My translation of Alexander Griboyedov’s verse comedy Gore ot uma (The Woes of Wit) was published by Hermitage in 1992. It has been out of print for some time now. I am planning a second edition, with revisions; I would like, however, to get it produced first. It had a table reading by professional actors in New York in 1992, but has not yet been performed publicly.
The performance history of this play in English has been dismal, considering that in Russia it is regarded as a classic on a par with Molière or even Shakespeare. It has had some success on stage in Germany and Poland (Joseph Conrad’s father did a Polish adaptation), but if there’s anywhere outside of Russia where it is performed with any regularity, I don’t know of it.
Two other English versions appeared around the same time mine did, one by Beatrice Yusem, and the other by Anthony Burgess, the late British novelist. The Burgess version, so far as I know, was never published, but it had a run of some weeks at the Almeida theatre in London followed by a tour in 1993. Since then at least one more English version has been published, by Mary Hobson. There are plans afoot now at the National Theatre in London to do an adaptation (I have this from Ranjit Bolt, who has been commissioned to do it).
My translation was always intended as a performing version, but it is not an adaptation. I have the same feeling about adaptations of classic drama as Richard Wilbur, whose approach to verse translation I largely share. The aim is to achieve line-for-line, or thought-for-thought, rather than word-for-word, fidelity. When a dramatist writes in verse, the verse line becomes the rhythm of the drama; it’s not decoration. That means that some sort of equivalent for it must be found in the target language, or we lose the whole savor of the thing. Of course the story remains, and one can try, by updating language or action or both, to make it compelling, or at least entertaining, to a modern audience. But the result generally has little to do with the original work. Which is fine, as long as the adapter has the honesty to claim the work as his own, and not use a revered old name to sell it. To make an old play come alive, our best hope, as Wilbur put it in an introduction to one of his translations, is to “see whether a maximum fidelity, in text and in performance, might not adapt us to it.” If old plays have nothing to offer beyond what we already know, why bother with them at all?
I discussed the language and style of Griboyedov’s play in some detail in my translator’s introduction. To give English speakers a very rough sense of the dramatic rhythms that emerge from Griboyedov’s verse, I recently took some video clips of filmed Russian performances of the work, and added subtitles from my translation.
The first is from Oleg Menshikov’s 1998 stage production, which ran for two years in Moscow. A video version was made in 2000 by Peter Shepotinnik. This is Act 3, scene 3, where Chatsky and Molchalin, rivals for Sofya’s love, have their one conversation. Molchalin, the obsequious social-climber, is often played as mere foil to the witty and intelligent Chatsky. But the Molchalin in this performance (Alexey Zavialov) holds his own. He throws Chatsky’s irony right back at him, clearly considering one who alienates all the important people around him to be the real fool. Chatsky (played by Menshikov) is not just disdainful, either; the flashes of real anger and dismay on his face show the passion and vulnerability that make him more than just the author’s witty mouthpiece, as he is often taken to be.
The second clip is from the 1952 film directed by S. Alekseev and V. Voitetsky. This is Act 3, scene 21, where the guests at Famusov’s ball, after Sofya has started the rumor that Chatsky is mad, find confirmation of his madness in all the quips that have offended them earlier. This is a very satirical scene; the Soviet tradition was to make the guests a gallery of grotesques, and some of that can be seen here, but there are some fine performances. Famusov (Konstantin Zubov) and Khlyostova (Vera Pashennaya) are both good, though the latter is perhaps a little too soft in the role. The Khlyostova in the Menshikov production is more formidable: when she utters her final “three!” to clinch the argument with Famusov, he is reduced to jelly.