Vernaculars Abroad: The Travelling Theatre of Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage

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1 Sherry Simon Vernaculars Abroad: The Travelling Theatre of Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage An apparent paradox is associated with global connectedness. On one hand, globalization promotes homogenization and the spread of international cultural commonplace; on the other, it stimulates new local cultural forms. In many ways, writes Frederick Buell, recent globalization has accelerated the "process of differential cultural invention that the era of nationalism commenced." As the world "draws more tightly together into a single system, it multiplies its circulation of differences" (Buell 1994:137). This essay examines changing practices of translation within this double dynamic. While globalization threatens national cultures, promoting forms of exchange that defy the kinds of control and protectionism which nations have traditionally exercised, the circulation of transnational forms and ideas also stimulates, according to Buell, the renewed emergence of "local primordia" and "conventions of national authenticity." Translation plays a significant role in this process (137). The nation has been an essential frame through which culture has circulated around the world (writers are defined as representatives of national culture, books are written in national languages, plays are produced by national theatre companies), yet an increasing proportion of contemporary art forms is at odds with these conventional delimitations, introducing categories of affiliation which cross and confound national lines. Writing emerges as much out of exile, migration, diasporic tensions, and confused cultural belongings (to race, to class, to gender) as it does out of any national framework. The reality of the nation and its traditional links with culture and language are also being challenged through the effects of economic and political globalization. Current shifts in the traditional solidarity among culture, nation, language, and identity will result in changes to the mission and the modalities of translation.

2 The examples I would like to consider here are those of two Quebec playwrights, Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage, whose writing strategies configure in radically different ways the link between language and a bounded national culture-and thus call for different modes of translation. The plays of both Tremblay and Lepage travel widely across the globe. They do so, however, with the aid of quite different vehicles of communication. Neither of these corresponds entirely to conventional modes of translation. Tremblay's plays are transplanted from one vernacular to another, within the framework of emergent national cultures. Quebec and Scotland are figured, within this horizontal exchange, as carrying similar vectors of oppositional culture. Lepage's plays, on the other hand, circulate across national boundaries according to a logic which bypasses traditional translation strategies. Multilingual and transnational productions, these plays are subject to a process of internal translation which allows for more fluid and ambiguous modes of cultural travel. In what follows, I will use Tremblay and Lepage as figures that are emblematic of significant forces driving the circulation of cultural products across the globe today. I use the fact of their common QuCbCcois identity to stress the different ways in which their work travels the world. Both Tremblay and Lepage have significant international reputations and are known as representatives of Quebec culture. Yet few cultural figures could be as dissimilar. Tremblay's plays became instantly celebrated in the late 1960s because they dared to bring onto the stage the language spoken by MontrCal working-class families, the d joual of Montreal's east end and Plateau Mont-Royal. His best-known play remains Les Belles-soeurs (1968), but he has written numerous plays since, as well as several nov- - els. Despite the very obvious difficulties of translating what is clearly a very "local" lan- 28 guage, his plays have met with international success. Although they were first translated into English, a notoriously flat and unmarked English in fact, they have now been translated more daringly, and often spectacularly successfully, into what might be considered more controversial idioms like Yiddish and the Glaswegian version of contemporary Scots. Robert Lepage is an international star today, and his productions are seen on the stages of Tokyo, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. He is astonishingly prolific and popular, his most recent production, fie Seven Streams of the River Ota, an eighthour performance, having been shown in most of the world's capitals. Other productions include Circulations, with le Theitre Repkre (1984); The Dragon Wlogy (its first version presented in 1985); the solo show Vinci (1986); Polygraph and Tectonic Plates (1988); and another solo show, Needles and Opium (1993). He has directed several celebrated mises en sche, notably A Midsummer Night's Dream (1992), various operas and Peter Gabriel shows, and two films, fie Confessional and fie Polygraph.

3 Tremblay Transplanted The translations of Tremblay's plays into the Glaswegian Scots dialect been particularly successful. "Odd though it may seem," writes translator William Findlay, "the most popular contemporary playwright in Scotland over the past few years-judged in terms of frequency of productions-has not been a Scot but a Quebecer. In the four years from 1989 to 1992 there will have been four Scottish productions of Scots translations of plays by Michel Tremblay, as well as a revival of one of these shows" (Findlay 1995:149). These plays are The Guid Sisters (Les Belles-soeurs), The Real Wurld? (Le urai rnonde7), Hosanna, and The House Among the Stars (La maison suspendue). The effectiveness of these translations arises, in large part, out of the political, cultural, and linguistic similarities between contemporary Scotland and Quebec. The translators were able to use their cultural knowledge to create the links between both the historical and the contemporary realities of Scotland and Quebec, and to play up to those affinities in the materialization of the translation. In Scottish, Tremblay's plays have found a new idiom which has many of the same valences, much of the same transgressive power, as the Quebecois in which it was written. Tremblay's work is transported, replanted, re-naturalized within the Scottish setting. The translators explain their work as follows: We felt that by using Scots as our medium of translation we could get closer in letter and in spirit to Tremblay's Quebecois, and his exploitation of different registers of it, than could prove possible using English. We were aware that some critics had expressed dissatisfaction with English language translations of Tremblay's plays, not because of the competence of the translation but because Standard English lacked the qualities needed to convey fully Tremblay's genius in Qukbkcois. (Findlay 1995:153) What are the qualities that modern Glaswegian provides? It is an idiom that is as "declasse as joual, associated with an urban underclass suffering from anglophone cultural imperialism, a vernacular that can be contrasted with the standard version of the language, that can convey archaisms and diverse language varieties, that has rich resources to convey anger and blasphemy. Glaswegian, like joual, gestures towards a "national" community which has not as yet been given the form of a sovereign political state. One example of the resources of Glaswegian Scots lies in the possibilities of underlining the distances in social register. In the Standard English version of the play, the exchange between the pretentious and ambitious Lisette de Courval and the earthy Rose Ouimet goes like this: LISE'ITE: Well, if you ask me, there's no substitute for authentic, genuine fur. Incidentally, I'll be getting a new stole in the autumn. The one I have now is three years old and it's starting to look.... Well, a bit ratty. Mind you, it's still mink, but.... ROSE: Shut your mouth, you bloody liar! We know goddamn well your husband's up to his ass in debt because of your mink stoles and trips to Europe! She's got no more money than the rest of us and she thinks her farts smell like perfume! (Tremblay [l :41)

4 In the Scottish version, the exchange is rendered this way: LISETTE: As far as I'm concerned there'll never be a substitute for real fur. By the by, did I tell you I'll be getting a new stole come the autumn? The one I have just now is three years old and it's starting to look... well, just a wee bit tired. Mind you, it's still quite presentable, but.... ROSE: Shut yir gab, ya bloody leear ye! We know damn fin yir man's up tae his erse in debt acause ae your mink stols an yir fancy trips tae Europe. Ye cannae take us in wi aw that shite aboot bein weel-aff. Ye've nae mair money nor the rest ae us. Christ, ah've had it up tae here wi that slaverin bitch bummin her load. (Tremblay [l :44-45) Bowman and Findlay do not adapt the cultural aspects of the Tremblay plays that they have translated, The Guid Sisters, Hosanna, The Real Wurld? and The House Under the Stars; their method is to keep the names and places of the Quebec play. This makes for a very effective combination of familiarity and distancing, an effect that unbalances and disorients the spectator. The plays translated into Scots have travelled outside Scotland and England, achieving critical success in English Canada and the United States. This translation of one minority dialect into another has proved not only culturally appropriate but theatrically effective. That Michel's Tremblay's plays have been translated into a wide variety of languages is a -I measure of the playwright's powerful themes and popularity. Perhaps the most interest- % ing of these versions, in addition to the Scots plays, is the translation of Les Belles-soeurs into Yiddish. Like Glaswegian and joual, Yiddish has a long heritage of cultural marginal- P ization and contempt. The Yiddish version was presented to Montreal audiences in 1990, 30 and carried a particularly strong message in a city where there has been an especially deep-seated institution of Yiddish theatre (Lame 1996) and where the Jewish minority has traditionally been aligned with the English-speaking population-in a political context of increased nationalism on the part of the majority Francophone population. This cross-over from "d6class6" French into "dcclasse" Yiddish emphasized the mutual alienation of both of these groups from English-speaking culture and pointed to a potential common cultural space. The first sentences of the play, in which joual and Yiddish mingled, evoked a strangely dissonant world, defining this common cultural space as largely fictional. Few places could exist where these languages might have mixed in the past (some Jewish shopkeepers would have mastered these two vernaculars) and even fewer where they would actually live together today. Yiddish is increasingly a language of nostalgia for contemporary Jews. While Findlay refers to the "instructive and potentially inspiring" role of Tremblay's theatre in Scots, and to the future which these translations suggest, the Yiddish translation points to a history of non-contact, the space of missed opportunities, a realm of impossibility (1995:153).* The contrast between the impossible socio-demographic insertion of the Yiddish version of the play and the effectiveness of the Scots versions underlines the importance of the historical and political framework in which these latter translations were undertaken. Findlay uses a language very similar to that of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theorists of translation, like Madame de Stael, when

5 he speaks of the revitalizing functions of translation. The Romantics defined translation as an essential means for national cultures experiencing periods of literary stagnation to find new sources of strength (e.g., see Berman 1983). Findlay finds in Tremblay's work not only many of the qualities "found wanting in contemporary Scots theatre" (1995:153) but an opportunity to "stretch" the Scots language in order to develop more ambitious imaginative expression. In Scottish translation, according to Findlay, Tremblay's work "suggests new ways in which Scots can be used for original work by dramatists" (1995:152). Findlay notes "with special admiration, too, how Tremblay's unapologetic commitment to Quebecois, and to the specificity of Quebec experience, has proved no barrier to international appreciation of his plays and to the international stature that he now enjop" (1995:152). The transfer of Michel Tremblay into Scots provides a strong example of the way in which translation continues to function as a vector of national specificity. Whether his plays speak Quebecois or Scots, their voice belongs to a "national" language. Lepage Transnationalized Lepage's plays are not at all "transferred" into any new context. His work is multilingual and therefore carries translation within it, the play appearing here and there- Toronto, Stockholm, Tokyo, or New York-in the same form, and yet received and interpreted differently by each national audience. -1 Lepage's work is different from Tremblay's in many ways. Tremblay's work is intensely 5 P text-based, and, like the work of many Quebec playwrights, is primarily a play of - language, in terms of both the specificity of language register and the sheer 31 abundance of words. Language itself is one of the main characters in any of Tremblay's plays. Lepage's work, on the other hand, is intensely visual. And, like another newer, and in some ways atypical, strain of Quebec theatre, to which such multimedia productions as Gilles Maheu's Carbone 14 belong, this work relies much less heavily on language and instead integrates objects, gesture, dance, music, video. All of these elements combine with language to create the overall effect. The performances are based on a principle of collective improvization ("Lepage" refers not only to the individual, who is the metteur en sche, but to the companies with which he works-first le ThePtre Repere, now the Thekre Ex Machina). There is no fured written text available to the critic. The themes of the plays, though concerned with identity, as are Tremblay's, are situated within a transnational frame; transnationalism is not only the mode of existence for his work but its theme. His plays always involve some sort of dialectic between Quebec identity and other identities, a broad theme that allows for a conversation to go on about Quebec and its relation to otherness. Lepage's plots, especially in the two plays of specific interest here, are interactions; they involve the encounter between different identities as they move through space and time. While Tremblay's plays highlight the conflicts within the Qutbecois community, Lepage's use Quebecois identity as one element among many in an ongoing conversation among cultural groups.

6 While many of Lepage's plays deal with themes of identity and language, a particularly fascinating foregrounding of language and translation is found in The Dragon Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota. What is significant for us here is the way that Lepage uses languages as a factor of multiplicity rather than as an indicator of identity. Trilogy is a six-hour performance that explores the meaning of "Chinese" through seventy-five years of the social history of Quebec and Canada, moving from Quebec City to Toronto to Vancouver. The play begins in a parking lot in Quebec City, in a sandy space which is all that is left-on the surface-of Chinatown. It opens with the phrase "I have never been to China," spoken in three languages: English, French, and Chinese. The play transports us across Canada from east to west, then on to the Orient, in three movements which correspond to three eras, three spaces, three colours, three rhythms. This magnificent and absolutely epoch-making production transforms the movements of a Chinese family in Canada into an exploration of the interlinking stories of East and West, through a study of individual and social histories. The first part of the play revolves around themes of death and memory and visible signs of Chinese-ness such as laundry, opium, and the rituals of girlhood through which Jeanne and Fran~oise pass. The second part, which takes place in Toronto, describes a complex web of families, evoking at the same time the political and social movements of the 1950s-women's limited work, missionary activity in China, cancer, and the tenth anniversary of Hiroshima on 6 August The third part moves to a Vancouver, to contemporaneity: airplanes replace the train; light and luminosity dom- 2 inate the scene. From Vancouver, the play heads to Hong Kong. The main element in - P this segment is the encounter between Pierre and Youkali, between Western and East- 32 ern art traditions. In the hesitant, tender, and difficult dialogue between the two young artists (difficult emotionally but also linguistically, as neither has "mastered"' the English language) is the suggestion of an opening out into worlds that are new for both of them. The Dragon Trilogy is spoken in about two-thirds French and one-third English, with bits in Chinese as well as in English with a heavy Chinese accent. In many places, including Montreal and London, England, it was presented with no translation at all. The audience was expected to understand, or to recognize, as much of the language as was necessary. As Lepage explains, What I like to do is use words as music. People's talk becomes music and what they do are the real verbs, the real actions, the real phrases. The meaning of the show has to be what's up front. And the way we get there is by the different languages, to treat them as objects. I have an idea. I say it in a language that people don't understand so they're interested to know what it's all about. I say it again, but in another language they don't understand. But they understand a little more of it. They start to build up the show with me. It's very active. It's like saying the same thing over and over again, but with different images. People associate words and senses and objects and imagery. (qtd. in Hunt 1989:112)

7 In The River Ota, an eight-hour production, English is the dominant language, but several important scenes are spoken mainly in French. Surtitles were used for translation; in New York, the French sections were translated into English while, in Montreal, the English sections were translated into French. However, the translation was not consistent. Many passages in both languages were left untranslated. Like The Dragon Trilogy, The River Ota is extremely difficult to summarize. It should also be emphasized that all of Lepage's plays, especially The River Ota, move through different versions as they travel from one city to another. The performance I saw in New York in December 1996 was quite different (and much less satisfying) than the performance I saw in Montreal in June The play moves between a number of cities: Hiroshima, Amsterdam, New York, Osaka, and Terezin, the site of the concentration camp. It begins with a variation on the Madame Butterfly theme, the visit of Luke O'Connor, an American GI, to the home of Nozomi Yamashita, a victim of the atomic blast. O'Connor has come to photograph the destruction left by the bombing of the city. O'Connor makes love to Nozomi, then disappears, not knowing he has fathered an infant. Jeffrey, the son of O'Connor and Nozomi, travels to New York to study music and becomes a part of the beat culture of the 1960s. He will live close to his father without ever confronting him with his existence. He becomes a jazz musician and marries Hanako, an interpreter. The other episodes in the play are as follows: the ritualized suicide of Jeffrey O'Connor in Amsterdam, in the presence of his friends; the evocation by survivor Jana Capek of her -I memories of Terezin; the presentation of a Feydeau play in Osaka, 1970, as the Canadian contribution to the World's Fair; an interview with Jana Capek in which she 5 P - explains why she has come to live in a Zen monastery in Hiroshima; and the visit of Pierre Maltais, who is studying Butoh dance, to the home of Hanako O'Connor, also 33 in Hiroshima. Particularly noteworthy in The River Ota is the foregrounding of the translation itself. That this play should put emphasis on the scene of translation is totally coherent with the logic of its structure and its mode of travel. Lepage's plays are mobile because the very logic of travel and mixed codes is at work within them. They remind us of Derrida's question: Can you "translate" a language which is already mixed, a text which involves elements from different languages? Is the transfer of this text from one place to another to be called "translation" (Derrida 1983)? Hanako is one of the main characters in the play. In the final version, she is the first character to appear and almost the last to leave the stage at the end. She is blind, having witnessed the "end of the worldn-the bombing of Hiroshima-and becomes an interpreter. She is the central character in one of the funniest, but also most tragic, scenes of the play. Sophie Maltais, a Quebecoise actress, has discovered she is pregnant and speaks in French with Hanako on the phone; their dialogue is translated into English by a deadpan interpreter for the benefit of the audience. This staging of language, the formal interpretation of what is in fact a very private and emotional conversation, has tremendous comic effect. At one point, the interpreter makes a mistake which Hanako corrects (much to the relief of the members of the audience who have noticed the

8 error). While Hanako had a relatively minor role in the next-to-last version of the play, this role was much enhanced in the final version. The expansion was justified amply by the theme of the play and the power of the translator character in a transnational enactment. Both The Dragon Trilogy and The River Ota could be said to embody a kind of "translational culture," one in which idioms are in constant contact and overlap, defying the conventional understanding of translation as transfer, as exchange. Lepage's plays enact a kind of code-switching, using varieties of language interaction for specific types of effects. As such, they propose a vision of "cosmopolitan globalism" as a dialogue among differences.2 Thus, Lepage becomes an exemplar of the transnational intellectual exhibit's heightened skill in manipulating differences, "as the cultivation of code-switching between local differences, not their anesthetization via incorporation" (Buell 1994:293). The special knowledge of these individuals is not their contextualized knowledge but their decontextualized knowledge [that] can be quickly and shiftingly recontextualized in a series of different settings... [a knowledge which is] "reflexive, problematizing, concerned with metacommunication. (Hannerz 1990, qtd. in Buell 1994:293-94) How Culture Travels Here then is the paradox. Tremblay's and Lepage's plays use language towards quite 2 different ends, Tremblay's writing defiantly "local," Lepage's "internationalized" in its - e very essence. Yet both travel successfully. The explanation lies in the fact that each 34 playwright adopts entirely different means of transportation. For Tremblay, the vehicle is re-vernacularization. For Lepage, it is a form of non-translation which we can call polylingualism (in contrast to the non-translation of English monolingualism). His plays move along the surfaces of innumerable cultural sites, slipping with apparent ease across national borders, appearing in the same fragmented and plural form in each of their very different nationavgeographical venues. What does this difference mean to our understanding of the "internationalization" of culture and the way culture travels? Lepage's theatre suggests revisions to the idea of translation as the transfer of one culturally bound product to another society. When his plays move, they do not participate in an economy of exchange. Unlike Tremblay's plays, they have an equivocal relationship to "national" culture. Tremblay's plays, even in translation, are quintessentially "Quebecois"; they are first and foremost about Quebec, its history, its traditions, its struggle into modernity. They are about identity, particularly sexual identity, but they ask their questions through the thickness of Quebec culture. Lepage's plays are related only contingently to Quebec, though aspects of local culture do feature in his work. For Tremblay's work, translation is a means of relocalizing vernaculars and using their strength to promote and reinvigorate national identity. Language points to the depth of identity, roots, and networks, to a common history, the desire to maintain and rein-

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