Posted tagged ‘J.B. Priestley’

“Me, myself, and I” on the stage … and on the page

February 6, 2014

I just finished stage managing An Inspector Calls for a local theater company. The director, cast, and I started in October with a read-through of the 1947 British script. Then came blocking, which is where the director sets up the actors like pieces on a game board and moves them around—then changes her mind and moves them somewhere else. The actors read from the script for about two months, until they were supposed to be “off book” (to have memorized their lines). That made their movements more natural, and they could gesture and pick things up. Later came set, costumes, makeup, theater staff, programs, an audience–and fabulous reviews.

What does this have to do with language, you ask? A few things. First, after 4-1/2 months, you’d think I’d be sick of hearing the same lines over and over, but my appreciation of the writing only grew. Second, had I been directing, I’d have made a couple of tweaks so that modern American audiences wouldn’t get the wrong idea—particularly where Gerald says, “All right, I did [adore her attentions]. Any man would have done.” To us, this line makes it sounds like Daisy would have fallen for just anyone, and Gerald happened to come along. What Gerald means is the same thing without “done”—any man would have appreciated Daisy’s attentions. Quite a different thing.

Third, modern language intruded anyway. About half of the actors read their lines as J.B. Priestley wrote them, proper grammar and all: “You don’t. Neither of us does.” Others “corrected” what’s wrong for Yanks but right for Brits, lines like this: “Milward’s [shop] suddenly found themselves shorthanded.” And one actor, once out of the script, never, ever got this line right: “Yes, and do you remember what you said to Gerald and me after dinner …?”

After each rehearsal for the two weeks before we moved in, the director had me email to everyone the lines missed that night. After each rehearsal, I’d type out that line. The first time, I added, “(Eric would not have made the grammatical error of saying ‘Gerald and I.’)” Soon I started capping “ME,” then boldfacing those lines people were missing night after night. Finally I started begging, “(Or say ‘me and Gerald’ if that comes more naturally.)”

But bad grammar didn’t budge. This son of the aristocracy continued butchering the language through the final matinee.

Some folks don’t know any better. (Not the case here.) Some don’t care. (I hope not the case here.) Some don’t understand grammar and don’t trust the editors or other experts who insist that this way is better than that way. (Sure; if you hear something two or more ways, why not throw up your hands about it? Why not assume that either way is fine and that it doesn’t matter?) And for many, bad grammar is just so ingrained that they can’t speak any other way.

Bill Walsh at the Washington Post has a theory on this. “People get freaked out by ‘me,’ ” he says. “I think it goes back to being corrected in childhood for saying ‘me and Sally’ instead of ‘Sally and I.’ The idea that ‘me’ is somehow wrong in anything but the simplest utterance is what sticks, and so you get people hypercorrecting and saying ‘Come visit my husband and I’ or using ‘myself’ inappropriately.”

Myself, yes! I once overheard an actor—not the same guy—tell someone, “She came to visit myself.” Huh? What happened to me? This one I have a theory on: backward-formation. People used to say, “She came to visit Sara and me.” Then, for pretentiousness or misplaced emphasis or who knows what, it changed to “She came to visit Sara and myself.” Once enough people actually accepted that, the next step—“She came to visit myself”—was inevitable.

What’s the answer? Better-taught teachers and parents to teach—and correct—better-taught children, for one. But that’s got to start somewhere. Getting people to care is part of it, but that too may be difficult. I never had formal grammar training, not really; I got to know and understand this stuff partly from having adults around who knew and cared about it and partly from reading well-written and well-edited books from an early age. So literacy is part of the solution, too. That means everything from Reading Is Fundamental to Sesame Street, from the Book on Every Bed project to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other wildly popular young-adult series.

I’m not expecting miracles. But you wouldn’t think a single, skinny letter would be so hard to get out of a grown man’s head. It took years to teach and reinforce the wrong phrasing. Is there any hope that the coming decades will do what I couldn’t as stage manager and dislodge it? The decades probably won’t—but the next director might.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.