play twenty three: the seagull

Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1896

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Kostia and his sweetheart Nina put on a show for the local families by the lake at his Uncle Sorin’s estate. Kostia is determined to find a new art form and to impress both his histrionic mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, and her follower Trigorin, a famous writer. The failure of his work pulls a thread that leads to the gradual unravelling of his life.

What moved me: I’m not sure whether it was because Ivanov was written in a fortnight, or whether it was because Checkhov was 27 and it wasn’t until he was 36 when The Seagull was first produced (I don’t even know if this really does make any difference at all) but the development between these two works is like Polyxena’s shooting star wiped across the sky. Between these two plays irritation has been replaced by devastation. Everything has a purpose. Kostia’s botched suicide attempt is emblematic of every character’s aborted desire and false hope. The way in which the seagull reconnects moments in time across years of turmoil that are lived offstage is painful in its simplicity. And that ending. Fuck.

Also, it is interesting to note what has carried across into this work: the presence of a doctor as a key character, and the presence of Hamlet (Ivanov was sickened by his likeness to him; the players in The Seagull cannot help but quote him) and the work of Gogol as key weaves in the play-fabric.

play sixteen: hecuba #2

My admiration for Anne Carson has no peak.
My admiration for Anne Carson has no peak.

Author: Euripides

Translator: Anne Carson

Published: c.424BC

Synopsis: A tragedy set before the Greek forces depart after the sacking of Troy. Trojan Queen Hecuba, wife of Priam, has been reduced to servitude. Her daughter Polyxena (a “shooting star that wipes itself across the play and disappears” [Carson, 2006]) is sacrificed by Odysseus and Agamemnon to appease the ghost of Achilles, who has immobilised their fleet. Hecuba’s grief is compounded when her son Polydorus is murdered by his guardian, King Polymester of Thrace, out of greed. Hecuba seeks her revenge with other Trojan women by blinding Polymester and killing his two sons.

[I have reread Hecuba because of the stark differences in translation, which should be accounted for in this project, and because of my undying love for Anne Carson. If you’ve never encountered her, get a taste here.]

What moved me: The layer of Anne that sits atop Euripides like the rainbow in a puddle of oil.

Example One

CHORUS: […]

And Odysseus is on his way here now,

any minute now,

to drag the young colt away from your breast,

away from your poor old hands.

Go to the temples,

go to the altars,

bend as a suppliant at the knees of Agamemnon.

Call on the gods of the sky

and the gods underground.

Surely prayers will spare your child!

Or you will have to watch

her

fall forward

at the tomb

and spray red blood

from a blackbright hole

as it opens her throat wide.

Example Two

HECUBA: […]

I supplicate you:

do not rip the child from my hands.

Do not kill her.

Enough death!

This one is my joy. This one is my forgetting of evils.

She comforts my soul –

she is my city, my walking stick, my way on the road.

play ten: thyestes

Tantalus
‘Tantalus’ [the progenitor of the House of Atreus] by Gioacchino Assereto (circa 1640s)

Author: Seneca

Translation: Caryl Churchill

Date: c.62 CE

Synopsis: Atreus is king of Mycenae and is intent on revenge against his brother Thyestes. Sons of Pelops, they were destined to take turns ruling the country and keeping the symbol of power, a ram with a golden fleece. However, while Atreus was king, Thyestes seduced his wife and together they stole the ram. Civil war ensued. Now Atreus is king again whilst Thyestes and his three sons are in exile. He lures his brother and nephews to his kingdom on the promise of peace and the offer of sharing his crown. Unbeknownst to Thyestes, Atreus murders the boys and cooks them (save their heads, hands, and feet) to serve to their father for the celebration feast. Revenge is realised when he reveals to the sated Thyestes the fate of his young sons.

What moved me: the economy of Churchill’s version has stripped back the slight floridness usually associated in my mind with much translation of classical tragedy. She exposes a perfectly-working muscle. Blunt. Fast. There is little hope of redemption. Seneca’s decision to end the play with the rotten Atreus, instead of the Chorus, is no accident.

An example of this bareness:

FURY: […]

Then there’ll be nothing

anger thinks forbidden,

brother terrifies

brother, father sons and

sons fathers, children’s

deaths are vile and their births

even worse. A wife

destroys her husband,

wars cross the sea to Troy,

the earth is watered with

blood and great leaders

are defeated by lust.

Rape’s a joke and love and

laws both fade away.

The sky’s not exempt. Why

are the stars shining?

do their flames still owe the

world glory? Let night

be something else. Let day

fall out of the sky.

So stir up your gods, call

hatred, carnage and

funerals, and fill the

whole house with Tantalus.

(Caryl Churchill, 1995)