Alan Katz: Despite the age of this play, the content and social issues involved in your new translation of Madwoman of Chaillot feels fresh and really present.
Laurence Senelick: The playwright, Jean Giraudoux, died in the mid-1940’s, but he was already concerned about the industrialization of the modern age. He was a poet who was nostalgic for humane cultural values that were being forced out by commercialization, by industrialization, by international greed. It was very perceptive of him to be aware of these things before this age, where they’ve become immense and monstrous. So the basic concept of the play is that you have a bunch of crooks, who are nobility, who represent the stock exchange and major industry, all kinds of exploitation companies (the critical word being exploitation there). They see Paris as simply an oil field that can be taken advantage of. Paris represents Giraudoux’s humane cultural values. The Madwoman, because she’s mad and doesn’t subscribe to any kind of rationality, represents the potential triumph of the human spirit when it’s not constrained, but goes by its sentiments. Essentially, it’s a fable or a fairy tale.
But Giraudoux is no Brecht. He’s not a political dramatist telling you to ponder these questions and decide on a course of action. He certainly doesn’t tell you to build barricades or go to the stock market and shoot everybody. What he gives us is a poetic praise of the human spirit being able to overcome what seems to be encroaching on our lives from every direction.
As a high school student in Chicago, we were taken to Northwestern to see a production of Madwoman, and I fell in love with the play! A very strong production, beautifully costumed. I thought it was a great play. But I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t watching the original play, but Maurice Valency’s version of it. Later, I read the play in his English version. Then I came across a back issue of Theater Arts magazine in which the critic Eric Bentley pointed out how Valency had travestied the original play. He compared a very important speech at the end of Act I in a literal translation with what Valency had done, saying it was, well, inadequate. That made me read it in French.
When I read it, I saw that it was a totally different play in many respects. But I didn’t try to translate it then. The problem was that Valency, who was a professor at Columbia University, was commissioned to do the translation for the production which ran from 1948-1950 on Broadway. Essentially, he took Giraudoux’s play and tailored it to the taste of Broadway audiences in the late 40’s and 50’s. The kind of audience that had very low patience for listening to rhetoric or poetry, that was rather sentimental and didn’t want to hear anything that was cynical or overtly sexual. …
The thing about Giraudoux which some people might find off-putting is that he is a poetic dramatist. Not in the sense of lyrical poetry, but that he is in love with language. His characters often speak very rhetorically. You need actors who are capable of getting that across, but most modern actors aren’t trained for that. They’re trained in a neo-Realist manner, with short phrases, the colloquial language we all speak. Even if that language is highly stylized (like in David Mamet’s work). When you see a speech that goes on for a page and a half, you need an actor who can really make that work. Like an aria.
In the opening of Madwoman you have a couple of monologues by the villains of the play. Each does this in a long, convoluted speech. A funny way to open a play, which a lot of people would find hard to take. Need I say that in Maurice Valency’s version, all those speeches are cut, either to the bone or entirely.
It’s a major problem with adaptations and translations today. When an author is thorny or difficult or creates an idiosyncratic language, the translator will often iron out the wrinkles. But that makes it bland, and easy for the audience. It doesn’t challenge the audience’s ear, or even [challenge them] at all. But Madwoman does. In other respects, it’s a very contemporary play.
This is part of the problem of translation. You want to make it sound fresh, have a modern audience follow it. But you don’t want to update it to the degree that you lose the flavor of the period.
I trust the author. If they’ve suddenly done something funny with the grammar or story logic, I don’t feel I have to correct the author. Imagine if someone translated Mamet into standard French. You’d lose all the flavor! You have to find a French equivalent for a very idiosyncratic language. A language that no one in America actually speaks, even though it’s made up of familiar phrases, but the phrases are orchestrated in such a way so that people can point to it and say, “That’s Mamet!” It’s the same thing with Chekhov, the same with Giraudoux, the same with any great dramatist. They’ve created their own language. My job as a translator is to convey the idiosyncrasy of that language. …
Excerpted with permission from “Liberating Madwoman of Chaillot: Laurence Senelick on his new translation at WSC Avant Bard” by Alan Katz, published June 3, 2015 by DC Theatre Scene. Copyright © DC Theatre Scene. To read the complete interview, click here.
Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University and recipient of the Saint George medal of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation for services to Russian art and theater. He has translated The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov (W. W. Norton), edited The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (Library of America), and compiled the Historical Dictionary of Russian Theater (Scarecrow Press). For Broadway Play Publishing he has translated Gogol’s Inspector General and Dead Souls, Schiller’s Love and Intrigue, Anything to Declare? by Hennequin and Veber, and Mustn’t Do It! by Jo van IJssel de Schepper-Becker.