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Cut the Cow, Cut the Queen: Problems of Cultural Translation

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 16-32 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0031

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Playwright Constance Congdon once remarked to me that she was pleased that her play Tales of the Lost Formicans had had a successful production in Egypt. When the censor came to call, almost everything was approved—even adultery and some very objectionable language—except an exchange between Cathy and Judy about cows: "You're not a cow." "I don't want to be a cow." "You don't have to be a cow." That little moment had to go, although Congdon had no idea why. Clearly, some cultural dissonance was operative.

By and large, when a new play is written and produced, the writer, the actors, and the members of the production team believe they understand the verbal and cultural codes by which their intended audience is informed, moved, and entertained, or offended or bored. When a play is produced elsewhere than its place of origin it is normally translated, sometimes linguistically (when the original language is not that of the new intended audience), but almost always culturally. The production mediates between the text and what Hans Robert Jauss calls the audience's "horizon of expectations." Or as director Peter Brook, whose Broadway production of Maurice Valency's adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit was a success in 1958, put it at the time, "all forms of theatre are related to specific social and cultural conditions." This assumption seems to have bestowed on Brook and on various other Broadway directors, producers, and adapters of the day almost total freedom to revise texts in order to recode productions.

This study undertakes a case history of one such recoding: the 1954 New York production of Jean Giraudoux's Ondine, adapted by Columbia professor Maurice Valency, produced by Roger L. Stevens for the Playwrights' Company, directed by Alfred Lunt, and starring Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer. It considers not only the verbal translation of the play from French to American English but also its transplantation from a semi-institutionalized Paris venue, Louis Jouvet's Théâtre Athénée, to a commercial Broadway house. Ondine is available for such a study because two rehearsal manuscripts of Valency's adaptation are included in his papers at Columbia University; three published versions also exist. In addition, the producer's records are held at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I was also able to interview a member of the original cast, Marian Seldes, who played Bertha, Ondine's rival for the love of the knight, Hans. It is not my intention to either condemn or defend the production of Ondine that reached Broadway on February 18, 1954, but rather to try to discover the circumstances, the assumptions, and the reasoning that guided the choices made by the producer, the director, and the adapter, and to speculate briefly about what was gained and what was lost in translation.

Jean Giraudoux, probably the greatest French playwright of the first half of the twentieth century, was allied with Louis Jouvet. Jouvet was one of Paris's most important and influential actor-directors, and his Théâtre Athénée was both "commercial," in that it sought to make a profit, and what adapter Maurice Valency called "an enduring organization." Jouvet was its producer, director, and star actor from 1935 to 1939 and from 1945 until his death in 1951. Ondine had been written as a vehicle by Giraudoux for Jouvet and his mistress and star, Madeleine-Ozeray, who specialized in tendres ingenues. It opened at the Théâtre Athénée on May 4, 1939, after months of preparation, to general enthusiasm from the public and the critics, ran until the end of June, and was unusually successful, so much so that Jouvet wired Giraudoux in New York to crow about the box-office receipts. Unfortunately, the successful run was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.

Ondine is what the French call a féerie, which implies not only a fairy tale but also a play that requires a spectacular and magical visual production. The plot concerns Ondine, a water spirit or, in Giraudoux's words, a water monster, who falls utterly and passionately in love with a human and chooses to become his wife. Unlike...

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