Death and Jealousy: Q&A with Strindberg Translator Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh

On the occasion of the centennial of Swedish writer August Strindberg’s death, San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater will be performing all five of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays (Storm, Burned House, The Pelican, The Ghost Sonata, The Black Glove) in repertory from October 12 to November 18. The production will feature new translations of the Chamber Plays by Paul Walsh, professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama. ZYZZYVA talks with Walsh, whose new translations are available from Exit Press, about the Strindberg Cycle and Strindberg’s significance to the arts.

ZYZZYVA: How did you become a scholar and translator of Strindberg?

Paul Walsh: When I was doing a master’s at the University of Minnesota, I studied with a Strindberg scholar in the Scandinavian Department. I became enamored of Strindberg and his peculiar views of the world.

Z: How do you mean, peculiar?

PW: He strikes me as maniacal in his pursuit of an image or a vision or an idea. And this can lead to wonderfully peculiar observations about life and the world. His imagination is as unpredictable as his behavior. Later in life he seems to have been happy to cultivate these peculiarities—perhaps to avoid connecting with people or, who knows. Psychologists love to try to figure him out. His plays are notoriously and intentionally autobiographical, which is why the first generation of Strindberg scholarship was also biographical—finding resonances and references to his life in his work. Strindberg took the modernist caveat to “write what you know” very seriously and maybe even arranged his life to feed his fiction. In my thesis, I was looking at the notion of realism and history—Strindberg’s fascination with history throughout his career, the location of the real. He was interested in manufacturing stories out of the traditions and documents of the past.

Z: So who’s better, Strindberg or Ibsen?

PW: I prefer Strindberg as an innovator in dramatic form, as a maniac. Also my Swedish is better than my Norwegian. Ibsen used a lot of words.

Z: They write about a lot of the same themes, no? Incest, madness, family, class…

PW: Their common themes grow out of their common struggle to face the 20th century, but Ibsen didn’t actually write anything after 1899. I think Ibsen was silenced by the 20th century. The Chamber Plays are partly a document of the first years of the 20th century—how radically the world is changing. Strindberg was obsessed with innovation, with new technology—and also terrified by it. We see this in Storm: a ringing telephone carries a feeling of doom. I think Ibsen has found a place in the modern sensibility that makes him more appreciated, because he wasn’t branded as a misogynist.

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Z: How did we come to label Strindberg as a misogynist?

PW: Strindberg proclaimed himself a misogynist in the 1880s and wrote several essays about the battle of the sexes. People read Miss Julie as a misogynist play. But I think this labeling has allowed us to ignore or avoid what is most interesting in Strindberg—his struggle to understand the other. He also proclaimed himself a Catholic, a Buddhist, an atheist, an alchemist, a Naturalist, a Symbolist and a madman. He went through every fad that was popular in the late 19th century.

Z: But what about the mother in The Pelican? There’s something horrifyingly gluttonous about a mother stealing food from her own children. Isn’t Strindberg relying on misogynist tropes to create this character?

PW: The mother in The Pelican is an amazing character—easy to dismiss and easy to caricature—but if you take her very seriously and let her believe everything she says, you discover that she is self-deluded by her own needs and wishes and desires. She is a damaged character (as we all are) and perhaps unaware how much she damages others. Yes she is selfish and self-obsessed, but no more so than Clytemnestra, and she suffers the same fate, in a way. The play ends with Fredrik and Gerda saying “poor mamma” in a moment of recognition that is also a moment of reconciliation. I don’t think Strindberg intended her to be a grotesque.

Z: Isn’t there something a little bit ridiculous about The Ghost Sonata?

PW: The Ghost Sonata is the most performed of the plays, perhaps because it allows for a lot of different approaches. It’s ludicrous, but the edgy kind of ludicrous that touches something uncanny, something divided against itself. The challenge is to take the play seriously—not to give into the temptation to camp the play. Here the characters are too oblique, they become cartoonish too quickly, and you lose the essence. All the plays have very sardonic humor—The Pelican is so melodramatic, so overtly tragic, that it is easily dismissed as insane, when what it really is is a retelling of the Orestes-Electra story. The challenge is to honor the strangeness of the plays, the peculiarity of Strindberg. The quality of meaningfulness.

Z: How did you come to work with Cutting Ball on this production of the Chamber Plays?

PW: I met Cutting Ball co-founder Rob Melrose years ago; we’d been talking about what to do for the 100th anniversary of Strindberg’s death. The Chamber Plays are rarely performed as a cycle—for a small theater to perform all five plays in rep, in new translations, is a unique opportunity to see these plays in a totally different way.

Z: So you wrote these translations specifically for this production?

PW: Yes.

Z: What was missing from existing translations?

PW: Translations for the stage profit from being redone every generation, as language changes. Strindberg translations feel dated, intrusive. My focus has been on making them playable, speak-able. I tried to follow his punctuation, which isn’t grammatical. Lots of commas, no periods, long sentences that go on forever. For example, the old woman in Burned House goes on for a full paragraph without breaking the flow of her sentence. It’s important to punctuate it this way, even though it’s not grammatical—the fact that she’s speaking is covering up something else. I think editing for a reading public has obscured these plays in the past. These are performance texts.

Z: What connects the five plays?

PW: Each one of the Chamber Plays deals with death and with jealousy, which are perhaps our two most intimate states (or experiences). Anything we say about death is always only metaphorical or about someone else—we can never talk knowingly about our own death because to know it is to be consumed by it. We can only experience it from outside. I think the same is true of jealousy. Like death it consumes so that we can’t experience it. Perhaps we can remember it and think we know what it was like after the fact, but this remembering defies us. That part of us that has been consumed by jealousy can no longer be accessed. So it, too, is something we know from watching it in others. So we can never be definitive about death or jealousy, only honest. And I think that’s what Strindberg is trying to do here. To be honest, and in this attempt to initiate a new dialogue in the theater that is honest and intimate and shared.

Z: What does performing all five plays in repertory bring to the cycle?

PW: You get to see the echoings of motifs in completely different stories. You get to understand Strindberg’s humor—ah, so that’s how his mind works. With the first four plays—Storm, Burned House, The Pelican, The Ghost Sonata—the themes are the same but the dramatic structure of each is totally different. You get the same actors playing the same kinds of characters, which reveals resonances from character to character—the Milkmaid in The Ghost Sonata returning in The Black Glove as the Christmas Angel. Each is a benevolent power, a testing otherworldly figure who offers us the opportunity to know something. Five plays, with the same actors, the same set pieces, each time transformed in some way. And the same director (Rob Melrose)! He’s directing five plays at once!

Z: Do you ever work on more than one project at once?

PW: I always have several things going on, but never two translations. You have to kind of immerse yourself in the world. The goal in translating is to make the language present in the target language in the same way it’s present in the source text. It’s more listening, more like dramaturgy than writing. You’re listening to the play as it exists in one language, not trying to rewrite the play—writing can get in the way.

Z: You must be fluent in Swedish?

PW: My Swedish is pretty good.

Z: Are you ever tempted to just translate directly, to just go and not give it much thought?

PW: Sometimes a scene will translate itself. But the source text is always there to challenge and humiliate me—I won’t get it wrong, but I won’t necessarily get it right. I won’t necessarily get the experience the text is providing. That’s the fun and the difficulty of it. There’s never a word-to-word correspondence.

Z: Can you give us an example?

PW: Oh, let’s see. “The long summer nights make me shy.” In Storm, The Gentleman is describing why he doesn’t like to go out in the evenings. The Swedish word that gave me trouble was skygg—“shy” is one of several possible interpretations. I discarded “awkward,” “self-conscious,” “uncomfortable,” “embarrassed.” I like “shy” because it is an ambiguous little word, not a heavy, ominous or philosophical word: the feeling is a “little” feeling that makes the Gentleman feel little. The other options didn’t seem to pose a challenge for the actor nor to quite catch the character that the old man was either revealing or concealing. It sounds stranger in English than it does in Swedish. Shy is something that little girls feel. Grown men feel alone.

The original title of the play was “the first lamp.” Strindberg had asked that the Intimate Theater have the best lighting available, and of course there’s that moment where he’s seated inside and a lightning flash reveals his brother and his ex-wife standing together outside the window. After discovering this scene in the theater, Strindberg changed the title to Storm. No words are spoken—the stage direction says, “he shudders.” It’s totally up to the actor to make that whole history of rage and jealousy come across in that one moment. The light makes him shy of other people—here he is both seeing and being seen in his most private and vulnerable moment.

Z: Why perform the Chamber Plays now?

PW: In theater recently, there’s been a fascination—in movies and television—with self-representation, with personal engagement with one’s own story. Strindberg was such a self-reviser, so much in control of his public ethos—people say he was great fun at parties. For some reason people today seem very interested in constructing some notion of what it means to be “authentic” (and not, unfortunately in Sartre’s ethically demanding sense). I don’t know what this fascination with “authenticity” is all about, but I for one am cautious of it. Mostly we live in a word of simulations and simulacra. I think Strindberg understood this in the Chamber Plays, where he talks about “This world of illusions and madmen.”

Z: And yet, characters in the Chamber Plays seem obsessed with superficial distinctions of class and rank…

PW: The Chamber Plays are saying that these artificial qualifiers, like position and class and status, are disguises we use to hide our authentic selves—and the characters’ desperate attempts to unmask someone else are actually a reflection of their own desire to reveal themselves. Like in Burned House—the character of the Stranger, whose role in the play is to uncover and reveal unsavory things about the other characters—what he wants is reconciliation, to discover something about himself. He’s searching for a moment of reconciliation with life in order to face death with an authentic eye.

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