or THE MONA LISA, improved by David Hare
Oscar, in his slightly florid way, called translation the art of pouring from the golden chalice into the silver, meaning that however wonderful the work there would be an inevitable loss of quality. As a mono-lingual Englishman I can only imagine how difficult or impossible it must be to translate Shakespeare …
The best translator of modern times was perhaps Michael Meyer, of Ibsen. Meyer cut, especially from the first act, took occasional liberties (else A Doll’s House would have a character called Dr Hank) but emphasised always that his attempt was to create an English version, as true as possible to the original, with characters talking and behaving as they would have in the 1890s.
Meyer loved Ibsen. Ibsen remained the star of the show, with the translator his humble servant.
Then there are adaptations. This is when a text is used as the basis for what is essentially a new play. A successful example of this is The Blue Room by David Hare. In 1897 Arthur Schnitzler wrote a series of humorous, light hearted scenes, all with the theme of seduction and sex, and published them three years later under the title La Ronde. Probably because of the subject matter, and possibly the simplicity of casting, the play became successful, infamous and was banned, adapted and talked about. Two films have been made.
Schnitzler himself would have readily admitted that the piece had no particular literary merit. It was this that The Blue Room was based on. Hare retained the shape of the original; the nature of the scenes and the length but everything else is new – the names of the characters and the dialogue, and the play is set in modern times.
It makes for an extremely entertaining and mildly erotic evening. No-one, David Hare (I assume) included, mistakes it for a great work or something that pushes the boundaries of dramatic experience. He is entitled to claim the work as his own as he contributed originality. All writers get their ideas from somewhere. I can’t believe Schnitzler would be offended in the slightest, on the contrary.
What Hare hadn’t done was modify The Mona Lisa.
The Seagull by David Hare
Leonardo, or anyone who loved art, might not be so happy had he done so.
Now Hare has adapted The Seagull. Not translated – he can’t speak Russian – but adapted.
I, along with many others, feel that the writing of The Drama peaked with Chekhov. The Seagull is a great work, contemporary and relevant, not a light-hearted piece of soft porn.
In the same way that I wouldn’t want a cocky art student to scrawl a moustache on one of Giotto’s frescos, I am uneasy that David Hare wants to muck about with the work of a genius.
In the press release by The National the “play within the play” that Konstantin has written – performed in Act 1 – is referred to as an example of “cutting edge drama” which “changes the lives of all that see it”.
Of the play that Chekhov wrote, this is wrong. It is outside the limits of legitimate interpretation.
The “play within the play” exists so Chekhov can gather all his characters together in the same place in Act 1. Konstantin’s writing is represented by Chekhov as juvenile and of no consequence. Its content changes the lives of no-one.
If, in this version, Konstantin’s play is “cutting edge” and if it “changes the lives of all who see it” then what is being presented may be a good play but it is not The Seagull and is not by Chekhov.
It is misrepresentation (worse than plagiarism) to say so.
As things stand – this is absolutely key, for me - someone could pull off a bookshelf The Seagull by Anton Chekhov (today, next month, in ten or fifty years) and read a play that is not The Seagull.
I hope it’s clear why this is wrong.
In a free world and with no new ideas of his own Hare is entitled to utilise the shape, structure, characters and themes of another man’s work to create a new piece, and, if he can, to persuade theatres to produce the result. But, as with La Ronde, he needs a new title.
Now, and in the future, it will then be a simple exercise to judge to what extent a pygmy was standing on the shoulders of a giant.