- Esmoreit and Lippijn: A New Translation for Performance of Two Plays from the Van Hulthem Manuscript
Esmoreit is one of four serious plays compiled, along with six farces, in the early fifteenth-century Van Hulthem manuscript under the designation abele spelen (“goodly plays”). Each of the four serious plays is paired with a suggested companion farce. The play itself is from the mid-fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest surviving examples of serious secular vernacular drama. Like the other three abele spelen, its chief concern is courtly love: in this case, the love between the King and Queen of Sicily, and that of their kidnapped son Esmoreit for his adoptive sister, the Saracen princess Damiet. Lippijn, in the meantime, subverts the emotional core and moral assurances—“pure hearts, those of virtue and faith, will wear crowns”—of its companion play. The courtly characters are replaced by unmannerly peasants, and the triumph of love over adversity is twisted into a sick sort of love-generated blindness on the part of a cuckolded husband.1 To see the two plays together is to watch a dialogue between one tale of courage and another of caution, in which good hearts—no matter whom they belong to—are elevated through the persistence of love and bad hearts are punished for their failures of virtue.
I had begun to think a new translation of Esmoreit and its companion farce Lippijn was in order even prior to Lofton Durham, founder of the Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival at Western Michigan University, contacting me to commission new translations of the two plays for the Festival’s inaugural year (and was, in fact, already working on a new translation of Lippijn for a different project). Excellent translations of both plays already exist—Elsa Strietman and Jane Oakshott’s 1986 Esmoreit, [End Page 364] Peter G. Beidler and Therese Decker’s 1989 Lippijn, and others—but none from after 2000, and none that fit Professor Durham’s vision for the production. We aimed to produce translations for performance rather than study, which would prioritize replicating the emotional resonance of the originals over exact translations of the text. We agreed on specific principles for the new translation: it was to render the language playable, such that it could be spoken with ease by twenty-first-century actors; to update or change idioms that would ring strange to or distract twenty-first-century ears; and to preserve and embrace all logical or narrative contradictions or inconsistencies (of which there are many) rather than attempting to smooth them over.
Theo Meder’s study of Esmoreit as a “de-magicked fairy tale”—specifically, Aarne-Thompson type 652, “the boy whose wishes always come true,” with a strong analogue in “The Carnation” —serves as a useful jumping-off point for translating the play in a way that preserves its emotional impact for a modern, English-speaking audience while still holding onto the textual and plot-driven idiosyncrasies that mark Esmoreit. The strong romantic themes; the villain’s hunger for wealth, power, and glory; and the fanciful, almost throwaway treatment of setting and narrative structure are all elements an audience would associate with a fairy tale. All that is missing is the fairies or any incorporation of magical or mystical elements, which Meder argues have been replaced by the religious differences between Sicily and Damascus. The fantastical religion practiced by the denizens of Damascus in Esmoreit is not even a coherent religion as much as it is a marker of a mysterious, faraway otherworld whose inhabitants are drawn away from it by the callings of their hearts.
To read the play as a fairy tale offers translator, director, and performer illumination on how the characters and dialogue ought to “feel.” Because we wanted Esmoreit to not feel overly ritualistic to a modern audience, we opted not to preserve the rhymed couplets of the original text; for Lippijn, we chose the opposite, noting how preserving the singsong feel of the text can heighten its comedic elements. The exaggerated, often comical insincerity of the villainous Robbrecht stands in stark contrast to the salvific suffering experienced by the Queen, Esmoreit’s mother. The...