Thursday, March 02, 2017

Ain't It The Truth?

I finally got around to reading John Lahr's Notes On A Cowardly Lion, first published in 1969. It's a biography of his father, the great clown Bert Lahr.  He had a long and varied career, though most of his best performances were on stage--his work in movies and TV was minor. In fact, if he hadn't appeared in The Wizard Of Oz, he'd probably be forgotten today.

One thing I didn't know was he took part in a theatrical experiment in 1966, when Ypsilanti (just down the street from Ann Arbor) attempted to revive ancient Greek theatre in a baseball park.  The enterprise was economically doomed, lasting four months.  But I recall hearing about it when I took a class in Greek tragedy at the University of Michigan.

Bert starred in Aristophanes' The Birds and got embroiled in a controversy.  He wanted to add certain shtick to the show, and modernize some of the lines--even ad libbing--whereas the director insisted he stick to the William Arrowsmith translation (which was not the translation he thought he'd be acting in).

Critics and academics, watching the experiment from afar, wrote about whether he had the right to do this.  Some intellectuals, like poet (and translator himself) John Ciardi, wrote that Lahr should follow the original lines, while others thought his clowning was part of a tradition.

I'm with the latter camp.  Perhaps classics written in English shouldn't be messed with (though even there, who knows--and even if Shakespeare's lines aren't changed, they can be pared down), but old work in another language needs to be translated, so why not translate it for a modern audience?

Especially Greek comedy, so obscure, and so different from comedy today. (Roman comedy we understand better.  And Greek tragedy.)  First, of course, any comedy loses a lot in translation.  Second, Aristophanes often makes timely, local references which modern audiences wouldn't understand.  Third, his style of writing, even when well-translated, doesn't necessarily play as it once did.  I like to think Aristophanes would accept changes to his work, as long as they follow the intention of what he wrote.  Aristophanes' work may have been many things to his contemporaries, but it wasn't stiff, so why should it sound like that in modern times?

By the way, it was intriguing to see the name William Arrowsmith.  Whenever our class was about to read one of his translations (he was well known for his work on Euripides), the professor would remind us that Arrowsmith was a lousy translator, forcing his interpretation of the play on the unsuspecting reader.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who was the professor? Arrowsmith's son, daughter or ex wife?

10:26 AM, March 02, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Professor T.V. Buttrey, who is still around. He could be an iconoclast, but was probably the best teacher I had at Michigan.

He's got an entry in Wikipedia, if you want to know more.

11:09 AM, March 02, 2017  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gold bars! Sounds great.

4:41 PM, March 02, 2017  

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