The Question of the Authenticity of a Recording of a Shakespeare

Henry VIII Wolsey speech attributed to Henry Irving

This is (barring emendations) the text of a lecture given in London under the chairmanship of Sir John Gielgud on the 27th of January 1976 and printed in the October 1977 issue of Recorded Sound the Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound pp 733-4.

The well-authenticated canon of Irving recordings consists of three nineteenth-century items amounting together to about twenty-seven lines some of which are barely audible and two dozen lines of the opening of Shakespeare's Richard III, the second half of which has several lines of very poor audibility. The two dozen lines of Wolsey from Henry VIII are delivered in a relatively emotional manner as befits their content by contrast with the relatively sardonic style of the Crookback speech. This makes it difficult to draw direct inferences from the purely prosodic features though they are, it may be said, strikingly different. The non-suspect one has greater variety and has very characteristic uses of pausal effects not present in the other. The Wolsey speech has, particularly in the first half, certain rather individual features quite repetitiously used and of rather coarser effect than the other notably repeated occurrences of wide tremulous falling tones often closely followed by rather narrow rising sequences, as first heard in the second line at In all my miseries. It is probable that an imitator could well tend to use what he recognises as a characteristic trick of his subject's rather more frequently than the subject himself would. However, this evidence is essentially negative.

As for the segment qualities, most of the vowel and consonant values are not strikingly out of line with the fairly wide range of variations heard in the authenticated recordings. Similarly, general voice quality, although not quite so readily identified as the same voice as the four authentic recordings are with each other, is of such similarity any contrasts might well have been attributable to the differences between the recording and playback machines and/or between utterances of the same speaker at different periods of time or states of health.

However, there are at least two significant exceptions to these generalisations: they concern the r-sounds and the l-sounds. The l-sounds vary a good deal in the Wolsey speech even in similar phonetic contexts, being in some cases relatively normally dark as at angels in line 14 and in others more strikingly palatalised than any of those in the authenticated recordings, notably marble in line 6 and Still in line 18. This sort of thing may often be heard from someone making a general attempt to sound old-fashioned. At least as striking are the differences between the authenticated items and the Wolsey speech in the treatment of r-sounds. The Crookback speech, which is of about the same length as the Wolsey one and likewise Shakespeare, of course, shows differences of distribution and sound-quality. The r's which would no longer ever be heard in non-rhetorical non-regional English in this country today are of particular interest. The rhetorical occasional use of them has to this day not entirely disappeared from our high drama. This was very much in evidence a hundred years ago even if becoming increasingly old-fashioned. Irving uses a certain quota, apparently about one in three of the thirty possible ones in the Richard III speech. Some of them are not of audibility suitable to a decisive judgement in view of the great background noise. This is also true of some of the Wolsey occurrences which seem to show such more regular use of /r/, in apparently sixteen cases out of twenty. Three words only, marble (line 6), mark (line 12) and serve (which occurs in lines 22 and 23) lack this possible /r/.

Much more important are the qualities of all the r-sounds. In the Wolsey speech their average degree of presumable concaveness of the tongue surface is strikingly greater than that of the authenticated recordings. The quality of the first /r/ in thus far hear me, Cromwell (line 4) is as deep as some West Country varieties. This one in particular and the average length in general of /r/ occurrences is noticeably greater in the Wolsey speech than in the authenticated Irving recordings. But most striking of all is the introduction of an /r/ sound in Wolsey's line 7 into the word taught. This suggests rather strongly that the speaker is not merely departing from his normal sound values but mistakenly inserting an /r/ sound where no-one would use one. Many of us do this either consciously or not when caricaturing some types of American speech .

There are very few individual words which occur in both the Wolsey speech and the other recordings which would throw light on our problem. The Wolsey speech contains the type of vowel in the word master which Irving is well known to have preferred. It is also well known that Irving's vowel in a word such as York was felt to be unusual by many who heard him at least at the end of his career. This was no doubt because he made it a particularly open vowel – probably throwing this effect into relief by a relatively idiosyncratic trick of opening his mouth very wide. This type of vowel and the rather unusually incomplete falling tone on the word York at the end of Richard's first line are very striking. Wolsey in his second line at all my miseries seemed to produce just such a quality. However, it is interesting to note that when the word all re-appears in line 20 at letˋall theˋends thou ˋaims at the vowel is then made even more unlike its general present value (by loss of lip rounding and/or advancement). A similar treatment is given to not in ˋhe would ˎnot in mine ˎage in line 23. These both seem as if they could well be imitation overshooting dangerously near to caricature. Finally, no doubt one of the most striking linguistic differences between the Wolsey speech and the authenticated Irving recordings lies in the fact that none of the three occurrences of the word my appears in the weakform with non-diphthongal vowel which Irving used with notable regularity in the authenticated recordings, as Mr Bebb has pointed out to us.

Now Mr Bebb was very much on the mark in his suspicion of this discrepancy because there is every reason to believe that, had the Wolsey speech been recorded by an imitator and not by Irving himself, that imitator would by no means have necessarily noticed the use of me instead of my as a particular characteristic of the great actor. Until about fifty years ago there were only the beginnings of our present feeling that me for my is out of place in most situations between the two extremes of archaistic high drama and homely undignified or even slangy speech. We still have the legal etc my lord, of course, as 'milord' a rather early item in our famous exports of franglais, by the way. And we still have the mainly jocularly old-fashioned me boy and shiver-me-timbers and breezy types of locution like up to me neck in it, never in me life, beggar me neighbour, follow me leader and so on. And any Lord Foppington would still hardly be imagined as likely to say Stap my vitals or Split my windpipe with the full form of my. The Oxford English Dictionary editor Bradley in 1908 suggested no limitations upon the use of the monophthongal 'unstressed' pronounciation. Daniel Jones could still add to his pronouncing dictionary the comment 'On the stage in serious drama it is customary to use the weak form in all unstressed positions' in 1937 – when such a remark was probably only slightly if at all out of date. The Fowler brothers in 1911 in their new Concise Oxford Dictionary said it was 'often' used. Yet so diverse was usage that 100 years ago Alexander J. Ellis, the father of modern English phonetics, could say that the diphthong was 'constantly preserved pure' except in milord. And his pupil Henry Sweet (the original of Henry Higgins as Shaw hinted) and Sweet's pupil Henry Wyld could completely ignore the weak (monophthongal) form.

With careful scholarly observers of our language holding such different opinions we cannot be surprised if any individual at the beginning of this century either used it constantly or didn't use it at all. Nor, by the way, can we describe Ellen Terry's use of it as wayward or inconsistent. It could very well indeed be perfectly natural that she should feel that the line My sorrows and my shame are my own would be most expressive with the unreduced form of my at the end but be too heavy with it earlier. Her recordings show her varying the value of my in a clear stylistic pattern. All six occurrences in the gloomy Juliet speech take the full (diphthongal-vowel) my. So is Ophelia's tragic when my father died. So is the heartfelt sympathetic enquiry Why, my sweet lord? in Winter's Tale. Contrast the light-hearted, immediately preceding, Come, my gracious, Lord, shall I be your playfellow?. Terms of address are usually rattled off quickly and so of course is Beatrice's snappy reply to You were born in a merry hourNo, sure, my lord. My mother cried.

But to return to Henry Irving, even though an imitator might well have not noticed Irving's very marked preference for the weak form of the word, we have every reason to expect that in at least two of its four occurrences in the Wolsey speech Irving would have not used the strongform. He makes use of it in the authenticated recordings on all four possible occasions. (There may possibly be a diphthongal my before amorous in Richard III line 15.)

My considered verdict, in view of all the foregoing, is that it seems that the Wolsey speech, though not impossibly by Irving, is more likely to have been a fairly clever imitation.