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It Ain't English:Reflections on Staging Original American Plays in Britain
By Jeff Johnson..The Global Guy..page1
Many Americans think English is English, period - or, "full stop," as the British say - and that the only difference between American English and British English is the pronunciation, what we usually call the accent. Given this misconception, the temptation too often is to submit plays to production companies in the United Kingdom expecting that, because the language is the same - "English" - the play can be read with the same consideration a company might give it in the States. In truth "English" might be any of a number of British varieties - including the Celtic fringe of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and less salubrious pockets of broad northern England brogue, where they speak in their own indecipherable dialects - South African or Australian, or any variations within the former colonies (including the States). To the untrained ear, except for American, it all sounds British, which usually means, in the popular media, either the Queen's English - at least, the PBS equivalent - or a fake East London cockney as spoken by Dick Van Dyke's character in "Mary Poppins." The truth, of course, is much more complex. Irish is distinguished from Scottish, which is distinguished from Welsh, and within those countries the local variations are as numerous as the ones found within England proper. And inside the borders of Albion, from the Scouse of Liverpudlians to the pinched, exact "received pronunciation" of the public school boys at Eton, from Brummies (Birmingham) to Geordies (Newcastle), from Brighton to Blackpool, the distinctions and the prejudices inherent in them are more culturally imbedded and significant than any regional derivations in the States.
My point in this brief and, to some, obvious, overly generalized gloss is that bringing a play over from the States for production in Britain is as difficult, if not more so, than actually having a piece translated into a "foreign" language. Even though the "English," in principle, is the same, the truth is that, as G.B. Shaw once quipped, Britain and America are "one people divided by a common language."
Because my experience has been strictly with England proper, albeit Northern England - Manchester in particular, where the regional dialects can be as colorful and broad and absolutely impenetrable as any Celtic derivation - I can not address the difficulties of transferring an original American play into other regional venues, but I have a feeling that the problems, no matter which specific region or country you find yourself in, will be fairly similar.
To illustrate how seriously dialect affects sensibility, I can recall watching a performance of "Miss Julie" in a pub theatre in London with an agent who had an interest in the female lead who played a very convincing aristocrat. After the play, when we were introduced to the actress, we were both surprised to discover that she was from Yorkshire, her natural dialect broad and scruffy. The agent, who had arranged an interview for her, explained that she needed to drop her brogue if she wanted to get the job. Proud, if not a bit arrogant, she refused, and she didn't get the job. If she had affected, as she was taught at drama school, "received pronunciation," she would have gotten the job with no problems.