Eighteen Tips for Memorizing Lines
Some of the Women of Canterbury have asked me for tips on how to memorize their lines. I’ll try to provide some here. I’d be happy to follow this up with a workshop—as was also suggested—if desired. But if you already have your own method of memorizing, or if you are doing well with the various aids provided for the Murder, carry on ? you may not have anything to learn from what I write here.
It is a commonplace that people have different learning styles. Some are better with visual aids, others with aural or tactile; some like abstractions such as numbers, while others prefer concrete examples or images; and so on. No doubt, however, everyone learns some things in each of these ways. My own method for memorizing lines is to throw in everything possible.
I’ll take as my first example something I had to memorize this very month: a paragraph from the one-person play, Yr. Obedient Servant: An Evening with Samuel Johnson, by Kay Eldredge.1 The year is 1745, and the place is London, England:
The horrors of daily living make men callous and life cheap. People who live near here complain that cries of murder victims keep them from their sleep. For sport they go and watch animals tied up and stoned. Or people being whipped or branded with a red-hot iron for petty crimes. Or out to Tyburn—eleven hangings there last Monday. Crowds gathered as if it were a festival—people who work twelve-hour days, six days a week, but always take hanging days off. There are 143 things now that can get you hanged. Oh, it’s not a crime to trick a man into debt, then sell him to a slave ship for the war against Spain. Not even a crime to steal a child. But you’ll hang if they catch you stealing its clothes.
Here are the eighteen things I’m doing with this paragraph:
1. I have typed it out on my own, and this new version is what I work from, not the original script.
2. I have freely put in my own punctuation if it seems to help (e.g. I’ve added a comma after “143 things now”).
3. I have typed the piece using lots of my own paragraphs, indentations, and separate lines, so that sense divisions are clear, phrases are isolated as separate units, lesser items are subordinated to main items, and parallel structures end up looking parallel on the page:
The horrors of daily living
make men callous
and life cheap
People who live near here complain
that cries of murder victims keep them from their sleep.
they go and watch animals tied up
Or people being whipped
or branded with a red-hot iron
for petty crimes.
Or out to Tyburn
? eleven hangings there last Monday.
Crowds gathered as if it were a festival
? people who work twelve-hour days
six days a week,
but always take hanging days off.
There are 143 things now, that can get you hanged.
Oh, it's not a crime to trick a man into debt,
then sell him to a slave ship for the war against Spain.
Not even a crime to steal a child.
But you'll hang if they catch you stealing its clothes..
4. I have made an audio tape of myself speaking this piece, somewhat slower than normal, without much emotion, and with extra-careful enunciation (e.g. “There are 143,” not “There’re 143”). If the piece had been in dialogue, I’d have enlisted someone else to be the other voice(s).
5. I am playing this tape (in fact, the whole play—about 50 minutes) in my car as I drive. This is an obvious place for me to listen to a tape, since I’m half an hour from Charlottetown, and 40-45 minutes from Kensington and Indian River. Others might play such a tape while working around the house, or out in the garden (with or without earphones or a Walkman).
6. For the first many times of playing, I don’t make any particular effort to memorize. I just listen and let my voice drone on. Over and over and over.
7. After a while, I start trying to say the piece aloud as it is playing. I don’t go back to fix any hesitations. And at this stage, I’m still working in big units, the whole play in fact. Over and over and over.
8. Eventually it’s time to get to detailed work, especially where I’m stumbling. Either listening or on the page, I start to analyze the content. What is said? Why? What’s the context? This particular piece is about people seeing so much cruelty around them that they and the system are callous. Why is it in the play? Because Johnson is NOT callous; he’s sensitive to these evils.
9. I make sure that I understand every word and idea. “Tyburn,” near the Marble Arch in London, is where they held public hangings. Twelve-hour days, six days a week, is seventy-two hours ? a lot of work.
10. I try to paint pictures in my head of what I’m saying (lots of possibilities here: animals tied up, a child without clothes).
11. I also try to analyze the language. To get from one of my self-created paragraphs above to another (that is, to the next main idea or thought), I try to see if there are linking words. Usually a good author is fairly kind in this respect, since good writing doesn’t jump around arbitrarily. It’s not too hard, for example, to link the opening general statement of “the horrors” to the first example of such horrors, “murder victims,” or to link the example of “hanging days” to the following generality of the “143 things now that can get you hanged.”
12. Still on language, I look for rhyme (“keep ? sleep”) and alliteration (“make men” and “complain that cries”). I also look for repetition, which is an easy place to stumble. After “men,” this author uses “People” and that word is repeated twice more: “people being whipped” and “people who work”. But in between the second and third use comes “Crowds.” So the order of all the words here for folks in general is “men ? people ? people ? crowds ? people,” five instances in all.
13. As in the above example, I use counting a lot. I tell myself there are THREE examples of how people are callous: murder, sports, and Tyburn (though hanging is really another sport). Within sports, there are also three: animals, whipped, branded. A lot of authors like to list things in threes ? so when it’s four or two, I try to remember that as an exception.
14. Maybe this tip is not for everybody, but I also use the alphabet heavily, especially for lists. There doesn’t seem to be a good example in this passage, but elsewhere in the play I have to say, “I was part of the conspiracy for the destruction of paper—hack work—writing anonymous articles, reviews, essays, poems.” How to get these four kinds of writing in the right order? Well, the first one starts with A, the first letter of the alphabet, a vowel which also alliterates with “anonymous.” The next word jumps into the middle of the alphabet and starts with a consonant, R. The next jumps back to the next vowel after A, E for “essays.” Finally the last starts with another consonant, P, which is just before R in the alphabet, or almost. So it’s A - R - E - P.
This particular tip is not nearly as laborious as it sounds. I find I can go through the entire thought-process above while still saying the four words quite quickly, because what I have actually memorized is the pattern of jumping. Much more often than one would think, there is some such pattern to be found in the first letters of words in lists. And it is amazing how often lists turn out simply to be in alphabetical or reverse-alphabetical order.
15. Back to the audio-tape, there comes a point when I try to say the words on my own, checking my stumbles at once against the tape. (Occasionally I pay attention to my driving too.)
16. Back to the typing, I cover the page with another page, say each line, and then reveal it.
17. At some point, late in the process, it’s time to enlist a friendly person who will hold the script, prompt me when I can’t remember, and (in the case of dialogue) read the other lines.
18. I don’t let any of the above go too far before the basic blocking (moving from place to place on the stage) is done in rehearsal with the director. This is because where I am on the stage at the time of saying a particular line is a vital aid to my memorization. It’s just a basic association of words and place: “Since I go left here, I must be saying X”; “I find myself saying X, so I must be going left.”
So much for my personal example. I’ll now take the part of FLORENCIA2 in the opening chorus of Murder in the Cathedral, and see how many of the mechanical devices above I can apply. In this case, as in most plays, it is also necessary to know well—if not fully memorize ? the immediately preceding line or two spoken by someone else in the dialogue. I have included these context lines, and put Florencia’s in italics. Under each I’ve given some memorization ideas in short form:
Some presage of an act
Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet
Towards the cathedral. [Group 1] We are forced to bear witness.
—Group 1 = Florencia’s number one speech
—repeat “forced” from the cue line
—“eyes” in the cue line is the same idea as “witness” in Florencia’s line
—pattern of images in the 2 lines: eyes—feet—eyes (up, down, up)
The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness
—pattern: “waits”—then another speaker—“waits”—then Florencia
—alphabetical order: breathes, waits, whispers
—the new year is the darkest time of the year: in darkness
—pattern: waiting makes no noise, breathing makes a slight noise, waiting again makes no noise, whispering makes a bigger noise
While the labourer kicks off a muddy boot and stretches his hand to the fire,
The New Year waits, [Group 1] destiny waits for the coming
—these lines follow immediately from the last example, so really there are two things close together that Florencia has to say, both of them about waiting. The second is also the second time for Group 1
—repetition of structure: The New Year waits, destiny waits
—coming suggests the coming of Christ, in December, which is now
Seven years and the summer is over
[Group 1] Seven years since the Archbishop left us
—repetition of seven years
—rhythm of the two lines is identical
—start of new idea, first mention of Thomas
—easy place to stumble, thinking the Group 1 line is first ? but get the summer “over” first.
King rules or barons rule;
[Tutti] We have suffered various oppression,
But mostly we are left to our own devices,
And we are content if we are left alone.
—maybe the king and the different barons oppress in different or various ways (some may be trying to apply the droit du seigneur???)
—word oppression might have been oppressionS. Use of singular, not plural, is Eliot perhaps suggesting an older form of language. But the NEXT line ends in a plural.
—it is the first Tutti and a long one ? lots of oppression for lots of people
—but still, just THREE lines: Statement line 1, But line 2, And line 3
—there might be `devices’ of oppression—torture instruments—but we prefer our own devices
—two `L’s’ in line 2” mostLy we are Left
—content starts with C, and the previous big word, devices, with D = reverse alphabet
—left repeated in line 3
—line 2 and 3: we are, we are, we are ? 3 times (which suggests memory tip no. 19: use personal associations. A frequent song heard at U of Toronto football games in my callow youth was “We are, we are, we are, we are the Engineers; we can, we can, we can, we can demolish 40 beers” [tune: “Mine eyes have seen the glory.”].)
Shall the son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?
[Tutti] For us, the poor, there is no action,
But only to wait and to witness
—these last lines of this first chorus = Florencia’s first lines: wait, witness (which are alphabetical)
—there is no action quite like giving birth, I suppose
—“litter” = hay, straw ? a very “poor” place to be born
—first line of this tutti has four beats, the last three; without only there would “only” be two
Finally, whose problem is it if someone forgets a line in performance? It’s EVERYBODY’S problem. Don’t just wait and witness the agony of this poor person ? HELP OUT. And be understanding ? it can happen to anybody.
Fine advice. I’d suggest two additions:
1. Don’t just learn the two prompting lines of the preceding speaker, or your timing will be off. Have a good sense of the full flow leading to your lines.
This is good thinking. One may find one’s own learning style.
Terry has pointed out a common practice in Eliot’s poetry, a structure that musicians call “parallel phrases.” These may assist memory, or may provide an unfortunate branching point (start one, go to the other, or to another place, altogether: “Seven years since the, er, plums failed us, oops.” ). Learn the directions, in order, of both parts of the parallelism.
Thanks for sharing these ideas Terry. I have aware of some of them but not others. This is a good process and I intend to use a number of them.
Could you help me. You never find yourself until you face the truth.
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Thank 8) Malinda.Posted by Malinda on 03/21 at 04:29 AM