There's no terror for an actor like forgetting your lines (although Jack Nicholson still remembers his)

As Michael Gambon discovered recently, audiences are fascinated by actors’ ability to remember dialogue, and similarly intrigued by stories of them losing that ability

Share

Reports that Jack Nicholson has retired from acting because his memory will no longer allow him to learn the lines have been dismissed by NBC journalist Maria Shriver. Other friends of the actor have reported that he’s reading scripts as usual: he hasn’t been in a film for three years, and he’s 76, so perhaps people have simply drawn the wrong conclusion. Having seen his last movie  – the utterly forgettable How Do You Know – and forgotten it, I’d assumed he was just waiting for a better script before he put down his golf clubs again.

Audiences are often fascinated by actors’ ability to remember dialogue, and similarly intrigued by stories of them losing that ability: Michael Gambon was all over the papers last week, talking about his experience rehearsing The Habit of Art four years ago. The strain of trying to remember the hefty role of W H Auden was so great that Gambon was admitted to hospital and had to leave the production.  He has subsequently said his memory is so bad that it is dangerous for him to appear on stage, though he’s taking the risk for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala this autumn.

Remembering lines is incredibly difficult and most performers use tricks to help them memorise chunks of text: when I was a comic, I used to have to learn each new stand-up show while I was still touring its predecessor, which meant having well over two hours of script in my head at a time. I could (mostly) retain the two separate shows, but I found myself tripping over the steps to the stage every night: I became convinced that I was storing lines in the bit of my brain I’d previously used for negotiating my way past inanimate objects, into which I still walk, frequently, many years later.

And stand-up is vastly easier to remember than the lines of a play, partly because anything you’ve written yourself is easier to retain than other people’s writing, and partly because if you lose the thread, you can find your way back to it, or even appeal to the audience for help. But if it’s a play, and other actors are standing opposite you, waiting for a specific line as their cue, the pressure is really on.

No wonder some actors dodge the bullet and decide to use earpieces. Richard Dreyfuss caused a mild theatrical scandal in 2009 when he was seen wearing one in Complicit at the Old Vic. Again, it was a role with a lot of lines, and Dreyfuss in his youth was perhaps less careful of his long-term memory than he might now wish. Though some critics were appalled, I don’t see the problem with earpieces: I’d rather watch actors committed to their performance than see them panicking about line-retention.

As the Jack Nicholson story proves, actors can rarely rest on their laurels for long before the rumour mill starts grinding. So maybe he should silence his critics by taking a meaty role on Broadway. The scripts might be better too.

www.nataliehaynes.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions