Marion the Mad; or, Bringing the Unsayable into our Theaters

by Kimberly Jannarone

in National Conference

Post image for Marion the Mad; or, Bringing the Unsayable into our Theaters

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Translating a play is unlike any other kind of translation.  The words you translate must be spoken. Further, they must be spoken in real time, by as-yet-unknown people.  To make those words speakable, the translator needs to hear sound and rhythm with the ear of a poet; shape tempo over long arcs with the skill of a playwright; and find equivalents for meaning, repetitions, resonances, and all the other things that aren’t truly directly translatable but somehow, still, must be translated.

All dramatic translators know this.  What gets really complicated is when that play comes from a substantively different theatrical style, when it’s written for actors and directors who share a common theatrical idiom, and when your new theater troupe doesn’t know that idiom.

When I first read the work of contemporary French playwright Marion Aubert, I marveled at what I now call her “monster monologues.”  Pages and pages of speech, sometimes unpunctuated, sometimes shot through with exclamation points and question marks (and even question marks and exclamation points at the same time?!), and sometimes interrupted for brief bits of dialogue.  I knew about Valère Novarina, the living legend of French playwriting who introduced a new kind of athleticism to the theatrical monologue—think Beckett meets Sarah Kane meets Nabokov meets Dr. Seuss.  To see an experienced actor at work on a Novarina monologue is to see theatrical language as a physical object—it bursts, twists, exerts, flies, assaults, contorts, runs.  Watching it is exhilarating, but it’s rare for English-language audiences to see this kind of work in our theaters, and even rarer for American actors to work on such pieces.

Shortly after I read Aubert’s play “Pride, Pursuit, and Decapitation,” I travelled to a remote corner of northeastern France and saw another of her plays, “The Call of the Does,” which was written for the People’s Theater of Bussang.  Aubert’s play was the centerpiece of this century-old summer festival, and she had written it expressly about the history of the festival.  And on that theater’s gorgeous old wooden stage, I watched her monologues.  And, unlike much Novarina and Beckett and Kane I’ve seen, those monologues were serving as springboards for a veritable circus of non-stop action.  People were kissing in the air on wires.  Barn doors were whipping open onto the mountainside.  Taxidermied animals were being tossed from the flies.  Characters were running, laughing, yelling, rolling.  The narrator threw wild blueberry pies into the audience.  We ate those pies and were happy.  And I understood Aubert’s monologue style.

It’s three years later, and my co-translator Erik Butler and I have now translated two of Aubert’s plays for three different festivals (one for Des Voix in San Francisco and two for HotInk at the Lark Theater in New York City).  Each time, we find that our initial draft of the play is just the first step to crossing the boundary between Aubert’s work and an American audience.  Finding the theatrical style is the next.  Here are three challenges in crossing that boundary.

First challenge: Aubert’s work does not respond well to naturalistic approaches.  In fact, if you attempt to merge naturalistically with one of her monologues, it crawls into a corner and waits for it to be over.  Or it dies.  In short, it doesn’t want that.  It likes beats, it responds pretty well to active verbs, and it loves to be scored like a piece of music.  But any acting style that was first used in the service of Chekhov, thoughtful pauses, or a conversation set on an American sofa, is poison to it.  An Aubert monologue craves breakneck speed, high-functioning hysteria, irrepressible associations, and the embrace of stereotype and the unsayable.  It’s full of things people might say deep in their dark unconscious, but never out loud.  And you have to say them out loud.  Loudly.

The first read-through of both Aubert plays we’ve translated has demonstrated this point within minutes.  American actors, reading the script, go to a naturalistic place they’re often asked to go to, and they soon find themselves not one-third of the way through a monologue—about, say, hiding a pretty Jewish girl and her tongueless aunt in a closet during the Resistance and offering them sausage-ends—and they find they’ve got a long way still to go and naturalism isn’t taking them there.  And plus, it’s supposed to be funny.  The tongueless aunt and the self-involved young Jewess and oblivious unheroic young man with the sausage-ends are supposed to be really funny.

This, then, is the second challenge:  Aubert’s hysterical black humor.  This particular mode, while increasingly common in France, is still “foreign” to us in the States.  Not even Albee prepares us for it.  This sensibility is grounded in a belief that pushing stereotypes far past where you think they can go will land you on the other side—past shock, through offense, and into understanding.  Characters are id, stereotype, and linguistic gymnasts.  They’re always at the end of their rope, in the midst of a brilliant new thought, digressing, inventing.  And they’re throwing themselves into our worst fantasies with abandon.  Monologues careen through hysterical, irrepressible, and impossibly hilarious images of things that simply are not funny—murder, cowardice, Nazi occupation.  Characters say the most terrible things an id ever conceived, and somehow they’re funny.

Working on the translation with actors shows just how much of a stylistic adjustment it takes to make this work.  Commenting on the character’s awfulness won’t do—not from the actors, not from the director.  It turns the horrible things characters do into objects for condemnation, for critical finger-wagging, and they’re not exactly that.  They’re springboards to the audience’s understanding, and this is the big leap: Aubert’s plays demand that the audience meet the author with confidence in the midst of the bloody inappropriateness of everything happening on stage.  When actors and director commit fully to the inappropriateness, that happens.  But not without that commitment.

Third and final challenge: These plays must be staged.  Those monologues want to run and leap and soar with props and sets and rehearsals.  This challenge, however, won’t be met until American production companies take more chances on staging new, foreign, possibly outrageous plays by exciting, unknown, and possibly inappropriate young playwrights.

Kimberly Jannarone is Professor of Theater Arts, Digital Arts and New Media, and History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, where she holds the Gary D. Licker Memorial Chair.  She received her MFA and DFA from the Yale School of Drama. 

Jannarone is the author of Artaud and His Doubles, winner of the Honorable Mention for the Joe Callaway Prize for best book in drama. She has published in journals including Theatre Journal, French Forum, Modernism/Modernity, TDR, and the Chinese journal Theater Arts.  She won the Gerald Kahan Scholar’s Prize and Honorable Mention for the Oscar Brockett Essay Prize for essays on Artaud.  Forthcoming books include Mass Performance, History, and the Invention of Tradition and the edited volume Vanguard Performance Beyond Left and Right.

Jannarone directs, dramaturgs, and translates experimental drama, including works by Beckett, Fornes, Churchill, Stein, Pinter, Shakespeare, and original pieces.  In 2012-13, she produced and directed the multi-media, international Gynt Project in Santa Cruz, California.  She has co-translated, with Erik Butler, works by French playwrights Marion Aubert and Christophe Honoré, which have been given staged readings directed by Carey Perloff in San Francisco and directed by Lisa Rothe at the Lark Theater in New York.