Accentuated

I’m a card-carrying member of the “actors, get over your obsession with accents” club.

An age-old tradition: when English-dominant countries produce art about characters who speak a language besides English, the actors will deploy accented English, AKA: English inflected with the accent of whatever language the characters are supposed to be speaking. The reasons seem clear to me:

English-only philistines audiences hate subtitles, and in a country where English is the most common language spoken by the population, the nation’s pool of available actors will be overrun by English speakers, so much so that retaining the original language will minimize the number of thespian options at a caster’s disposal. It also allows writers to tackle any story of their choosing, without the burden of translation and writing in a language they may not be fluent in.

But none of these reasons justify the use of accented English. Since the characters wouldn’t be speaking in English anyways, how is accented English any closer to the truth than the actors’ naturally-accented English (these accents can hail from anywhere in the world)? Adding an additional layer of artifice in the name of truth sounds oxymoronic, figuratively and literally.

As the title suggests, the play is set in France, populated by French-speaking characters. In the first scene, between a Frenchwoman and an American transplant, the former asks if the latter would prefer to speak in English, which she declines.

The Manhattan Theatre Club’s current production of Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic offers an alternative, inverting Nike’s slogan: Just. Don’t. Do. It.

The play is set in France, populated by French-speaking characters. Its first scene is a long conversation between a Frenchwoman and an American transplant that sounds like two Americans shooting the shit…until the Frenchwoman asks if the transplant would prefer to speak in English.

Hold up. So you’re telling me that, so far, within the reality of the play, they’ve been speaking in French this whole time??

Yes, that’s exactly what the play is telling us, never to be mentioned nor explained again.

And guess what! It works! I didn’t think twice about it afterwards!

Actually, I did. When art counters artistic conventions, the decision calls attention to itself, a new ingredient to analyze with respect to the rest of the play’s themes. Telling a story about France that sounds like it takes place in America can’t help but draw parallels between the two, a running subtext to be unpacked throughout.

This calculus applies equally to the reverse situation, and really, any and all similar situations: if a French-speaking playwright writes a play in French about Americans for French-speaking actors, they need not don American-accented French.

Another caveat: in theory, and by definition, “American-accented English” can describe basically any accent spoken by an American (speaking English doesn’t make you “more” “American”).

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