Tribute to Marion Peter Holt (1924-2021)
Remembering a Great Translator, Scholar Colleague, Mentor, and Friend
Volume 8, Issue 4 (Fall 2021)
Long-time Mercurian contributor Phyllis Zatlin has sent us her moving tribute to the prominent translator of Spanish and Catalan theatre Marion Peter Holt. I first learned of Marion’s work while in graduate school at the Yale School of Drama. I was the production dramaturg for a production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf at the Yale Rep directed by Travis Preston, now Dean of the CalArts School of Theater. Travis had directed Marion’s beautiful translation of Antonio Buero Vallejo’s The Sleep of Reason at Center Stage in Baltimore and described his joy of meeting and working with Marion. Subsequently, Marion became one of the advisers on my D.F.A. dissertation. I fondly remember visiting him in his apartment in the 70s in Manhattan where, frequently over lunch, he would critique my pages with consummate grace and generosity. The last time I was in touch with Marion he talked about his increasing frailty and the fact that he could no longer attend the theatre. In the next breath he excitedly described a new translation of a Catalan play he was working on that he thought would be a good fit for PlayMakers Repertory Company where I am Senior Dramaturg. That was Marion, always thinking of others and constantly promoting the Catalan and Spanish theatre that he so loved. While we were not frequently in touch, he was a mentor and friend. He will be missed, as can be seen in the tribute from Phyllis and others below.
Marion Peter Holt (1925-2021) gained national prominence as a scholar of contemporary Spanish plays with the publication in 1975 of The Contemporary Spanish Theater (1949-1972) in the Twayne World Author’s Series. In 1980 his TWAS book on José López Rubio appeared. By 1984 he became a member of the editorial board of Estreno and continued to serve in that capacity for more than 30 years, not only with founding editor Patricia O’Connor but also with three subsequent editors: Martha Halsey (1932-2020), Sandra Harper, and Lourdes Bueno. By the time Lourdes published the 40th anniversary issue of Estreno in 2015, only Martha and Marion remained from early board members.
Marion also served as a contributing editor for Western European Stages for more than 20 years and was a lifetime member of the Dramatists Guild. As evidence of his international stature, he was named a Corresponding Member of the Real Academia Española in 1986. His reputation as a scholar of Spanish Theatre aside, Marion often said that his best seller was Barron’s 1001 Pitfalls in Spanish; it first appeared in 1973 and in 2010 was in its fourth edition.
Marion grew up in Spartanburg, SC. He was drafted at the age of 18 and served in the Pacific during WWII. He was on Saipan (after its bloody conflict) and watched the atom bomb drop from its shores. Following the war, he attended Wofford College on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1949, and began his teaching career at Converse College. His undergraduate school has published his moving memoir in its blog of Wofford alumni. After his retirement as a professor, he wrote a fascinating book about movie houses: Magical Places: The Story of Spartanburg’s Theatres and Their Entertainments, 1900-1950.
He received his M.A. from Vanderbilt University and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. At CUNY he was Professor of Theatre at the Graduate Center and of Spanish at the College of Staten Island. He was also visiting professor at the Yale School of Drama, Hunter College, and Barcelona’s Institut del Teatre.
Marion will long be remembered as the foremost translator in the United States of contemporary plays from Spain. In the Estreno issue he guest edited in 1988, he pointed out how difficult it is for translated Spanish theatre to reach the American stage. His own success, including multiple stagings of some works and having a literary agent, is all the more noteworthy. His translation of Antonio Buero Vallejo’s El sueño de la razón (The Sleep of Reason) had its American premiere at Converse College in 1983 and then moved on to important professional theatres in major cities: Center Stage (Baltimore, 1984), Wilma Theatre (Philadelphia, 1986), and Bailiwick Repertory (Chicago, 1994). Recently Buero’s In the Burning Darkness has received increasing attention. Marion once told me, however, that his most staged translation is Burning Patience by Chilean playwright Antonio Skármeta.
Like the list of his published play translations, Marion’s list of staged translations is long indeed. I mention here only two performances in New York that deeply affected my family members. My husband still marvels about José López Rubio’s great comedy The Other Shore that we saw in 1984. My son considers The Foundation the best play he has ever seen and told Buero that in person in 1994.
It is difficult to get play translations published in the U.S., but Marion proved there are always exceptions. Like stagings of his translations, publications of them over many years are far too numerous to note here, even excluding editions of single play translations. In anthologies he often promoted works by other translators. Examples are The Modern Spanish Stage: Four Plays (1970), DramaContemporary: Spain (1985) and Barcelona Plays (2008). A volume limited to his own translations, Antonio Buero-Vallejo: Three Plays (1985) was a Choice Outstanding University Press selection. Equally noteworthy is the inclusion of Guillem Clua’s Marburg in the important journal Theatre Forum (2011).
Living in New York City has advantages. Marion became well acquainted with the theatre world there and was better equipped to get his plays staged than translators in other places. On the other hand, his international success may be attributed only to the high quality of plays he chose to translate and the stageability of his translations. His translations have been performed in New York, London, and Australia, and at regional and university theatres throughout the United States.
After translating numerous works by Buero Vallejo, López Rubio, Jaime Salom, and other authors writing in Castilian, Marion turned his talents to promoting Catalan theatre. Among the many authors he translated from Catalan are Josep M. Benet i Jornet, Sergi Belbel, Ángels Aymar, Lluïsa Cunillé, and Guillem Clua. Catalan authors have been included in ESTRENO Contemporary Spanish Plays starting in 2000 when I was general editor.
Marion played an instrumental role in establishing this ESTRENO Plays translation series. He convinced Martha Halsey to undertake the new venture and guided us in setting up an attractive format, one that would appeal to potential directors. He also guided me in setting up the masters program in translation at Rutgers and often served as a member of translation thesis as well as doctoral dissertation committees.
Marion was part of the doctoral dissertation committee for José Manuel Reyes, who later was on the Estreno editorial board. Thanks to encouragement from Marion, I joined the Dramatists Guild. I consulted him frequently on problems I faced and always he responded with helpful insights.
As proclaimed in tributes included here and others I have received since sharing the sad news of Marion’s passing, many of us will miss him deeply as a mentor and friend. I thank all of those who have shared their memories with me at this time of sorrow, John Gabriele for his editing, and particularly Richard Medoff and Steven Capsuto for their invaluable collaboration in preparing this tribute to Marion Peter Holt.
John P. Gabriele
Like many, I am deeply saddened by Marion’s recent and unexpected death. The name of Marion P. Holt will forever be associated with countless translations of Spanish and Catalan plays, which have been staged in theatres in the United States and abroad, as well as with numerous book length studies and articles on Spanish Theatre. His enduring scholarship is truly impressive, but Marion casts a much longer shadow than that of his academic accomplishments.
My relationship with Marion began in 1986 when I interviewed Antonio Buero Vallejo. It was Marion who provided me with Buero’s phone number and address. Several years later in 1993, and subsequently in 1997, Marion asked me to interview Guillermo Heras and Rodrigo García, respectively, for Western European Stages. In 1997, when Sandra Harper invited me to be on the Editorial Board of Estreno, I sought Marion’s thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful advice. I did the same when considering the position of Associate Editor of the journal in 2008. I will always be grateful for his encouraging support and unfailingly good counsel.
For 35 years, we communicated frequently and, whenever possible, met at professional conferences. From my own personal experience and from what I observed in his dealings with other colleagues, I knew Marion to be consistently respectful, kind, and gracious. In whatever context one knew him (friend, colleague, scholar, professor), Marion stood apart as someone special. He was the epitome of a true friend and colleague. I shall always remember fondly his inimitable soft-spoken manner and wistful smile.
Marion Holt was such a ubiquitous presence on the Spanish, Catalan, and Latin American theatre scene in New York City that I confess I can’t remember how he and I actually met. It had to have been through an introduction from my mentor Phyllis Zatlin, who has doggedly kept my hand in the field of theatre translation for decades now. Since I consider myself primarily a poetry translator and feel a bit out of place at theatre conferences, I frequently introduce myself to the international literary figures there simply by saying that I am part of the circle of Estreno translators in New York, which is all the information these scholars, playwrights, actors, and directors seem to need. This bona fides continues to afford me instant credibility, as it indicates to all involved that I have been a close colleague of those perhaps most responsible for promoting peninsular theatre in the United States, including (besides, obviously, Marion and Phyllis) the current editors of ESTRENO Plays, Iride Lamartina-Lens and Susan Berardini, among others. Of this august group, Marion was our puckish éminence grise, much admired and loved by his peers.
A testament to Marion’s enduring presence in my life is the wealth of photos in which we both figure, so many that those who survive him—saddened by his loss, but ever grateful to have known him—find ourselves having trouble remembering the dates and places of all these encounters. In the one pictured here, we are smiling in the lobby of the Thalia Spanish Theatre in Queens at a performance of Jaime Salom’s Las señoritas de Aviñón.
Marion and I presented together on a panel at the Estreno Conference in Delaware, OH, a session of the American Literary Translators Association, and a roundtable at the Instituto Cervantes. I attended performances of his translations of Buero’s La Fundación and Las Meninas as well as of Paco Bezerra’s El pequeño poni; he came to see the students at LIU Brooklyn put on my rendering of La vida es sueño in its English-language premiere and, earlier, a staged reading by the Actor’s Way of Jaime’s El señor de las patrañas that I had translated as Rigmaroles. A bottomless archive of theatre lore, Marion never failed to offer encouragement and advice even the most accomplished of translators could not fail to find helpful.
Just how deep Marion’s trove of theatre knowledge proved to be became evident to me during our collaboration on Jaime’s Three Comedies (University Press of Colorado, 2004). As it turned out, he and Phyllis each had an older translation of a Salom comedy “in the drawer” (Marion’s manuscript was mimeographed!). I had just completed a third, so I sat with Marion for a few hours in his famous apartment on Manhattan’s W. 71st St. to discuss various matters regarding his text, which I would ultimately retype. Never in my life have I been the privileged beneficiary of so informative and insightful a tutorial! I learned more about theatre translation that day than at any other time in my career. As Marion’s fellow New Yorker (albeit a Brooklynite), I visited him not infrequently over the years, often accompanying him to one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants, Santa Fe. He wore his learning lightly. Quick with a smile, glad to hear a joke, and always delightful company, Marion will be greatly missed. His considerable achievements and magnanimous personality will be remembered fondly by us all.
The academic and editor of Contemporary Theatre Review, Maria M. Delgado, academic and former colleague Marvin Carlson, publisher and editor of PAJ Books Bonnie Marranca, and playwright Guillem Clua remember the distinguished Hispanist and Catalinist, academic and translator Marion Peter Holt.
Maria M. Delgado
The passing of Spanish theatre scholar and translator Marion Peter Holt marks the end of an era. He was, alongside Martha Halsey and Pat O’Connor, part of a generation of US academics who focused on promoting the work of dramatists working during the difficult conditions of the Franco regime. These playwrights, largely unknown in the English-speaking world, sought to find ways of engaging with the conditions and abuses of the regime, often deploying the language of allegory to navigate the censorship regulations of the time. Marion was a champion of their dramaturgy, not only in publications like The Contemporary Spanish Theatre: 1949-1972 (published by Twayne in 1975), but in providing translations that would ensure their work would circulate in the English-speaking world. He enjoyed a close friendship with Antonio Buero Vallejo (1916-2000), having translated a significant number of his plays, and following Buero’s death, which he keenly felt, he forged a new close friendship with Josep M. Benet i Jornet (1940-2020), translating Fleeting, Stages and Salamander.
Increasingly, post retirement from the City University of New York in 2004 (he remained Professor Emeritus at CUNY until his death), it was translation that served as his real passion. Never one to remain in the past, Marion embraced the work of the new generation of Catalan and Spanish dramatists who emerged in latter decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century—from the black comedy OffSide by Sergi Belbel to the elliptical Barcelona, Map of Shadows by Lluisa Cunillé. The twenty-first century saw him move to a new younger generation of writers, whose careers had been nurtured by Barcelona’s Sala Beckett, like Guillem Clua and Josep Maria Miró. He translated Clua’s epic Marburg and in an email sent to the eminent University of Swansea-based Catalanist, Professor David George, two weeks before his death, he wrote glowingly of Miró’s newest “searing monologue for a single actor or actriz—who has to portray 5 characters (male, female & transgender) who have their own long monologues in the text)—El cos més bonic que s’haura trobat mai en aquest lloc. It’s a brilliant and powerful play and is scheduled for production at TNC in the winter.”
To call on Marion in his New York apartment close to Lincoln Center, was to encounter his wall-to-wall collection of books on Spanish and Catalan theatre, new play manuscripts on one of the tables that he always spoke about animatedly and, proudly framed on the living room wall, the certificate of his election as a corresponding member of Spain’s Real Academia Española in 1986. Marion was a quiet, discreet man, a great listener and a careful observer. He had impeccable manners—a Southern gentleman, with clear principles, political commitment and a calm, soothing voice. Marion reasoned, he never harangued. Dressed largely in black, there was something about his manner that was as if he had stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play with a quick detour through Larry Kramer. He was also not without his mysteries. When he stayed with us in 2007, I remember my then five-year-old son trying to prise out of him his age. He refused steadfastly to reveal it; he had even wiped it from the records of the Library of Congress. It was only after his passing that we found out that he was born in 1924. Marion knew how to keep a secret.
Dinner with Marion was always entertaining and edifying and, although he was frailer in the period post 2010, and rarely travelled to Spain, his great pleasure in reading of what was happening on the Madrid and Barcelona theatre scene was palpable. Facebook had offered him a way of keeping in touch with so many of the writers he championed and he delighted, whenever I visited, in sharing news on forthcoming productions or work in development. Any review I published in Western European Stages would always receive a generous, ebullient email from Marion. Marion supported writers and academics working on theatre in Spain because it mattered. But he also recognised the importance of seeing work in Spain within a broader context of international writing and of local traditions. In 2004 he published a study of the theatres in his hometown of Spartanburg.
I heard of Marion’s passing from his close friend Richard Medoff. Marion regularly acknowledged the importance of Richard’s friendship and care in his life and the difference it had made, especially during Covid. I was in Catalonia at the time Richard let me know and raised a glass of cava to Marion’s memory and legacy. Marion always loved a glass of cava. He leaves behind an impressive list of plays published by CUNY’s Graduate Center, PAJ Books and Estreno as well as a lasting example of intellectual generosity and warmth. Marion, descansa en paz, amigo.
Although Marion Holt’s primary position at the City University of New York (CUNY) was at the College of Staten Island, he was for many years also an active and dedicated member of the Graduate faculty at the Graduate Center. In both places he was a beloved and admired teacher, mentor, and colleague, whose quiet and unassuming manner somewhat masked one of the keenest minds in the study of modern Spanish and Catalan theatre. His interest was as much practical as literary, and his love of the physical theatre extended far beyond his particular national interests. Several generations of graduate students were provided with him by a stimulating insight into the often neglected Iberian stage in particular and into the richness of theatre-going in general, and a number followed his example more specifically and continue to make important contributions to the field.
In addition to his work in seminars and classrooms, Marion was highly active in the work of the Segal Center at the Graduate School, a non-academic institution which serves as a bridge between academia and the professional theatre as well as between the theatre world of the United States and that of other nations and cultures. Both of these concerns closely fitted Marion’s own interests, and naturally drew him to the work of the Center. Two of his collections of Catalan theatre translations were published there and he participated in many of the Segal programs which featured the work and sometimes the physical presence of contemporary dramatists from Spain with whom Marion was connected. In many cases Marion served as the liaison between these dramatists and the New York stage directly as well as indirectly through the Segal Center programs.
One of the important ongoing relationships between Marion and the Segal Center was through his work on the journal Western European Stages, founded in 1989 to provide English speaking readers with a unique ongoing chronicle of contemporary European production. Marion was one of the founding members of the journal, and a long-time contributor to it.
Even after his retirement, Marion continued to be one of the most faithful attendees at parties and other social events at the Graduate Center, providing a new generation of students to have at least a brief experience of his warmth and his wit and an opportunity to meet a now legendary figure in the field of modern Spanish and Catalan theatre. He will be greatly missed, personally and professionally.
In less than a decade after PAJ Publications began to publish books, in addition to the journal, I became acquainted with Marion Peter Holt as a translator from the Spanish language. Looking back over the decades, I count him among the major translators of modern and contemporary drama, such as Daniel Gerould, Philippa Wehle, Rosette Lamont, Michael Benedikt, Harold Segal, Eric Bentley, Bettina Knapp (several of them connected to the CUNY-Graduate Center or Columbia University), Ralph Mannheim, and Martin Esslin, who were responsible for bringing to English-language readers so many of the plays and essays that were not available in the U.S. They helped to give the field of contemporary drama and history an international perspective, they helped to establish the field. Not only did they translate the plays—in those days, mainly from France, Germany, Russia, Poland, and Spain—they wrote about the playwrights and societies they grew out of, illuminating for insular audiences the conditions the works were created under, often very culturally and politically restrictive. They actively solicited publication of the plays they translated. They and countless others who labor behind the scenes as agents, translators, artistic directors, and editors are part of the ecosystem that is the theatre community. Their work is so important in the current global exchange and the historical archive.
Marion edited and translated two important volumes for PAJ Publications in the DramaContemporary series we had started in 1985 for new plays in translation, organized by country or region, to make global drama available. They included Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, India, France, and Germany as well as the Spanish-language volumes of Marion. In his DramaContemporary: Spain, which featured Antonio Buero-Vallejo, Jaime Salom, Francisco Nieva, Jose Martin Recuerda, he introduced what he called “Spain’s Theatre of Transition,” the post-Franco theatre’s new writers and controversial productions, the state of serious theatre, and audiences, writing that “After the death of Franco in 1975, the change from dictatorship to constitutional democracy was more rapid and orderly than anyone would have predicted; however, cultural institutions were not suddenly transformed, nor were ingrained attitudes and habits so easily altered to accommodate the new freedoms.” The first significant new Spanish play produced in the U.S. followed a decade later at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
In the 1986 volume DramaContemporary: Latin America (edited with George Woodyard), Marion collected plays by Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Skarmeta, Manuel Puig. Here the focus was on novelist-playwrights. At this time, and continuing today, American publishers who issued the novels of their authors did not also publish their plays, even if they were internationally celebrated. A number of these eminent authors whose plays they neglected would be published by PAJ, including Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Marguerite Yourcenar, Elias Canetti. Marion clearly framed the situation in his commentary introducing the plays: “The contemporary Latin American novel has, over a period of almost two decades, enjoyed an ever-increasing popularity in the United States and Europe, inspiriting and determining a new world-view of the cultures to the south.… but the theatre of the vast area we know as “Latin America” is only beginning to be translated and performed abroad.”
Marion Peter Holt worked tirelessly as an educator, translator, and essayist to bring to the attention of the public the writers and theatre cultures of Spanish-language countries. He also reported on theatre festivals or new productions in Spain in the pages of Performing Arts Journal. I valued his devotion to his work and commitment to theatre, aspects of professional life forged in an era of personal relationships and collegiality that make publishing a joy.
I always thought Marion P. Holt was immortal. When I first met him, in the summer of 2006, I had just moved to New York. I was 33 years old, had two plays under my arm and an immense desire to take the world by storm. We agreed to meet at his Upper West Side apartment, and I immediately realised that I was entering a small temple of Spanish and Catalan theatre, a space that embodied an entire life, love and passion for our culture and a haven of conversation and tranquilty for a writer recently arrived from Barcelona.
Marion welcomed me into his home, his city and his world from the first moment that we greeted each other with the habitual introductory two Spanish kisses on the cheek. He showed interest in my playtexts and he actively helped me promote them, even though they weren’t his translations. Thanks to his selfless effort, I received my first rehearsed readings in Manhattan, I published the first English edition of Skin in Flames and I secured a US agent. But beyond this professional help, Marion offered me something more valuable: his friendship.
During my years in New York, Marion became my regular companion at production openings, lunches and dinners. At those encounters, he displayed his enormous theatrical knowledge, sharing countless anecdotes about Antonio Buero Vallejo or Tony Kushner, and on occasion he even allowed himself snippets of gossip with a mischievous smile, but always within the confines of his impeccable manners. On the way home, I would usually reflect on the luck I had in being able to count on him. I’d crave his company as the exceptional wise man who appears in the key moment of a story when the hero is about to be eaten by a dragon. Hence, I would feel that Marion was guiding me through the indecipherable labyrinth that Manhattan represented for me at that time.
He never told me his age (he was that vain), but I sensed that he had decades of experience, knowledge and also pain across his increasingly hunched back. The surprising thing was that his advancing age didn’t stifle his passion for our theatre. Quite the opposite. He would immediately offer to translate one of my most complex plays, Marburg, followed by The Promised Land and Smiley. Once again, his efforts rendered their publication as well as readings in different theatres in the city, like the Martin E. Segal Theater, Repertorio Español and New York Theater Workshop.
And I wasn’t the only one to benefit from Marion’s generosity. Other writers of my generation, like Pere Riera and Josep Maria Miró, were also able to count with the mastery of his translations. He never stopped showing an interest in the new voices of Catalan theatre. That’s why there are many of us who owe him a debt. His translations were not just read or heard in the USA, they were also the gateway to other translators accessing our work in other countries. Without a doubt, at this point in time, without Marion, contemporary Catalan playwriting wouldn’t have its recognised world leading status.
For this and for many other reasons, I always believed Marion was immortal. Because he was always there, in person when I lived in New York and on the other side of an email thereafter. Because I could always rely on his strength and belief in a new project. Because his curiosity was infinite. And because his passion nurtured that of entire generations of writers decades younger than himself. Yes, I always thought that Marion was immortal. And now, looking back and testing the legacy he leaves behind in the Spanish and Catalan theatre, I know I was right.
Rest in peace, my friend. There will always be a reserved seat with your name on it in the theatres of Barcelona.
 Marion Peter Holt, “Spain’s Theatre of Transition,” in DramaContemporary: Spain, ed. Marion Peter Holt (NY: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1985), 7-16 (8).
 George W. Woodyard and Marion Peter Holt, “Introduction,” DramaContemporary: Latin America, ed. Marion Peter Holt and George W. Woodyard (NY: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1986), 7-18 (7).