Dienstag, 10. Mai 2011

Bilingual theater

I'm already starting to get excited about a production of Gogol's Revizor which will be performed this summer bilingually in Russian and English at the local Shakespeare festival. This kind of thing absolutely fascinates me, for reasons which should be obvious to my readers here.

And it seems to be something which is not terribly uncommon; at least, I can think of a number of other similar projects where a play is performed in multiple languages for an audience who is not necessarily expected to understand both languages. One is a production of Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen which a friend of mine in Germany participated in (and which opened approximately a week to late for me to see it, to my great regret). Deaf and hearing actors collaborated on the production, which was performed partly in sign language and partly in German. There's also a theater company in France called Demodocos, which regularly puts on performances in ancient Greek and French.

What is it about theater in particular that is receptive to such an undertaking in a way that novels, say, are not?

What particularly intrigues me is not the multilingualism per se, but the way it's being used in all of these examples. Switching languages is a common phenomenon in multilingual communities, but that's not the way it's being used here. The use of one language rather than another isn't embedded in a communicative speech situation, it's not a pragmatic choice made based on social considerations, but instead, externally and arbitrarily imposed, more or less. It may be significant here that the plays being performed are classics -- that is, the audience can be assumed to have some general familiarity with the story beforehand. They're not new plays, not plays written specifically with the intention of being performed in multiple languages.

There's something else that interests me, though: Specifically, the effect of partial non-comprehension on the part of the audience.

Obviously, one of the purposes of such projects is the cross-cultural collaboration, both for actors and audience. The French theater company is a little different because it's not bringing together two different groups of people, but the mediating function is similar: integrating classical Greek into a modern performance and trying to give the contemporary audience a glimpse of this world of the past.

Opera, of course, is another example of theater which is frequently performed in a language that the audience may not know, so the parallels may help us understand what's going on here. Certainly the presence of the actors on stage, their gestures, costumes, emotions, help the audience to follow the plot even if they don't understand all the words. But opera -- like so many foreign films -- is often performed with subtitles; there is thus a delay in comprehension, but ultimately we are provided with the meaning.

Here, however, there's a certain amount of resistance. A translation is not provided. One minute the words are easy to understand, the next we have to guess at what is happening. Undoubtably there are Brechtian motives at work here, preventing the audience from identifying too easily with what is happening on stage.

Considered another way, there's a certain appropriateness to having the actors speaking different languages. Theater is typically multi-voiced: it reveals the widely different ideologies which clash when we interact with each other. Both tragedy and comedy are arguably about the failure to communicate, albeit with different consequences. About the roles we play, about how easily we deceive ourselves and each other.


Mattitiahu hat gesagt…

There's always also the example of Classical Indian drama, where gods and male nobles would speak Sanskrit, whereas women and lower-caste men speak Prakrit. In essence the entire system something of an enforced diglossia along relgious, gender, and class-lines.

I once had the luck to see a rather impromptu production of Kālidāsa's Vikramorvaśīyam performed in the original languages (we had real-time people reading out a translation between lines fortunately) and it was absolutely fascinating.

Brenda hat gesagt…

I need to get around to learning Sanskrit one of these days...sigh. I haven't been doing very well keeping up with my languages lately; there just never seems to be enough time in the day.

I think I'd heard about the use of diglossia in Sanskrit drama before, but I'd forgotten. It is fascinating from a socio-linguistic perspective, and I bet there are modern directors who would have a blast putting on such a play using a carefully selected mixture of dialects as a way of commenting on present-day social conditions.

Your second example is more what I was thinking of here, where using multiple languages (Sanskrit + translation) is not motivated at a diegetic level, but instead is part of the performance situation. It seems to work, which is s bit odd when you think about it, there's no reason why it necessarily should as there's definitely some serious illusion-breaking going on. Humans are good at playing make-believe, I guess...

I bet it was a very cool experience. I'd love to see something like that in classical Greek sometime.

Mattitiahu hat gesagt…

I just remembered also, (to a lesser extent of bilingual theatre), that Plautus also in one of his plays (Poenulus Act V.i) has a section where one of his characters speaks in straight up Carthaginian Punic for a short while as part of a joke... and come to think of it, I don't know how modern translators/interpreters handle it in a performance situation... Likewise, I haven't seen many modern interpretations of Ancient Greek drama, but I wonder to what level subtle linguistic registers are interpreted. Did Dicaeopolis really sound like a farm hick to other Greeks? Is the modern stereotype of a farm hick even comparable enough to be used as an interpretational model?

Sanskrit isn't that hard to pick up if you already have a strong grounding in Greek. It's just a matter of a couple more cases, some weird phonological stuff (more phonemes, the sandhi-system), and the writing system. It's just (as you said) trying to find the time in the day to work on it.

Brenda hat gesagt…
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Mattitiahu hat gesagt…

I came back finally to reconstruct what I wrote earlier, even if I couldn't really remember. But it turns out that it's back and it was just pointing out a scene in Plautus might be an analogue to the sorts of linguistic absurdism one could find in some Monty Python sketches.

Brenda hat gesagt…

And Blogger's busy creating a bit of absurdism of its own, it seems. Deleted my (now reduntant) second post.

How to translate dialects is something I've pondered at odd moments myself. There's so rarely a suitable equivalent for the social connotations associated with a particular dialect, trying to maintain the linguistic distinction almost inevitably entails "nativizing" the text in a way that may not be appropriate. Of course, that's what makes the problem so intriguing.

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