Nov. 24, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 7

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    Translating theater for the American stage

    New theatrical productions in San Diego and in Manchester, England, are bringing increased national and international attention to innovative translations and adaptations done by Nicholas Rudall, Executive Director of Court Theatre and Associate Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures.

    In the past four years, Rudall has published new versions of several classic stage works -- from ancient plays by Aristophanes to 19th-century works by Henrik Ibsen -- often in collaboration with University alumnus and Second City founder Bernard Sahlins. The works were initially produced at Court Theatre and published by Ivan R. Dee Inc., a small but well-known Chicago company.

    Recently, Rudall's adaptation of Ibsen's "Ghosts" was produced at the San Diego Repertory Theater, and the Royal Exchange Theatre Company in Manchester, England -- a major regional British company -- is about to produce Rudall's adaptation of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." More national and international productions of Rudall's work are expected over the next few years.

    "The goal in all the works is that they be easily speakable in English on stage by actors, and it is very gratifying to find that, in a relatively short time, other theater companies feel that we have met that goal," Rudall said. "Whenever you do translations like this it takes a long time for other theaters to notice them. Once a production is done it takes about two or three years for the knowledge to get around, since theaters select their plays two or three years in advance."

    In fact, Rudall did not know about the Royal Exchange Theatre production until he received a phone call from England. "They actually were asking me what I meant in a certain line of translation and if they could change that, which was quite wonderful because I was able to go back, and in fact they were right, and their change was the right one to make."

    Rudall said that originally his new versions, which he calls "adaptations from literal translations," stemmed from a "quite parochial" idea.

    "The idea was to do it for ourselves," Rudall said. "Bernie Sahlins and I shared the experience, mainly from doing classical work in other languages, that American companies only had limited options for production -- either you had a good translation done by an established English playwright, or you didn't have anything much in American English.

    "I had done a number of translations here at Court Theatre for that very reason -- that the ones available in English were either too 'British' or just weren't easily spoken on stage by actors. Among others, I've done translations of Aristophanes' 'Lysistrata,' Sophocles' 'Electra' and Feydeau's 'The Paradise Hotel.' But I've also done things which can't technically be called translations but are instead adaptations. I take an absolutely literal translation of Ibsen, for example, and put it into speakable English."

    Rudall finds that he is faced with certain specific challenges when writing his kind of "speakable" adaptation or translation.

    "One of the things that's really interesting is that most of the plays that we've done are from other cultures where there is a class hierarchy. It's very easy for an Englishman to do an Ibsen play where you have characters with lower-class accents, middle-class accents and upper-class accents and dialect. It's much harder to do that in America, which prides itself on not having a class hierarchy.

    "When I did Ibsen's 'Ghosts,' which has a working-class man, his daughter who is a servant but who is aspiring to be better, an upper-middle-class mother, a bohemian son and a religious doctor of letters, I had to spend a lot of time trying to keep it American. And I didn't want to slip into using stereotypes like a Southern accent or a New York accent, but I had to find ways of making the characters speak within their class or education. This is very important in most European plays -- Chekhov, classical French drama -- and the hard thing is to translate that successfully in order to make it accessible to an American audience."

    One of Rudall's favorite ways to ease this difficult process is to speak the dialogue out loud to himself as he works.

    "I translate it in my head and then I speak it out loud, because the goal for this is to make the actor able to say an English sentence. In Norwegian or ancient Greek, for example, sentences tended to be very periodic. You have people saying, 'When I was walking along, and after I saw so-and-so, I decided that what I should do is this.' Now, in contemporary American idiom, you would say, 'I was walking along. I saw so-and-so. And I decided to do something.' So you have three short sentences as opposed to one long periodic one. That's the main thing that I try to do -- to make a clear, speakable sentence. Because of this specific intent, which is to be on the stage, you actually have both license and terror. The license is that you know that you want to make it clear. The terror is that you also want to retain as much accuracy as possible."

    While Rudall's overall intent is to make things clear and speakable, he finds that "each production has its own requirements. My work did not replace David Grene's wonderful translation of Sophocles' 'Electra,' because that translation is brilliantly accurate and wonderfully poetic. I just had a different goal, just as when I did Feydeau's 'The Paradise Hotel.' The central idea was that it had to be American and it had to be speakable on stage. Of course, Feydeau has a lot of jokes in French which are just not funny if they are translated literally. So, you have the license to invent. In fact, you are required to invent, because you must find a parallel funny situation. There was a character in the original who stuttered and who caused a lot of laughter -- not at him, but because of what you thought he was going to say. I always left the impression that he was going to say something dirty and it was always clean. So, it's fun when you have an absolutely pragmatic intent."

    Another example of this pragmatic approach came in Rudall's work on Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus."

    "If you just take the text as you get it in the classroom, you know as soon as you see it that somewhere buried in it is a script -- but scholars know that there have been accretions, later writers adding later bits, and that it is impossible to perform as is. So when I did the production I simply pared away the things that didn't work, added some things that I thought would -- just purely pragmatic changes for the stage."

    Rudall, who has also worked with Ivan Dee to publish adaptations by Robert Brustein, director of the American Repertory Theater, as well as Sahlins' adaptation of the English "Mystery Cycle," plans on continuing and expanding his work on translations and adaptations.

    "One of the things I hope to work on is an adaptation of 'Crime and Punishment' by Russian director Mikhail Mokeiev, who directed my translation of Sophocles' 'Electra.' Within the next couple of years, I would like to take that adaptation and translate it into English for availability to the American stage, and perhaps even do it at Court."

    Rudall also has other plans for Court Theatre. "The most adventurous thing we're doing at the moment of course is to have seven actors doing 'The Triumph of Love' and 'Cloud Nine' in rotating repertory playing a total of 20 parts, and it's been very successful."

    Toward the end of this season, Court Theatre will present a play based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo. "What we're doing is making liaisons with Chicago visual artists who create art in a Mexican vein -- some Latin American artists and some not -- to create murals, to turn the lobby and the theater into Frida Kahlo's house."

    Rudall said that one of his most interesting projects is the series of staged readings at Court Theatre on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

    "Last year we decided that since the theater was dark on those nights it would be a wonderful chance to do play readings, and last year we did a couple of readings of American classics that normally aren't done on the stage," he said. "This year, because Court is presenting Caryl Churchill's 'Cloud Nine,' we did a reading with University Theater students of Churchill's 'Mad Forest,' the play that she and her students did after going to Romania just at the fall of the Ceausescu regime. It's a remarkable piece. And at the end of this month we're doing a production of Anouilh's 'The Rehearsal,' which is a play about a group of aristocrats doing a Marivaux play, to complement Marivaux's 'The Triumph of Love.' We will be doing these kinds of readings throughout the year."

    Rudall finds a connection between these readings and the process he goes through when doing his own translations and adaptations. "One of the interesting things about simply reading the plays, using a minimum of stage movements, is that the audience is allowed to view them almost as radio plays, using their own imagination. It's a lot like what I do when I speak the lines of my translations aloud to myself. In the case of the readings, it's an immediate experience -- for a director like myself, it's like getting a free read-through. For the audience, it's a quite wonderful experience because they get to see it in their minds and hear it live."

    -- Jeff Makos For information on Court Theatre's current offerings, including show times and ticket prices for the rotating productions of "The Triumph of Love" and "Cloud Nine," see the Calendar, pages 4-6.