In Review: Staging the Spanish Golden Age

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Staging the Spanish Golden Age: Translation and Performance
Kathleen Jeffs, Oxford University Press, 2018
Reviewed by Jean Graham-Jones, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

Volume 7, Issue 4 (Fall 2019)

Kathleen Jeffs’ recent monograph, Staging the Spanish Golden Age: Translation and Performance, is a welcome addition to the growing number of studies of the period’s theatre in contemporary performance (e.g., The Comedia in English: Translation and Performance, ed. Susan Paun de García and Donald Larson [Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2008]; The Spanish Golden Age in English: Perspectives on Performance, ed. Catherine Boyle and David Johnston [London: Oberon, 2007]). Even more welcome is its sustained engagement with translation in and as performance practice, and there it complements Geraldine Brodie’s recent study, The Translator on Stage (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2018). Both books examine up-close the artistic complex too often reduced to a singular translator, a reduction that Brodie counters in her detailed study of eight London productions, all English-language translations of international texts, that premiered during the city’s spring 2005 season. Jeffs’ object of study takes an even more circumscribed focus—the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2004-05 “Spanish Season”—to argue for theatrical collaboration in any successful production of a translated text. While practitioners of translation in performance might consider this a commonsensical argument, Jeffs’ detailed analysis of translation’s involvement in and contribution to every stage in the design, selection, rehearsal, and performance process provides a timely and productive model for translation as artistic collaboration and textual interpretation.

Staging the Spanish Golden Age benefits from its author’s own collaborative involvement. In her official role as academic script consultant for the season, Jeffs worked to develop a “translation and communication methodology that would feed the actors’ and directors’ creative processes” (1). Calling herself a “participant observer” and functioning variously as literal translator, dramaturg, communications specialist, and intermediary between director and translator, Jeffs was present in the rehearsal room, interviewed many of the season’s participating artists, provided program notes, attended performances in Stratford and London, and served as company translator during its Madrid performances. First entering as literal translator for poet Philip Osment’s version of Cervantes’s Pedro de Urdemalas (Pedro, the Great Pretender, directed by Mike Alfreds), she worked as assistant dramaturg on Lope de Vega’s El perro del hortelano (The Dog in the Manger, translated by David Johnston and directed by Laurence Boswell) and as researcher-period specialist for Pedro.

Jeffs structures her book chronologically, beginning with chapter one’s recounting of the extended process of creating the 2004-05 season, initiated and overseen by Boswell. Translation played a key role in play selection, as literal translations and treatments were commissioned for multiple plays after recommendation from academic consultants. After much deliberation over dozens of plays, four were selected, with the other two being Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s La casa de los empeños (translated by Catherine Boyle as House of Desires, directed by Nancy Meckler) and Tirso de Molina’s La venganza de Tamar (Tamar’s Revenge, translated by James Fenton and directed by Simon Usher). A fifth text, Calderón de la Barca’s La hija del aire (Daughter of the Air, translated by Sarah Woods), received a staged reading that was subsequently aired on BBC Radio 3.

Chapters two through four take the reader into the rehearsal room to observe translation’s multiple interventions (with five appendices providing supporting details). The second chapter examines in depth the various strategies employed in the collaborative process: translators’ textual strategies and script-editing negotiations, directors’ and actors’ interpretative engagements, and the ever-shifting processes in shaping a translated text for performance. Chapter three delves into the ever-present question, when translating comedias, of verse. Here, Jeffs’ comparative study of the four staged plays offers insights into four very different approaches to translating the period’s polymetric verse, ranging from Johnston’s focus on pace and line length to Fenton’s modulated rhythms, to Boyle’s storytelling orality, and to Osment’s rendering of Spanish polymetrics in English. The productions’ repertory-style casting meant that actors engaged with multiple translation approaches, and Jeffs describes those engagements in rehearsal, noting moments when verse structures influenced performance and staging choices, and in the process highlighting how polymetry is much more than a literary question.

Chapter four shares other rehearsal discoveries, here through the comedia’s so-called types. Jeffs takes on the complexities abounding in period characterizations and the performance challenges in representing them today. An examination of multiple pairs of gracioso-servants and their masters in The Dog in the Manger and Pedro, the Great Pretender demonstrates the remarkable variety of characterization opportunities in a seemingly standard typology. Cervantes’s town mayor exemplifies the challenge for translating a period-specific figure for contemporary audiences, while Lope’s Diana offers an opportunity for both revisiting a comedia type as psychological character and digging into the problematics of translating the period’s concept of honor for today’s stage.

Chapter five moves out of rehearsals and into the Stratford and London performances by examining the four productions’ quite varied metatheatrical approaches and their reception. As a spectator who attended all four performances in Stratford, I found Jeffs’ critical description of moments of positive, negative, and confused audience engagements to resonate with my own. Reception and audiences also play major role in the book’s concluding chapter, which reflects on the demonstrably positive impact of the RSC season on UK stages.

Through detailed description, thoughtful analysis, and critical reflection, Jeffs’ book delivers on its objective to posit “a model for future productions of the comedia in English.” Where this US-based reviewer diverges from her proposed model is in its reification of the assumed divide between the scholar and the theatre artist. Increasingly, such hierarchical vestiges are being eradicated by those of us who consider theatrical translation to be an artistic practice intrinsically linked to our other artistic practices as playwrights, actors, designers, and directors. And while Jeffs makes a case for the value of the “literal translation” (defined by Jeffs as a translation intended only for reading and not acting) within the collaborative process (indeed, three of the five RSC translators worked from literal versions), she passes too quickly over what I consider to be the major limitations of the largely UK-based practice: unlike Jeffs, most literal translators are left out of the collaborative process, and they remain under-recognized (indeed, often unnamed—something Jeffs takes laudable pains to rectify) and under-paid, as they are excluded from the box-office percentages afforded the credited, higher-profile translators. Such quibbles aside, Jeffs has provided us with a functional collaborative model that we should continue to revisit and develop. Staging the Spanish Golden Age serves as a detailed, critical record of an important translation event for the English-speaking stage and as an insightful provocation for future theatrical-translational collaborations.


JEAN GRAHAM-JONES is the Lucille Lortel Professor of Theatre at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. A trained actor and director, she is a scholar and translator of Argentine and Latin American theatre and performance; and her major publications include Exorcising History: Argentine Theater under Dictatorship (2000), Reason Obscured: Nine Plays by Ricardo Monti (ed. and trans., 2004), BAiT: Buenos Aires in Translation (ed. and trans., 2008), Timbre 4: 2 Plays by Claudio Tolcachir (ed. and trans., 2010), and Evita, Inevitably: Performing Argentina’s Female Icons Before and After Eva Perón (2014). A former editor of Theatre Journal, she recently completed her term as President of the International Federation for Theatre Research (2015-2019). Her latest monographic project centers on contemporary performance translation.

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