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ĎUnser Schillerí Ė Now Ours Too?

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By John Guthrie

It may seem that this has been a year for the celebration of German composers only. Händel, Mendelssohn and Haydn have had anniversaries and there has been an abundance of musical offerings and media attention. But this year also marks the 250th anniversary of Schillerís death. In his ĎEpilog zu Schillers Glockeí Goethe wrote ĎDenn er war unserí. His works became a lynchpin of German culture in the nineteenth century. A somewhat idealized view emerged that has now eroded, but his plays are still frequently performed on the German stage, if also often against the grain and with little sense of piety. German classical drama has had a slower transition to the British stage. The reputed seriousness of German drama and the monumentality of classical writers like Schiller has not always been the best recipe for box-office success. But the picture has been changing in recent decades. Part of the reason for this lies in the changing attitude to translation.
 
Early translations, for example, Coleridgeís translation of Schillerís Wallenstein, admirably poetic though it was, did not make it easy for the plays to be performed. A production of it was mounted in Oxford in 1911 but never returned to the stage. A production at the Barbican in 1993 based on Francis Lamportís careful translation (with cuts) met with more success. There are now numerous translations of Schillerís plays available, with Mary Stuart in four paperback editions in the lead. While literal and accurate translations of Schillerís works, especially his philosophical and prose works, are important, they are not always a basis for success in the theatre.
 
One difficulty is that Schillerís plays are generally long and intricately structured, with organic connections building up from scene to scene. They can be taxing. Cuts, compression, transpositions are necessary and if done skillfully this can help to enhance the message of his plays rather than pervert it. Foreign drama has greater success on the British stage when it is adapted rather than given straight. It depends for its success, moreover, on how well it pleases an audience and this involves, for the writer, adapting, acculturation, domestication, modernization. Translation means something else here. It is not the linguistically accurate rendition of the word or phrase but the transfer of the play as a whole into a different cultural environment.
 
Mike Poulton is a writer for the theatre whose adaptations of Schillerís plays have achieved considerable success. His version of Don Carlos was first performed at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in 2004, directed by Michael Grandage, and the production transferred with the same cast to the Gielgud Theatre, London in January 2005, subsequently winning an Oliver Award. His version of Mary Stuart was first performed at Clwyd Theatr Cymru on 7 May 2009, directed by Terry Hands. Poultonís adaptation of Schillerís Wallenstein, directed by Angus Jackson, was performed at the Chichester Festival this year and a new version of Schillerís early play Kabale und Liebe is to be directed by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010.
 
Poulton works from a literal translation of the plays and adapts. Typically, he compresses, discarding the embellishments and ornate features of Schillerís rhetoric, drastically shortening, sometimes capturing the essence of a long speech or scene in a few words. He transposes where he feels it necessary to concentrate and emphasize the swiftness of the action. He abbreviates and restructures. The massive Wallenstein trilogy, Schillerís masterpiece dealing with the Thirty Years War, is remodeled into a play that can be performed in a single evening, which in fact coincides with Schillerís intention.
 
Poulton simplifies and streamlines, often dispensing with the allusions to historical figures and events, making them more general and modernizing, as with references to Italians in Wallenstein. Above all, he employs a vibrant language which does not attempt to imitate the poetic qualities of Schillerís language. It is a language that does not jar with a contemporary British audience, ranging from the humorous and moderately coarse (reflecting the language of the soldiersí camp) to the rhythmic and heightened. It is a language that actors like. Poulton works closely with them, just as Schiller did with the first productions in Weimar, modifying, clarifying the script in rehearsal.
 
Although something of the complexity and beauty of the original may be lost, Poultonís versions manage to extract some of the most important themes of Schillerís plays: the complex interaction between morality and politics, the difficulty of moral choices, the oppressive effect of decisions made at the highest level, the conflict between ambition and search for peace. This is modernization and adaptation at its best and has helped to add meaning to Goetheís phrase: that he is ours (too) and that his works belong to ĎWeltliteraturí.
 
 
Mike Poultonís versions of Schillerís plays are published by Nick Hern Books (Don Carlos, Wallenstein) and Methuen (Mary Stuart).
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John Guthrie
teaches German language and literature in the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Schiller the Dramatist: A Study of Gesture in the Plays (Camden House, 2009).
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