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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Translating EVERYMAN, or: Wait, What's the Original Written in, Latin?

As a production team, we had a great debate: is my work to be considered an adaptation, or a translation? Everyman, after all, is written in English and one, typically, does not translate a text into its own language. The English of Everyman, though, demanded revisiting as a modern stage would be inhospitable to the low-intensity sloppy semi-rhyming ramble to which the original text falls victim.

So, why not adapt? Adaptation requires imposition. It requires shifting and revision of character and story arc, or reexamining the essential form of the work and making a shadow play of it, a thing separated from the source by a chasm of light and darkness. My play m4m is a true adaptation—a tinkering with Measure for Measure that captures the original energy of the play and adapts it into a new form to convey the same sex-and-power-fueled tragedy. We were not interested in doing this with Everyman, as we agreed that the core of the work is valuable dramaturgically and aesthetically, and as such, should remain unchanged and unaltered. I am not a man of faith but a cultural record of the medieval man’s coping with the threat of death in a fideistic world is vital to our understanding of our pasts and therefore, ourselves.

We’re back to translation, then—but how to translate? The language is outdated and dull, so it needs to be torn down and rebuilt, but a subtle hand is required in the reconstruction to retain the structure, intent, and intrinsic energies of the original piece. The words are new, but the story must remain old.

God is big, the world is small—a piteous and saddening place sullied by mankind’s rebellion against his maker. So sayeth the medieval mindset that pushed Everyman into being, and how odd a work it is that almost finds joy in the sinfulness of the world so that salvation seems sweeter. The play revels in worldliness until the blood of penance is drawn, and in doing so, somehow, the work becomes darker. Light fades, strength fails, the dampness of the earth encroaches upward and draws us down. Death is not to be withstood but feared, and as we move closer to it, we find ourselves longing for a just and punishing God who will brutally beat the world back into harmony with his own desires. That God is good the work never questions; how terrible that goodness is—well, that’s another matter entirely.

Fear and angst are universal feelings but particular in expression, with language and experience forming each other in a shared striving toward meaning and truth. Everyman is a medieval text written in an early modern form of English and as such, an early modern English politic. Take, for example, the interaction between God and Death:
Go thou to Everyman,
And show him in my name
A pilgrimage he must on him take,
Which he in no wise may escape;
And that he bring with him a sure reckoning
Without delay or any tarrying.
Lord, I will in the world go run over all,
And cruelly outsearch both great and small;
Every man will I beset that liveth beastly
Out of God’s laws, and dreadeth not folly;
He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart,
His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart,
Except that alms be his good friend,
In hell for to dwell, world without end.
I delight in the risk of sounding anti-academic: dead language expresses dead thoughts, and if the work is to be vital, it needs to be revised. It is unfair to impose upon a 15th century text the concerns and fears of the 21st century; while they had our hearts, minds, guts, and groins, the language of expression—at least, artistic expression—was simpler for a simpler audience. We’re eternally evolving in thoughts and deeds, and as our fears have evolved, so must the language we use to convey them, which is what my translation strives toward:
Go to Everyman
and renew his fear of me
by placing him on an inescapable pilgrimage.
Bring him to his final reckoning, unhindered by his world.
My God: I will scour the world with cruel exactitude.
Great and small, every man that delights in living in beastly hovels beyond God’s law
without dread of folly, loving riches more than grace—
in their flesh will my sword sing its song of reckoning.
If he will not make his account clean,
he will be forsaken by heaven, live and die in hell, world without end.
We are no different from our medieval cousins and kindred in our lustful embrace of Death and the Deadly. The original text gives Death a measured and careful cadence that folds into the generally bland and inoffensive language-scape the entirety of the urtext employs. We, however, are on the other side of immeasurable cruelties, unconscionable devices of warfare, and death by phantom sexually transmitted viruses. Death has descended upon us like a shawl, has become comfortably omnipresent, and our new language must match. Death can no longer throw a dart—he must sink a sword singing reckoning into Everyman’s flesh. This, after all, actually pulls us closer to our medieval counterparts, for whom the threat of death by any number of easily preventable maladies was constant. Here is where we walk the line between translation and adaptation: death is constant, but the language used to engage with it over the past 500 years has changed quite a bit.
Heartbreak and loneliness are no different:
Whither away, Fellowship? Will you forsake me?
Yea, by my fay, to God I betake thee.
Farewell, good Fellowship; for this my heart is sore;
Adieu for ever, I shall see thee no more.
In faith, Everyman, farewell now at the end;
For you I will remember that parting is mourning.
Our approach to abandonment and desperation in modern theatre is far more active and confrontational now, with language demanding immediate change or response. The core of the original must remain—Fellowship must abandon Everyman, with perhaps a twinge of sadness, but the language has to become softer to drive the point home:
You have forsaken me.
Go to our Lord.
Goodbye, then, and know you’ve wounded me to my core.
We will not see each other again, you know this?
So be it, Everyman—farewell, then.
Rest knowing that when I think on you years hence—
I will remember that our parting was sad without the benefit of being sweet.
Know you will be mourned, at least.
Mourned at least, indeed—the most we can hope for, perhaps. The subtle shifts in syntax give actors actionable dialogue instead of melodramatic ruminations, but elsewhere, the opposite has a stronger effect. The simple and ordinary sometimes needs to be made more eccentric:
I know your sorrow well, Everyman;
Because with Knowledge ye come to me,
I will you comfort as well as I can,
And a precious jewel I will give thee,
Called penance, wise voider of adversity;
Therewith shall your body chastised be,
With abstinence and perseverance in God’s service:
Here shall you receive that scourge of me,
Which is penance strong, that ye must endure,
To remember thy Saviour was scourged for thee
With sharp scourges, and suffered it patiently;
So must thou, or thou scape that that painful pilgrimage…
This won’t do! Someone’s being scourged onstage, the language must bleed:
Your sorrow has the ring of sad authenticity, Everyman, and well I know it.
You come with Knowledge and the good intent she inspires, so here is a gift:
Penance, a precious jewel and little comfort, the painful obliteration of adversity.
Chastise your body and when it is pure, abstain: and so, persevere for your Lord.
The whip is sharp and strong, and you will scream under the arcing crack of its hymnal moan.
You will see blood rise in spurts as you let the tendrils cut deep into your flesh,
but then when you gasp you draw in God. Breathe easier with each lash,
for your body approaches pain as a sacrament.
Remember that we scourged our Savior, who suffered it for us.
And now, you: be Christ-like, and fully so—heaven detests a false wretch; prove yourself.
The original text delights in having Everyman flayed onstage in an attempt to bring him closer to his God, and lucky for us that the intervening centuries have given our culture new words and syntax to make lusty that interaction. The joy of penance approaches sexual ecstasy, and both ebb as quickly as they arose, leaving behind the faint glow of having undergone a great experience, and a great change. Such complexity was unknown on the medieval stage, whose primary concern was reinforcing the status quo through simple didactic rhetoric. Everyman is unique in the medieval cannon for allowing a character an arc: Everyman starts sinful and ends saved, but only for having changed thoroughly over the course of the play, and fittingly, I wanted to give the work sexual charge to fold into the status quo of the modern era. Theatre is the language of power in conversation with itself.

Indeed, we know what the play is and we know what modern theatre is, making translation not so much the search-and-replace function of linguistic substitution but rather, the conversion of source material into a new but familiar form. English isn’t English when we look back at it and it speaks the depths of our hearts in a foreign vernacular. It requires updating to convey its meaning, keep it vital, and satisfy the modern ear.
Everyman must die, but the text need not.

My translation, as well as the quotes in this article, used the edition of the original text available through the University of Fordham’s Internet History Sourcebook.  You can go see my translation of Everyman in Villanova Theatre's production November 11-24th.  For tickets, visit their website here.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Seth spills about the EVERYMAN set!

Every second-year graduate student in the Villanova Theatre MA program must complete an Orals Project, a capstone thesis within a chosen discipline.  Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall, set assistant and actor in the Villanova Theatre MA program, chose to combine two of his passions into a single project: acting and set design.  Below, Seth shares with us a little bit about his process in conceiving of this beautiful and challenging design, and how he designs through the lens of an actor.

*NOTE: In this post, we have chosen to include only build shots.  You'll have to come see the show to be wowed by the final product.  And trust us, you'll be wowed.

SETH:  In Everyman, I have been given the rare opportunity to act in a show for which I have designed the set.  Having worked with Father David Cregan in Salome, knowing his interest in physical theatre, I hoped to create a set that would challenge the actors physically. Approaching the design process where the script was a malleable object, I conceived of the design as a playground for the actors, giving the largest amount of choices for the director to play with while sticking as close to the dramaturgical needs of the script as possible.
SETH: My design for this production consists of three major scenic elements; a non-symmetrical cruciform runway, two non-symmetrical staircases, and a large sloped wall that ranges from 18 inches off the stage floor to the top of the upper platform.  The sloped wall is an obstacle that Everyman cannot climb. It acts as a wall and a road, an obstacle and an entrance.

SETH: As a son of two Episcopalian priests, my life has been filled with vacations to explore old Gothic and Nordic cathedrals. So when considering a way to have structure based in Medieval England, my mind was drawn to the remnants of an old cathedral floor.  The floor of a cathedral is a common place for a gravestone.  Every sunday, priests and lay people walk over bodies from the past, as if the gravestone were just another tile on the floor. This is a wonderful symbol of how Everyman walks by Death everyday without a care, and yet Death is always present. 

SETH: As an actor, I explore a role, challenging myself to find new ideas and make discoveries until opening night. What if I were to include in my actor exploration the mind of the scenic designer? As an actor, I will be there for the whole rehearsal process.  I’d like to investigate how I as set designer can fluidly adjust the design of the set, even after the fundamental structure has been rendered and created.  An actor has a script that cannot be changed.  The actor creates a role based upon the words of the playwright, but the character is much more than words. So too, my design has a basic structure; but how can what I learn as an actor in rehearsal - and what I learn from my fellow actors - influence changes in my design even after the foundation has been placed? 

SETH: My goal in the rehearsal process is not only to have the design fit my own needs as an actor, but to see how the set (as I live with it as an actor) can help create harmony with the entire cast. I plan on talking with my cast members, seeing how they feel, how they interpret the set, what they can create based on the ground plan given to them by me as designer and the blocking given by Fr. David.  Already, discoveries have been emerging.  One of my fellow cast members mentioned to Fr. David after a rehearsal, "It really seems like this set isn't just a playground for us.  It is our obstacle, as well."  Play on, friends!


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Victoria Talks Turkey

Victoria (bottom center) pictured with past Brian Morgan award recipients
A GIANT congratulations to Victoria Rose Bonito, who was awarded the Brian Morgan Award this past Saturday.  The Brian Morgan Award, which honors a second year actor who displays talent, work ethic, and a playful and generous spirit, could not have gone to a more deserving candidate!  

On their path to graduation, all Villanova Theatre second-year students complete an Orals project, basically a Master's thesis, in a chosen area that they have studied over the past two years. Options range from academic to artistic and have taken on many forms over the years. Victoria, currently playing Maggie in Villanova Theatre's Red Herring, is using her role in the fast-paced, period comedy to apply to her Orals project in Acting. Victoria speaks about the process, obstacles and rewards involved in readying Maggie for the stage every evening.


From day one of the rehearsal process, Red Herring has been something special.  After reading the play over the summer, Maggie jumped out at me as a role I would adore exploring, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to take on as my Acting Oral as well.  Aside from the very clear dialect challenge--Boston sits in a much more "difficult" place for me vocally than, say, the American South or the British Isles--Maggie is not just what she seems on the surface.  She has muscle and is a more aggressive role than I have played in the recent past; being a female cop in a man's world, she must be tough to hold her position toward the top of her field.  This attitude strangely helped me with the dialect, and vice versa, as the vocal quality and sound is a bit more forceful and no nonsense.  I love her for her edge...and simultaneously, her heart.  At the very first rehearsal, Michael said that in writing this play he wanted to "create as much craziness and bury as much truth as possible" in the piece.  This give and take of energy has been (and still continues to be!) the most exhilarating part of the process for me.

The style and rhythm of this play is also exciting and a tad intimidating.  But it all came together with that first audience.  The fast-paced, cinematic style that Michael has crafted his world in leaves little time to think--only time to do.  For an actor, this is both core-shattering and incredibly freeing.  While I still study my scene change list EVERY night, I also find myself in GO mode throughout each run; when I am conscious of and tuned in to what Maggie is doing, I find that I am more specific, nuanced, and on point as an actor.  There is little time to consider feeling--you just do it!  The noir vibe also came to life once the audience embraced it (which they do quite early).  At first, the takes out to the audience and the epic clinchers ("I think it's time to sharpen my harpoon") felt a bit unnatural.  Not out of place in the world of the play, just a tad zanier than one would expect of a largely "realistic" character.  The height of storytelling that these moments allow, however, is astounding.  Finding this rhythm was essential and now continues to be endless fun.

Most of all, I love how Maggie anchors the play in a very real way.  It takes a good bit of sanity to enter into the final scene and ask "will you marry me" while there are guns drawn, people hanging off docks, and general mayhem ensuing.  This is the brilliance of Michael's writing, the beauty of Harriet's directing, and the fun for me--this story is real in so many ways.  Love is not the most straight-forward thing to begin why make a "normal" story about it?  I am having a blast both in the run of this production and in investigating it more deeply for my Acting Oral.  Thus far it has proven satisfying artistically, emotionally, and intellectually, and has led to some fabulous conversations at home in my own marriage.  Here's further proof that art imitates life and life often imitates art.  This sure will be a difficult one to close!