The Vault

Keynote Address #2

By Glynn Macdonald


When Michael Frederick asked me to give a key note address at the Third International Congress for the Alexander Technique I was surprised and then excited by the prospect. The term ‘key note’ musically means the first note, the basis of the scale which it begins. So what should that be in relation to the Alexander Technique and me? I thought I had four choices.

The first choice was to try and see where the Technique stood on the world stage. How are we going to deal with the huge demand that exists—the popularity of the Technique has increased one hundredfold. As the quantity of teachers increases, is the quality of the work being given due consideration? Do we stand together, presenting a united front to the world? Are we loyal and true? These are key notes but perhaps the first day of the conference is too early for these questions. Should we wait and see what the week brings?

My second choice was to amuse you, perhaps a comic turn, something to entertain the assembly, stories of the funny things that have happened in lessons and a warning of the dangers of becoming too serious and fixed in our own self-importance. The humour of F.M. has become legendary— his wit and love of a good yarn. He used to tell the story of the day the circus came to town. The little boys would kneel with their heads under the tent flap and their legs and bottoms sticking out behind.

One day, the manager came along and gave one of them a good kick so he landed inside the tent. An attendant said, “How did you get in?” The boy replied, “I was arsed in by the Management!” The little boy was alive and well in the small excerpt we have of F.M. on film, showing how much his eyes sparkled as he was caught by the camera in his 80th year. The film is silent and this led me on to my third choice.

What did he sound like? He must have had the voice of an actor, and a Shakespearean actor, before he was a teacher. Then the beginning of his work, his key note had been his voice—so what did an actor trained last century sound like? What were the demands made on actors? How did the voice fulfil these demands? This seemed an exciting line to pursue. But then I would feel this. My own exit from Australia in 1968 led me to study singing in London and then to find the Technique at the Constructive Teaching Centre, so for the last twenty years I have been engrossed in voice study and now in research. I began to feel guilty that my area of interest had become the key note. Should I attempt my fourth and final choice—an uplifting sermon. Goddard Binkley in his excellent diary was inspirational:

You see, the entire natural movement of the spine is upwards. But as soon as we pull our heads back, we frustrate that natural activity of movement upwards.

After quoting several passages in the Bible that attribute bad conduct to being ‘stiff-necked,’ Alexander said:

“Yes, it’s all there.” He quoted again St Paul’s remark: “That which I would do, I do not: that which I would not do, I do.”

He went on to say:

When I read that, I thought it was one of the most tragic statements ever made. St. Paul was an extremely religious man, so anxious to do the right thing. But you see, in spite of all that, it was of no help to him. He had thus to admit that tragic truth. And it is the same with all of us, you see. We see the same thing every day, all around us. How many of your friends are able to stick to their fine resolutions? People want to give up their bad habits, habits they know are bad for them. Yet no matter how hard they try, they never succeed. But here in our work that is precisely what we are doing. When you come here you are acquiring the very means-whereby that will enable you to change any or all of your habits.

The Technique on the world stage, comic turn, the demands of Shakespearean voice speaking, uplifting sermon? I am going to choose number three because I want to know more about F.M.

Walter Carrington says:

When I first met F.M., he was already in his sixty-seventh year, but his age was of little consequence. It was his liveliness and vitality, his alertness and poise that appealed to me. He was a difficult man to place or categorize, but the impression he made could best be described as the epitome of an Edwardian gentleman. His clothes were perfectly tailored, his linen was immaculate, and his elegant shoes were always brightly polished. He wore a monocle and used it for reading but without any air of affectation. He was of medium height and appeared to be slender until you noticed his chest and especially his back. He spoke with a resonant, well modulated voice, but with no trace of a regional accent. It would have been impossible to guess his origins from his speech or general appearance. But it was the expression of his eyes, indeed of his whole face that held ones attention. It was one of sharp observation and alertness, but wearing the persona of elegance of an earlier age, but beneath it one sensed a unique character with the power of genius.”1

Frederick Matthais Alexander was a Shakespearean actor. He began his training in Tasmania with a tutor, one James Cathcart, an actor who had toured the world as a member of Charles Kean’s Company. He introduced the young Alexander to the wonder of Shakespeare, and spoke of the great people of the theatre such as Irving and Terry and Bernhardt. In later years when Sarah Bernhardt came on tour to Melbourne, Alexander said that he never missed a performance and years later in London it was one of the greatest pleasures of his life to meet and get to know the great Sir Henry Irving. Charles Kean had been born in 1811. His father, Edmund Kean, born in 1787, was one of the greatest English actors of all time. One of his first triumphs was as Shylock at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1814 when William Hazlitt happened to be present and wrote of his brilliance in his diary.

Kean had followed a direct line of actors from Charles Kemble, David Garrick, Richard Burbage, Janes Burbage to William Kemp who had been a founder member of the company known as the King’s Men for whom William Shakespeare wrote his plays. The line was one of continuous apprenticeship, each actor passing on his practical skills to the next generation. The actor would start as a general dogsbody, understudying all the roles and then work his way up to spear carrier, small speaking parts, juvenile lead and finally actor, and if particularly brilliant and lucky, actor/manager.

A diary of an Elizabethan theatre manager shows that they might have had as many as forty plays in their repertory in a year and that they had to put on a play in a few days. They had no director in our sense, though when Shakespeare was present he, as author, would instruct the actors. The text itself gave all the information the actor needed and if the young actor was unclear there would be an experienced player to call on for help.

Alexander had studied Shakespeare and knew the heightened emotion and demands both physically and mentally that speaking Shakespearean verse put upon the actor. He was not studying theoretically, he was earning his living reciting. In 1895 the New Zealand newspaper, The Auckland Star, described Alexander’s voice as flexible and sympathetic saying:

We are not slow to recognize and appreciate a finished elocutionist and this Mr. Alexander undoubtably is.

In the same year on the 15th of June the New Zealand Observer and Freelance said:

This evening at the city hall, a great dramatic and musical event is in store for Auckland playgoers. Mr. F.M. Alexander who is pronounced by the Southern and Australian Press to be the most versatile actor/reciter and entertainer who has visited these colonies is to give his first entertainment in Auckland. We expect a bumper house tonight.

A week later the review appeared:

The performance given by Mr. F.M. Alexander on Thursday last was an excellent and novel one. Mr. Alexander possesses a splendid voice, remarkable for its resonance, power and sympathy, which he uses with great taste. His scholarly style is at once apparent and the manner in which he sinks his individuality is clever. He had an audience who had come to listen to him.

Today an audience has a different stimulus—through television and film, much of the attention is visual. The ability to listen is diminishing. The word ‘audience’ originally came from the latin ‘audio’ which means ‘to listen.’ The demand on the actor to capture his audience by his vocal skills is less today. We have technical devices for increasing the size of the voice, we rely more and more on the microphone, but in F.M.’s time it was the natural voice that was heard and the quality of that voice was all important both in its beauty and technical skill.

When F.M. lost his voice that was bad enough, but it was his sniffing and gasping of air which really troubled him. He was trying to achieve the beauty of Shakespearean text, but had developed this habit of pulling the air in. Indeed, A.R., at one of his concerts in true brotherly fashion did not hesitate to tell him, “I heard you sniffing and gasping at the end of the hall.” The loss of voice put a stop to his performing, but it was his noisy intake of air interrupting the text that really bothered him. One of his favourite plays was Hamlet and in it the young prince gives some excellent advice to a group of travelling players:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. But use all gently. For in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness...Be not too tame neither. But let your own discretion be your tutor, Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature… For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature.—Hamlet: Act 3. Sc II.

“But use all gently”—that line has the key note to F.M.’s future work. The dictionary definition of ‘to use’ is to put into operation, or to avail oneself of. F.M. chose to call his most important book The Use Of The Self. So how did he go about finding out how to “use all gently.”

You could say that he was of the same mind as Popper. He thought that it was difficult to know for certain what is right but that the wrong can be established by experiment and demonstration. Any hypothesis put forward was to be tested and falsified if at all possible. He did not seek to validate hypothesis by argument as to what is right. For him the right was essentially the unknown. This gave his outlook a flavour of mysticism but in fact it was very practical with an unwillingness to entertain any hypothesis that could not be tested.

His view on breathing illustrates this perfectly. He knew what was wrong—the way that he breathed. He found that if he stopped it i.e. :“sucking and gasping” (and all the attendant wrong doing) the fault disappeared and the whole process could be seen to work quite differently. He was so convinced that this could be learnt he decided to take a group of his students on a tour presenting The Merchant of Venice.

The Daily Telegraph in July 1901 said of the effort:

There was an absence of the awkward hitches that frequently characterize amateur efforts, especially of such difficult tasks as the representation of Shakespeare. Everywhere there was an evidence of careful and earnest study and flashes of merit in the delivery of the lines.

The Australian Star followed:

Upon the success of his production The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal last night, Mr F.M. Alexander is to be congratulated, the production in all ways being meritorious. Naturally it centred in Mr. Alexander’s Shylock. It may at once be said that he was most successful, his fawning approaches to his victim and the furious paroxysms of rage and grief were excellent. Upon his bearing in the trial scene the appreciative house showered applause.

In 1933 Alexander repeated the experiment in London when he staged The Merchant of Venice with his current students at the old Vic Theatre. He played Shylock; George Trevelyan played Bassanio; Patrick Macdonald, Gratiano; Lulie Westfeldt, The Duke of Venice; Irene Tasker, Tubal; Charles, Neil Launcelot. Gobbo; Marjorie Barstow, Old Gobbo; Margaret Goldie, Portia; Majorie Meecham (Barlow), Narissa; Irene Stewart, Jessica; and Erica Shumann (Whittaker), Lorenzo. Then in 1935 he staged Hamlet and the review was entitled, “Training School Actors Hamlet. New Methods Displayed.”

The production of Hamlet staged at the The Old Vic last night by Mr F. Matthais Alexander and his pupils was in one way unique. With the possible exception of Mr. Alexander himself, not one of the cast had any real acting experience, even as an amateur: and in spite of that the performance was a good one. Mr. Alexander is the inventor of a system for teaching self-knowledge and self-control and the head of a training school. It certainly speaks well for his methods that his pupils were able to bear themselves with such confidence and to speak so clearly, that their manifest lack of stage technique was discounted. Mr George Trevelyan as Player King spoke his lines particularly well. In the part of Hamlet Mr. Alexander had obviously an advantage over his company. Thirty years ago before he became a teacher he was an elocutionist, and the fact was apparent last night. There was balance, rhythm and intelligence in every line that he spoke.

I believe that so much of his work and thought processes came out of his understanding and practical experience of Shakespeare. “The actor‘s intelligence and emotional life must be responsive to situations and dimensions of experience that are greater than his own and he must have the use of himself to express them.” It is no good allowing the emotion to pull you down and choke you. You have to be able to go up to express it. Shakespeare wrote in a verse form known as iambic pentameter. This means five beats to a line with a short and a long stress—de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum. If you beat this out you will find it mirrors the heartbeat, the natural rhythm of the body pulsing through the text.

Again in Hamlet we see the demands put on the psycho-physical mechanism of the actor. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost and learnt that his uncle had murdered him. He is a soul in torment, but within that heightened emotion is the structure of the verse. The direction is in the text:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?

And shall I couple hell? O fie, hold, hold, my heart,

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,

But bear me up. Remember thee!

Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And the commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain,

Unmix’d with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!

O most pernicious woman!

O villian, villian, smiling damned villain!

My tables-meet it is I set it down

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!

Hamlet: Act 1. Sc.IV.

This speech shows clearly thought and emotion locked in the ever present battle which any actor faces. I think when F.M. came to write his books, a struggle occurred in that he had to ‘set it down’—record it. It was a formidable task—the moment something is written it is open to misinterpretation and theoretical debate. He has the confidence of a man who has put his premises to the test. He was a practical man.

All actors are practical, they do not talk about acting, they get out and do it. It is in the doing that they experience the right or wrong way. So F.M.’s work has this vein of practical application running through it. Like acting the teaching of the Technique is about trying out ideas in the real avenue of life. It is about taking risks, not following a set prescription. For the actor, every night is a new experience, a chance to find the moment of truth. The demand is to become fully human in order to express the great sweep of ideas that Shakespeare asks us to comprehend. The flag which flew over the Globe Theatre had as its motto, “Totus mundus agit histrionem”—all the world’s a stage. Jacques in, ‘As You Like It,’ expands this thought—

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like a pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again towards childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

San teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It: Act 2. Sc. VIII

F.M. used to say, “I believe in everything and I believe in nothing.” Binkley records in his diary that F.M. said:

You see, I’ve never approached my work and teaching with a view that this is all, that this is the answer and nothing more remains. As I said to Dewey one day, ‘I want to be proved wrong.’

What a brave statement. He has taken the role of performer to its ultimate goal—to allow the work to work—he used to say, “the right thing does itself.” Just as if we do not interfere with the breath, inspiration happens. Inspiration seems to have been a large part in F.M’s life: he pursued his theatrical career and then his experiments and subsequent teaching with the true spirit of genius. He brought to the world a new technique of self awareness and consciousness. This brings me back to my first choice, where we as Alexander teachers stand on the world stage. I would like to leave you with a speech in which Shakespeare calls upon the audience to use their imaginations and be moved by the rallying cry King Henry V used when he faced his soldiers and urged them into battle. May I wish you and this Conference every success:




We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:

For he today who sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentleman in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispins Day.

Henry V Act 4 Sc. III


1. “The Australian Influence on the Life and Work of F. M. Alexander,” DIRECTION, Vol 1(3) pp. 135-137, Fyncot Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1989


Glynn Macdonald trained at The Constructive Teaching Centre and has taught the Alexander Technique at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), The Guildhall School and The Central School of Speech and Drama. At present she is engaged in personal voice research in collaboration with The Ferens Voice Clinic and The National Hospitals College of Speech Sciences.

Bookmark and Share