Post image for Emotional Bandwidth

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

These few observations come about following my experience working upon two productions of texts translated into Welsh; Dynas Ddela Leenane – an adaptation of The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Martin McDonagh) which I directed whilst at the helm of Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd (the only Welsh language building based production company, which sadly no longer exists) and an adaptation of 4.48 Psychosis (Sarah Kane), which I staged with 3rd year students at the Atrium (Univeristy South Wales) in 2013.

Through considering crux moments in the development of both productions, I hope to highlight certain embedded cultural values encoded within the language which, it would appear, unknowingly influence Welsh language practitioners and the theatre they create.

Though the examples serve to illustrate the semantic differences between two specific languages, they contribute to a wider debate regarding translation vs. equivalence (that is, a version of text which creates, within a recipient culture, the equivalent emotional responses to those generated originally within a root culture). (1)

As you are probably aware, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (the first play of The Leenane Trilogy) was initially produced by Druid, and staged at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway in 1996. It is, one could argue a subjective view of Ireland; McDonnagh was after all writing from the perspective of a immigrant whose primary experience of Ireland, as I am led to believe, was the annual Summer holiday back in the home country.

The play is set in a Connemara, pre Celtic Tiger. It is a play of immigration; the well rehearsed dynamic between leaving and remaining. Until the Celtic Tiger, the sons of Ireland were reared knowing that their fate was to leave the Republic.

In the play, Maureen looks after Mag (her ageing mother). Maureen was once courted by Pato, before he took the expected ferry for Holyhead and England. In a letter written in London, he reveals his true feelings for her. This vital letter, which could have changed the course of Maureen’s life is intercepted by her mother and destroyed. Her motive is to ensure that her daughter remains at home to care for her in her dotage. It also denies her daughter the happiness she, in turn was not granted. Throughout the play we are presented with the resentful relationship between mother and daughter; a portrayal of a claustrophobic Ireland. The play culminates in horrific retribution when the daughter discovers the truth of her mother’s betrayal. The play builds to a chilling climax, which debunks the traditional form of Irish kitchen drama. It is a stunning black comedy.

Having seen and loved the Druid production, I was eager to commission a Welsh language adaptation believing in the universality of the play (after all it has been translated in over 30 languages). My first concern was whether to keep the action in Leenane or re-locate the action to Wales. After discussion with the chosen translator, it was decided to relocate the action to the Llyn Peninsular – an area on the fringe of Wales; geographically similar to the West Coast of Ireland. However, with the completion of the first draft, it became apparent that perhaps the play might not be as universal in the Welsh context.

As a naive young Welshman, I was brought up, as most Welsh boys are brought up, to believe that Ireland is Wales’ anam chara / our soul mate! During my first few visits to Ireland, I searched for the similarities between us – those things that would cement our Celtic brotherhood. It took me awhile to identify and celebrate the differences. In reality, we have little in common, a fact most Welshmen chose not to acknowledge. Let us consider a few basic differences.

Ireland is historically a Catholic Country. Though it now veers towards secularization, Catholic values still hold deep cultural significance. Wales, on the other hand is historically a Non Conformist nation. Catholicism and Non conformism were our historic religions of rebellion against the established church and crown. However, our different religious practices have served to project us on tangential courses which manifest themselves in diverse ways. For instance, common to Catholic countries Irish people (in both languages) use a religious vocabulary when they swear for instance, “Jeezuz”.  Welsh speakers however have been stripped of their language’s baseness by waves of Religious Revivalism. To swear, Welsh people either have to revert to the Anglos Saxon or use diluted expletives coined by prissy Methodists, ‘Jiw Jiw’ instead of Duw Duw / God God and ‘Esu!’ instead of Iesu / Jesus. This difference poses a dilemma when adapting. How best to convey the full impact of ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph” into Welsh? How does one invoke the name of the Virgin in a Protestant country!

And then there’s emigration. It is true that Wales haemorrhaged a percentage of its population during the 19th and 20th centuries. Though, it would appear that poverty, disease and the Enclosure Acts, whilst being contributing factors, were not driving influences as they were in Ireland.

Wales was at the heart of the Industrial revolution – iron, copper, lead and King Coal were ours. The excellent volume Calvanists Incorporated, Welsh immigrants on Ohio’s Industrial Frontier (Anne Kelly Knowles) details the dynamic between immigration and emigration in19th Century Wales. I once produced a play based on that research; the emigration of several families from Cilcennin, a village in rural Cardiganshire  to Ohio circa 1830. They were not starving dispossessed peasants, they were religious idealists led by a capitalist who sought to make a buck.

In short, the soul of the emigrant does not lie at the very heart of Welsh culture as it does in the Irish (Though we also posses a limited literature of loss – it is peripheral to to the core). This simple fact, I believe has had an influence upon the nature (some would say narrowness) of our Welshness – our frontiers were, and continue to be internal; insularity, partly as a mechanism of historic defence, continues to colour our national psyche and cultural expressions.

In the rehearsal room of Dynas Ddela Leenane, whilst the actors sensed that the adaptation, located linguistically within a ‘known’ Welsh community was not representative of that community’s experience. They could not relate the Welsh language text to Welsh language life; they could not find the craic which lies at the heart of the McDonnah’s text – as it lies at the heart of Irishness itself; that sense of spirit which colours language and cultural experience. Welshness, on the other hand, is something darker – tending more towards Scotts dourness then Irish fatalism. Dynas Ddela Leenane seemed beyond the cultural grasp of the actors in its translated form.

The closest approximation to Irish craic, in a Welsh context, would be hwyl. However, this has specific non-conformist connotations – the jouissance (2) a preacher experiences in the pulpit or a congregation at a Cymanfa Ganu (communal hymn singing) in chapel or at the Eisteddfod. And so, my actorsded to borrow their emotions from the English language lacking the ability to locate the correct emotional responses within their own Welsh language cultural experience.

In the second week of rehearsal I decided to try an experiment. Though the cast had all read McDonnagh’s original English language text in preparation for the rehearsal process, we had never read it formally as a cast, This we did, and it was immediately apparent, that they fully understood the nuances and humour of the English text – after all, the Irish cultural experience has international currency; like the America, we know it, even if we have never been there – it is an ‘unknown known.

I must say that I anticipated the actors reaction, and had deliberately delayed such an experiment in the hope that it would not have been unnecessary.  However, it came as a shock to the actors that they would react in such a visceral way to the English language text and not to its translation. All four cast members were first language Welsh speakers, one in particular had great difficulty expressing himself through the thin language. Why would they find such difficulty? Following the experiment, I asked the actors to carry the craic (they instinctively understood in the English language text) into the Welsh translation. This they did, and interpretation ceased to be a problem. They needed to borrow cultural context before finding the universal.

This simple experiment made me consider how much of our cultural experience is encoded within our language. What was it about the adaptation that was initially an obstacle for the actors? Let us yet again consider the nature of Welshness in the light of a key event which shaped that consciousness of the modern Welsh nation.

In 1846 a survey was carried out by three English commissioners into the state of Education in Wales. Their report was damning. They concluded that the Welsh were ignorant, lazy and immoral, and that among the causes of this were the use of the Welsh language and nonconformity. This trayal was coined, The Betrayal of the Blue Books (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision) and it was a key act which precipitated long term consequences.

Politically –  it had an ironic positive effect. It consolidated a sense of nationhood. Movements such as Cymru Fydd were formed in reaction to the Betrayal of the Blue Books. As we know, Lloyd George was a member of that movement and was committed to Home Rule for Wales before Ireland – what a difference that would have made to Welsh Theatre if history had played out differently, but as Zizek states in Living in the End Times, ‘what ifs’ are irrelevant.

Less positively, chapel culture was seen as a way to counter the perceived ignorance and immorality of the nation. From 1847 on, the Welsh would be whiter than white (on the surface at least?. Chapel culture would come to dominate Welsh life hand in hand with the growth in Eisteddfodau which reinforced the core values of the new construct of Welshness.

Linguistically – it marked a further shift towards English as the language of education and betterment thereby confining the Welsh language to the home, chapel and festival – the socio-linguistic context of Welsh began to shrink. One could draw a tentative line between the Betrayal of the Blue Books and my actors’ inability to re-locate The Beauty Queen of Leenane to the Llyn peninsular; owing to a century and a half of shrinkage.

I think that another factor also came into play, and constantly comes into play within the Welsh theatrical experience, the problematic nature of theatre itself and its role within the arc of Welsh cultural expression. It has been said that ‘Wales had a professional TV before it had a professional theatre’ and has been argued that Welsh language professional theatre began with the funding of Cwmni Theatr Cymru as a joint BBC / Arts Council initiative in1973. As such, professional Welsh language theatre is a professional upstart, in a nation that revels in the amateur; professionalism is almost a betrayal of the very values fostered in the chapel and the Eisteddfod; values which have served as our cultural bedrock for a century and a half.

It must be remembered that the time of the Betrayal of The Blue Books, was the time of Ibsen. We did not benefit from the vision that he injected into European theatre in the mid nineteenth century; a vision which was to influence Irish language playwrights at the turn of the twentieth century and place The Abbey at the heart of that fledgling nation (It would be another fifty years before we benefited from the poetic vision of Saunders Lewis which drew upon Yates, which drew upon Ibsen) In the 19th century, what bourgeoisie we did possess turned to our poets not our playwrights, to sing the songs of a nation. As a consequence, I would venture that poets are still prized higher in Wales than playwrights. And Wales has yet to master the craft of theatrical expression – there are things, in certain contexts, we cannot express on the stage in this language of heaven.

Welsh, like all languages, carries a cultural code within its lexicon and syntax, one that limits certain expressions due to historic precedent. Dynas Ddela Leenane hit that limit like a boy racer hitting a restrictor on a moped! (3)

I came across unexpected evidence of further limitation whilst working upon Psychosis 4.48 by Sarah Kane.

I am sure you’re all aware of the Kane’s text; the longest suicide not in theatre history. Though visceral, it is a highly lyrical piece which demands a sympathetic adaptation; one which, I think was achieved by the cast following two weeks of intense analysis of the English language text. Once the Welsh language adaptation was consolidated we used that as the basis for all further work. One student, who had found no problem finding truth within the lyricism of the English text, struggled with the truth of the translated text. One stanza in particular caused her great difficulty. Each time she approached it, she was delivered it as if she was reciting ‘Y Wiwer’ (The Squirrel) on an Eisteddfod stage. She found it impossible to get beyond the mannered rhythms of recitation which involuntarily caused an actual physical change in her features – the ‘Eisteddfod face’. Please note that I love attending the National Eisteddfod each August and wholly support it as an institution, the above is just an observation.+

Strangely, she found no difficulty in finding the truth in prose passages which were nevertheless as lyrical as the stanzas. I was puzzled by her dilemma, until we finally stumbled upon the truth of the matter – the very form of the stanza upon the page (the semantic of the poetic form) made her respond to the text in an ‘Eisteddfodic manner’. She explained that it was her experiences as a child which made her instinctively react to the form in such a way. This astounded me. It appeared that not only does a language carry the DNA of a culture (as experienced with Dynas Ddela Leenane), but that the very form of that language takes upon a page commands a specific cultural response.

Considering both experiences, it would appear that Welsh language practitioners are limited by the very language with which they work – for the language itself carries a predetermined response. If this is true then the nation’s playwrights are also limited being subject to the same historic codification and as a consequence, Welsh language theatre is limited as it a slave to the language of its practitioners. One could term this, emotional bandwidth.

Each Welsh person has certain points of drop out within their emotional bandwidths; areas of life which they cannot express fully through the medium of Welsh. This bears little relation to vocabulary – a recipient of Welsh language education might have a broader vocabulary and use less English in their Welsh than a native speaker. However, the native speaker will have less of a drop out as he / she has inherited a more complete emotional bandwidth through his / her upbringing. It would seem that we all possess varying drop out points within our emotional bandwidths.

It was inferred that Welsh language theatre also possess drop out points within its emotional bandwidth – limits as to what can be expressed through the medium of Welsh on stage, because, as stated above, of the limitations of the practitioners who create it?

One could postulate that this might be true for all cultures. I am unaware, but surprised if research does not exists regarding the differences between the emotional bandwidths  (or other term) of both Hispanic and White American actors stemming from their parallel cultural and linguistic experiences and would like to know of this. Please email if you are aware of such research.

Over the years, in the course of my work both as an Artistic Director and lecturer, I have sensed a certain self censorship with Welsh language dramatists – issues they chose not to discuss in Welsh; issues they state they cannot discuss in Welsh. This raises the question, what is regulating their cultural expressions in Welsh? Is it unspoken cultural censorship? For instance, I wrote a play called Blink. It dealt with the serial abuse of many pupils by a teacher in a prominent Welsh language school. Whilst at the helm of the Northern Theatre Company (Llwyfan Gogledd Cymru) I commissioned an adaptation from one of Wales’ most prominent writers. The board refused to stage the play as the subject matter was deemed too sensitive for a Welsh language audience. This play went on tour in its original English form and ran off Broadway (4). The Welsh could have stolen the lead, but they chose not to. Are the limits we set upon our cultural expressions set by an unspoken censorship – a tacit understanding not to challenge the codification of the language? And so does language itself set its own limits – writers fearing that they will be castigated for incorrect usage or unnecessary use of English within their Welsh?

Linguistic purity is a constant issue in Welsh language theatre and culture in general. If purity is the aim, will linguistic eugenics just perpetuate the limited bandwidth of expression? How does the language re-programme itself in order to respond to the now, free of historic limitations?

Students, at The atrium, suggested that the Welsh language must get dirty – The Language of Heaven must also be The Language of Hell – if it is to achieve the least drop out possible within its emotional bandwidth. They felt that purity should be compromised, tradition broken with and the language imbued with a new codification.

Some of the old guard would consider this a betrayal worse than the Betrayal of the Blue Books in 1847. And yet, surely we cannot keep contextualising with an historic semiotic. If we do, then there is a danger that our cultural expressions will become increasingly limited by the very language which we seek to preserve. Perhaps it is about time that our ‘hwyl’ was liberated from the pulpit and eisteddfod platform, re-codified and given new life upon a twenty first century stage.


(1) Szilvia Naray-Davey (Between The Words or the Hungarian Bathrobe’s Significance:The influence of performance on translating from source text to target text in Contemporary Hungarian drama (Ways in, Ways out and “Ways through the Labyrinth”, The University of South Wales, United Kingdom, June 2013). ‘In order to create a text which is an equivalence, the equivalent ‘realia’ (that is, the specifics of the original culture, such as the semantics of everyday objects, clothes, foods and historical perspectives etc) need to be identified within  in the recipient culture and equivalences sought. Such an equivalence would need to consider even the sense of humour of the original root culture’.

(2) See Slavoj Zizek

(3) Under 17s in the UK are only allowed to drive 50cc motorcycles with restrictors in the engines

(4) Blink, ran at 59E59 as part of the Brits off Broadway festival 2008

Ian Rowlands lives in Wales. He is a freelance writer/director in Theatre, television, and radio. He is currently directing the Welsh language Soap Opera, Pobol y Cwm (BBC). His play Blink ran at 59E59 as part of the Brits off Broadway Festival, NY. He has been an International Associate at The Lark (NY). The two plays he developed with the support of that company (and under the guidance of the director, Daniella Topol), along with a short play he contributed to the seminal volume, 24 Gun Control Plays, are soon to be published by No Passport Press. He is currently developing a new performance text in conjunction with the Dutch writer / director Jeroen van den Berg and writing a play (Water Wars) for National Theatre Wales.