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

Posted March 16th, 2012

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!

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