Acting voices of the past

Sarah, guardian.com, Rochlitz-Wheeler-CorbisPhoto: Rochlitz-Wheeler-Corbis

How often do we come across some one with a beautiful speaking voice?

Count Harry Kessler met Renoir at a soirée in Paris, when Renoir was sixty-six. Kessler said that when the painter left, “everything was completely under the spell of the charm of his personality.” One of the reasons for this was that he had a captivating voice.

Renoir’s posture and head were “greying and ailing”, Kessler said. He had a thin white beard and his hands were distorted by rheumatism. But when he spoke he became “a kind of Prince Charming, enchantingly fresh and youthful: the spirit, tempo, voice of a twenty-year-old, and always – no matter what he says – the palpable proximity to women and love that colours and warms all of his utterances.”

Apparently one of Sarah Bernhardt’s greatest attributes was her voice, even when she recited lines as a child (she was in a convent and stepped into the role of the Archangel Raphael, in a play about Tobias regaining his sight, when the chosen Archangel had gotten stage fright at the dress rehearsal). From what people wrote about her, it seemed her voice could stop people in their tracks.

She was sarring in a play by Dumas, at a time when the followers of Dumas and those of Victor Hugo didn’t like each another. The Dumas play couldn’t start for an hour because the Hugo supporters were shouting out the name of a Hugo play. The Dumas play was set forty years in the past, and when Sarah came out wearing those old fashioned clothes, the audience laughed at her. But then they succumbed to her voice, and by the time she declared her love for the main character, she received an ovation. The columnist for Le Figaro wrote: “Her magic voice, her astonishing voice, moved the public. She tamed them, like a little Orpheus.”

I was wondering if her voice would have the same effect today. Maybe that style of recitation wouldn’t move anyone. I watched Liam Clancy recite the last lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses. It’s extraordinarily difficult to pull off, without giving the sense that you’re trying very hard. Clancy gives it a good go, but even in the early Sixties, when he was still hovering between acting and singing, he was more an old-fashioned minstrel, the kind of character you find in Jack B Yeats’ paintings, than all the rest of the twenty year olds hanging around Greenwich Village at that time…

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