alexandra alger


The sound of E.B. White


Do you know that word? I’m reading about Shakespeare’s ability to summon “plangent feeling,” as well as “robust comedy” and “penetrating psychology” in the four history plays currently being put on by the Royal Shakespeare Co. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The admiring words come from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, whose reviews (quite good) don’t usually cause me to pause and think, “What was that?” I was sure there was a typo of some kind—could he have meant “urgent”?—but no, plangent’s a word. It means a loud, reverberating, often melancholy sound.

The plangent sound of bells. That’s the example dictionaries like to give. How about the plangent moo of a cow? The plangent drone of a garbage truck at 4 am? (That sound might be more grating than melancholy.)

The noun is plangency. That doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Doing a bit of online research, I found that Newsweek once described E.B. White’s audio-book reading of Charlotte’s Web as having “a plangency that will make you weep.”

Oh, leave it to a journalist to use a fancy, un-child-like word in a story about a children’s book! I’m allowed to complain; I was a journalist once. Still I have to admit it’s an interesting use of plangency, and if anyone could summon that kind of sound, maybe it would be E.B. White.

I like saying “plangent.” It’s not onomatopoeia, but it’s a nice meaty word. Or as Isherwood might say, muscular. I’m not picking on him, just noticing his review includes a word that seems to be in vogue as an alternative to robust, powerful, dynamic. He calls some of the scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV “muscularly staged”. When I read that, I honestly think of men with bulging calf muscles, which you might well see in a Shakespeare play involving kings and courts. I myself use “muscular” in the old way, to refer to someone’s physical state. (I’m all for bulging biceps.)

I see I’ve fallen into the habit of writing about words I don’t plan on using, instead of the ones I do. Get with the program, Alex!

P.S. David Tennant, the Scottish actor, is starring in Richard II at BAM right now. Only standing-room only tickets right now. (I’m mulling whether I could stand for two-plus hours). If you haven’t seen Tennant in the 2013 TV series Broadchurch, and if you have Netflix, and if you like murder mysteries set in small seaside English towns (and who doesn’t like those, I ask you?)—I urge you to download! There are two gripping seasons to watch, and another one being filmed this summer. He’s also incredibly good and creepy in the 2015 TV series about superheroes, Jessica Jones. “I don’t watch that much TV, I swear,” she cried plangently.

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