In the interest of full disclosure, languages have never been my strong suit. In fact, the only college class that I took on a pass/fail basis was Spanish 101. After the first few weeks in the class, I realized two things: first, if ever I found myself in a Spanish speaking country I could possibly locate the library (La Biblioteca) but could not find the bathroom, and second, my GPA was under attack by my lack of language skills. My personal failure at non-English comprehension only enhances my respect for those insightful individuals who can not only speak another language, but rearrange the characters so someone with my limited capacity can understand them. In other words—the translator.
Translation, like extreme paper airplane construction, is one of those mystic disciplines that combine art and science. The translator not only has to understand the grammatical construction of two different languages, but also has to recognize the subtle nuances that give language its meaning. This is especially important when translating lyric, narrative or dramatic works. In our present day lives, we often have no experience with the cultural cues that would evoke sobs of despair or guffaws of laughter from past audiences. This season, the Utah Shakespeare Festival hopes to provoke both those emotions as they present Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart translated from its original German by Peter Oswald.
Peter Oswald rose to prominence when Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, saw Oswald’s version of the eighteenth century Japanese puppet play Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards in 1996 and commissioned him to produce a play for the Globe. The result, Augustine’s Oak, the story of St. Augustine and his 597 AD mission to reconcile the Celtic Christians with Rome’s authority, proved underwhelming, but did not deter the faith Rylance had in Oswald. The second play Oswald produced for the Globe hit the mark.
The Golden Ass, is a bawdy comedic tale about an “insatiably curious young man who, wishing to turn himself into a wise owl, takes the wrong drug and finds himself transformed into an ass.” The play, inspired by the second century Latin novel by Lucius Apuleius, became a hit with both critics and audiences alike in the summer of 2002. Oswald’s star was on the rise; however, theatre companies struggled with the poetic form with which he chose to write.
In a 2005 interview with London’s Guardian newspaper Oswald states: “I thought after the success of The Golden Ass, theatres would be more interested in what I am doing. I was wrong. I think it is partly that reading any play and knowing whether it is going to work on stage is hard enough, but a verse play is harder still. It is another obstacle to getting a play on and it is exacerbated because there are so few people around with the skills to read them—those skills have been let slip.”
Verse drama is a form of dramatic expression in which the play is penned in such a way that the lines are written in a poetic style. This tradition dates back to the ancient Greeks and went out of style in the nineteenth century with the success of playwrights such as Ibsen and Shaw. William Shakespeare produced his works at the height of the dramatic verse movement and, in fact, contributed to much, if not all, of its popularity. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are written in this style. Test yourself and finish this quote: “Double double toil and trouble . . .”
So why did Oswald choose this form of what many audiences consider to be an inaccessible way to dramatically communicate? Oswald states: “Even T.S. Eliot admitted that verse drama was damned hard and said he thought you had to give your life to it. I do sometimes feel that there is a deep-rooted unwillingness to really engage with it in theatre. People often seem to think that what I am trying to do is re-create Shakespeare, which would be the worst thing imaginable. I am not. I am trying to write contemporary plays that use iambic pentameter because to me it seems like the most natural form to use. Its beat is the beat of a heartbeat, and at its best it stimulates the listener’s heart. It is also free-flowing and in its metrical form it is very close to normal everyday speech. Actors just love it.”
Imagine a playwright not only working to compose in dramatic verse, but also translating the work of another, which of course brings us to Mary Stuart. Friedrich Schiller’s play of 1800 tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots and her rival Elizabeth of England. Although the fictional meeting never happened, as Goethe said in anticipation of the 1800 production, “It will be good to see those two whores alongside each other.” Oswald’s translation of Mary Stuart, written in his characteristic style, a mixture of prose and poetry, opened in 2005 to rave reviews. It went on to London’s West End and to Broadway where it received seven Tony Award nominations.
Peter Oswald continues to produce original works and translate the works of others. How well does he do with Schiller’s Mary Stuart ? Find out this summer as “Heads will roll,” or as Friedrich Schiller would say “Köpfe werden rollen.” In the interest of full disclosure, I Googled that.