Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Cockney Accents in Les Miserables?

September 9, 2010 · 6 Comments

Les Miserables

Picture obtained from: http://www.musicaltheatrenews.com/les-miserables.html

Given our readings like Watching the English and our everyday observations of English, the subject of accents has come up a lot on our trip. Many ‘English’ seem to be very conscientious of one’s accent, and can determine one’s native origin and class based on a few sentences. While I have come to expect different situations surrounding speech during my time here in London, one place I did not expect to encounter the topic was at last night’s performance of Les Miserables.

After all, the show takes place in France about 150 years ago. If any accents are going to pop up in the show, you would expect them to be French. This was definitely not the case. All of the characters primarily associated with the lower classes, and usually the ones used for comedic effect (For those familiar with the show, The Thenardiers and Gavroche primarily) had Cockney accents. It struck me as particularly odd. The show as it was performed was, apparently, responding to the English social cue that Cockney accents are associated with a lower class. Therefore, even though it makes no sense for French characters to have Cockney accents, it made sense to the director for these actors to employ them anyway.

I find this very distinct from my experience in the United States. If a show/film is set in a different country than the U.S., all of the actors will either use an accent, all speak in one distinct type of American accent, or use their own accent. While the U.S. certainly attributes certain stereotypes to certain accents, I cannot imagine any show or film using one regional accent to denote someone of a lower class. I think this may be because the Americans simply do not associate speech with class as strongly as the English do. The only case, that I can think of, where the characters from a lower class employ different accents is, interestingly enough, the U.S. version of Les Mis. Even more interesting, in that version (at least on the CD and I’m pretty sure the performance I saw), Cockney accents are employed as well. I never even thought about it until last night, but that leads to a whole slew of questions concerning why the U.S. would employ an English dialect in a show about France. Certainly, the U.S. show was imported from the West End, but it still seems odd they would continue to use Cockney accents.

I am curious to see what others think about this: Is this fixation on accents distinctly English? Why does the U.S. version use Cockney accents as well? I find it very interesting that speech and class find their way, inadvertently, into the arts in London. 

If you want more information about the show, you can visit the website: http://www.lesmis.com/

Categories: 2010 Andrew
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6 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 9th 2010 at 14:25

    What would you say about the use of southern accents or hip-hop slang? Do these denote a lower class, lack of intelligence, uncultured behavior, etc.? Cockney is likely the most prominent “lower” accent in England, but so too you will find Norfolk and northern accents lampooned as we do in the US for “rednecks.” In the US, I think we might just have a greater variety of non-standard speech to make fun of (valley speak, Boston southies, deep south, inner city, youth, etc.)

  •   guya // Sep 9th 2010 at 15:53

    I definitely think that there accents(many of which you pointed out) that are associated with lower class in the United States. It’s just that I can’t think of a time when an accent like the ones listed were used solely to denote class, even when they didn’t fit in with the situation. (Maybe that’s too rare a scenario). I think you’re right that the reason for this may be that the United States has so many different dialects associated with the lower class that it wouldn’t make sense to use only one of them out of its context.

  •   patrickmr // Sep 9th 2010 at 17:24

    I think one reason for the use of the Cockney accent as opposed to a French accent in the U.S. production has to do with the general American perception of French culture. Les Miserables was written by Victor Hugo- it’s about France, its people, and the universality of their struggles. The only thing is- French accents, in the eyes of the American public at large, have necessarily pretentious connotations and don’t elicit images of poverty or class struggle at all. The classic, “Artful Dodger”-esque tone of the Cockney accent gives off much more familiar and relatable vibes to and American audience. We’ve all heard it before. To me, it’s all about immediate sympathetic recognition.

  •   stepheniem // Sep 9th 2010 at 18:05

    I didn’t notice this as I watched the show, partly because I was expecting English accents, not French accents. When I saw Les Mis in the states (a high school production that could have easily been a professional one- turning stage and all) the accents were American. Specifically to Les Mis, I believe that the actors could adopt any national accents (meaning the different American, English, etc. accents) to use as they tell the story because its themes are so universal. The story may be set in 19th century France, but its ideas can be understood by anyone. Furthermore, in the majority of theatre performances I have seen, I feel like people have used their own accents rather than trying to adapt. At the end of the day, I’d rather the actor’s own accent than a poorly done one. (Especially when we’re talking about performances of Shakespeare.)

  •   sarahb // Sep 9th 2010 at 18:48

    I think Pat’s got it right. American’s, and perhaps even the British, wouldn’t be able to recognize a lower class French accent. Unless you have studied the language, you wouldn’t be able to pick up the differences in pronunciation.

  •   battilaj // Sep 10th 2010 at 16:21

    I also think Americans tend to associate anything in Europe with British accents as a default because it’s the most familiar.

    I definitely think America also uses accents to denote class, but there is a racial difference. The most popular stereotypical low class accent in America is black vernacular, which is harder to use beccause it raises a bunch of questions about racism (I guess people just stick with southern and appalachian accents).

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