The Spoken Word: “The Wren” (1921)
The Spoken Word
conducted by Windsor P. Daggett
“Smile if you will, but some heart-strings
Are closest linked with simple things.”
Three hundred years ago one of my New England ancestors was living on the south side of Arrow street In Cambridge, Mass. HI. birthplace was near St. Peter’s, Cornhlll. London. He next settled In Hampton, N. II., where the family “followed the sea” for three generations. In 1764, the fourth generation, with a colony of children and neighbors, settled in the “woods” of Maine. It was an extreme Puritan family, always seeking Isolation from the world. Each summer I visit the paternal acres In the “woods” of Maine. The distant cousin who entertains me is the fifth in line to spend his life on the original homestead. On his “orchard” stands a coopered dipper marked “1775,” the year the house was built, and the year the owner went to war. My cousin is a farmer. He speaks a more Idiomatic English than I do, and his pronunciation is never rustic. It would follow Webster with regularity.
My maternal grandmother came from this stock. She was the seventh generation of these hardy people who read the King James Version of the English Bible dally, and she lived to be 98. For twenty years I admired her speech. She came from the country to live with us. When our city pastor called I took childish pride in feeling that It was grandmother who gave distinction to the visitation. I have come to realise, since, that her speech represented the New England Village In the days of village dominance, and that It also represented the aristocracy of the village church.
Three hundred years seems like a long time, but a few milestones shorten the span. My grandmother was born In 1809. She Inherited the family traditions that went back another hundred years. From there we soon get back to Cambridge (Mass.) and to London.
With all these palpitations for New England I went to see “The Wren.” A few days before I went a Portland boy In port from the South came to see me. We had talked bnt a moment when he said: “It seems good to get back where people say ‘bahsket’ (basket).”
Would the characters In “The Wren” use broad A? If they didn’t I would have to come out, for New England dialect wouldn’t be New England dialect without broad A. I remembered my trip “up country” last summer, and the five children who still say “hahmmer” and “lahdder.” using the pronunciation their grandfather handed down.
I went to “The Wren.” and I stayed. The moment Sam Reed came onto the stage I was wedded to the play for life. Critics have called the play lightweight. Possibly It is, but it does not leave one lightheaded. It is subtle In suggestiveness. It has sound psychology running thru its lightness, and what is more uncommon, it has caught local American color from the soil and put it onto the stage without theatrlcallsm. If “The Wren” is light Wallace Nutting’s watercolors are light and so are lace shawls and bits of carving and many things not marketed on the Rialto.
Mr. Tarklngton has done so well in putting his observations onto the stage and the company is so harmonious in carrying out his idea that my New England sentiments are all foaming at the mouth, and I shall not write about “The Wren” without becoming romantic. As we know, the scene is the coast of Maine. As Mr. Tarklngton has been summering at Kennebunkport we can guess what he has in mind. In the company is Sam Reed, born at Boothbay, Me. He is playing the hired man. There is Helen Hayes, of Virginia, playing the landlord’s daughter, and there is Leslie Howard, of London, playing the summer boarder who falls in love with the little school teacher (Helen Hayes). Mr. Reed is a Maine Yankee, born on the Maine coast, reared in the Boston schools, and today he is a resident on a Maine farm, where he has lived for 20 years. He has always liked New England dialect. He has studied it. He knows it. He speaks it In “The Wren.” He is the most authoritative New Englander In the company, and he was doubtless helpful at rehearsals, piecing out Mr. Tarkington’s observations, which have been limited to three or four trimmers. Mr. Reed had rather be right than get a laugh. He uses none of those one-nightstand tricks, which stick out like sore thumbs, is “Thank You.”
Mr. Reed uses broad A pronunciations thru out. His Yankee twang, his snappy syllabication, his intonations, his mispronunciations are all true to the soil. Mr. Tarkington has given him many lines rich in local flavor. The father “lingered on us children.” Something else was a matter of “thirty-one year and eight month.”
Broad A, a modern fashion In New England (as in Old England), belongs essentially to the region between the Connecticut River and the Atlantic Coast. Is to happen, however, that there is a broad A spot in Virginia. Helen Hayes was brought up in that spot. At any rate, her mother taught her that nice broad A (half long), which we find in Webster with one dot, the careful Eastern pronunciation of words like “ask”, “pass” and “last”. Miss Hayes spend only four days in Maine to catch local color, so that her knowledge of New England is newly acquired, but she does remarkably well. With her Webster A and girlish Eastern speech (she usually gives the impression that she comes from Boston) she fits pretty naturally into her surroundings.
Miss Hayes deliberately avoids “dropping the g,” because she is playing the part of a school teacher and wishes not to be rustle. Her least characteristic pronunciation is in words like “talking,” “mortified,” “thought.” On these words Miss Hayes has a British length to the vowel O (thought). These pronunciations with Miss Hayes are fashionable American, not rural, and they are not heard in New England dialect. This vowel in New England has no lip-rounding, and it is short in duration. Its extreme form is “dot-ter” (o in hot) for the more British “daughter” (aw in law). If Miss Hayes said “hurry” with the u in up she should correct it, for that is cultured speech, not typical of the soil. Miss Hayes said “laugh” with flat A, which may have been just a slip of the tongue.
Miss Hayes is charming in her part. She has the rare ability of going from one part to another without carrying mannerism around forever. Her personality is charming. It lends itself to characterization. Miss Hayes has understanding and technique. She is living in an artistic atmosphere of the theatre, and she is growing. Her voice is a pleasant combination of soft American accents and tones that are brilliantly full and firm in texture. Her voice has natural expressiveness, and it is well placed for clear, articulate speech. Everything about her suggest that delightful thing, “breeding” and inherent sensibility.
My romance begins with the entrance of Leslie Howard in the part of the lover. I would have been equally happy to have been an American boy in the part of the “summer visitor,” but I would have missed my romance. Mr. Howard was born in London. He was graduated from Dulwich, one of England’s largest public schools. Last spring an English actor called my attention to Howard, who was then playing in “Just Suppose”. We were discussing pronunciation and manners in the two countries. The actor was speaking of Charles Hawtrey and of the “breeding” which an English boy gets at the public schools. He spoke of Leslie Howard as England’s ideal of British schoolboy, “a delightful English gentleman.”
Mr. Howard came to this country only three years ago, and, barring the war, he was just out of college. He has always lived in London. He represents in speech and manner the culture of England. He stands approved by this English actor, a gentleman and university man, who knows English culture in its purity. I go into this detail because I hear ignorant allusions to British speech. I like to have people know what they are talking about. I like to have British speech judged by British standards. Mr. Howard represents British standards.
Mr. Howard plays opposite Helen Hayes in “The Wren.” Altho his speech is British in intonation it blends very gracefully with the New England setting. Miss Hayes, a representative American girl, with the pronunciation of the Eastern States, and Mr. Howard, a representative English boy, with the speech of Southern England, are not ridiculously far apart in the ordinary mechanics of pronunciation. There are all kinds of British actors just as there are all kinds of American actors, and we must be honest in saying what is British just as we must be honest in saying what is American.
When I talked with Mr. Howard after the play – it was the first time I had met him – I had one question which I put first. It was this: “How did Sam Reed’s speech and the New England dialect in the play impress you?”
Mr. Howard flashed his reply in an instant: “The speech of Mr. Reed and of all these New England people reminds me of the Cornish Coast of England. Their pronunciation is surprisingly British. You can hear it everywhere along the coast. If this play and this company were to go to London I believe the London audience would accept this as a coast play of Old England.”
It was interesting to hear a spontaneous British boy make this statement out of a clear sky. It was significant. The New England village for 300 years has been a conservator of traditions. Even some of its daily expressions and habits of speech come from across the water. My grandmother was always putting a “pox” on things that went wrong and one of her relations used the emphatical “by King.”
New England broad A, of course, did not come over with the primer. It is a later-day fashion, but it survives in the New England village just as the older fashions survive there.
The builder of the house in the “woods” fought the British, and he referred to them as long as he lived as a swarm of “stinging bees,” but from the Revolution to 1914 his family bookcase was jammed with his thumb-marked copies of Pope, Goldsmith, Blair, Cowper and Watts, and with the prose of John Bunyon, Whitefield and John Wesley.
The suburban dialect my grandmother spoke and the rural dialect that Mr Reed speaks in the play have always gone side by side. One has always laughed at the other, and the urban dialect has always laughed at both. And so it will be.
As a study of comparative English “The Wren” is the prettiest play in town. It suggests to me that New England has kept the nearest to Old England of any of the colonies and that the Atlantic has not entirely washed away the conservative shores of either country. At the end of the play Helen Hayes and Leslie Howard walk out on the beach hand in hand. It is a pretty ending. They are kith and kin, and they speak a common language.
(The Billboard, October 29, 1921)