactly what Stanislavski set out to do, before he and other people over-complicated his original idea. Stanislavski’s system (without a capital S during his early years) was to enable actors to more fully occupy the character’s time and space. After a lifetime in theatre Stanislavski was still elaborating on his “System” - but originally it was as simple as our objective here ...

To recreate the past by travelling to find characters in their own times rather than dragging them into ours.

Systems and Methods when dignified with capital letters seem to produce dogma. Even before his death Stanislavski had disciples who couldn’t agree among themselves about the great man’s “System”. So, there may be some danger in my referring to my very simple procedure as a system. HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOPS in the past have been used only to introduce the basic principle of the seven heading Check List and demonstrate how it can be used.

A “Workshop” can be anything from a two hour discussion to a series of eight three hour sessions analysing work in progress on Scene Study texts. Always the main aim has been to encourage actors to explore the premise that a more accurately imagined past can produce valuable dramatic and comic material for them to use in performance. Perhaps the most important fact is that the check list, once its full implications have been explored, becomes something an actor should use privately rather than in public. It is a simple personal routine for imagining your way into a precise mind-set. This can be achieved relatively easily without encroaching on rehearsal time and other actor’s creative processes. It certainly takes deliberate concentration, self-discipline and an established routine - but this can remain personal, flexible and informal.

So - basically, the concept is all I’m offering. It’s up to you how you use it. My so-called system is little more than a packing list for time travellers. Like the informal packing list which many people make when going on a journey, it should remind you what you need to take along, but also serve to identify what you should leave behind. Beware of excess baggage when travelling in time. Like any packing process, the more often you travel the less detailed your reminder list becomes. Same applies to the sub-headings of the check list. As you become more familiar with the different implications behind the seven basic headings, the easier it becomes to spot check any character from any period for true definition and three-dimensional depth.

But first it is important to absorb the basic reasoning behind each of the seven basic headings and explore in greater detail the full extent of situations covered by each heading.

PART TWO of this book consists of material which has emerged during various “Workshops”. I’ve piled in a lot of useful information, but it’s up to you to sort through the accumulation of ideas; and use or discard according to your own personal needs. What I’m offering is not a formal dogma but a systematic procedure which you can adapt to your own personal needs. Ultimately the list you distil from it will be short and infinitely variable.



To recapitulate briefly:

Everything that has gone before boils down to ... systematically exploring the conscious and subliminal conditioning which make nuances of inbred behaviour in a specific historical period understandable ... In other words - cause and effect; the trick being to recognise the cause. Cause = CONDITIONING FACTORS.

So - back to the basic list of seven headings. Their sequence becomes important.


Seven Basic Headings.


Details of the character's current and past precise circumstances.


What formal education, craft training plus specifics of early social/domestic learning processes.


Life experience in terms of character’s health and health-affecting factors plus state of medical knowledge both nationally and available to the character.


Domestic role models and character’s family climate plus aspirations (as distinct from “Social” ambitions).


Character’s moral outlook in terms of real faith or social conventions. Local, national and world wide state of religious power over society, civil law and emotions. Power of superstition due to lack of knowledge.


Contrast in life styles, values, knowledge and philosophical outlook - perceptions of “foreign-ness” and distance.


Character’s consciousness of, conditioning through, and aspirations towards .....

Some of the above may seem obvious - other factors, if they do not figure in the dialogue or dramatic line of the text may seem to have no direct influence on the character’s behaviour. No so. Subconscious influences or instilled behavioural responses may have conditioned the character deeply. Checking the focus of each aspect of a character’s back-ground separately might alert you to unexpected dramatic potential.

However, I’ve said it before (and believe me it’s true), once you have explored the full extent of each category in depth for the first time, checking down the list of basic headings soon becomes second nature. The basic list will be all you need. Like the packing list concept, the more often you do it the more simple the process becomes.

As an immediate development of the basic list, for each heading let’s add a list of sub-headings. Don’t panic - you don’t have to remember them all.


Principal sub-headings when visualising a character:

Family circumstances = current state of and previous family history ... ?
Type of dwelling - currently lived in plus born into ... ?
Material possessions - extent of - attitude towards ... ?
Class/caste distinctions - concepts in local & national terms in period under review ... ?
Character’s personal attitudes to superiors/inferiors ... ?
Personality advantages/disadvantages ... ?
What employment or craft skills if any - in terms of financial /social values ... ?
Ambitions - social / material ... ?
Family growing apart through your ambition or lack of drive?
Character’s concepts of social responsibility ... ?

What actual formal or informal academic learning ... ?
What absorbed domestic skills / know-how ... ?
What craft skills - psychological values of ... ?
Ability to read/write - practical / psychological implications of lack of ...
Will or incentive to learn more ... ?
Family splits & marital schisms - due to intellectual
differences ... ?
Character’s personal perceptions of general knowledge ... ?
Current state of world knowledge ... ?

Characters physical state due to:-
Diet - inadequate clothing - impractical clothing (fashion) - housing - exposure to heat / cold - current employment - previous employment ... ?
Natural weaknesses (eye, teeth, etc.) ... ?
Personal hygiene ... ?
Serious implications of damage to body ... ?
Perceptions of doctors, apothecaries, quacks ... ?
Home recipes, natural remedies, wise women ... ?
Midwives and weak or deformed children ... ?
Ravages of childbirth ... ?
Perceptions of physical ageing without aid of medication ... ?
Concepts of death / escape / eternal life ... ?

4. SENSE OF FAMILY ........?
Paternal / maternal role models+ other early exposure ... ?
Hierarchy of domestic family unit ... ?
Responsibilities of producing children - extra mouths or extra wage earners ... ?
Infant mortality ... ?
Dynasties, clans, tribal unity or conflict. ... ?
Arranged and political marriages ... ?
Eldest child must marry first ... ?
First born - value of male over female ... ?
Inheritance / heirs / dependants (family plus employees) ... ?
Marital status or prospects ... ?
Marriages growing apart through ambition or other factors...?
Social impossibility of divorce ... ?

5. RELIGIOUS FOCUS ( + morality and crime) ........?
Current period climate - National and local ... ?
Power of church (social, legal, emotional) ... ?
Non-conformity - social & legal dangers ... ?
Superstition and fear of the unknown ... ?
Exploitation of fear and ignorance ... ?
Sex and religion ... ?
Genuine faith or lip-service ... ?
Character’s personal perceptions of law and crime ... ?
Ditto concepts of personal moral responsibilities ... ?

6. TOWN & COUNTRY ........?
Distinctions between town/country dwellers - practical and philosophical ... ?
Concepts of “foreign-ness” ... ?
Country attitude to strangers ... ?
Exposure to travelled people ... ?
Ambition to travel ... ?
Perceptions of distance ... ?
Physical realities of transportation. ... ?


7) CULTURAL FOCUS ........?
Inbred concepts of ... ?
Exposure to ... ?
Social expectations regarding ... ?

That identifies the territory we’ll be exploring next.

To use Ibsen’s metaphor from Peer Gynt - it’s like peeling an onion - there is often no single core or centre for possible pointers to the sort of CONDITIONING FACTORS which result in subtle personal characteristics and behaviour. The chemistry of what makes us what we are and do what we do today - must also apply to any character from another time - except that a few of the rules have been changed.

These sub-headings are my own personal selection, but many others have been suggested during workshop sessions. The prospect of so many alternatives to consider can seem daunting. Complicated? - yes! Interesting? - that depends on you. Rewarding? - for most people, definitely.

So, start thinking about the following as signposts rather than destinations. Choose your own route and itinerary.

Take your own pace and travel according to your own needs.


“How long, oh lord, how long?”

In the past, each one of the seven categories has been developed individually into workshop sessions lasting anything from one to three hours of exploration and discussion. So, we’re now looking to distil 21 hours of talk into the next approximately 60 pages!!

Don’t worry. I have arrived at a sort of short-hand which you, the actor, can interpret and browse through to discover what chords different basic ideas strike in your own imagination. Or, alternatively, you can take each sub-heading more slowly and, line by line, make your own list of sub-sub-headings to expand upon at your leisure. From a practical point of view: use as models one or more different historical characters which you have already worked on. Measure the factors and socio-historical concepts mentioned briefly by me only as trigger points for your own imagination.

Let’s look first at:-


Family circumstances (current state & previous family history):

The text you are working on will, most likely, supply solid information about the general current circumstances of the character. However, if you systematically think through both social status and financial situation of your character from birth in terms of heritage and social achievement, this must inevitably give you a more detailed perspective on his/her current reputation and personal attitude among social equals, inferiors and superiors. Bringing this into focus may cause you to adjust general attitudes or could add a whole new dimension. Relationships and connections (both family and social) can sometimes either add power or cause problems for a character. Therefore these factors may subtly affect attitudes when he/she is meeting with other people within the action dictated by the text.

Type of dwelling (currently lived in and born into):

By having a strong visual image of current living accommodation and knowledge of previous physical comforts (or lack of), can be useful in several ways. Firstly they affect the character’s perceptions of other people’s material possessions. Your degree of domestic security, comfort etc. gives extra confidence or otherwise. By the actor establishing a firm visualization of the character’s own living conditions, if these have improved with time or been reduced, this may provide shades of behaviour modification within the action of the text. Nicholas Nickleby and his family are a useful example of people whose social and financial circumstances have changed for the worse - but they don’t dwell on it - and the way they conduct themselves is not effected by the change.

Material possessions (attitude towards):

This may seem to be a extension of the above. It is subtly different. Knowing how the character reacts to physical possessions is only loosely connected to what they grew up with or are used or not used to dealing with. So, the way a character treats possessions may be a subtle indication of other personality traits. Availability of material items is another factor to consider from an historical point of view. Apart from the actor knowing what possessions looked like - knowing more about availability of ‘things’ is also vital. This is an instance of a scale of reference totally different from our modern familiar attitudes towards materialism.

In our lifetimes we may have a very distorted view of the value of “possessions”. In living memory from 1940/1945, scarcity or rationing of food, clothes and other material goods totally changed people’s perceptions of the expendability of material things twice in one decade. Today we live in an age of built-in obsolescence. The general attitude changed in times of scarcity and again as soon as more products were in the post war shops. But, attitudes did not return to what they had been previously. In the 1930s the best sales pitch was “It will last you a lifetime”. After rationing ended it was “Out with the old, in with the new”. This is still the predominantly mid to late 20th Century attitude to material possessions. Every age and level of society had it’s own scale of values.

As a useful illustration of getting altered values into perspective, let’s concentrate upon our perceptions of clothes. Consider for a moment the implications of times when clothes were made by hand rather than bought in stores; when cloth was hand woven not machine made by the thousands of yards; when goods made from natural fibres soon wore out or the structure just perished within a short time; when cleaning of fabric was a laborious process if not impossible; when even soap (hand made in rural areas until at least 1920) was usually coarse; when perceptions of personal hygiene were vastly different, and hot water came from being heated over a fire (in a city in summer!).

It was more than “style” that often dictated the way someone stood or sat. The conscious physical protection of a garment might demand keeping (generally unwashed) hands off linen or satin - or preventing relatively clean hands getting dirty by not touching thick and damp and dirt impregnated travelling clothes.

For poorer people - the limited amount of clothes they could own at any one time; sleeping conditions without sheets or even blankets in unheated buildings most often demanded sleeping in at least some of their day clothes - maybe still damp from rain or mist - and muddy from unpaved streets; the concept of the Best Suit in any era right up to 1940; The Sunday Suit to enable the wearer and his family to hold their heads up and “look respectable” during the obligatory church visit once or twice each Sunday; acquisition of clothes “suitable” to one’s station in life; “Hand Me Downs” and “Making over”; “Keeping up appearances” within one’s own society however lowly.

The mortification of a girl walking out for the first time in what everybody knew to be a dress of her mothers cut down in size. Same with young boys in older brothers or even fathers cast-offs. The economic short cuts to “respectability” like paper collars and cuffs for bank clerks (celluloid if your were more superior or better paid). Removing and washing linen collars and cuffs from lady’s heavy fabric dresses was a weekly chore in many homes into the 1930s. Then the chore of sewing them back after ironing them carefully with flatirons heated on a coal burning stove or gas flame.

The social and economic dictates of clothing offers the actor much more than complaining about the discomfort of what the designer has provided. Jane Austen’s satin slippered provincial ladies walking to a social village evening walked in wooden soled clogs and carried their slippers, changing when they arrived. Not much different from American women before 1910, especially in village or small towns where board walks were only on the main street. Or Norwegian women who still today, on arrival at a social evening out, are offered facilities for removing their woollen underwear before joining the company.

Socially, the need for propriety of dress when going into public - even working class city girls or men could not appear in public without hat and gloves in almost any period before 1940. Sounds unbelievable - but it was true - and it mattered to the wearer.

Each period in history and each sub-strata of society had it’s own very firm and very strictly observed rules. They affect behaviour in so many ways the dramatic possibilities are endless. In Hedda Gabler when her husband has to rush out of the house - however urgent the panic - he would delay long enough to put on his hat and gloves. I’ve seen productions where the character Tesmann rushed out of the front door with one arm into the sleeve of his jacket! Yes, by modern standards, quite practical and emotionally proper. As a dramatically revealing specifically period detail, if in such an urgent situation he delays to add his hat and gloves and take his precious lacquered cane from the Hall Stand before his aunt or maid would tolerate his even opening the front door ... How much that tells the audience about the importance of public appearances - and so strengthens the impact of Hedda’s total disregard for what people think.

Availability, mentioned earlier, is another factor which influenced the social or economic value of goods. When distance increased the cost far above the actual value of an item; when replacement might be impossible for economic or other reasons.

The advent of mail-order transformed American Pioneer or Colonial domestic living. The credit system at different times in history brings nuances of dramatic colouring. The moral strictures of “owing no man nothing” in one social situation can be contrasted by high society, where if an influential customer paid his tailor’s bill in full, the poor tailor would fear that he had given offence and would get no more custom from an honoured client. Yet the same tailor might be made bankrupt by a wealthy client who carelessly failed to pay his bills. Finding the right pitch for the tailor’s response to such a situation or discovering the rich man’s true attitude towards paying trades people could help define many other “attitudes” in a character in Restoration or Georgian comedy.

Throughout the centuries, a female dress maker might make clothes for a socially influential woman who predictably could or would not pay - because if the clothes were seen and admired in the right places and the seamstress recommended to other socially influential potential customers, it was a good investment. Is your character wearing clothes it can afford - or must have socially even if it puts them hopelessly into debt? “Creditability” was a term which in some periods denoted social acceptance.

The importance of material possessions could be explored here at much greater length in both physical and social terms. I must leave the actor to discover possibilities by looking at texts and speculating on how and where things came from. But remember, modern casual expendability and built-in obsolescence were unknown. Long lasting, hand made, heirlooms and domestic assets all contribute to the sense of security or social standing in many periods in history. Wedding presents were chosen to enhance the social status of the newly married couple as well as their domestic comfort.

Even a character’s realistic response to jewels and rich fabrics in theatrical terms can be totally distorted. Wonderful opportunities are often missed. Costume jewellery and paste usually trap the actors handling them into forgetting the effect awareness of their real value (and occasionally their weight) would have. Real gems have an almost mystical dynamism and power. Watch the British TV recordings of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth or the royal weddings - and notice how crowns or velvet cushions are actually looked at by the people handling them. Their eyes and body tensions transmit an importance which is often lacking in theatrical events.

However, a wealth of possessions doesn't always indicate available spending money. Perhaps really rich people use Crown Derby china and gold plate in the way other people use crockery from Woolworth - but do they handle them carelessly? Sometimes in a theatrical brawl, a broken pewter tankard could be a tragic loss to a housewife and offer a moment of pathos after a comic scene involving a thoughtless act of domestic violence. Such opportunities should not be missed.

Social/cultural/material aspirations:

Still on the subject of material objects - exposure to something a character is not used to being close to can add extra colour to a reaction. We’ve already covered the social differences which can alter behaviour or, through nervousness, even tonal quality of speech. But aspirations or ambitions also subtly alter the natural reaction to material things in many dramatic situations. Envy and greed, awe and cold blooded manipulation of situations can all stem from the exposure to or proximity of things people would like to achieve. Think about it.

Class distinctions - worlds apart:

This very complicated category concerns “Knowing One’s Place” in the social hierarchy. Depending on the period, bringing into focus the general class/caste concepts in local & national terms can help the audience - and clarify reasons behind character interaction.

The specifics of Class Distinctions is a very difficult area, because the actor must know exactly how to pitch behaviour expected of someone of the character’s social standing in that period, and at the same time illustrate the character’s individual attitude as opposed to that generally expected of someone of his/her class. “Knowing one’s place” is also covered in the Education section.

Here we are talking more about allowing the audience to observe accepted class distinctions and their effect on social interaction - and particularly by counter acting against the audiences modern judgmental responses. Allowing servants to seem grateful for their employment; removing traces of resentfulness in socially inferior people; illustrating how much worse off servants and “dependants” could be if unemployed. The sheer anxiety of the Clown Feste in “Twelfth Night” when he offers up a sincere prayer as the Countess Olivia approaches, knowing that he has misbehaved. If she should turn him out of the house - what would his future be? No references. No “character”. No possibility of employment. A vagrant without means of support in fact automatically became a criminal in Shakespeare’s time. Starvation was a real possibility.

Difficult for a modern audience to appreciate such a situation - especially in the middle of a comedy. Such elements can bring a period sharply into focus if used imaginatively. A master may threaten to thrash a servant “within an inch of his life” for some minor disservice. How can a modern audience be helped to accept this reality?

In Victorian times it was said that the socially highest and lowest could interact comfortably - each being bred to “Know their place” - whereas the Middle Class at that time was generally uncomfortable with either their inferiors or superiors. Any book on the Social History of a specific period will offer a mine of information about how different strata of society interacted.

Distinctions between the “well born”, people with Professions, people in Trade have been quite clearly defined in many ages. Lower down the social scale the subtleties become more difficult to distinguish - but are very valuable in dramatic terms. Particularly among the servant class the various levels of superiority and inferiority within a household, and then further conscious distinctions between the staffs serving families with higher or lower social standing seem preposterous to us - but in the TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” these social subtleties were illustrated week after week, sometimes with rich dramatic value.

Appreciating the distinctions demands a lot from the actor in terms of background reading and creative thinking if a really precise picture is to emerge, but the value of knowing the subtle distinctions is considerable when they are put to dramatic use.

Character’s personal attitude to superiors/inferiors:

As mentioned earlier, the behaviour of your character although deeply conditioned by the norms expected of someone of their social standing - this behaviour will be modified by other more individualistic personality traits; good nature, ill-nature, pomposity, modesty. Most real “Gentlemen” behaved like gentlemen whether to their wives or their whores. Some “ladies” demonstrated their social power by making the lives of shop assistants impossible although their training had been to treat social inferiors with consideration. Then, as now, much depends on the individual - or what sort of day they are having.

For an actor the danger is generalisation. The trick is to create social archetypes and then humanise them by adding other touches appropriate to information suggested by their actions or responses from other characters.

The main problem for a modern actor is to remember that in the past someone socially inferior took a great risk if they “talk back” to someone of a superior class. Taking a horsewhip to someone was not uncommon and was generally not thought to be illegal. The fact that “lesser persons” did not show “attitude” is something people born into the social freedoms of the late 20th Century find very difficult to recreate. Thinking through the real alternatives open to a servant who is rebuked (even if unfairly) can open up interesting possibilities for an actor to show the audience how different life was then.

Personality advantages/disadvantages:

Anybody in modern society knows that some people can get away with anything, while others with perhaps less attractive or less likeable appearance have a much harder time. Pitching a character in terms of natural personality advantages/disadvantages can supply the actor with additional response material as long as this does not distract from (or conflict with) the general rhythm of plot. It can often explain a situation or story development which might otherwise leave the audience wondering just why or how events turned out the way they did.

What employment or craft skills if any(social values of):

A very important category, affecting more than material and social status. Practical skills also often affect the character’s self-esteem and how he/she is viewed by others. Within a specific historical period the actor understanding exactly what this degree of status implies may influence the character’s social behaviour subtly. Even in quite abstract situations when the character’s contribution to the plot of the play is minimal, knowing exactly where the character “is at” in terms of self-esteem or public regard or even comparative earning capacity because of specific skills or know-how can form a base on which to build.

Character’s concepts of social responsibility:

This aspect of social/financial status is covered more fully under the two headings of Family and Religious focus. But in terms of social input, a particular awareness of “respectability” may influence quite dramatically the way the character chooses to act in a given circumstance, or is perceived by others. The word respectability since Victorian times has acquired a taint of self-righteousness which it previously did not have. To be “worthy of respect” is perhaps to us a more meaningful phrase than to call someone respectable. It is interesting to be aware of such subtle shifts in the power of words.


Formal Education:

Education is currently understood to mean a systematically planned process. What actual formal academic learning a character had; where and when this began; the atmosphere in which it took place; the school building with exposure to more of the same or socially different young people all serve to build the individual. The local Dame School or Boarding School; being taught “book learning” at home rather than at school by a mother, father, maid servant, priest, specially hired teacher (of inferior social standing); or farmed out to live for a period with somebody with book knowledge. Distinctions between what a male or female child was expected (or allowed) to know. For the actor to build a precise picture of the process by which a character gained formal learning (if any) is never a wasted exercise. The character immediately comes into clearer focus for the actor.

Absorbed domestic skills/know-how:

Inevitably children learn from their domestic and social surroundings. This has already been covered when we explored growing up before TV influenced our lives so fundamentally. Deciding the exact circumstances in which a character grew up can give us a clear picture of the range or limitations of know-how. The values of know-how, and the degree to which the character has used it to “better himself” or “make good” adds a lot to his general outlook on life.

For most females in the past, whatever the social status, becoming a good housekeeper improved chances of marriage. Being a good cook or running a house well was often more important than good looks. A maker of good pastry or planner of good meals; season by season being able to stock a larder so that out of season produce is preserved and well stored, these were the valuable skills, and they demanded a wider range of know-how than even Mrs Beaton’s Book of Household Management includes. That book can be an actresses' bible when assuming the role of a 19th Century woman of any status. It will tell you how to make shoe polish, and pewter polish and cleaning fluids - and how to deal with housemaids and scullery maids - and how to behave when people of socially lesser or greater status call.

Knowing how to deal with running a house and still find time to help deliver a calf from a cow in labour; how to milk and separate cream and churn butter perhaps distinguishes a townswoman from a country wife.

Depending on time and place and social level, these skills along with sewing and patching and mending were all part of general “education” of upper as well as the servant class. Well-born children stitching samplers in the nursery were not only learning their alphabets and numbers by embroidering letters in a variety of stitches - they were learning valuable household skills when clothes, bed sheets, curtains and all household fabrics were made in the home. Girls worked on their trousseau or “hope chests” over periods of several years before even meeting a suitable potential husband.

Craft skills in economic terms:

Being able to do-it-yourself has always been, of course, like money in the bank. Being able to do it for someone else even if payment was in goods or services in return rather than cash, produced psychological as well as commercial or social advantages. Earning power (particularly through the barter system) could give status and confidence. In a man this also improved marriage prospects. Learning such skills sometimes involved a fixed period of low social status in order to make a leap out of a social or domestic trap. Becoming an “Apprentice” to a Master Craftsman perhaps produced emotional effects as well as carrying financial draw-backs - but once the formal period of training was over - it was equivalent to a University Degree in terms of Trade. This process could produce indelible psychological marks on the character - which can, if an actor is aware of them, add depth and colour. The marks of a specific training can often be seen in the fully trained man of substance. From the earliest “London” plays of

the 16th Century to the 1930s - learning a trade perhaps marked a man for life. George Bernard Shaw knew the value of allowing his characters to reveal their origins. Also, a trade entered in childhood was usually a job for life. This is something a modern individual needs to remember. Changing careers was considered to be an indication of a feckless and unreliable person.

Ability to read and write:

The practical advantages and literacy and serious disadvantages of illiteracy are obvious. But the emotional changes it can make on a character’s whole attitude to life are often worth exploring even when the subject is never mentioned in the dialogue. Not necessarily something a character in a play needs to demonstrate, but it is a tangible fact an actor can use to give greater motive power to other responses.

Will or incentive to learn more: this again gives a character a totally different edge. Depending on the period, the urge to “Better one’s self” will subtly alter the characters behaviour and the attitudes of some people who meet him/her. A character who benefits; who consciously stores away crumbs of information and know-how behaves differently from one who doesn’t bother.

Picture three men watching a process such as shoeing a horse; one may expect it to be done for him and always expect to have money to have it done; the next may neither know nor care how it’s done; the third may have tried it and done it badly and use the opportunity to memorise how the professional does it - and so will be able to achieve it successfully for himself in the future. An audience can be made to notice (without being shown) the difference between those three characters.

Family splits & marital schisms:

It is not only a modern phenomenon, that two people marry and then drift apart because one has the will or ambition to learn or improve and the other has not. This can often provide motive for behaviour within a relationship, without any actual mention in the script.

Similarly, parents who struggle to give their children a better education than they received may find themselves distanced from their children - to the point of resentfulness or becoming an embarrassment to the children. Well educated parents may find that they have produced a child with a low IQ or learning difficulties which are manifested in rebellion, rejection, conflict. Again as unspoken motivation this situation may be useful for justifying otherwise unexplained family interaction.

General knowledge:

The characters personal perceptions of knowledge are usually the key to all responses. Apart from book learning or domestic or trade skills picked up, awareness of information of a more general nature sets the pitch of existence for the character. Depending on period and locality this can influence even the most minute detail of reaction to any situation in the dramatic action. For an actor to sit down quietly and establish a few parameters of the character’s awareness of GENERAL KNOWLEDGE within the confines of his experience and environment is often an amusing and revealing exercise. Conversely it could also identify whole areas of ignorance which would inevitably affect the way the character responds to situations within the text.


Characters general physical state:

This area is perhaps the most neglected factor in a character’s completeness. For an actor, it may hold the most surprises. In terms of modern upbringing we are able to recognise signs of physical and psychological condition which may result from social, economic and general life experience. What the actor must do here is to trace the health history of a character from birth in the light of everything which might influence the physical condition. For example:-


In terms of quality and quality of food available the visible physical effects are easy to imagine - but in terms of attitude to food, maybe the modern actor needs a total re-think. In addition to financial considerations, the working day dictated how, when and what food was taken. Long hours, early starts, short breaks, unhealthy atmospheres of mill and factory contaminating the food from lunch pail or sandwich box. Drinking water is another very influential factor. The pattern and importance of family meals. The psychological and sometimes practical value of festive meals. This is not a lesson in social history, it is a range of pointers as to where food might influence the character’s behaviour in both long and short terms. The unhealthy lead-tainted water at Haworth Parsonage may have physically affected what the Bronte sisters wrote and how their father and emotionally unstable brother behaved. The implications are broad and the dramatic possibilities interesting.


We have already reviewed living accommodation in terms of social status - but perhaps adding details such as availability of room heating; dry as opposed to damp clothing in early childhood - health could be permanently affected. Notice how in many periods the clothing worn by rich people inside the house was thick and warm. The cheerful looking fire in a domestic grate could scorch you on one side while the other side froze. Fire screens were not to hide an empty hearth, they were to screen the face of someone sitting close to the fire. Warm living rooms with cold bedrooms and long draughty unheated corridors and stairs between could sometimes be fatal. Mittens and night caps were not silly period decorative accessories. They were essential to health in almost all pre-20th Century houses however financially “comfortably off” the owners might have been.


Weather may also be associated with the above in terms of exposure to wind and sun and availability of adequate clothing. Truly waterproof fabric is a quite late invention. The dangers of damp clothes when they were a person’s only clothes, produced degrees of rheumatism which modern people very seldom see or hear about. Chilblains are almost a forgotten complaint in these days of lanolin and oils. But other physiological effects of weather can be the slowing down or speeding up of movement and speech - even the pitch of the voice. Length of days or amount of grey days can affect temperament; Example - the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg played in Mediterranean sunshine are inconceivable. Seasonal changes in Chekhov dictate pace and mood.

Inadequate clothing:

Healthwise, both inside and outside the home - and in working situations, lack of appropriate protection could produce quite dramatic long term physical changes. Any actor knows that getting the shoes right is often the key to finding a character’s stance, walk and general balance of tensions. We’ve talked about clothes in social and financial terms but the physicality of clothes can permanently affect the way a character moves - a factor which we will deal with further in terms of employment.


Impractical clothing rather than unavailable or inadequate clothing can also cause quite noticeable physical changes. At various periods in time the demands of fashion have caused long term damage to some people. Lightweight slippers for walking in the park. Long evenings in a flimsy muslin dress in a crowded ballroom with hundreds of candles burning - and then a long cold ride or walk home afterwards. The shape of shoe toes were turning bright young people into potential cripples long before the pointed toes of trendy "flappers" in the 1920s :. (As a side comment - consider the problem of cutting toe nails before sharp and tough fine pointed scissors were available.). Healthwise, not only clothes, but make-up: chemicals used by both men and women included lead, lime, arsenic and aloes. Before machine made hair combs - the brushing of hair was practically the only way to clean it - but preparations used on hair such as Bay Rum, white spirit, witch hazel must have created hair condition and textures we can hardly imagine. Here I am not even considering the visual - but the effects on the body tensions and physical posture of people - and chemicals absorbed into the seldom washed skin. Samuel Pepys records the pleasure and necessity of having his hair combed to remove "several generations" of lice, he notes in his diaries. Lice and fleas were encouraged by the use of wigs. Pepys also make quite casual reference to the time when in the course of a business meeting his periwig actually caught fire whilst he was wearing it, but although people noticed the smell - it was the noise of the crackling flames which eventually made others realise what was happening behind his back. Pepys was blissfully unaware. A piece of pure history.

Physical effects of employment:

When a man spends most of his life on a horse - you can see this when he’s wearing a Tuxedo. A tailor’s stoop from years of sitting cross legged on a table is evident when he stands proudly at his daughter’s wedding.

When artificial light was expensive and unreliable, people literally went blind over certain work as a matter of predictable cause and effect. Just as miners died of silicosis(?), lace makers and fine needle workers became myopic.

Hardened hands or muscles specifically developed by repeatedly doing a certain task is an obvious outcome. Many professions or types of manual work produce predictable results that can often help an actor (even without being accused of “Externalising”). They are part of the make-up of the character.

As a random example outside our contemporary experience: a professional Washer Women had forearms and shoulders as brawny as any digger of ditches. So, to apply this example to an actor’s everyday conception of an Elizabethan or Victorian housewife; did she do her own washing? Even if she could afford a maid - did she share this essential labour to keep a close watch on the treatment of her possessions. If so, every Monday morning would she stand over a large steaming wash tub, picking up and dropping bales of wet linen and wool time and time again - giving the necessary movement to dislodge dirt? The coarse home made or store bought washing soap chemically may have had raw caustic soda in it, and with hot water the effect on hands unprotected by household gloves might be imagined.

Then, hanging out wet (not spinner rinsed and spun dry) sheets and blankets still heavy with water on a clothes line, winter and summer; maybe these had already been wrung by hand (developing tough forearm tendons) or pushed through a “Wringer”, a huge heavy iron contraption which needed arms of iron to turn the handle.

Then came the process of pressing down on a heated smoothing iron. This is apart from hauling coal to keep the boiler or copper filled again and again with water (from well, pump or tap?) - bucket after bucket of it not only filling the copper or wash tub - and sometimes emptying by hand as well. Suddenly this character is a giantess with biceps and fists and a back as broad and complexion from the steam as pitted as any worker in a steel mill. For a professional Washer Woman - yes - but for an ordinary housewife who can not afford to hire help to do domestic “Rough Work” - no wonder that having washed on Monday and ironed on Tuesday - by tradition she stayed home and cleaned the house on Wednesday before venturing out in public by Thursday and Friday.

The old nursery rhymes about the progression of domestic weekdays had a sound physical logic behind them. Her hair, her hands, her aching muscles needed time to readjust. To imagine certain characters in plays doing their own chores can help to add physical dimensions based on their everyday chores. Maybe some no longer do their own housework - but al had most certainly done them at one time - and the signs may still show. Plays like J.B.Priestley’s “When We Are Married” when women have moved up in society are a good case in point. Even if a Restoration “Lady” no longer does her own chores, you can safely bet that she has been taught how to do them. Samuel Pepys and his wife Elizabeth smile and reminisce over her washing his underwear before their situation improved - but we know she was usually up at five to supervise the Wash Day with an experienced eye.

Previous physical experience:

A factory manager was not always a manager; he was once a lowly apprentice. A town Dandy may once of been a farmer’s son or the pampered youngest child with two brothers and four sisters. Can a fashionable fop climb a tree or shoot a crow? Maybe he wouldn’t admit to it among his stylish friends - he might even have served behind the dry goods counter in a General Store before whatever opportunity allowed him to reinvent himself - but the skills would remain..

A soldier may have shot and whipped men, but in polite society his physicality may only show if suddenly aroused or his efforts at courtship are frustrated and the social veneer suddenly disintegrates. The physical pre-history may not always be specified in a text, and one doesn’t want to distract or confuse an audience with irrelevant information - but knowing what earlier physical experiences made your character what he/she is can sometimes provide support for a particular action demanded by the text.

Many romantic heroes in plays might have all the physical potential to make them villains if the viewpoint is altered. For any actor who thinks of Jane Austen as being peopled by weak and limp characters, her god-like heroes can shoot a deer and skin it where it fell, spur a horse until it bleeds. Some of her women, so pale and polite in the drawing-room can gut a fish, empty a chamber-pot and may have born children without benefit of medication.

Implications of damage to body:

On a much more serious medical and health theme: for the modern mind to leap backwards before anaesthetics, antibiotics, penicillin, sterile dressings, techniques of closing wounds - to a time when a simple scratch can result in death; an open wound destroy mobility for ever and end a career or profession. A carpenter with a damaged hand, a farmer with a damaged foot or back must find a new means of earning or become a “dependent”. A childish prank could leave a young person unable to earn an honest living for life.

For an actor today this massive leap in time takes concentration and imagination. To us, theatricalised sword fights or tavern brawls can often seem comical. Usually that is their intention - but did the original audience see them in the same light as we see them? In today’s TV and movies we see physical violence which in reality would result in irreparable damage to face or brain. The implications of needing professional or amateur medical attention may, in the past, have been more horrific than the wound.

The comic duels in Shakespeare or Sheridan can gain a lot if the actors recognises the real fear, terror, danger in terms of real untreatable wounds or primitive medical treatment. Does the comedy gain if the audience is aware of the full implications? I think so - because the comic effects are then rooted in reality - which is the basis of all good comedy. At some point in rehearsal, to play the comic duels of “The Rivals” or “Twelfth Night” as if for a serious drama, is the only way to test them for the necessary basic tensions.

Natural weaknesses (eye - teeth):

Modern awareness of minor medical problems such as boils, piles, toothache assume much larger proportions if we can make the leap of imagination to make them un-treatable. Letters to JANE AUSTEN from her sister about the distress caused by aching teeth, and her horrendous description of having some extracted (no anaesthetic of course) give food for thought about these “genteel” ladies. When sugar first became available in the Elizabethan age, blackened and worn teeth are mercifully missing from those wonderful portraits ... but the pain, the distorted mouths, the stinking breath ... today, even to contemplate social interactions with someone who never ever has cleaned their teeth in their lives sets the imagination reeling. Not a situation to add to a play gratuitously, but in certain circumstances this could make an audience more easily accept the use of pomanders and flowers in the hands of characters.

Other minor afflictions perhaps produced by physical injury or chemical imbalance might produce symptoms which would make the afflicted person socially unacceptable. “Unwholesome” members of families were kept from public view throughout their lives - if necessary by force.

A twitch, a limp, a “birthmark” - occasionally even resulted in the poor unfortunate being suspected of being an evil influence. People crossed themselves when a deformed person passed in the street. The mythology of witchcraft and “Faerie Tales” equated (and still do) ugliness with wickedness. For the actor - the personal history of perfectly natural and very minor physical weaknesses or damage to body can affect their social, economic and psychological make-up. It may not even be a principal factor - but bad teeth or bad feet might give a whole extra layer to the behaviour of a character.

Personal hygiene:

Not a subject we may care to examine too closely - but in certain circumstances to let the mind explore the physical realities of living in a society and in clothes where washing the body may have been almost unheard of. Mothers sewing children into their flannel underwear for the winter; scents to mask the body odours; dried herbs and spices - snuff. Nosegays of fresh flowers had a particularly practical function. Real flowers in a young lady’s hair were acceptable when “scent” most certainly was not.

Consider the practicalities of going to the toilet (if we must) in times when voluminous skirts had several heavy petticoats. When toilet tissue might be anything from a freshly picked dock leaf, a handful of freshly plucked chicken feathers to a page from a Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue. Working out the practicalities of this natural and often repeated function in any “period” costume - can add a whole new dimension to the physicality of your character.

Perceptions of physicians:

Doctors, apothecaries, quacks, home recipes, natural remedies, wise women. For minor cures every housewife would perhaps have learned from her grandmother. A local Wise Woman may have access to secret and ancient knowledge which might one day land her in trouble if something went wrong or she made too many enemies. But to have access to such knowledge was very necessary.

Opinions of professed “Doctors” was something different. They were often ruthless men and resorted to dangerous and painful remedies from which the patient often died. In particular, bone surgery was a primitive and agonising business until the beginning of this century. Travelling barbers also pulled teeth. Social attitude towards practitioners, fear of needing their services can also colour many responses when even a hint of needing medical attention becomes a possibility. All good material for adding to a dramatic or comic reality of a situation.

Births and deaths:

The mythology and local respect for (or fear of) the knowledgeable woman who was usually called into a private home to cope with either birth or death situations gives us a formidable character in society up until 1940. Childbirth did not always generate the same respect or squeamishness as it does today. Risks were high and were accepted.

Some lived some died, but a good midwife was worth a lot. Usually not a trained professional; just a local woman who was used to coping efficiently with such matters. Maybe she was even the person who decided that a weakling or deformed child should just happen not to survive the birth. Without anaesthetic it was often a choice between saving the child or the mother. Women worn out by bearing too many children on a poor diet soon shrank under the wear and tear of carrying and coping with large families. In dramatic situations the implications of carrying a child were considered to be commonplace - but the risks were also acknowledged. In almost any age before 1910 high incidence of child mortality meant that attitudes to giving birth and losing children immediately (or after a few years of poor health) was natural, and was coped with socially and emotionally in ways essentially different from today.

Perceptions of physical ageing:

This offers actors opportunity to consider the naturalness of life lived under circumstances more rugged than their own. Comical old people abound in old plays. The eccentricities of manners from another time, and reduced physical/ mental abilities are worth exploring in more specific terms. Young people usually find it difficult to think of older people as having once been young and capable. Remembering back to times when the body was in better condition is a difficult exercise. For older people, when the mind and reactions remain almost unaltered from their youth - it’s difficult to think of themselves as being old - except that the body is wearing out and betraying them. Thinking young and feel old is a most potent and poignant dramatic situation to explore.

Concepts of death:

We have yet to consider the religious concepts of life and death but for many ordinary people the conditioning towards death is confused by both superstition and implanted guilt and fear. Apart from this, in medical and physical terms the body sometimes longs for rest and sleep which the social circumstances won’t allow. Guilt over wanting life to end - helping a suffering loved one to rest in peace; fear of where death takes us; threats from priests about the sins we’re told we’ve committed can condition behaviour.

Death in different ages is perceived in many many different perspectives. Here I can only say - that if death features even remotely in the dramatic context of a text being worked on - it is a very fertile field to explore for altered focus - and it is very worth while to find some reliable historical information on concepts of death and burial, mourning and the social/emotional particulars of coping with death in those times. Again - find a readable general Social History of the period with helpful chapter headings.


Under this heading we consider matters quite different from those in our SOCIAL/FINANCIAL FOCUS chapter. For an actor today maybe the starting point for an imaginative time leap in terms of “Family” should be ethnic rather than a straight-forward change of our social domestic perspective. Spanish, Italian and some black families retain more of the traditions of connections and responsibility than the average white Caucasian equivalent. We’ve already discussed how you learned what you already know from the cradle onwards. Remember that we are now exploring the different conditioning factors before there was a TV in every home, bringing to us images and influences from outside our own locality and immediate culture.

Sense of family starts on your doorstep - but rather than material things, this time we’re talking emotional influences of Maternal/Paternal role models and family hierarchy as being the basic stuff of personality. The spectrum of different possibilities is so limitless I can’t begin to speculate on the millions of alternatives that (from day one in a child’s life) make it become what it becomes. For an actor the value of exploring character from this angle of parental and immediate family influence may seem obvious enough - but depending on the depth to which we take our imaginative evaluation, this may reveal for us layers of conditioning which can have extensive dramatic value - if the “period” focus is clear.

Mother / father role models:

The marks left can result in a variety of adult attitudes, but the general pattern of development and adjustment of children is basically predictable. At first most children accept and emulate where possible. Next they begin to compare parents against alternatives they discover in the general behaviour and attitudes of their friend’s parents (before TV and domestic comedies, soap operas and TV commercial “idealised Family Units” broadened our horizons). Before l950 all most children saw and knew was within their immediate social confines. For a child to compare its life with people at other social levels would be pure “day dreaming” and discouraged by parents, teachers and religious leaders.

Then as adolescents from almost any particular time in history there may be an inevitably period of rebellion against parental control. The degree, extent and age at which it happened could depend very much on period, social environment (and particularly) temperament. Although this rebellion is an almost inevitable process, two things which may surprise a modern mind are:

1) That in many instances children grew to be almost carbon copies of their parents by choice and design;

2) The serious moral, religious and even legal consequences of disobedience to the will of one’s parents. Physically, the whole ball game has changed. Parent Power is a factor well worth exploring in the altered light of time and social status. Failure to “Honour thy father and thy mother” could lead to physical consequences almost unimaginable today - and these were often given direct approval by the Church.

For a father to “Knock some sense” into a recalcitrant child; the legal right of a parent to forcibly lock a child or adolescent into it’s room or some other secure space (cupboard, cellar, coal shed); perhaps without food water or heat - until it agreed to toe the parental line ... ? From a legal viewpoint, committing a child to a boarding school where the discipline was strict and the security tight made the child a virtual prisoner until it submitted.

Girls were even easier to dominate because they did not have the physical or social freedom to survive being ejected from the security offered by the family “circle” of past ages. Melodramatic fathers turning their erring daughters out into the snow was sometimes a harsh reality.

Don’t be trapped into “thinking 20th Century”. An unprotected female was fair game for many types of exploitive male. “Taking advantage” of a woman young or old with no Protector applies to almost any period in history before 1950. Maybe you think it still does now, but I recommend that you adjust your perceptions in terms of the lack of ability for a woman alone to protect herself then and now. In wealthier homes, perhaps in remote country surroundings, a “tutor” might be engaged; a cross between an army drill sergeant and a jailer for a rebellious boy.

The ultimate threat was to disown a child. Cutting off financial support could make a grown man unable to eat and maybe unable to find employment if his family had commercial influence to block him. A man without a place to live or money in his pocket was immediately designated a criminal; a vagrant.

The next change of parental focus we might explore is when young people have children of their own. They may plan to make drastic changes in the way their children will be brought up. The young parents may then shock themselves by saying to children things that they didn’t believe when their parents told them the same things. Children often unintentionally become more like their parents than they care to admit. All part of the pattern of human evolution. Surprisingly, actors creating parent/children relationships too often fail to consciously develop recognisable behavioural similarities between themselves and other actors playing “relations”. Strange but true. The personal contemporary ego often prevents this necessary creative collaboration.

Closeness of family:

Inevitably, even today, much depends on the number of people in our early domestic orbit. Were grandparents close enough to maintain their influence over our parents? Were there brothers and sisters? If so, were they older or younger than ourselves? Being part of a hierarchy of power is a strong character forming experience. In later life we may consciously strive to leave behind it’s indelible imprint. Maybe we try but fail. Looking for motives and conditioned responses in a character which you have built, this range of formative family influences can provide a wide spectrum of interesting alternatives.

Producing a family:

When speculating on the early years of your character, perhaps the actual motives of the parents for having children leave a lasting influence. Basically any child can be the inevitable result of an uncontrollable sex urge (of one or both parents); a natural impulse to procreate for the continuation of the species; a deliberate act of social duty; an investment in the future; a miscalculation?

Throughout history (certainly before social welfare programmes) the implications of another mouth to feed or another potential wage earner born into the family might condition the general behaviour of parents. A child regarded as an old age pension to keep close, or alternatively as an extra burden to toss out of the nest as soon as possible, may live with these consciously or sub-consciously received signals. If so this will certainly affect his/her approach to parenthood in adult life.

Infant mortality:

“Win some lose some” was almost a natural reaction to the chancy business of giving birth in many times past. In our modern society every effort is made to preserve every life, but in some periods in time and social situations, even the Church observed a slightly different set of values. Don’t be trapped into the mid 20th Century emotional preconditioned certainty that all life is sacred.

A deformed child would be a burden for life to a family and perhaps a serious social embarrassment. In many sophisticated and perhaps more realistic times than our own, to allow an “unwholesome child” to die at birth before emotional attachments were formed might not be as shocking or uncivilised as we today might be conditioned to believe. The danger, of course, being that the social and economic value of a female as opposed to male child could influence whether or not yet another female child conveniently might not survive. At many points in history a male child was certainly more likely to be welcome as an asset to the family or immediate community in tribal terms.

Extended families:

Family alliances through inter-marriage plus concepts of tribes, clans and dynasties are socio-economic traditions which may be blurred to us today - although at some ethnic and social levels even now echoes of these older values still remain. But in previous times the emotional and legal importance of the First Born (male); status of other children where aristocratic title or total inheritance must be handed down to the eldest male; his responsibility to brothers / sisters / aged relatives / employees of long standing...; the position and birthright of illegitimate children within the family structure and responsibility.

All these factors held importance almost beyond our comprehension today - but they can make interaction in times past much more understandable when explored and clarified for an audience.

The economics of selecting and grooming off-springs as extensions of the parent’s power; a son to add a strong new branch to the family tree; a daughter coached and groomed to attract alliance with another family of equal or stronger socio-economic status. Such power politics were not only for the aristocratic; not only for the upwardly mobile Middle Classes and manufacturers and trades people of the 19th Century; but throughout history at even the lowest level of society “Marrying well” was the aim of most parents - and not to be thwarted by the pawns in the game - their children. Inter-marrying within a relatively exclusive society was predictable, mainly because its members were the most logical choice when it came to making “A good match”, but also because within such a closed society or community there was little opportunity to meet “outsiders” on any personal level. Inbreeding has often had unfortunate results in aristocratic families. Those who understood stock breeding knew enough to deliberately bring in some new blood from time to time. Fresh stock introduced was usually of the female line and this was often selected and groomed as carefully as any stud farm was managed.

Religious laws = social organisation:

This will be dealt with in greater depth under the next main heading, but many social concepts familiar to us today have their roots in religious conventions which are themselves based on sound management of society as a whole. Just as most of today’s religious conventions are built upon ancient pagan rites, many of our concepts of right and wrong are based on religious teachings aimed at “civilising” (that is, controlling) behaviour within society.

The history of matrimony holds many surprises in store for someone who explores it outside its ritualised modern form. Dramatic shifts in official religious attitude to some aspects of marriage need to be more fully explored when certain historical periods are being recreated. In the past, the church has often collaborated in social management by encouraging or at least condoning practices which today would be viewed as being totally immoral.

Removal of un-wanted additions to influential families could take many forms. Apart from the obviousness of accepting off-springs into “closed” religious orders such as nunneries or monasteries, the church might assist in farming out children to childless couples - usually ones who needed an extra useful pair of hands around the house or land. Of course such deals were also common practice among parents who produced too many children. A child sent to live with some remote aunt or cousin might enjoy a less cramped lifestyle in a fresh and happy home. Alternatively, they could easily become unpaid servants or tolerated Poor Relations.

For parents to gain financially by placing a child as an Apprentice under a legally binding contract was for some, a regular source of additional income. This might commit a child to live and work with a Master Craftsman and gain valuable skills, or just become a form of unpaid help in return for meagre board and lodgings. The economics of maintaining a large family often influenced for ever the lives of characters from times past. For an actor, SENSE OF FAMILY is often the key to emotional development of a character, and can provide a whole framework of motivational opportunities if the right choices are made.

The family that stays together .... :

In most Western cultural social groups, a close and benign family upbringing aimed to create a “tree” with roots, main trunk through the First Born male line, with minor and major branches. The potential for development of the next Head-of-the-Family was of paramount importance. His role was to nourish and support the entire structure and provide the next heir to ensure continuance. Under him the domestic framework of power and influence depended mainly on the usefulness of the individuals; domestic abilities, reliability, willingness to conform, co-operate and contribute were the qualities which made a family strong. Temperamental behaviour and inability to coexist (rock the boat rather than pull with the team) could seriously undermine family unity. Any character can be assessed more precisely if their status and value within their family structure can be clearly established in the mind of the actor.

Responsibility of inheritance:

For the head of a family, apart from the need to produce an heir, his dependants (whether family or employees) were often a lifelong responsibility. Today it is not too difficult to understand inheritance of property and character traits. However, EVERY member of a family in the past inherited tangible responsibilities according to their social status. Much much more so than in western society today.

An audience may also need reminding of the inter-dependence of family members on an emotional level. In particular, more distant relatives and poor relations are often at the core of plays from the 18th and 19th Century. Clan loyalties and authority over even “distant connections” may not be appreciated in our independent society today. Other dependants might be tenants on land owned by “The Family”. This tenancy can not be compared with modern day landlord/tenant relationships. Particularly in the country the land owner, squire, prince (whatever the period or geographical location) might have felt a tangible responsibility for whole villages full of people.

Lifelong employees of a family provide us with a particular problem of recognition. On a large estate, a serving class family may have been housed and found work for several generations. A good groom or gardener might be encouraged to marry a suitable housemaid or dairy hand. Their children would automatically make themselves useful, and eventually as they grew up, (depending on observance of their potential) be found regular work in house, farm or stables whilst their aptitudes were assessed further.

Promising youngsters on an estate might be systematically trained to become experts in the care and preservation of valuable silverware, porcelain or rare books. Several generations of servants from one family or inter-married families could be the managerial backbone of a noble family. In Europe for 250 years a family with a grand country “seat” plus Town House, Hunting Lodge and several other residences would have need for a wide variety of trustworthy employees. Better to groom and breed them than to bring in strangers. Promotion within the employer’s Estate was similar to working for a good business Corporation today, when promising talent is found advancement in subsidiary companies.

Whether in 18th Century Europe or 19th Century America, servants were offered re-training and re-deployment - perhaps with a younger member of the employer’s family marrying and setting up their own domestic establishments. Continuity of employment and well planned steps up the promotional ladder gave the status of a servant a different value. The subtle inter-dependence and mutual advantages for employers and the employee are at total odds with our late-20th Century expectations of employment and social independence. Getting this into focus offers an actor today valuable insights into a lost world.

Another good example is:- a young gentleman and his personal servant may be in effect a second or third generation of master servant progression, through the son of the master automatically taking the son of the father’s Man Servant as his personal servant. The female child of a trusted servant, may be encouraged to become an intimate childhood companion to a young only daughter of the house. Later the relationship would need to alter, through a gradual process, to mistress and maid-servant.

Carefully defined class/caste barriers and distinctions would necessarily lead to subtle adjustments in the relationship - but produce deep-rooted and subtle interpersonal strata for two characters in any dramatic situation. Understanding the possible alternatives for such continued relationships, and social responsibilities on BOTH sides (carefully keeping out our own contemporary resentments or judgements) can give valuable insight and depth to behaviour in an historical, social context. Many of the more subtle shades of employer/servant relationships may be beyond our reach today - but these are fertile fields to plough for authentic period detail. In Jane Austen some aspects of such relationships are graphically preserved. The main thing is to beware the modern mistake of treating period employer/servant situations as something temporary.

Another element of such relationships was a formal reciprocal responsibility. In many dramatised instances of servants in the house, on the land, or as travelling companions/bodyguards - each carried a responsibility for and to the other. Although treatment of servants might, by our standards, often appear harsh or arbitrary - there was usually a subtle inter-dependence which, when we can clarify it for an audience, transforms an otherwise cliché or hollow employer/servant relationship into something with surprising strength or depth.

Marital status:

The planning, arranging, legal contracting of marriage from era to era, dependent on the social level, can tell us a lot about a relationship. The domestic organisation - the social appearance as opposed to reality - the sexual “duty” as distinct from enjoyment. Strange as it may seem to you, sexual enjoyment will be dealt with more fully under the heading RELIGION rather than SENSE OF FAMILY. This is because the dynastic need to reproduce, the danger of over-taxing the economy of the household or physical strength of the wife are what matter to us here.

The reduction of working efficiency of a wife might, in some instances, influence the decision to abort a pregnancy, more than the threat of an extra mouth to feed. Health and age considerations may also be a strong reason for both partners in a marriage to agree to a husband finding his sexual release elsewhere. To find it within his own home with a female domestic employee was not unusual. Just as a father might prefer to select a clean young girl for his son to “experiment” with and learn from, rather than risk a first encounter with an outsider (maybe with less healthy consequences) may make our contemporary, post Victorian sense of morality tingle, but it was often a very practical solution.

Even if an illegitimate off-spring was the result - it may have given the servant extra status and security - and the child’s future was usually “provided for” as a domestic servant. He/she might even be acknowledged by the family and eventually be accepted to some degree as a family member. Depending on the historical period - this course of family planning and management is well worth speculating on when looking for character attitude, status and self-esteem

Many areas of family relationships in any pre Victorian era, when viewed from our drastically altered viewpoint, give greater insight into motive, since they stem from a concrete moral and social sense of practical reality different from our own. In view of the highly moralistic social propaganda of mid l9th Century to 1910 - what society said and what society did were often worlds apart. This period in particular is a trap for the actor. The fierce public morality of Victorian “Improving Literature” when contrasted with conditions described so graphically by CHARLES DICKENS is sometimes difficult to view as the same period in history.

Marriages grown apart through ambition:

For an actor to trace a character’s marriage back through various stages in its development can often provide reasons for, and perhaps correct the motivational impulses behind, the character’s current behaviour. The husband/wife balance of influence at both emotional and intellectual levels is often quite evident. But in many marriages, un-matched social or economic ambitions can so unbalance a union that both parties are often forced into defensive positions or a state of resentful resignation. In many plays we see a relationship only as it exists now. Imagining the same couple when they were first married or courting can add depth to your perceptions of the relationship now. Obvious - but often unexplored territory.

In particular when considering any marital relationship before 1915, forget DIVORCE or even separation as a feasible alternative for any couple who hope to remain even remotely socially acceptable. “Keeping up appearances” was the name of the game whatever the social status of the couple. However, different dates in history offer an actor a range of CHOICES - all very different from those we would have today. It was not only the legal financial power of man over woman influenced relationships as we might evaluate them today: but a deeply conditioned desire to conform controlled behaviour more strongly than we can perhaps imagine or sympathise with. This ethno-centrism may seriously distort our perspective of the true dramatic situation in period terms. “Being contented with one’s lot” was a Christian virtue preached from every pulpit every Sunday in the Western world for at least the past 300 years; a form of brain-washing which was a potent social force. Now it’s power is diminished, it is difficult for us to imagine the ingrained emotional effect it produced on family relationships.

5 - RELIGIOUS FOCUS + crime.

The two subjects may strike you as being strange bed-fellows - but at most periods in history the church was the law. Even in more recent times politicians who made our civil laws had much to lose and little to gain by cutting across the opinions of religious leaders. Today, legislation on “public morality” is usually manipulated by a skilfully organised and widely influential religious lobby.

Current climate - national and local:

Actors today, whether they have religious beliefs of their own or not MUST explore with an open mind the general religious climate of any time and place in which their characters live. There's much to gain. Social perceptions of religion have changed drastically from age to age. Patterns of social behaviour, education and concepts of morality instilled by compulsory church-going would, more often than not, subconsciously moderate many aspects of most characters who lived before 1950. So, even when religion is not mentioned in the text, the actor’s awareness of the social and moral climate on both national and local levels could bring into sharper focus the values, attitudes and decisions of their characters.

Power of church - social and legal:

Religious leaders of civilisations and communities founded on concepts like the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins were, in earlier times, as concerned with the social welfare of the community as the spiritual. To an objective observer, the history of any religion might seem to be predominantly political. Certainly in recent historical times, social management was conducted in the name of religious authority. In some periods non-attendance at church on a Sunday was an actual crime. At other times the local priest would make a social call and use psychological pressure on the non-attender or upon his/her immediate family, to bring the strayed lamb back into the fold. Threats of “Hell and Damnation” were (and still are) the most usual pitch in some communities. In times gone by, being branded as a social outcast in a small community was a serious risk if someone did not wish to conform. Being ostracised could be emotionally and materially damaging.

Non-conformity - social & legal dangers :

A conscious decision NOT to conform could lead to even more dangerous conflict with The Establishment, depending on period, social status of an individual, or size of a dissident group. Apart from the specifically spiritual, social or legal implications “non-conformity” could also have political consequences. The term Protestant regains some of it’s original emotive power when pronounced PROTEST-ANT. This reminds us that most sub-divisions of contemporary Christianity are based on differences of opinion with the religious Establishment of one period or another.

Superstition and fear:

Fear of the unknown, superstition perpetuated in folklore and the vividness of the human imagination, all provide wide opportunity for leaders using superior knowledge or intellect. This is why in so many civilisations, education was restricted to or controlled by the spiritual leaders. Maybe rightly so: the illiterate need guidance, the timid need re-assurance. So, throughout history this basic fear of the unknown has created a need - and spiritual beliefs of one sort of another have usually filled the void. It is generally agreed that to have some form of religion is beneficial: the rituals and mysteries, the psychological reassurance that somebody else is in control - that someone cares - all have their values. However, socialised religion has always placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the organisers. Like all power, in the wrong hands it can easily become a corrupting influence. Concepts of spiritual leadership and ‘faith’ have, in may periods in many countries, given religious organisers a blank cheque in terms of emotional, political and economic control.

Sex and religion:

The Christian church (as perpetuated by Saint Paul rather than Jesus) has always held strong views on human sexuality. The theologian’s insistence that human beings are not animals in the common sense of the word has always complicated the subject of natural sexual urges. The concept of “Original Sin” seems in many theological minds to be equated with lust. Religious teachers of very young children have often deliberately aimed to instil a sense of guilt and fear as a preparation for learning later about the distinctions between the necessity of procreation and the dangers of sexual self-indulgence. Especially in times when most churchmen were taking a vow of chastity, they seemed particularly concerned to establish that masturbation was a cardinal sin which would result in ill-health as well as eternal damnation. Sexual repression was the order of the day at many points in history - but sometimes social promiscuity went hand in hand with deep rooted religious beliefs (read Samuel Pepys).

Twentieth Century understanding of human psychology may make it difficult for a modern actor to get back to the mind-set where this indelible indoctrination about the wickedness or dirtiness of sexual matters was a controlling force in a community. Ignorance of biological facts-of-life, fear of damnation, immorality being a punishable crime - when balanced with natural physical attractions, powerful conscious or subconscious sexual drives, basic sexual curiosity ... all this leads us to very complicated conflicts which obviously can influence the behaviour of any character. Getting it right in terms of conditioned reflexes within the specific religious climate of any period may highlight aspects of a character’s responses not previously noticeable. The dramatic and emotional potential of socially frustrated sexuality can provide actors with motives whether they’re dealing with Ibsen or Rabelais. An Ophelia tipped over the edge by frustrated lust for Prince Hamlet is an interesting alternative to a more conventional reading of her madness.

Civil law and The Church:

Until very recently in most English speaking courts of law an oath was generally sworn on the Christian Bible. Nationalism, patriotism and belief in God were usually instilled into children at a mother’s knee. Most early schools and colleges being founded by churchmen, the indoctrination process was continued into adult life. Also, regular obligatory church attendance for most members of the community was a potent influence on everybody in a God-fearing community from cradle to grave. However, many people who broke both moral or social laws often professed fervent religious beliefs. Confusion between morality and religious faith can often add personal conflict or a form of double-think which is quite common - and, in terms of character, potentially valuable.

Genuine faith or lip-service:

This is another aspect which might sub-consciously adjust a character’s response to a situation. For an actor to fix the precise position of a character in terms of true belief or “lip-service” to the church and the law of the land, may provide useful clues to the character’s real centre. In fact, assumptions about his/her private and unexpressed attitudes to both the Church and the Law, and also to social responsibilities should perhaps be regarded as the character’s MORAL FOCUS. This again can often provide the motivational impetus an actor needs as a foundation on which to start building.


Distinctions between town and country dwellers are, I think, a fundamental human reality. Town bred people who move to the country and country raised people who go to live in a town very often remain true to their roots in thought and action. For the actor this may provide a key - or at least an extra depth to explore when building a character. That can only happen if the actor learns to let go of 20th Century knowledge. He/she must view the world through the limited perspective of a character who has had no access to the wealth of information that even the most intellectually limited inhabitant of any country in the Western World today at his/her fingertips.

Going back before TV, movies, radio, telephone - where are we? Both town and country dwellers were essentially products of their local environment. Whether we are talking ancient Greece, England in the Industrial Revolution or Norway before the end of the 19th Century, the MAJORITY of people had never travelled more than twenty miles from the place of their birth - and had no precise conception of “Foreign parts”. Perhaps this fact can confirm to the actor what a massive leap of the cultural imagination he/she is being asked to make. It may sum up the problem of the modern actor when it comes to escaping from the late 20th Century.

Even in rural American at the turn of this Century travelling “Showmen” could con whole communities with exotic side-shows and phoney foreign sensations. In terms of recreating the past, the aim should be to purge from the computer of the modern brain all the visual imagery plus accumulated information - and re-occupy the brain space with fear of the unknown, wonder at what is strange and surprising. In fact we are talking about innocence in the true sense of the word. If you have raised a child you will have observed the look of incomprehension until a new concept has been experienced and absorbed. Simpleton was a word often used by a town person to deprecate a country person. Simplicity could be a virtue. In searching out the key to the town/country focus of a character a new palette of subtle colours becomes available to the picture painter.

Practical & psychological differences:

Experience of living only in a town or only in a rural area during formative years (at any period in history) may shape a character’s personality for life, even if their social behaviour is modified later. Original value judgements, skills, physical experiences, health may all be indelibly affected. So, in terms of taste, preference, temperament and psychological grounding of a town or country bred character, this may show through even the most travelled, educated, socially cultured individual.

Degrees of isolation:

Of course people who live in a village that has a resident Squire or aristocratic land owner have someone to “Look up to”. Just as a Pioneer community with a trained school teacher, ordained preacher and a real medical doctor had more than access to their professional services. A socially superior domestic lifestyle, a more worldly social input can provide a model which children can be encouraged to aspire to (even when these are strangers in a community).

Concepts of Foreign-ness:

Depending on where and when, a “Foreigner” could be from a village one mile away or someone who came from outside to live in a village ten years ago. Until the opening of the 20th Century if a person was outside their own house after sunset they were “abroad”. Word values change. To be “outlandish” may have roots in rural concepts of strangeness when the words “strange” and “foreign” were synonymous. Strangers were a curiosity but also something of a threat within a community. Letters of introduction were necessary before the “credentials” of a stranger could be established. People from the lower orders of society might need written permission to journey outside their home parish.

An actor re-programming images of distance and the unknown in terms of space is attempting the equivalent of translating one language into another. The experience of looking at the world without your own personal store of 20th Century life experience is like wiping the slate clean before starting life again in a foreign territory. The town/country divide is a useful arena in which to identify and separate the conditioning factors more specifically. In computer terms we are talking re-programming. The human brain is an extraordinarily sophisticated form of computer; feed in new information, store it in a way that makes it easily retrievable; and at the press of a button, all your functions should respond according to your altered parameters.

Concepts of Distance:

As an experiment, take time out sometime to quietly re-think your contemporary perceptions of distance in terms of someone who has never ridden in a wheeled vehicle and cannot afford to buy or hire a horse. Whatever the need to get from point A to point B, when you have no real way of knowing the distance, this means that the need or desire must be very great indeed.

To generate in the imagination the experience of walking 6 or 10 miles may already be beyond your personal experience unless you’ve been back-packing. Work on it. Then add to the picture we’re building what shoes or boots you can afford, what state is the road in (if there be a road!). The anxiety of knowing whether or not you are on the right route; if you may encounter an unexpected crevasse or stream too deep or too strong to cross. What danger or anxiety if you meet up with some other traveller; what unexpected trap may wait for you around each bend in the road; the need to stop at nightfall until dawn; to find shelter, protection from weather or predators (animal or human); to rest but stay alert. If you are carrying “necessaries” for the journey, did you plan well and how heavy are they? Are you carrying all your worldly possessions - and with every mile how necessary are some of the things you brought along?

Does that paragraph appal you with the mental work I’m suggesting you might sometimes undertake? To clear the 20th Century brain and re-focus on the governing factors in your character’s life - it may be necessary. It will certainly provide you with vast new potential for creative character development.

Travellers and Vagabonds:

In a rural community news has always travelled fast. Even the approach of a stranger may be mysteriously signalled ahead. A new arrival in the area could expect to be stared at, maybe treated with suspicion. If known to someone locally they will be an object of intense curiosity.

Of course, if located on a main route between two towns, travellers passing through a country village or hamlet might be encouraged to stop and spend. Maybe a community might even move its location to be on a regularly travelled route. Tourists have always been fair game for local enterprise or exploitation since the earliest pilgrims headed for Delphi, Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury or Mecca.

Travellers in difficulties would never know whether to expect local hospitality, exploitation or physical danger. Whole communities have been known to repeatedly enter into conspiracies where one or more strangers might arrive and never be seen again - but several local inhabitants would become progressively richer. Inns and traveller’s accommodation could be the setting for excellent or terminal hospitality. In many periods travellers kept their wits, their wallets and their weapons close at hand, and slept with their boots on.

Desire to travel:

The lure of city lights, especially for the young is as natural to some as the impulse to break out of an egg. Depending on the personal need or desire, necessary information must be sought before a journey. In many plays and movies, more weight given to the realities of venturing into the unknown could have produced more dramatically potent results. (CHOOSE EXAMPLE?)....

The physical and emotional impulse behind Pioneering in 19th Century America would have made many Wagon Train-type Hollywood movies more all-involving. When the original silent movie spectacular “Covered Wagon” was made in 1923 the Director advertised and invited anybody who had actually travelled west and still owned a wagon to join the filmed re-creation of such an event. The result is a hugely valuable visual documentation of the day to day problems and solutions experienced. This was true improvisation by people fully conversant with the real life situation. Some sequences in the film were totally un-planned and unrehearsed. As a socio-historical record that film by the almost forgotten D.James Cruze is almost unique. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s penchant for glamorising, sanitising or dramatically simplifying reality means that our received perceptions of pioneering have since become distorted.


As soon as a hamlet or village expands beyond a certain size in terms of space or population, an inevitable transition seems to take place. Re-grouping into district or cultural or other social factions is predictable. Work sectors, public service areas; communities of like-minded members; the “Powers that be” staking out their own territories. The mutual benefits and inevitable conflicts of interest are also predictable although the exact chemistry depends upon the initial mix, the attractions of the area or the power retained by the Civic Authorities whoever they may be. The next natural phase of development for a town is the emergence of an “attitude” particular to the conglomerate whole; forward looking, backward looking, exclusive or welcoming.

A sense of community rivalry in terms of competition or conflict can sometimes clarify dramatic conflicts within a play. The plays of Irish dramatists in particular provide us with useful immediately pre-1940 examples of social rivalry - and not specifically in terms of British/Irish or Catholic/Protestant conflict, but a generic imbalance between urban and rural social development. Many Irish plays seem to present us with town dwellers who are country people at heart.

Physical realities of transportation:

Having already explored the practicalities of solo travel on foot - for the actor to re-appraise the physicality of travel by horse or vehicle at different times in different places - here is an area ripe with opportunity to jolt the audience out of it’s acceptance of dramatic platitudes. How many movie actors have you seen dismount from a horse after what we're told was a long hard ride and show none of the inevitable bodily tensions?

On stage how many travellers have entered telling us that they have just ridden a horse or stage coach (no springs, no paved roads) for several hours - but have been less than rattled, sore, filthy and sick to the stomach? The dramatic extras available to actors playing Mr Hastings and Mr Marlow in “She Stoops To Conquer” when they arrive at the noisy tavern after dark having ridden horseback all day and missed their way to their intended destination. This scene is the very key to the whole plot - but very seldom are we allowed to fully appreciate their mood or physical state - which allows them to be duped by Tony Lumpkin.

With a little extra mental energy and imagination the actors can not only give the audience a much more potent opening to the play - but it can also prepare the menace for Mrs Hardcastle’s terrifying after dark coach journey into the unknown in the final act.

Travel by coal fired train was another dirty, dusty, uncomfortable experience also long since removed from the modern actor’s personal experience. When recreated - who remembers the panic to close an open window when the train screamed into a tunnel (filling the compartment with smoke and grit). Conditions aboard a ship whether under sail or steam could mark some passengers for life. The physicality and emotional state of people who travel often is totally different from those travelling for the first time. Under this heading so many extras an actor can discover may be grouped for future consideration. Travel not only broadens the mind - to can broaden the scope of any character.

Atmospheric factors of a town environment:

In quite recent times the elements which made certain towns unique were their industries. This was often the reason people congregated there. The overriding atmosphere might be redolent with fumes, smells, pollution such as cotton, jute, coal dust. Add to this the smoke from factory chimneys and hundreds of thousands of domestic homes, some of them with up to ten coal burning fire grates in one house. This accumulative cloud could hang above a city and then descend again in certain weather conditions. For example, in Britain since the introduction of anti-pollution laws which banned the burning of raw coal, there is no such thing as the famous “London Fog”. That is now history. Awareness of these physical results of social changes can help an actor place and exploit the possibilities with greater accuracy.

As another example of both social change and popular historical inaccuracy; today if two horse patrol policemen cover a few city blocks, horse manure on the street is a sure possibility - but when have you seen any dung around the busy “Western” town in any movie? In pre-automobile New York or Philadelphia - any busy street corner would have a Crossing Sweeper. You gave him a coin each time you crossed at his clean swept intersection. In addition, every city house had a boot scraper by the front door step and maybe a horse mounting block instead of a parking meter outside. I cite these few random examples to indicate the degree of changes that an actor, if aware of them, can use to generate altered thought patterns when entering and leaving a scene in a domestic comedy or drama set in “The Past”.


Under this, the last of the main headings, I have almost the shortest list of sub-headings. I also find it the most difficult area in which to describe simply, exactly what values an actor may find useful when exploring a character - but I do know the values are there. Culture in the contemporary sense often suggests an aesthetic standard imposed by an artistic intelligentsia. Too often it may seem that Culture with a capital C may be good for us but perhaps is not something we can expect to enjoy. To indulge in Cultural activities may be seen as placing us (or looking as though we’re placing ourselves) socially and intellectually a cut above the common herd.

In earlier times a cultured person was one who had acquired knowledge or been exposed to aesthetics whether in terms of refinement of social manners or appreciation of visual art, music or architecture.

This process of refinement looked at in historical terms seems to me to be a natural trait in a minority - but certainly not for the majority. This is not being elitist - it’s being a realist. Shakespeare, Aristophanes and Voltaire all despaired of the crass behaviour and low tastes of The Masses. So, perhaps culture is best thought of as refinement of a human being’s natural impulses or aesthetic awareness. Genuine aesthetic inspiration or creative impulses were, in times past, sometimes called “Genius” before the meaning of the word became totally distorted.

For the actor, knowing the current concept of the term “Culture” at any time/place is a useful first step. Concepts of “Good Taste” which changed from era to era usually were well documented. Books on etiquette or Good Manners are available for many specific periods. Magazines carried advice on social deportment of the day, and often reported upon new social traits (see final chapter for details).

Education towards refinement through proscribed standards of social elocution and precisely defined behavioural norms affected not only the rich and worldly. The “Man in the street” received this cultural and civilising standardisation through channels such as churchgoing, schooling or demands made by employers. Lower down the social scale there has very often been an eagerness among the proletariat to copy the manners, fashions and taste of their “betters”.

In order to bring into focus the level of cultural awareness or cultural aspirations of a character, an actor must distance him/herself. It is like trying to evaluate the configuration of the planets. How a character is influenced, pushed, pulled or weighted down by the cultural climate of the time and place is an intangible situation. Also, how aware of it he/she is, is an important if separate issue. But if it can be brought into focus it may shed some highlights and sidelights which can throw the character into more interesting relief.

Intuitive aesthetic awareness in a character is something different and may offer immediately useful dramatic possibilities. An enthusiastically received education in artistic/aesthetic awareness can produce an effect totally difference to the one intended; affectation rather than natural absorption; aesthetic pretentiousness.

Fixing a level may add a whole extra dimension to a character. A natural genius when compared to a person with creative aspirations but no talent, can produce intense personal and sometimes inter-personal conflict. This situation was vividly dramatised by Peter Shaffer in his play/movie AMADEUS. Aesthetic awareness or sensitivity can be a character asset or liability depending on the broader social, emotional interaction.

Self-appointed arbiters of good taste are usually distinguishable from people who have intuitive or even cultivated aesthetic appreciation. The reasons why people subscribe to the local opera house, museum - or phone in Credit Card subscriptions to a Public Service TV channel are often interesting - and revealing. Those same impulses can lead characters to other spontaneous responses in everyday social interaction where cultural matters are not actually the issue.

I'm sorry that this, the last of our seven basic headings, is the most intangible. Believe me it is also a very rewarding one if you manage to crack the code for yourself. The true or false quality of aesthetic awareness influences many decisions/reactions a character may make.


The big seven are all I planned to deal with in this book - but two subjects which repeatedly crop up in discussion during HISTORICAL IDENTITY WORKSHOPS are “How people talked” and “Where to find Information”. So, these headings do not actually add to your Check List - but it is appropriate to give them a little space here.


Assuming that the text you are dealing with is basically fixed and agreed, coming to terms with grammar, syntax and vocabulary which sounds or tastes unfamiliar may (as I said at the very beginning) act as a psychological block to approaching your character as an actual real life human being. Learning to live with it, is the name of this particular game. Resisting the temptation to impose on it our own modern idiom often only complicates matters. Have fun with the verbal style. Make your audience believe that you, the character, are talking naturally, however exotic it may sound.

Historically speaking, pronunciation and authentic stressing of sentences can, usually, only be a matter of speculation. Historians often disagree among themselves. So, feel free to combine educated guesswork with creative imagination. The pulse-rate and rhythm of your character is usually indicated in the script if you give it time to emerge rather than trying to fix it too early in the proceedings.

So - where to begin?

Under this heading more than any of the others, we need to start by looking at today and working backwards. There have been strongly identifiable shifts in social speech during the past 50 years. Why?

Some of the reasons are easily explained, some I’d like to spend more time researching - but that’s perhaps a subject for another book. Here I guess it’s enough to establish that before World War Two the way people were taught social speech was philosophically, emotionally and politically different. Does that sound like a dangerous generalisation?

Without over complicating this issue, let’s just accept that whether due to changes in concepts of social class, media (particularly TV) influence or changes in urban social mix, attitude to everyday speech has changed and something has lead to relaxing of social disciplines and lowering of behavioural expectations. Certainly, the educational pendulum has swung away from the more traditional responsibilities of schools producing “well spoken” students. Older concepts of good social elocution are currently drastically unfashionable. The rules of precise grammatical construction are no longer even taught in most grade schools. Slang, jargon and advertiser’s hype are aimed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In addition, a reversal of the political incentive to encourage ethnic or immigrant population to integrate culturally has created the contemporary need for more loosely based style of socially acceptable speech. This may make me sound disapproving. Not necessarily so.

But - modern actors, if you seriously wish to remove yourselves from today, your starting point must be to refocus on just what social ground rules people before 1950 grew up with in terms of perceptions of acceptable social speech. Firstly, let’s consider only people who received at least some form of rudimentary formal education. Inevitably, in the past, influences on everyday speech still depended on the “when and where” factors - but, whether in England or America, Lancashire or Pennsylvania, children were schooled to read aloud. During this they were recommended to articulate, enunciate, resonate. Young children learned by heart and recited poems however banal or inappropriate. They probably learned to sing. Maybe they were even encouraged to experiment with the basics of formal debate in the schoolroom (in Britain they still call it a classroom - I wonder why!).

Word Power was a force recognised by educationalists, and the sense of it’s importance in everyday life was reinforced by parents. In the home, older generations either remembered even stricter rules of social propriety or spoke a different native language - but believed fervently that to master “Good American English” was the way forward and upwards. Certainly verbal communication was considered to be a social skill of value, whereas perhaps today from Brando to Swartzeneger, minimalist verbal self-expression has been given a stylistic social acceptability.

Among the un-educated before 1950 there also seems to have been a general respect for Word Power. Literature gives us many examples of the uneducated using what would in socio-linguistic terms be called “prestige” words when talking to people with a better education. The impulse being to try and sound better educated than they actually were. The motivation to learn was much stronger when education was not universally available. I’m sure many people went through life accepting their lack of education, but the general impetus was to “improve” oneself. To be a “Self-educated” man was a social accolade rather than a criticism.

The next step in escaping from today must be to pinpoint tell-tale elements of pronunciation which, although acceptable today, might not have been tolerable even forty years ago. Basic rules for which fingers got rapped when not followed in the mid-20th Century home or schoolroom were ... dropped consonants at the ends of words, run-together words and the intrusive ‘R’ (“Young man there is no R in vanilla ice cream!”) ... and, in particular, truncated words:- “Consid’rin’ we’re clev’r t’day t’n people wer’in th’past”. Consciously “Well Spoken” people might also have been encouraged to slightly roll their ‘R’s or pronounce the ‘WH’ in where, what and whale. Before the 1920, this was essential to a well brought up person.

Today we might think such preciseness sounds affected. That’s the key problem. Although perhaps contrived, it was not “affected”. Today this concept of generally acceptable social behaviour may seem to you to be slightly absurd or politically offensive. Accept that it was a commonly accepted fact of life. Approve of it or not - as an actor if you seriously try to re-create the past you have to find a way to get back to the mindset of someone brought up to believe implicitly in the behavioural norms of a particular time.

Perhaps your main psychological problem is not so much you being able to believe in the naturalness of the character’s behaviour - but the responsibility of making a modern audience believe in it. The hard evidence is available to you. Film and sound archive material of everyday speech (as opposed to people trained as public speakers) from 50 years ago exists. Listen to recorded/filmed interviews with non-professional people and hear the essential differences between yesterday and today. The irrefutable evidence is there to convince you (see final chapter for sources). But it remains for you, the actor, to convince an audience if you do not wish to compromise on this aspect of historical accuracy.

Yesterday and the day before:

If the shifts in everyday speech norms have been so great within living memory - where do we being when it comes to trying to re-create a more distant past? Historians can’t even agree among themselves on the fine points of general pronunciation in different times. So, if the aim is to use the differences between speech then and now rather than opt for an essentially late 20th century interpretation of the past, bold decisions and even risks must be taken. The actors must decide just how they will pitch the language and exactly how they will make the audience accept it as being natural. If based on all available historical information plus a strong grasp of life-conditioning influences of their characters and a general knowledge of the cultural climate of the time and place ... the creative possibilities are exciting.

Actors and authors:

Whether the script you’re dealing with is authentically antique, a modern reconstruction of a previous period or even a reconstruction of one period written at some other time in the past - the actor’s task is (as I’ve said before), to deliver the text as if the thoughts and words had just been invented by the character. Basic as that. The essence of any actor’s craft. However outlandish or unfamiliar the syntax or idiom; the immediate effect must be of the characters believing in not only what they say but that the way they’re saying it must seem to be totally natural to them.

So - the danger lies in modern actor trying to speak exotic or unusual language in the idiom of today. Making a modern audience accept a heightened verbal style as being natural, is a mixture of informed guesswork and creative imagination. More importantly, one of the main factors is confidence. A very essential word in my vocabulary of acting technique is - AUTHORITY. The actor with a sense of authority when performing can often get away with things that a more timid or insecure performer will fail when delivering.

Creative pronunciation

When it comes to pronunciation and stressing of sentences in an unfamiliar verbal idiom, this is where the aforementioned educated guesswork and creative flair can be of most value. If a group of actors get together on it they can create a unity which will convince and reassure the audience. To achieve this effect the actor must listen to the character. Absorb and accept the words rather than try to reform them into a more conversational idiom. Attempts to diminish Shakespeare verbally is not the route to understanding the human psychology of his characters. The actor must, of course, analyse and explore the psychological motivations of a character, but the text often offers more than basic realistic human psychology. Shakespeare and Æscellus(?) did not write words to be exchanged in a drawing-room or whispered naturalistically into a microphone. Their words were intended to command the attention of a lively and uninhibited audience sitting in the daylight rather than respectfully assembled in the darkness pre programmed to respect the author and the interpreters of the text. Command and authority have always been part of the actor’s stock in trade.

So - historical pronunciation can often be a matter of pure speculation. Clues may be found in poems where rhymes sometimes depend on a specific antique pronunciation. But this can be a trap because poetic licence allowed Coleridge, Sitwell and Ogden Nash to commit verbal outrages to make their stanzas and lyrics scan and rhyme.

As a dramatic technique it is often useful for a modern audience if the actor deliberately uses unfamiliar pronunciation for a few familiar words early in a performance. This can prepare the ground for less familiar words or commonplace words used in unfamiliar contexts. Devising a verbal style in which to deliver a text can be an exhilarating creative experience if it is based on serious consideration of dramatic situation, a character’s social life-conditioning and generally available historical information. Perhaps style is a dangerous word. In my vocabulary “Style” must emerge from content - it can’t be the other way around. It might be safer to think of developing an original period verbal idiom as creating a sort of regional dialect rather than a “Style”.

The shifts in vowel sounds and stresses may be very subtle. Listen to someone who’s native tongue isn’t English or American speak our language. Exotic vowels and emphases often give fresh colour to very ordinary words. “Nervousness” as a word carries so much more power when pronounced with a slight beat separating nervous-ness. It somehow revitalises the implications of the word. A French friend of mine says look-ed rather than looked. Why not? There is historical precedence in Shakespeare, Chaucer, the romantic poets and the King James bible for the stressed “ed” (name it).

Uneducated members of a church congregation in times gone by perhaps got their only exposure to “correct” speech from lessons and sermons spoken in church. If they had the will to improve themselves - this might have influenced their everyday use of words. Not as silly or far-fetched as it might sound to you. Today, pretensions to better speech are mocked, previously they were admired. Read the character of the footman “FAG” in Sheridan’s “The Rivals”. He aims to impress and improve. Not all these upwardly mobile characters are Mrs Malaprops.

Getting the modern tongue and teeth around longer-than-we’re-used-to sentences and having-some-breath-left-at-the-end-of-the-line is a matter of practice and discipline. In order to clear the path to the psychological wholeness of a character who uses exotic speech patterns, first mastering the words he/she uses and finding the “pulse rate” or rhythm is vital. Practice negotiating the verbal intricacies with apparent ease and confidence, like driving a car on a familiar rather than unfamiliar road. Enjoy the acrobatics of tongue and teeth, using the word structure like a gymnasium to work out in. Give words extra space and time. This need not result in stilted delivery - and I’m not talking about weighty pauses. Taking the naturalistic time to chose words - letting the character decide how to phrase a reply or a question is natural. In more leisurely times, ordinary people only gabbled in excitable or stressed situations. Social conversation (like life in general) preceded at a pace more tranquil than the hustle and bustle we’re used to in these days of mobile phone chat, let alone txt mess-speak.

Another real bonus is to have fun with that wonderful trio "tone-tune-timbre". The gurgles and grunts and elongated syllables of actors like Maggie Smith and Sir Michael Horden become as much a part of Congreve, Sheridan or Shakespeare as the author’s words. That is because these actors have the technique and authority to make the words their own (without taking liberties with text, dramatic situation or period authenticity) they can scale the heights and depths of an active in a single syllable. You can enjoy the challenges contained in the vocabulary and idiom of the text. Climb inside it and racket around. Make it your own - but retain the discipline of the period in terms of respect for good social speech.

Elocution as a formal concept may be very ‘out’ at present - even in modern actor training programmes. But don’t be misled. Social elocution was, until 1950, something every parent and every child aspired to. In order for you to be able to escape from today - you need to develop a healthy respect for what was generally achieved by ordinary men and women, and what standards were demanded.

To be “Well spoken” was a recommendation for anybody at almost any level of society. Eliza Dolittle took up Professor Higgin’s offer of voice lessons in Pygmalion so that she could get out of the gutter and work in a “flahr shop”. Look at George Bernard Shaw’s phonetic spelling of her and her father’s pronunciation. It isn’t Broadway Cockney, it is phonetically preserved authentic Turn-of the-Century London dialect of a specific class. It is what locked the characters into their social environment - and they knew it.

For any actor a useful investment of time and energy is to learn the phonetic symbols in any good pronunciation dictionary. For American actors to study the system Noah Webster devised for his “revised” spelling and pronunciation in the first ever Dictionary of the American Language, can open up a clear path to American Social History. Since 1780(?) the shifts in everyday speech in America can be charted by looking through the succession of different revised editions of Webster in almost any local library. Changes of word usage are discussed in the Introduction to each new edition over the past two hundred years of continuous up-dating.

However, an actor today can have fun inventing totally original oral eccentricities, be it Restoration Comedy or a translation of Euripides. The world is your oyster. If built on a sound base of good sense and psychologically accurate motivation you can afford to allow the words space and power if you have the courage to ease apart the syllables and re-separate words which today we usually squash together - skipping letters and omitting end consonants. The effect can be riveting. Frankly, a modern actor should also do the same service to the words when speaking the dialogue of HENRY JAMES or GEORGE BERNARD SHAW. Sloppy, carelessly enunciated everyday social speech is almost exclusively a mid to late twentieth century phenomenon.

Before that, to even work behind the counter in a decent grocer’s store a person needed to learn elocution! Believe me or believe me not - but if this book is going to be of any real use to you - you’d better believe it.

When it comes to finding suitable background reading on which to base altered perspectives of history, the main trick is not to take on too much or get over loaded with facts. Knowing your way around library shelves; recognising the differences between Social History and Social Anthropology; not being intimidated by any of those is the key.

On the subject of background support and inspiration I’m happy to hand over to Dr. Harold Cox and Professor John Beatty and a few others who helped to compile the appended list of easy-to-locate source material. I’ve already said more than I intended to say - so, all that remains for me to tell you is that - whether I have opened a few doors or too many cans of worms, you and only you can speculate on the possible future value to you of ideas outlined in this book.

In signing off I wish you, dear reader (if you’re still with me) happy acting. As I have already said - and will continue to say to actors - have fun - and be adventurous. Acting must remain a stimulating, exhilarating and rewarding experience.

Enjoy it!!