Thursday, June 23, 2011

Translator's Note for The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig

            This is not a play, exactly.  Nor is it an operetta, exactly.  It is a collage.  An adaptation of an adaptation.  A multimedia and multidisciplinary work culled from two different cultures and three centuries.
            Originally a short dialogue from 1987 and printed in a samizdat or underground magazine (often photocopies of photocopies), the piece is a shaggy-dog tale at heart; a comic (and true) story of Havel’s attempt to hold a pig roast for his friends.
            In 2010, Czech director Vladimír Morávek, of Theater Goose on the String, rediscovered the dialogue and decided to stage it.  He began by giving lines to characters only mentioned in passing, but then made a more radical choice: he added sections from of one of the most beloved Czech works, The Bartered Bride.  This new version was the centerpiece of a theater festival in Brno last June.
            I was invited to attend the festival yet knew nothing about the piece before I arrived. Like many of Havel’s plays, I see it as a veiled critique of the Communist system; however The Bartered Bride adds another layer to the story.  The operetta was written at a time (the 1860’s) when the act of speaking Czech was in itself a nationalistic gesture. Spoken Czech had died out and Smetana, among others, wanted to restore it as a living language (and gain independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  In the context of The Pig, the celebratory music foreshadows the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Communism, and Havel’s election to the presidency.
            Indeed, near the end of the piece, Morávek slips the words “truth and love” into the lyrics; a reference to Havel’s most famous quote, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
            Upon seeing the production, I asked whether I could translate The Pig for a production here in New York.
            I cannot speak Czech.
            I have taken classes and done my best to learn it, but Czech, especially spoken Czech, eludes me.  The sounds are very difficult for my ear, and I’m sure when I speak it my accent is terrible.
            And so the title of translator seems a little suspicious to me.
             But what I did was this:  I worked with a native speaker, Katerina Lu, until I was relatively certain I understood every nuance of the original.  I then took my notes and attempted to find ways to not only convey not only the meaning of the lines but also Havel’s rhythms and wry humor.
            And then I started writing my own dialogue, particularly for the Journalist.
            The Journalist was written in “English” in the original, though I often found myself correcting the often technically correct lines for ones that would seem natural to an American.  And as I wrote, I realized how much information Americans would lack that is simply common knowledge for most Czechs—from the plot of The Bartered Bride to the events of the Velvet Revolution.
            So I began adding lines that helped set up the play for American audiences.  And then, as I started working with the director, Henry Akona, I started adding some silent characters, partly so we could utilize the video capacities of 3LD, partly for the flavor that those silent characters give to most of Havel’s plays.
            And then I played with the placement of choruses, added a few more lines, and…
            In the end, this is a work that takes what was presented in Brno and enhances it with our own creative imaginings, as Havel’s original was enhanced by Morávek.  To me, it has now become something of a cross-cultural dialogue.  What better way to express a work whose two main characters are an American and a Czech?
            But primarily, it is Havel himself who was the main inspiration behind my efforts. The Pig is the only Havel work in which he appears on stage as one of the characters.  My challenge was to convey Havel’s voice, which is witty, wise, sometimes a little testy, but always compassionate and humane.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A moment from my Czech travels

Last year, I was invited to Brno to see a festival of theater there that included The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig (the show UTC61 is presenting at the end of this month).  I found my old travelogue, which I had presented on Facebook but never put up here, for some reason.  Here is the entry from June 12, the day I saw The Pig (interesting how my impressions of the show are so different now then they were then):

Andre Krob's daughter plays, a busker watches

Yesterday afternoon was all about seeing shows and finally meeting up with everyone. It started with the three Vaněk plays, being held in a small courtyard at the Castle. They were directed by Andre Krob, whom I had met briefly a few years ago. He had been Havel's stage manager back in the days when his shows were first being produced (before they were banned), and after the Velvet Revolution he became a director and staged a number of Havel's plays. There were three little stages set up, and a table with snacks (and lots of beer), so the performances moved from one stage to the next, with Andre's daughter playing in between shows.

Paul Wilson, one of Havel's translators, was there, as were a number of the people organizing the festival, who I had the opportunity to meet at last. One, Petr Oslzlý, who runs Theatre Goose on a String, pointed out my name in an interview with Havel in the program--he had said he was inspired to do the fest because of me.

Paul Wilson
This morning I sat down and struggled my way through a translation of that interview, with the help of  Google Translate at a few key points, and realized that is was Havel talking about the experience of the Havel Festival, from his perspective. Fascinating what his impressions were and what he thinks to note in particular.

It was sort of a smallish crowd at the Vaněk plays, but the in crowd really--I think most people had ignored these plays, which everyone has seen before, choosing instead to attend the more hyped events. But that made the whole thing much more intimate.

This was particularly nice when Havel decided to show up. It is unusual to be able to talk to him without a swarm of people surrounding, and there were some of the usual distractions--a news team came and interviewed him, he was constantly being filmed by a documentary crew, and of course there were the Czechs thrilled to see him in person, many of whom asked for autographs. But despite all that, everything seemed much more relaxed.

Adre Krob does not really speak English, so most of the conversation was in Czech, which was hard for me. Havel scolded me a little for not having learned more, or at least I felt like he was scolding me when he commented that surely I had picked up some more Czech in the last few years (it may have been just an observation, but since I was getting lost in the conversation, I took it as a scold). I have learned some, but I wish I had picked up more...  Reading Czech is still much easier for me than understanding spoken Czech.
A scene from Unveiling

In any event, the first show started (Unveiling) The sun was almost unbearably hot--they found an awning for Havel and the director but I decided to sit in the shade on the grass instead and take a few photos. I know the Vanek plays well enough that I could sort of follow in Czech, using my limited language skills as markers. I was a little disappointed with the production, but enjoyed the atmosphere.

The, after a break and more beer/chatting, then we all moved seats to watch Audience. I began by sitting with Havel in back but then someone from the fest rushed to get him out of the sun again and placed him next to a woman who was thrilled to have her former president find room on her bench. I once again moved to a side perspective and took a few photos.

A scene from Audience (Havel to the left, in blue)
Audience was really interesting, a very good performance. I really feel like seeing the play in Czech completely changed my perspective on the work. First of all, the little set and costume elements were greatly helpful, I had never been sure how to interpret the stage directions, because it was hard to know what a brewery in Communist Czechoslovakia looked like. But also it was interesting hearing when everyone laughed--and they laughed throughout. The two biggest laughs were at untranslatable moments--a Holub/Kohout pun (too complicated to explain) and one time when the Brewmaster mocked Vanek's formal mode of speech. Of course, he speaks exactly the way Havel does, so having Havel there may have added to the laughter.

Then a break again--I was going to miss the third performance and change before the night's events, but with everyone there I realized I couldn't walk out. So I stayed for Protest, which was fine, but much more of a talky enterprise so much harder to watch in pure Czech.

Still, a wonderful afternoon. I should have probably just stayed in what I was wearing for the evening and watched the puppet performance of Mistake as we waited for the main event at 7pm, but instead I ran back to the hotel (which meant, in practical terms, a 15 minute descent, as my hotel is just at the bottom of the hill on which the castle sits), a quick change, then a 15 minute ascent.

When I returned everything was much more crazy--the main courtyard of the cast was completely filled, and the ticket taker was incredulous that I wanted to see the show when I obviously didn't know enough Czech. A festival worker helped and found me my tickets--or rather, found me new tickets, because unbeknownst to me I had tickets waiting for me back in the hotel.  The unfortunate ramification of that mistake was that instead of sitting next to Havel I was sitting on the other side of the audience.

A scene from The Pig
The performance used a choir of 100 singers, but the main part of it involved an interview between "Vaclav Havel" and an "American" A very strange show, sort of fun to watch. It was based a Socratic dialogue Havel had written during the Communist years. The "American" occasionally spoke English, which was helpful for me (though I felt like I wanted to help them with English grammar) He was a smarmy MC type who obviously was being portrayed as being a bit clueless regarding whatever they were talking about onstage.

The Havel character looked nothing like Havel, but his speech patterns were exactly right, a very funny imitation.

As for everything else--I have no idea. It seemed political, and it was a huge spectacle, with bright costumes and lots of singing. Havel was constantly matched with one woman or other (a commentary on him?), there was a pig, the pig was slaughtered, then at the end Havel was sort of dressed as a pig...who knows. I am hoping Paul Wilson can explain more when I see him next.

The opera was Smetana's The Bartered Bride.

NOTE/UPDATE: Paul just explained that the original text was an anecdote in which Havel searched for a pig to roast for a celebration at his summer house, and ran into an ever mounting series of complications. He imagined explained these events to a (confused) American journalist. Everything else was the director's invention.

In the audience, I secretly fulfilled the role of the confused American.

The deluge
After the show, Havel spoke, and then the deluge--a sudden, huge thunderstorm that sent everyone into another corner of the castle grounds. Confusion reigned, and here my lack of spoken Czech really got in the way--I had no idea where to go and what I was supposed to do. Nobody near knew me or spoke English--and my English was met by much amusement (perhaps because of the clownish American in the show?) And my Czech was either too bad to be understood or the confusion made it difficult to communicate in the halting way I have.

I finally just followed a rush of people through the pouring rain, and we ended up wandering through the catacombs of the castle where the former prison used to be. But we had gone the wrong way, and though I was sort of enjoying the adventure in one sense, I have to say stuck in endless narrow corridors with a crowd I couldn't communicate with was activating my claustrophobia.

Party in the dungeon!
Finally, we ended up at a party, also in the dungeons. This was the "Bash" I had been invited to, but because of circumstances I think everyone who had lasted through the rain and could find their way had been invited by default as well. there was plenty of food and drink for all, but little lighting or space. I still had a hard time finding anyone, so it was a bit surreal.

Havel finally arrived and then a concert that had been rained out was moved inside as well. This was a bit crazy. The singer stood at one end of a the very long, very then main passageway, some people crowded in to see her, but it was much too packed and much too crowded for many people to get near.

I decided to give up for the night and go home--my jet lag made me exhausted, and I just couldn't last through the party/performance in that crowded space.

The rain had just let up, but there were no lights (the storm had knocked out all the power), so I made my way back to the hotel by walking through dark, slippery paths down from the castle...a bit unnerving. This morning there are downed trees everywhere, sort of glad I didn't get knocked in the head. But home safe and ready for more adventures this morning.