May 26, 2009

Need to Know

The 1993 movie Farewell My Concubine is studded with powerful moments. But the one that stuck deepest when I first saw it was the dressing room face-off between actor Duan Xiaolou and Peking Opera superfan Master Yuan, who's hot for Xiaolou's fellow actor Cheng Dieyi:

Master Duan, when the king returns to camp and meets Concubine Yu, custom has it he takes seven steps. You take but five.

(The scene starts at the 4:35 mark in this video clip.)

Xiaolou practically laughs in his face then, but later in the movie, when the "King" is forced to ask Master Yuan's help to save the imprisoned "Concubine's" life, Yuan gets his revenge.

(Jump to the 2:01 mark in this clip.)

Now admittedly, this is a particularly creepy example, but all classical theatre, no matter what culture it comes from, has this in common: the audience brings its own expertise and experience to the party.

From the night you see your first production of Hamlet, your imagination becomes the newest oxygen-carrying corpuscle in the vast bloodstream linking every interpretation in the past 408-odd years.

Actually, you were most likely infected long before you entered the theatre. English-speakers who've never seen or read a lick of Shakespeare can still quote the lyrics. Hence the collective audience ear-pricking when an actor launches into arias like "To be or not to be," "Friends, Romans, countrymen" or "All the world's a stage."

But one of the strangest experiences of working on a foreign-language classic like Phèdre is discovering a whole new world of familiar quotations and celebrated passages you never knew existed. French literary critic Roland Barthes, in his 1963 book On Racine, complains that

today's public consumes Racine in a purely anthological fashion. In Phèdre it is the character of Phaedra one comes to see, and even more than Phaedra, the actress herself: how will she "do" it? Some critics of our stage actually date their careers by the Phaedras they have seen. The text itself is received as an ensemble of raw materials, from which pleasure takes its choice: musical lines, famous tirades...

Reading Barthes's list of famous monologues I'd never heard of felt a bit like wandering into one's first screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where everyone but the "virgin" can recite the script verbatim:

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.
[The daughter of Minos and of Pasiphaë.]

Si je la haïssais, je ne la fuirais pas.
[If I hated her, I would not flee her.]

Soleil, je te viens voir pour la dernière fois.
[Sun, I come to look upon you for the last time.]

Ariane, ma sœur...
[Ariadne, my sister...]

C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
[It is the goddess Venus clinging fast to her prey.]

Présente je vous fuis, absente je vous trouve.
[I flee your presence; in your absence I find you.]

Charmant, jeune, trâinant tous les cœurs après soi.
[Charming, young, trailing every heart after him.]

Theramenes' narrative, etc.

(I love that "etc."! If the rest of the list doesn't make you feel like you've got your nose pressed against the window of someone else's candy store, one last little word will do it.)

Tony Harrison, in the fantastic intro to his Raj-era reimagining, Phaedra Britannica, singles out what seems to be the French equivalent of "To be or not to be", a line

which Flaubert thought the most beautiful line in the whole of French literature, and which Proust valued for its beauté dénuée de sens ["beauty stripped of meaning"]....

The line in question is the famous one spoken by Hippolyte describing Phèdre as La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

Admittedly it is a crucial line. A line full of mythical reverberations. For those who know the myth.

"For those who know the myth." So it turns out there are two kinds of prior knowledge an audience could bring to this particular classic. You might be familiar with Racine's text itself, even if only, as Barthes laments, in "purely anthological fashion." And (or) you could know the myth.

For those who don't, Harrison goes on to explain:

The polarities represented by Minos and Pasiphaë are those which maintain the tension of the whole play and not simply the character of Phèdre.

Minos and Pasiphaë, an emblematical marriage, are the opposite poles of the human consciousness.

Minos... is one of the three judge figures in Greek mythology.... Interiorised psychologically, as he is in Phèdre, he is that part of our selves which is judgement, prescription, that part that creates moral codes, imposes laws, fixes limits, the 'frontiers' of experience, defines the acceptable, and punishes transgression.

Pasiphaë is the transgressor of the codes created by Minos, that part of our selves that hungers for every experience, burns to go beyond the frontiers of current acceptability, specifically, in her case, to gratify her sexuality with a bull, incur the guilt of forbidden bestiality. She is what Henri de Montherlant made of her in his play Pasiphaé (1928), the woman who wants to transcend morality, accept every part of her nature, however 'animal' or 'bestial' it has been branded by the law-makers, to assert that nothing is unhealthy or forbidden. She rejects the codes of her husband Minos....

The problem, then, of Phèdre, as of us all, is that she contains within herself both Minos and Pasiphaë.

But how much of a problem is it if we, the audience, don't know the myth? Don't contain within ourselves both Minos and Pasiphaë and an understanding of their symbolic reverberations? How much prior homework should it take to appreciate a classic play?

Is all this backstory just a fun but optional extra, like an easter egg in a video game or DVD? Or should you plan to arrive at the theatre a half hour early to study the genealogical chart in the programme?

Because, really, if you haven't yet learned how to Do the Time Warp, or memorized the number of steps the King of Chu takes when he returns to his Concubine, can you enjoy the show as much as someone who has?

I think you can. You might even enjoy it more...


Posted by Alison Humphrey at 04:16 PM

May 12, 2009

Clouds from Both Sides

Wordle describes itself as "a toy for generating 'word clouds' from text."

It's one thing to read that, compared to Shakespeare's nearly 30,000-word vocabulary, Racine only uses about 4,000 words in his entire works.

It's another thing to take the 1,642 words he used in Phèdre, and paint a picture with the top hundred and fifty:


The 2009 Stratford production of Phèdre will be the world premiere of a new version translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Here's her English word cloud:


And for comparison, here's what the play looks like using Robert Bruce Boswell's 1909 translation, Phaedra:


Apparently the Wordlization process is language-sensitive, as it has an option to "remove common words" in either English or French, without which the result would look something like this:


These common words are called "stop words" by computer programmers, who make sure search engines like Google filter them out of their results.

The whole computers-and-languages idea got me thinking. I tried running the original French text through Google Translate, to see how far a machine's literal-minded word cloud differs from that of a human translator.


A popular parlour-game from the early World Wide Web involved feeding text through several different iterations of BabelFish and then retranslating the results back into English.

Noble et brillant auteur d'une triste famille,
Toi, dont ma mère osait se vanter d'être fille,
Qui peut-être rougis du trouble où tu me vois,
Soleil, je te viens voir pour la dernière fois.
Via Google Translate, gives us:
Noble and brilliant author of a sad family,
You, whom my mother dared claim to be girl
Who can be ashamed of trouble when you see me,
Sun, I just see the last time.

But by the time the website Lost in Translation has BabelFished it back and forth through Japanese, Chinese, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, we end up with this:

The sad group is noble, wonderful author, with respect is to me substantial, if in me it is, if girl to doubt the ashamed one correctly, Sunday the search that the matrix in the terminal of fetthaltigen, because it is I.

And hey, why stop there? The 2007 Dublin Fringe Festival saw a real, live production of The BabelFish Tartuffe, "a new version of Moliere's classic comedy as translated into English by the internet."

But as much as we would all like to sit through five acts of The Deep Blue Phèdre, there is one bug in the ointment. Google Translate took the character name Panope and spat it out the other end as "geoduck".

Pronounced "gooey duck", this is, apparently, the common name for Panopea abrupta.

The world's largest burrowing clam.

Which is as good a reason as any to choose this translator...


...over this.


Skynet don't do word clouds.

Posted by Alison Humphrey at 04:52 PM

May 05, 2009

Carey Perloff - Director's Notes

In October 2008, Timberlake Wertenbaker and I were invited to come to Stratford to workshop her new translation of Racine's PHEDRE, which we had commissioned at the American Conservatory Theater. After an extraordinary week of work, spearheaded by the unparalleled talent and ferocity of Seana McKenna and Jonathan Goad, we all came away feeling a compelling urgency to continue exploring this rarely produced French classic.

PHEDRE is a play that at first glance might seem very remote from our own times: it was born out of a highly formal seventeenth century Catholic culture with enormous sexual taboos and clear social hierarchies. But its heartbeat remains astonishingly potent today. The play begins with a terrible secret: the passionate, uncontrollable love of Phedre for her stepson Hippolytus. Over the course of a taut ninety minutes, as secret upon secret is exposed, the tide of erotic love threatens to overwhelm the entire societal structure of the court of Theseus. Phedre's desire is not only transgressive, it is fated: in some frightening way, she is paying for the sins of her mother Pasiphae, the descendant of the Sun who lusted after a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Phedre exerts every ounce of will to resist her longing while secretly knowing that resistance is pointless. In Racine's pitiless world, eros is a disease that cannot be easily cured, a pollution that is impossible to purge, a visitation from an angry and destructive god. "This is not sweet love coursing through my veins, but Venus tooth and claw gnawing my limbs."

The conflict is heightened immeasurably because Phedre is a Queen, presiding over a politically divided court in which her own children are pitted against the potential claims of the stepson she loves. Thus desire, that most private of emotions, is played out in a public arena that is as fraught for her stepson Hippolytus as it is for Phedre. For Hippolytus is also passionately in love. This is Racine's brilliant innovation: he takes Euripides' stringent ascetic hero, the devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis, and turns him into a complex prince whose own sense of duty is at odds with his newly captured heart. With each scene, the conflict in the play escalates until the center cannot hold and an extraordinary explosion occurs.

What is so rich dramatically about the situation Racine imagines is that it all centers on the act of speaking. The secrets of lust and desire lie deeply buried in the hearts of his characters. They become convinced that to speak the truth is to purge the pain, but in fact the opposite occurs: the act of naming the desire brings it to life. Speech is irreversible: a single word can cause a cataclysm, but the lovers in this play cannot resist the impulse to articulate their love. Of course, once spoken, their words can never be retracted. They take on a dangerous life of their own.

In many ways PHEDRE is closer to Greek tragedy than to the unruly, multi-storied tragedies of Shakespeare. Racine famously observes the unities of time, place and action, so the piece is spare, inexorable, intense, and short! Its stark theme is built on contrasting images of fire, heat and the watchful eye of the sun, versus darkness, the sea, and the labyrinthine recesses of the human heart. It is both archaic and Catholic, primal and courtly, passionate and highly formal. Most importantly, the enormity of feeling in PHEDRE is captured in a poetry which is extremely elegant and precise. Without the constraint of its language, the sheer force of emotion in the play would devolve into melodrama. The characters in the play almost never touch, yet the sexual heat between them is enormous.

When we staged the workshop, we put the actors at opposite ends of the huge rehearsal hall to see whether the language alone could stitch their hearts together. One of the gifts of working with Timberlake is her ability to sculpt a line of dialogue that is both subtle and simple, speakable and resonant, leaving a great deal to the actors' and audience's imaginations. For this translation of PHEDRE, she has created an unrhymed ten-syllable line in place of the twelve-syllable French alexandrine, and has avoided the rhyming that often makes English translations of French slightly laughable. This is a version for North American actors, a bridge between our own world and the seventeenth century labyrinth of Racine's. It is such a joy to see this work in the hands of the remarkable Stratford company, who are as fearless as they are skilled.

-- Carey Perloff

Posted by Alison Humphrey at 02:46 PM