La Comédie humaine is the diary of American expatriate Claire Berlinski’s amazing journey onto the Parisian stage. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) If you missed the Introduction, we urge you to begin there.
The French take elocution very seriously; it is considered basic, minimal politeness to speak clearly, and inadequate articulation is perceived as lazy. Which brought me to the next exercise in the audition—an elocution challenge. I understood fully that this was no mere test of my ability to emote realistically. This was a test of character. Character is destiny.
Everyone had finished cursing the trout. We looked expectantly at Fabien.
“Alors, écoutez bien, tout le monde!” he began. “Just as one must prepare and warm one’s voice before performing, one must perfect the diction and ‘muscler son masque facial.’”
That phrase perplexed me: I knew what a “masque facial” was; just that week I’d managed to trap myself in a cucumber mask. I’d thought it would dry, but it stayed gooey. It made me late to dinner and my friends had to help me pick goo-flecks out of my hair. But how do you muscle a face mask?
The rest of his explanation made sense, though. Stage actors need perfect elocution. Their vowels and consonants must be crisp and precise as a laser. He told us not to hesitate to exaggerate the movements of our tongues and lips: The Athenian orator Demosthenes trained to speak by putting pebbles in his mouth.
I would have greatly preferred that to the exercise Fabien gave us.
He passed around a sheet of paper, the same one for us all to read. It was the most terrifying piece of paper I’ve seen in my life, and believe me, I’ve shown up unprepared for many a final exam.
We were to stand on the stage, one by one, and read this:
Un gros gras grand grain d’orge disait à un autre gros gras grand grain d’orge :
Quand donc te dégros-gras-grand-grain d’orgeras-tu?
Je me dégros gras-grand-grain d’orgerai,
Quand tous les autres gros gras grand grain d’orge se dégros-gras-grand-grain d’orgerent
I stared at it in panic and disbelief. In case it’s not obvious, it is a hideous tongue-twister (virelangue in French). The worst in the French language, even for native speakers. And it involves all the sounds that Americans find most difficult in French. There’s one uvular fricative after another, voiced and de-voiced, followed rapidly by open and nasalized vowels. One slip changes the meaning of the word. It’s got every sound Americans always screw up, major and minor, even “disait,” for example, which isn’t pronounced “dee-zay,” as Americans tend to do, but “dee-zeh.” It’s the linguistic equivalent of a Flying Disco Drop three-ball juggling cascade.
This is how it’s supposed to sound.
You can watch me struggle with it here:
The reason it’s so hard, by the way, is the narrowness of the French phonetic target. It’s not like English, where you can make yourself understood well enough even if your vowels are sloppy—not too sloppy, mind, a sheep’s not a ship and a sheet’s not Shinola—but basically, you can put any old vowels in the middle of “basically.” Or no vowels at all. People will still know what you mean. (Try it.)
If you don’t hit the target precisely on every single vowel in French, they genuinely can’t understand you. They’re not pretending. They’re not being snobs. They just have no idea what you mean: They’ve never heard those weird sounds before.
To the consternation of the Académie française, young French people have come to think speaking English is very cool, and those who can lord it over those who can’t, which is most of them. This is why Macron is so quick to show off his English-speaking chops, and that’s how we got the infamous Vagina Monologue:
I remembered that all too clearly as I stared at the page.
Louise went first. She elongated her neck and spine as she inhaled gracefully and the strands of her delicate blonde balayage shimmered in the stage lights. Then she chirped and trilled her way through the whole thing in single exhale, flicking the tip of her tongue against the back of her teeth, taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on “o,” “a, and “ai,” her pink cashmere lips—contoured with toasted honey truffle—purring, pursing, then bubbling on the “u” like champagne. The performance inspired incredulity, like watching Simone Biles fly through a laid-out double-twisting Kovacs with a back salto so high she can take a quick break for a cup of coffee in the air. When she finished, Louise allowed herself a faux-modest giggle. I hated her.
Céleste was deeper, more poetic: She took her time with it, infusing each vowel with the spirit of Ronsard. Ah, but she tripped at the end, though. Couldn’t stick the landing. A shame.
Alain got through it well enough—no slips—but he sort of mumbled it, in a low voice. He must come from a bad family, I thought. The kind that didn’t nag him incessantly to enunciate properly, the kind that doesn’t really love France, perhaps, maybe even the kind that put empty bottles in the recycling vessels reserved for paper only.
Then Anne-Laure. Oh, God, she did it beautifully. That old-fashioned 16th-arrondissement accent, that purity of vowel—this woman was a true patriot. Her uvular trills and denti-alveolars were clear as Baccarat crystal. She spoke very slowly. It was quite elegant that way. I made a mental note. I decided when it came my turn, that would be my strategy. Slow. Slow. Don’t panic.
Pierre screwed it up right out of the gate and had to start again. Twice.
That was good, because I was next.
Be like Anne-Laure, I told myself. I began very slowly. One word at a time. And the first two lines went okay, actually.
But then I pronounced “gras” like “grand” and I completely lost my wits. After a shaky landing on her first vault, her coach pulled her from the event: “Her mind wasn’t in the right place,” he said, “the risk of injury wasn’t worth it.”
What made it so awful was that everyone said “bien!” when at last I limped through the finish line. They said it so nicely. So encouragingly. Worse still, Lionel said, “That’s really hard for an American.”
I fumed. I fantasized about putting them all on that stage, one by one, and forcing them at gunpoint to say, “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”
I was highly unnerved by that virelangue, which is probably why I screwed up the final improvisation, which really should have been by far the easiest. We were put in teams of four. Fabien explained the parameters: Two of us—Olivier and I—owned a garage. The other two—Pierre and Yvette—had left their expensive car with us for repairs. They were late to something important. It could be whatever they wanted—a wedding, the award ceremony at Cannes, anything. Fabien took Pierre and Yvette aside to give them a secret hint. He did the same with me and Olivier. There had been a little booboo with the pneumatic lift, he told us. In fact, it collapsed and totaled the car. “C’est une crêpe,” he said, showing something much more flat than a car with his hands. And we’d let our insurance lapse. So now we had to explain to them why the car wasn’t ready on time. It was up to us to figure out how.
Truly, I should have been fine: This stuff happens to me every day.
But Olivier spoke so quickly—much faster than an average fast-speaking Parisian. Somehow, the scene went on a tangent that I just didn’t understand. I just didn’t get what was going on. Confused, with my tongue still twisted, I stood there—mute. Toward the end I said, “oui,” because I assumed that couldn’t be totally wrong.
At last Fabien put an end to my misery by clapping his hands and saying “bien,” which clearly didn’t apply to me.
I’d flunked that one, clearly.
Fabien looked at the time. “Zut!” He said. It seemed we were running late, and this wasn’t trivial because Le Mariage de Figaro was starting in five minutes. Paying theater-goers were waiting outside, and the real actors, who’d been warming up backstage, were now powdered, periwigged, corseted and squeezed into velvet frocks or tunics with cravats and jabots and ruffled sleeves, sporting breeches, stockings, and buckled high heels, and ready to roll. We needed to get out of there, pronto. So the others didn’t even have time to do the improv.
We were done.
I was exhausted. I’ve read somewhere that extroverts find other people a source of energy, whereas introverts find them a drain on their energy. I’m so firmly in the latter camp that I can’t even really conceive of what it would be like to be an extrovert—what kind of person would feel more sprightly after vampires finish sucking out all their blood? No matter how much I like someone, after two hours of conversation, I need to go spend a few hours (or maybe days) by myself, lest I faint or have a seizure.
Speaking a second language tends to be tiring in a way speaking one’s native language isn’t. (This is why I turn down dinner party invitations. Between the energy sucking and the talking fatigue, I’d have to have a death wish.) But this was a new kind of depleted. After two hours of existential rage, tongue twisters, and trying to figure out what the hell Olivier was talking about, I was so exhausted. Bone-deep.
But the other students still seemed game to socialize. Outside the theater, in the street, they began chatting.
I knew I should do that, too. That’s how you make friends, after all, which was the original point of this exercise. And I knew I should do the whole round of cheek-kissing again or I would totally offend everyone.
But I couldn’t face it. I snuck off quietly into the night without kissing a single soul.
Later, I was struck by an intense esprit d’escalier. I kept thinking of the obvious: It was an improvisation. I was allowed to say anything I wanted. I could have made up any character I wanted. If I couldn’t understand Olivier, what was the obvious thing to do? Surely it would have been good for a laugh to pretend I’m an American tourist who has no idea what these babbling French lunatics are going on about—“Car, what car? No, I’ve never met this guy before. I’m just looking for the Eiffel Tower.”
Why, why, why didn’t I do that? I went over it in my head again and again, thinking how funny it would have been if I’d said that. Everyone was already laughing at my accent anyway, why didn’t I put it to good use? But I still had one more audition class, I told myself. Next time, I would play an American.
Claire Berlinski, La Comédie humaine