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Malvolio Production Diary: learning the lines

Your Humble Blogger is really struggling with the Malvolio memorization. It’s not a huge number of lines, but they are not sticking.

I have written before about how I go about learning lines. That hasn’t changed much. I have (as y’all may have noticed) been reading the script frequently and carefully over the last month; I started the process of actually committing the lines to memory about two weeks ago. During my vacation last week, I put in a large number of hours, both by myself and with someone on book, trying to get the lines together. At this point, I should have a goodly chunk of them in my brain, with only a few scenes giving me real trouble (and then the endless struggle to get all the words exactly right). Instead, my brain has turned to mush, and while I have a few anchors in a few scenes, mostly I am at sea.

Why is this?

Well, for one thing, I am growing older, and my mental abilities are in fact actually atrophying, so there’s that. But this struggle is not just a small notch further along than NickNick or Hearts, it’s a whole different ballgame. So I don’t think I can scratch it entirely up to my own senescence. I think a big chunk of it is the part itself.

First and most importantly, there’s the monologue, which I may have neglected to mention is one hundred lines long. It’s a huge and fucking impossible scene, and breaking it down into its (four? five?) constituent parts doesn’t seem to be helping. I know there are actors who memorize entire two-hour monodramas, which must be a really insane amount of work. I have had bigger parts than Malvolio (Buckingham is a bigger part, for instance, just going by how many lines the actor has to memorize) but I don’t think I’ve ever had a longer speech. I am just now sort-of starting to get hold of it. I hope.

Then there’s the fact that I have been on vacation for a week, and thus haven’t been to a rehearsal. Rehearsing helps me learn the lines—I can’t really explain the mechanism by which it does help me, but it seems to. In Oliver Ford Davies’ book on Playing Shakespeare he advises that any actor with a part of more than 200 lines (I think it was) should come to the first rehearsal already off-book, simply because there wouldn’t be enough time during the six or eight weeks of rehearsal to both learn the part and rehearse it. There is much to that, and certainly I would hesitate to go in to rehearsals for such a part without putting in a lot of work beforehand, but the actual offbookifying is easier for me when it is interspersed with running through the scenes on my feet, clutching the sheaf of pages. And this is, I think, typical of amateur actors, at least those I have worked with. There is a large range, of course, but I think most of us would say that rehearsing and memorizing work best on simultaneous tracks.

And then there’s the part itself. Malvolio’s lines are just difficult to memorize, I think. He is given to repetition more than somewhat, but with minor variations—in the prison scene, for instance, he says never was man thus wronged and then there was never man thus abused and then there was never man so notoriously abused. And while that one gets longer through repetition, in that same scene he asks the Fool to help me to a candle, and pen, ink, and paper followed by help me to some light and some paper and finally some ink, paper, and light. Which brings up another issue—often the gist of the line is more or less obvious as it follows what the character wants at that moment, but that doesn’t seem to be helping me much, here. In II,ii (the ring scene) it’s pretty straightforward, as Malvolio wants to pass along his message and the ring, and what he says is bent toward that. In the prison scene, while he wants out (and to send a letter on that account) (and, if he has to be inside the cell, light) he doesn’t get those things at all, and just keeps saying the same sorts of things over and again, since his wants at the beginning of the scene are much the same as his baffled wants at the end. Similarly, in the yellow-stocking scene, he starts quoting from the letter, and winds up continuing to quote from it since (to his eyes) nothing has changed. He doesn’t respond to people (in the letter scene, he doesn’t notice them at all) and so even when I can identify how a line corresponds to a motivation (if I can use that word, or perhaps agenda, meaning simply what he wants the saying of the line to accomplish in concrete terms) that doesn’t always help me place the line in the scene, as Malvolio is peculiarly bad at adapting his methods to those around him.

Well, perhaps I now have enough excuses, and should go back to doing the actual work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


It's interesting that Malvolio's inability to listen carefully and responsively to others makes his part more difficult to memorize than it would otherwise be. So Malvolio brings suffering not only upon himself, but upon his actor.

True. And the cross-garters make for some obstruction in the blood as well.


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