We opened our fifteenth season with The Trojan Women by Euripides. I had done the play before. It is, I think, the greatest anti-war play ever written and I don’t think it can be done too often. In fact The Upstart Crow did it again in 2004. The first thing I did, of course, as we do whenever we do a play written in another language, was to find the best translation of the play. I was not looking for the most accurate translation. (I can’t read Greek, so how would I know?) Nor was I looking for the best translation for a reader of the play. I was looking for a translation that best fitted the language the actors would speak from the stage..
The more I read, the more I loved the play, and the more I became frustrated in my search. Good translations for readers existed, of course, or I could never have fallen in love with the play. But I could find no translation that I thought an actor could speak from the stage without sounding foolish, insincere, stilted.
For instance: The play is about the suffering of the women of Troy after it has fallen, and they express that suffering through a fair amount of audible grieving. Virtually all translations express the grief through vocalizations like “woe is me,” “alas,” and “ah, me.” These things will do for a kind of literary stage-direction in a text for the reader, an indication that the speaker is grieving, but they will never do as the actual utterances of people in real grief. I have never heard “ah, me” in real life except as a deliberate jest, an attempt to denigrate or parody grief, and I would never ask an actor to use that expression unless I wanted it to sound like denigration or parody. I do not know exactly what Euripides wrote in these places, but I doubt very much that it was a vowel followed by the first person singular accusative pronoun.
The chorus describes the moment just before the Greek soldiers came out of the Trojan horse and began slaughtering the men of Troy. The most esteemed modern translation, that of Richmond Lattimore, renders it thus:
light feet pulsing the air
in the kind dance measures;
indoors, lights everywhere,
torchflares on black
to forbid sleep’s onset.
This is pretty good, but torchflare is a very literary word, and the last phrase is simply not real human speech. If you ask me about last night I might say something like “Well, I couldn’t sleep,” but I would never say anything remotely like “Something forbade sleep’s onset.” Also I think if dancing feet can pulse the air they must be pretty heavy feet.
Edith Hamilton’s translation is better—
…girls with feet as light as air
dancing, sang happy songs.
The houses blazed with light
through the dark splendor,
and sleep was not.
—until that last phrase.
Isabelle and Anthony Raubitschek give us:
lifted their feet and beat the ground,
and sang their tuneful airs.
But in the homes, the shining gleam
of fire put to sleep
the darkened light of day.
This is more deliberately ‘poetic’ than the others and suffers from the flabbiness that accompanies that sort of thing. Why are we told of a “shining” gleam when there is, really, no other kind of gleam? And isn’t “tuneful airs” a rather roundabout way of saying “songs”? And why “maidens”? Were only virgins permitted to dance? The last phrase here seems to contradict the other translations; where they express a general absence of sleep, this one tells us the night was sleeping (if that’s what “darkened light of day” means).
E.P. Coleridge is more poetic yet, although in prose:
…maidens beat the ground with airy foot, uplifting their gladsome song; and in the halls a blaze of torchlight shed its flickering shadows on sleeping eyes.
Maidens again. “Uplifting their gladsome song” really is, in more senses than one, unspeakable. I suppose I might lift up a song, but I cannot imagine saying: “I uplifted a song.” That sounds like pirating from iTunes.
Philip Vellacott is perhaps the most prosaic, al-though it is printed as verse:
…music of dancing feet;
Until through the darkened palace
One flare still left alight
flickered on sleeping faces its dim gleam of fire.
This is a translation I might have used, but it is only nominally verse. It would not lend itself to music, and the choruses were sung, and ought to be sung in modern productions.
So I gave up and made my own. My claims for it are modest. It is certainly not the most accurate, faithful version, for I am not competent to do that. It is certainly not a brilliant modern recreation, for I tried to stick as close to the original as I could, trying to discern the original as best I could through the works of others. All I claim for it is that every line is speakable; that was my guide. I used English verse forms and rhetorical forms, and devices such as rhyme as freely as I used English words and English syntax. Since this is an English version it would seem pointless to render it into non-English hexameters in quantitative verse.
It would be unfair not to quote my versions of the passage I have quoted above. Here it is:
We opened our fourteenth season with Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw. It was our most ambitious production ever, and, according to Jack Crouch, the erstwhile chairman of CU’s theatre department, it was “a triumph.” Here’s why:
The Upstart Crow prides itself on its policy of never cutting or rewriting plays. When we did The Importance of Being Earnest we took the trouble to find Oscar Wilde’s manuscripts and we restored the play to the version he had originally written: a four act play that I think almost nobody but The Upstart Crow has ever done in its entirety. When we did Caligula we found that the only available English translation omitted a scene that we thought was essential to the play. We translated that scene (well, Kathy Reed translated it) and we added it to our production. When we did Molière’s Imaginary Invalid (we’ve done it three times) we actually performed the three inter-act interludes Moliere included in his production, and I think hardly any other production since his time has done that. (Actually, to be honest, not quite: The second interlude includes a dance by monkeys and no monkeys have ever shown up at our auditions, so we had a dance, but it was a monkey-free dance.)Man and Superman is loosely based on the story of Don Juan, a successful libertine that has been figured in works by Byron, Moliere, Mozart and others. In most of the stories Don Juan seduces Doña Ana, kills her father, and invites a statue of her father to the wedding. And the statue comes to life and drags Don Juan to Hell.
Shaw reverses the story. It is Doña Ana (Ann Whitefield in Shaw’s play) who proposes and pursues Don Juan (John Tanner) across Europe to seduce and marry him. Tanner escapes in his motor car and drives through Spain. In the Pyrenees he is captured by a band of Spanish bandits who hold him for ransom. It’s night, they all fall asleep and John Tanner and the bandit chief have a dream, the same dream evidently. The dream is Act III, scene ii of Man and Superman. They dream of Don Juan, Doña Ana, the statue, and the bandit chief in Hell. Juan is played by Tanner; Ana by Ann; the statue by Roebuck Ramsden, Ann’s guardian; and Lucifer by Mendoza, the bandit chief. It is virtually a complete play in its own right. It has often been played as a complete play under the title, Don Juan in Hell, but it is almost always cut from productions of Man and Superman.
I have searched the Internet for every mention I could find of performances of the play, and virtually all of them indicate that the third act was not included in the production. I did find one that said the first production that included the dream was in 1915. (The play was written in 1900.)
The reason of course is length. Don Juan in Hell is about an hour and a half long, and the rest of the play is something over two and a half hours. That would make a very long evening. And the dream contributes nothing to the plot of Man and Superman. It really is easy to pull it out.
But Shaw called Man and Superman “a comedy and a philosophy,” and most of the philosophy is in the dream scene. And watching Tanner and Ann play their legendary prototypes is enormously enriching.
So, being what we are, we did the whole play. We cast the four Don Juan characters in early summer, shortly after closing the previous season, and rehearsed that part of the play for about a month. Then, we cast the rest of the roles and rehearsed the framing play four nights a week, rehearsing Don Juan every Friday evening to keep it ready. After more than two months of rehearsal we opened on a Friday evening with Man and Superman without Don Juan. On Saturday we did Don Juan. Then, on Sunday we did a matinee performance at 3:30 of Man and Superman up through Act III, scene i. Then a break for supper, and at 7:00 the audience returned to see Act III, scene ii, and Act IV. For the rest of the run we kept up the same schedule: alternating the framing play and the dream play each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and doing the whole show in a matinee and evening production on Sunday.
As far as I can tell, we are the only company in America that has ever done the entire play.
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was my favorite play of our thirteenth season. Webster had a profound tragic sense that only his older contemporary, Shakespeare, could match. This is from the program notes for our production.
“It seems an unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle; and as soon as the uneasy passions cease to operate, the piece is at an end. . . .The whole art of the poet is employed in rousing and supporting the compassion and indignation, the anxiety and resentment, of his audience. They are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted, and never are so happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries, to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart, swollen with the tenderest sympathy and compassion”
–David Hume, “On Tragedy” (1757)
Hume is one of the very few writers to discuss the question: Why is tragedy enjoyable? There is certainly no shortage of studies of tragedy itself; of its structure, its form, and its history; no shortage of discussions of the beauties of its principal instances. Philosophers, æstheticians and critics from Aristotle on have tried to tell us what tragedy is, how it is made, how it works, how it affects us. But scarcely anyone deals with what ought to be the central question: Why do we enjoy it: Why are certain spectacles of death and suffering fun?
And why are they fun of a particular kind? The appreciation of tragedy is not simply a grisly delight in watching others squirm, or the repellent fascination that may hold us when we witness the suffering of strangers. Horror films and monster films, movies that distribute death and dismemberment benefits to nubile adolescents may be enjoyable, but the enjoyment is clearly of a different kind. Janet Leigh’s death in a shower in Psycho (and the myriad imitations of it) may be powerful and moving, but simply not in the same way as the deaths of Cordelia, Desdemona, or Ophelia. Certainly the final stake through the heart (or whatever death is meted out to the monster) affords a satisfaction to the audience, but not the same satisfaction as the sight of Macbeth’s head. It is not that the movies go too far in their grisly displays or that the gore seems gratuitous.
Indeed, the complaint that in popular screen melodramas scenes of sex and violence are gratuitous, is mistaken in a very significant way. They are not gratuitous at all: they are the point of the whole work. It is the rest of a melodramatic or pornographic work—the plot, the characterization, the dialogue—which is gra-tuitous. These elements are, after all, merely framing devices or contexts or moral justifications for the important stuff: the spectacle of human bodies torn apart or brought together.
In tragedy violence really is gratuitous. In tragedy death is the context, the frame, for the important stuff: the spectacle of human minds and hearts and souls torn apart or brought together. Greek tragedy did without the gratuities entirely. The death always took place off-stage. Even in Renaissance tragedy, even in the Jacobean “tragedy of blood” (which includes The Duchess of Malfi ) the deaths are really quite bloodless, or ought to be. The leading cause of death for Shakespearean characters is a stab wound in some vital organ located eight inches upstage of the chest.
That is why the joking complaint that tragic (or operatic) heroes cannot die without first making a long speech (or singing an aria) misses the point. The speech is fundamental, the death is only the occasion for it.
Tragedy shows us characters who confront the most difficult and inevitable moments of life, usually the last moments, and deal with their terrors gracefully, heroically, beautifully. The pleasure of tragedy consists in watching that grace, that heroism, that beauty. It is not the final plunge into the grave that we want to watch, it is the posture and the dance at its edge. Tragedy is fun because the dance looks like a triumph.
Comedy is about failure, and a comparison with that form is instructive. What death is to tragedy, sex is to comedy. It is not the sex act itself that is important; that is as gratuitous in comedy as the death act is in tragedy. Comedy is about all the activity that leads to and follows from sex and procreation. Comedy is about courtship, and nesting, and territorial marking, and dominance, and plumage and all the other Darwinian business that happens at the foot of the bed. The strategy of comedy is to show us these things done, not triumphantly, but foolishly and ineptly, and to provoke our laughter.
It is worth noting that there is a genre of drama that shows us the same things done successfully. It is called romance, and romances are thought of as a kind of comedy when the focus is on the love story (The Tempest, for instance) or as a kind of tragedy when the focus is on the difficult triumph (The Winter’s Tale, for instance.) There must also be a fourth genre, if we think of the drama in this way, but there is no accepted name for it. It is the kind of play that deals with foolish or inept dying. Here the dance at the edge of the grave is not a triumph but a burgomask; a fish-slapping dance. Shakespeare’s most puzzling plays, Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida seem to fit here.
But from time to time the theatre seems to concentrate on one form more or less unalloyed. In Athens under Pericles, in London under Elizabeth and James, playwrights sustained a tragic sensibility of uncommon purity. It is at the end of that latter period, during the reign of James, the tragic vision seemed to reach its greatest clarity. Shakespeare’s darkest plays, Macbeth and Lear, belong to this period. And Shakespeare’s greatest disciple, John Webster, flourished then. But Webster’s unflinching gaze at human terror is never merely grisly, and never depressing. His beautiful doomed characters, brilliant as meteorites, thrill us with that ineffable tragic feeling. Webster himself best described that feeling in his other masterpiece, The White Devil. Flamineo, the hero-villian of that play, looking at his own handiwork, observes;
We opened our twelfth season with A Penny for a Song by John Whiting and closed it with Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler. In between were Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and T.S. Eliot’s The Coctkail Party. Those two, the Shakespeare and the Eliot, were technically unremarkable. Both were played against a black-curtain cyc with a platform and a throne for Merchant; two sets of furniture for Cocktail Party.
But the other two, the Whiting and the Schnitzler, required sets that taxed our tech skills and resources at least as much as the ones I wrote about for our eleventh season. Penny for a Song takes place in 1804, in the garden of an English landowner, Timothy Bellboys, who has somehow convinced himself that Napoleon is about to invade England. He has stationed one of his servants on a platform in a tree so that he can spot the invading French army.
So we had to build the tree. (The actor spent the entire show in the tree.) He has sent to London for a Napoleon costume, so that when the French invade he will drop among them pretending to be the emperor and order them to “Mettez bas vos armes!” and to return to France. He will literally drop among them; he has purchased a balloon.
But the local militia is holding an exercise in the area and when the young man in the tree sees them he sounds the alarm and Bellboys descends, in costume, in his balloon—into a well. The militia take him to be Napoleon, and arrest him. So, in addition to the tree we had to build the well and the gondola and rigging of the balloon. Also, there was a gazebo on the set and the facade of the Bellboys’ mansion.
And there were necessary special effects: fireworks and a cannon ball that had reached the very end of its range and needed to roll onto the stage and stop just at an actor’s feet.
Der Reigen (It’s an Austrian play, but for some reason, perhaps because of a French movie based on it, it is usually known by the French translation of its title; La Ronde) presented a different kind of problem. It is a play in ten scenes and each scene takes place either just after a sexual encounter or it leads up to one with a different couple in each scene. Thus:
A Whore and a Soldier
The Soldier and a Parlor Maid
The Parlor Maid and a Young Gentleman
The Young Gentleman and a Young Wife
The Young Wife and her Husband
The Husband and a Little Miss
The Little Miss and a Poet
The Poet and an Actress
The Actress and a Count
The Count and the Whore of scene one.
Well, that’s ten different sets; each scene takes place in a different place. So we built two revolving platforms, two turntables, each about 16 feet in diameter with a black curtained semi-circle that would hide the platform when it was turned one way and would reveal a set when it was rotated the other way. At each scene change we rotated both turntables to show a new set in one while hiding the set on the other. While it was hidden we would change all the furniture in it for the scene that would follow whatever was being played on the other, the exposed turntable.