The first of March is St. Davy’s Day, and my Monmouth cap is ready for a leek.
I made it myself – the cap, not the leek – out of New Hampshire sheep’s wool from a pattern someone retrofigured from a several-hundred-year-old knit Monmouth hat that still exists in a museum somewhere. It’s sort of bell-shaped and has a nifty little lanyard loop meant, I’m led to understand, to allow for hanging on the hilt of one’s sword when the situation requires or permits an exposed pate.
It’s also a perfect mechanism from which to dangle a huge leek.
I’m not Welsh in any way I’m aware of, though I do think dragons and Tom Jones are neat. And Kentucky is coal country, too – it’s in the water here, which doesn’t seem to upset as many people as it should. But a few years ago a director (with a cruel streak I hadn’t suspected in her) decided to cast me as Captain Fluellen in Henry V.
He quickly became one of my favorite Surprise Roles, that is to say a role I had no particular opinion of one way or another before taking it on. I was playing Bottom that summer, which had been a dream for some time, as well as Polonius (too young, really, but if the baldness broadens my casting possibilities, then bald I shall be), who was fun, but requires some tricky juggling, what with the oafish-yet-controlling-yet-relatable-enough-that-you-don’t-necessarily-want-him-dead notes to be hit.
Fluellen was just…the thing I had to do in the other play of the repertory season. The slight relaxation between two larger roles. No one told me he was the best part in the show (in that people are always happy to see you arrive, but you don’t have to memorize/put over any famous speeches). I suppose I should have, as should we all, listened to the wisdom of Good Tickle Brain whose favorite male Shakespeare character is none other than Our Mighty Welshman. He’s steadfast, well-read, a dedicated Harry P(lantagenet) fanboy. Perhaps a little too by-the-book, but in wartime that’s maybe a good thing. No, he can’t answer a simple question with brevity, but neither can I. I mean, I’m writing this and exactly zero people have even asked for it. I suspect that number will drop once this is posted.
Now, I’m an American, so I don’t have any particular grip on Welsh-ness, whether typical or stereotypical, beyond those few I may have encountered via Harry Secombe on my beloved Goon Show. (Though I understand even Disney partakes of Welsh festivities nowadays…)
But ignorance is no excuse for not doing your acting homework, so I set out on the steep uphill journey that was figuring out a Welsh accent. And I can now hear and identify the active sounds and cadences that make for a Welsh accent. Whether I managed to issue any forth from my mouth in an effective way is another story.
The important thing, though, was that my attempts at that accent at least gave me a glimpse into something important about the role that an American not attempting the accent might not have given me: the role is the accent. By which I mean, if you’re writing for Elmer Fudd, you throw in as many r-laden words as you can; for Sylvester the Cat, it’s s-words.
And for a bombastic Welsh captain, you deliberately write something like:
The Duke of Exeter is as magnanimous as Agamemnon, and a man that I love and honour with my soule, and my heart, and my dutie, and my life, and my living, and my uttermost power.
He is not, God be praysed and blessed, any hurt in the World, but keepes the Bridge most valiantly, with excellent discipline.
And the poor sap who has to say it all has to establish him as a bit of a blatherer right away (Bottom, Fluellen, and Polonius in one summer; talk about typecasting) while also making sure to say Dook while everyone else says Dyook, hisses the esses a bit, adds an extra schwa-ish vowel between double consonants like gn, mn, tt, and makes that lovelee Welsh long ee sound even within diphthongs. So it comes out something like:
The Dook of Ek-seh-teh iss …(lag while he chooses a word, which also makes Gower and the audience think he might simply answer the question “Is the Duke of Exeter safe?”)…ass magananimous ass Agamemenon, and a man that I luff and on-nuh with my soul, and my haat, and my doo-tee, and my laeef, and my lif-fing and my ut-tah-most pah-weh.
Oy. Or rather, Cod pee praissed and plesst. The entire text of the role reads like a oral exam of a “recognizing the signature sounds of a Welsh accent” course, down to the very phonetic spelling of “Llewellyn”. Which, it being primarily a comic role, though not really a foolish one, isn’t a worry. Finding the jokes is a vital part of Fluellen, and the language and how you say it is Where the Jokes Are. Plus spitting all the hell over my Gower, which was a hoot, for me anyway. I don’t think she caught anything communicable from me.
There’s also the cadence, which is, again, to American ears, not far off from a broad Subcontinental accent, which made me wonder what similarities between the Hindi and Welsh languages would make native speakers sing so similarly when speaking English. I never found an answer.
Somehow I doubt anyone noticed any of this homework, though, because the note Fluellen leaves on is all anyone remembers – being, of course, the scene in which I forced a man to eat a raw leek onstage, which in our production was doubled down on when I a) obeyed the stage direction “strikes him” by doing so with the flappy green bits of said leek, b) leaned into the bawdy fun of getting uncomfortably close to his face with my crotch when saying “or I have another leek in my pocket which you shall eat” and c) took a giant and spiteful bite of the thing myself just before exiting – “…and heal your pate.” [crunch]. Me and my big dumb comedy notions. I swear I can still taste it sometimes when the wind is right.
But the crux of this wonderful, loquacious fellow was, for me, in his little exchange with Gower the night before the battle, quoted in full:
Gower: Captaine Fluellen.
Fluellen: ‘So, in the Name of Jesu Christ, speake fewer: it is the greatest admiration in the universall World, when
the true and aunchient Prerogatifes and Lawes of the Warres is not kept: if you would take the paines but to
examine the Warres of Pompey the Great, you shall finde, I warrant you, that there is no tiddle tadle nor pibble ba-
ble in Pompeye’s Campe: I warrant you, you shall finde the Ceremonies of the Warres, and the Cares of it, and
the Formes of it, and the Sobrietie of it, and the Modestie of it, to be otherwise.
Gower: Why the Enemie is lowd, you heare him all Night.
Fluellen: If the Enemie is an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe; is it meet, thinke you, that wee should
also, looke you, be an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe, in your owne conscience now?
Gower: I will speake lower.
Fluellen: I pray you, and beseech you, that you will.
There he is. Don’t doubt for a minute he salivates all over Gower as he stage-whispers this warning, and yes, the obvious joke is the long-winded admonition not to talk, along with the singular opportunity to say “tit-tle tat-tle and pip-ple pap-ple” onstage, but the matter contained in that long-windedness is everything I love about the guy. Gower has, to Fluellen, not only shown a lack of basic and sensible self-preservation but has insulted his own training and the very tradition of soldiering, its ceremonies/cares/forms/sobrieties/modesties. If the French army jumped off a pridge, would you? He loves his job in every detail, and what with there being no standing army back then, he has to relish every moment of it.
But enough of this. Back to your happy St. Davy’s Day. Wear the leek in your Monmouth with pride and if mocked by swelling turkey-cocks, let them eat it.