The Edwardian turn of language

If George’s translations are ‘quirky’ and Constance’s ‘bland’, what is it they have in common that qualifies them both as ‘Edwardian’?

A certain kind of logorrhoea combined with loose sentence structure and genteelism.

Garnett, it has to be said, is far worse than Calderon in these respects. Take her lead-in to Lopkahin’s great speech in Act 3 after returning from the auction:

LYUBOV. Is the cherry orchard sold?

LOPAHIN. It is sold.

LYUBOV. Who has bought it?

LOPAHIN. I have bought it. [Long pause] I have bought it! Wait a bit, ladies and gentlemen, pray. My head’s a bit muddled, I can’t speak.

It is simply a fact of Russian syntax that the first three lines require only six words in the original. But there is no need to use twelve to ‘say’ the same thing in English. The fact that the Russian dialogue is so spare and plosive should impel one to achieve a similar effect. I am sure George has tried to do this, by opting for the past simple rather than Garnett’s full-form present perfect, and by going for the special use of ‘do’:

MADAME RANEVSKY. Was the cherry orchard sold?


MADAME RANEVSKY. Who bought it?

LOPAKHIN. I did. [Long pause] I bought it. Wait a bit; don’t hurry me; my head’s in a whirl; I can’t speak…

But Constance has also lengthened ‘gospoda‘ into ‘ladies and gentlemen’, and tacked ‘pray’, which must have been laughably genteel even in 1906, onto the end of the sentence, giving the latter a dying fall, making it lose all forward energy, and leaving it looking amorphous. In the original the two words she has rendered as ‘pray’ flash past in the middle of the sentence. George seems to have thought that anything for them in English would slow the sentence down at this dramatic moment, so he has dropped them and replaced them with ‘don’t hurry me’, which keeps the sentence penetrative. Constance has also made two sentences out of one in the original, whereas George’s use of semi-colons (very characteristic of him and too literary for a play-text today) successfully imitates the slightly staccato energy of Chekhov’s own, single sentence.

Yet it’s undeniable that George too cannot resist Edwardian paraphrase and genteelification. For instance, the last line of Act 2 is Nina’s single word ‘Son!‘ (‘Dream!’). This is very powerful. It is not English’s fault that we have to use an article here. The plain literal translation, then, would be: ‘A dream!’. Its brevity is a challenge that any British actress would relish. She could convey almost as much as the Russian through timing, delivery and body language. To say ‘It’s a dream!’ (Garnett) is to make the line a statement rather than an experience, but to say ‘It’s like a dream!’ (Calderon) is to distort the original altogether and remove its untramelled emotion to a speculative plane.

Another way of defining what is Edwardian about these translations would be, in my opinion, to say that they consistently dislocate, refract, avoid or water down the direct expression of feelings that is there in Chekhov’s original. Their general logorrhoea also works towards that effect.

The phenomenon can be seen in three of the most successful playwrights of the age, Pinero, Shaw and Galsworthy, who all love big blocks of stage prose. The only explanation I can come up with is that in the Edwardian period the dominant discourse became polemical, political and idea-based. Britain saw an explosion of such discourse, on the streets, in the media, in the parliamentary process (see my post of 21 November). It intimidated the drama into discussion rather than being, into statements about emotion rather than the realisation of emotion, into idea-speak rather than art-speech.

That having been said, reviewers agreed that in his own plays George displayed a natural gift for juicy, authentic and economical stage dialogue. Constance, by contrast, was not remotely a person of the theatre and could be said to have a tin ear for stage dialogue. Undoubtedly this is what made directors and actors prefer George’s translations of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard through the 1920s. Then a strange thing happened. By the 1930s Constance had translated all the plays, so inevitably more of her translations were being used. But because George’s translations were more recognisably his theatrical language, they became increasingly identified with the Edwardian past and fell away. Constance’s, however, could be said to be in no theatrical language at all, but to appear more as literals. Directors like Komisarjevsky and St-Denis could therefore use them as drafts to produce their own theatrical languages — which Kittie Calderon would never have allowed them to do with George’s work.

By the 1970s Constance Garnett’s translations were beginning to fall away in the British theatre even as literals (the translation would be credited as hers in the programme, but great changes were made). More and more theatre practitioners were commissioning their own literals or theatrical versions (e.g. Frayn’s). Now, I think, Garnett’s translations are hardly used in the British theatre at all.

George’s, however, could make an interesting comeback. If you are staging a period production of The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, it makes sense to use an English version that is accurate but cast in an authentic theatrical language of the period — which George’s translations are. Today’s ‘dramaturgs’ increasingly recognise the advantages of such translations, and can subtly re-energise them. Proof of this was Stuart Paterson’s 2009 adaptation of George’s Seagull for the production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow celebrating the centenary of the British premiere. This adaptation was subsequently broadcast on Radio 3 and lives on.

It amuses me now to think that we rejected George’s Seagull out of hand for the National Theatre in 1978 and sniffily dismissed his footnotes as ‘bookish’. Because he had lived in Russia at the very time in which the play is set, and consulted a wide range of people and published sources about aspects of the text, those copious notes are now invaluable (for instance, about the kind of billiards that Gaev plays in The Cherry Orchard). It sends a shiver down my spine to recall that we were thinking of inviting Harold Pinter to make a version of The Seagull. That, surely, would have transported us from Edwardian logorrhoea to the other extreme. It would have sucked Chekhov’s text dry!

Next entry: Profs Phelps and Senelick get it right


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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