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:
When I first moved to Boulder in August 2012, I was fresh out of undergraduate school, my BA in Theatre Arts hot off the presses. I was eager to get started in the professional world but was hesitant and unsure of how to begin. Before I moved, I had been researching local theatre companies and one in particular really caught my eye. The Upstart Crow was performing Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays from an even more favorite playwright. When I finally arrived in Boulder, they were auditioning for another challenging yet interesting show, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. I read the play and although I didn’t have a particular role in mind, I did lean towards playing Hester Worsley. I decided to audition and to my delight I got it! Since then I have played six different roles (one male role included) and designed make-up and masks for six, for a total of ten different shows with The Upstart Crow.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Joan and Richard Bell, two founding members, and interview them on the beginning of the Upstart Crow ensemble theatre company.
They had been talking about doing The Trojan Women. Richard was working for a program at a free school, which is an institution that no longer exists. Richard says, “After the sixties, you know, after that period, there were free schools all over America; just a bunch of people that would get together. They would find a building, anyone could teach there. They could charge students or not as they chose. They were all wonderfully open and easy.”
There was a federal program that Richard applied for and got a role in. It was actually subsidized theatre. There were many requirements to get in. Richard was a veteran and unemployed at the time. “And it was terrific!” he says. He was payed $25 a week. He was able to perform improv in a number of places: “housing developments and places like that.” While doing that Richard, Joan, and India Cooper (another founding member) started talking about doing a play like The Trojan Women. Joan and Cooper were both a little against because Joan had always wanted to play Andromache. She said she would never be cast because she was “too short and too girlish.” Cooper dreamed of playing Cassandra but claimed she “wasn’t good-enough looking.”
This conversation sparked an idea. Richard said, “Let’s do it, let’s do the casting that way. You know, let’s cast against type.” So they put together a script. No one in the group read Greek, but Richard was able to compile a version by reading seven different translations. He liked other translations but claimed they weren’t human-English speech. He said they were definitely poetic but “most of the scripts are full of expressions of sorrow like “ah me.” No one in grief would ever say “ah me.” You would only say that if you were parodying grief. You know, its simply not human utterance and I found it in all the translations.” So Richard put the translations together and came up with an American-verse adaptation.
They first performed their version of The Trojan Women at the community free school and then were invited to do it at the Longmont dinner theatre, which is now Jester’s Dinner Theatre. Richard recalls it being called The Dickens Opera House at the time. “And so we did The Trojan Women,” Richard says through laughter, “to a dinner audience. And they were stunned.” It was a good production from Richard’s perspective. The cast and crew wanted to keep it going, following that show with Vain Flourish of My Fortune: Margaret of Anjou, a play Joan scripted from cuttings of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III.
Vain Flourish featured Queen Margaret of Anjou, a character that, although never a lead, is seen throughout the whole Henry cycle. Richard and Joan say there were some wonderful female roles like Joan of Arc and many duchesses.
And so they cast it. Richard says in many ways he thought it was quite good. He did claim that their cast was too small, they doubled roles too much. After all, while each of the women played a single momentary starring role, Richard played about five different characters, that’s all. He also felt the play was difficult to end. “Margaret’s story is not satisfactorily finished. And we did the best we could to give it a finish but she just stops talking after awhile. We don’t know what happens to her.” But it was fun.
They were drinking one night during the performance (at which point Joan jumped in to point out they were drinking after the performance) and someone had the idea to start a theatre company. Richard was rightfully worried about how to start a company without any money when cast member Paul Ahrens pulled out his checkbook. They decided to do it. With Ahrens donation and $10 from everyone else, they had $600 for their theatre company.
The Upstart Crow’s first official season began with William Congreve’s The Way of the World “in twenties costumes because we could find them in thrift stores.”
It was reasonably well-attended. They charged $2 in advance and $3 at the door. They performed at Boulder’s community free school, a former Baptist church on the corner of Broadway and Balsam. Their stage was the church’s altar, bright blue wall behind them with doors leading off the stage, one on each side that locked from the outside. On one occasion, Richard says cast member Ruth Morel tried to make an exit in J.M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, a show they later did that season (which, incidentally, will be our second show of the 36th season). Morel found she couldn’t get off the stage. She pounded on the door and ended up exiting through the audience and unlocking the door from the other side. “So many interesting things happened in that theatre,” Richard says.
The Upstart Crow has been performing four or five shows every season from then on.
As The Crow Flies will feature history, stories, pictures, and anything else we may come up with highlighting the 35 years of Boulder’s The Upstart Crow. We hope you enjoy!