The Play About The Nose: An Interview With Michael Hollinger About His New Translation Of Cyrano

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Michael Hollinger is one of Philly’s most successful playwrights. He has premiered seven plays at the Arden Theatre Company including Opus, Ghost-Writer, and Tooth and Claw. For his latest project, he has turned to translating a classic, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac, and adapting it (along with director Aaron Posner) for modern audiences and a leaner cast-size. Cyrano is currently running at the Arden Theatre through April 15. It premiered in 2011 at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC, and was recently honored with seven Helen Hayes Award nominations (DC-area Barrymores), including Outstanding Resident Play, Outstanding New Play, and Outstanding Direction of a Play. Just the other day I corresponded with Michael to ask about his approach to Cyrano, and to get a better understanding of the challenges of translating plays.

Live Arts: Why another translation of Cyrano? What has been missing?

Edmond Rostand, author of the original Cyrano.

Michael Hollinger: When I began this project, at Aaron Posner’s invitation, I didn’t think anything was missing in terms of previous English-language translations of the play. The two biggies—Brian Hooker’s prose version and Anthony Burgess’s rather ornate version in rhymed couplets—have held up well, and are frequently done. But when I read the play in French, I started to feel that Hooker’s prose version was, well, a little prosaic, and that Burgess’s rhymed version had over-embellished the play, focusing on its poetry at the expense of immediacy and actor-friendliness. Aaron’s initial impulse—a small-cast version, inspired I suppose from his many small-cast Shakespeare productions, which I have loved—suggested a conscious theatricality (with lots of doubling, direct address, and other devices) that differs from the original play; it also suggested to me that the language should be very immediate, rhythmic, and lively, and that its poeticism should feel more like slam poetry, with more interplay of sounds within and between lines than end rhymes, than the predictability of the 17th-century verse plays Rostand was emulating.

The small-cast perspective led to certain structural and plot changes, but these also arose out of the fact that dramatic conventions have changed in the past 115 years, and audiences don’t perceive the same things the same way. Certain devices that seemed utterly implausible to me were modified; things that it was clear Rostand wanted to provoke laughter were altered in order to make the humor work for a 21st-century audience.

LA: What was your first exposure to Cyrano? How did you connect to it, and how has that changed now that you’ve done this translation/show?

Literature's most famous proboscis. Eric Hissom plays Cyrano in the Arden production.

MH: I saw a production as a kid at the York Little Theatre in York, PA, where I saw and participated in many shows with my parents. I don’t recall a great deal about it. (I was much more impacted by the Depardieu film from the early 1990s, which holds up extremely well.) However, I was certainly taken with the idea of a sideways or covert courtship through art: a few years later, when I was in eighth grade, I had a massive crush on a violinist in the youth orchestra in which I played viola, and so I started writing  violin/viola duets so we could stay after rehearsals and practice them. We became great friends, but not romantic partners, which says something about the sideways courtship.

In working on this translation I’ve been very conscious of the big themes of the play: the contrast between artifice and truth, between external and internal beauty. The play puts a premium on true expression and its title character decries mere formality of expression—though he’s not above constructing an intricately-rhymed poem while sword fighting—in favor of letting the heart or soul speak directly.

LA: What are some of the basic challenges of literary translation?

MH: To translate a technical manual, you need to strive to capture meaning with clarity. To translate literary prose, you need to strive to capture both meaning and the voice of the author. To translate a play, you need to capture meaning as well as the voices of every single character, and, as every playwright knows, in a good play every character speaks a little differently, based on age, ethnicity, regionalism, education, etc.

Our interview continues after the jump!

LA: What challenges are particular to Cyrano?

MH: For me, the challenge was to create a sliding scale of poetry in the play, which was one of the biggest reasons to reject the rhymed couplets. I wanted to control the degree of each character’s poeticism, not to paint poeticism over the entire play through a powerful device like consistent end rhyme. So gauging precisely how and when poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, consonance and internal rhyme—even end rhyme here or there—might be used was tricky at times, as well as when to allow the poetic imagery to get a little denser and more, shall we say, fragrant.

LA: In translation you learn so much about the original work that no one else, save other translators, knows. Not just from understanding the original language, but by laboring over each line you develop an almost secret knowledge. How do you step back from that knowledge to make the text accessible, but also give it the depth to be interpretable? How do you make word choice interpretable when so few words between languages have the exact same meaning?

MH: The word choice question is the perennial challenge of all translation, of course. The very impossibility of a literal translation that ALSO captures the spirit of the original is what leads the translator—this translator, anyway—to the conclusion that every translation requires sacrificing one or more values in order to realize others. For example, you might manage to capture all the meaning of a line, but lose the brevity of the original. Or you might make the rhyme work, but the rhyming words are not both nouns. Or the central image is correct, but it has no meaning to the culture or time period you’re translating for.

I’m not a French scholar, I’m a playwright. So, even using a well-annotated French text to translate from, I’m certain I’ve missed many nuances buried in the original text. But 21st-century American audiences don’t have a deep connection to, say, the plays of Racine and Corneille, to the French aristocracy or differences between Gascons and northern French. It was important to me that the play speak to us, here and now, and therefore I made myself the litmus test of what would be accessible, immediate, funny, poignant, and so on.

Michael Hollinger with his son Benjamin (in 2008), proving that writers are not just shut-ins. Michael is married to Megan Bellwoar, and they also have a daughter, Willa.

LA: How long a period of time did you have to do this translation, and did you have a routine? Where’d you work on it?

MH: It took me much longer than I expected, though I didn’t track my hours. I will say that the first draft was due to the Folger Theatre, where it premiered in April of last year, in November, 2010, and I only managed to complete the first of five acts by that time. Happily, I was on sabbatical [from Villanova University] in the spring semester of 2011, and worked like a dog to complete the first draft, which I delivered only about two weeks before rehearsals were to begin in Washington, DC. I worked at home, at my dining room table, with the French play, a good French dictionary, my thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, notebook and pen, laptop, and five or six other English translations handy in case I needed to see how others solved a particularly knotty passage. As time went on, I came to turn to these less and less often, trusting my own instincts more and more.

On a related note, it was a great relief to work intensively on a play and not be in doubt about the story or characters, to focus on the shaping of that story and those characters, and primarily the particular expression, word-by-word and line-by-line.  The kind of gnawing doubt about plot that always accompanies the writing of a new play just wasn’t there with the translation/adaptation: I knew the story was a good one to begin with.  In some ways, the most confronting thing about doing the project was telling people and having them say, “Oh, CYRANO’s my favorite play of all time.”  No pressure.

LA: Clearly someone who writes in meter, as you have done for this translation, has to have found a joy in both the effects and the technique of doing so. What work or author first captured your appreciation of meter?

MH: Probably Moliere. When artfully translated, his plays really lift off the ground. But the first playwright who jazzed me in terms of rhythm was David Mamet, whose work (American Buffalo) I encountered in acting class at Oberlin College. Very musical, and very attentive to the messiness and color of ordinary speech. Mamet insists he writes in iambic pentameter, but I’ve not been convinced of this.

LA: Did you change much to the text during the rehearsal period? Did you feel more or less protective of the text than with your own plays?

MH: Yes, lots changed. I always revise heavily. My guess is that less changed for the Arden production than for the Folger premiere, but these changes were significant.

I don’t consider myself highly protective for either—which is to say, I’m not precious about anything. If I believe something is important, I can be stubborn about it; but if it’s evident that something’s not working the way it is, I’m the first person to let go of it. Some of my favorite scenes—and songs, in the case of musicals—have been cut in service to the whole, which is as it should be. No tears.

LA: What’s next for Michael Hollinger?

MH: I just had a reading at Philadelphia Theatre Company of a new play called Hope And Gravity, which is actually a collection of nine interwoven short plays. Think All In The Timing or Almost, Maine meets Short Cuts or Crash. A very fun challenge to try and create nine stories whose characters connect with apparent randomness, but which ultimately accrue to achieve the same kind of impact we seek in writing full-length plays.

And I’m working on a film adaptation of my play Opus, which is also way beyond deadline, though I am committed to completing this by late spring. There’s a line of plays to be written behind these, which makes me very happy.

LA: Thanks again Michael and good luck with the show!

Cyrano by Edmond Rostand; translated and adapted by Michael Hollinger; directed and adapted by Aaron Posner; with David Bardeen, Jessica Cummings, Scott Greer, Doug Hara, Eric Hissom, Justin Jain, Benjamin Lloyd, Keith Randolph Smith, Luigi Sottile. At the Arden Theatre (www.ardentheatre.org), 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. Through April 15th, 2012.

–Josh McIlvain

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