Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Juliet and Romeo - A Youthful Frivolity

 Whilst looking for something else, I stumbled across this, first published in December 1996...

Juliet and Romeo 
The New Translation 
by the International Commission for English in Shakespeare 

REVIEWED BY DR. HANNIBAL BUGATTI (A key expert of the Council)     

SURELY few things have been more eagerly awaited in these recent years than the current renewal in the great literature of the world. While this movement started some decades ago, it has only now reached its maturity, and the publication of this text will mark a turning point in the cultural history of the world, "throwing open the windows of great literature to let the people in". (Decree on Literature, §472).     

This purifying (for it is in no way a new version) of Juliet and Romeo cannot be praised too highly, nor is anyone who truly loves literature going to regret in any way the passing of some older modes of expression, given that the express intention of the new text is "to realise more fully the dramatic nature of the texts, to make them more accessible to all peoples of all cultures and all times, and to ensure the most lively participation of the audience" (see Introduction, §314). 

Perhaps the most obvious changes are the ones which may provoke some little consternation from conservatives. The change in the title to Juliet and Romeo, is a case in point. Yet when one considers the non‑sexist remit of the commission, it is impossible to argue that this is anything but an improvement. Juliet comes first by virtue of a strictly impartial alphabetical criterion, and it is highly significant to note that the same criterion would give the same result, even if applied to the characters' surnames, rather than their Christian forenames. 

Certain other passages, which may be deemed to cause offence by some people in a multi‑cultural society have also been sensitively re‑worked, to bring out the richness in the text in a way compatible with the cultural sensitivities of modern societies. 

A beautiful example of this is the highly dubious text (the precise authorship of which some scholars question): 
"O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright 
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night 
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear,­
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear."
 This is a complex passage, presenting many problems: the implication that brightness is better than darkness, for example, the appallingly irrelevant mention of someone's race, the use of rich as a term of admiration, when another guiding principle is 'a preferential option for the poor,' and so on. 

The ICES text reads: 
"Look, everyone! She is teaching the torches to be more truly themselves, like an affordable‑by‑everyone paste costume jewel accessory kit, hung on the ear of anyone (man or woman) of any ethnic origin.
Clearly the new text not only eliminates both the offensive potential and the archaisms of the older version, but also makes it more meaningful by making it more relevant and accessible to all, without in any way changing the underlying meaning of the passage.     

One of the chief reasons for the all‑pervasive demand for a revised version of Literary Texts has been the fact that people find them boring. The Interlit Council (1962‑5) in its Decree on Literature realised this, and asked the Commission to ensure that revisions included opportunities for the audience to become more truly involved. 

Before the Council, there was always present the possibility (which was sometimes actively encouraged) of members of the audience sitting quietly in a purely passive way through a performance, not participating at all. That is gone for ever. As audiences arrive at any production from now on, they will be given little sheets to rustle throughout, which also provide them with their lines. 

This new involvement, itself highly significant, and fully in accord with the teachings of the Council, is also used as an opportunity to clarify some classic textual ambiguities. Thus one much mis‑understood text becomes immediately comprehensible, now that the audience is given its true role: 
Juliet: Romeo, Romeo, where are you, mate?  
Audience (enthusiastically): He's behind you! 
This is in no way an innovation, but rather draws on a deep tradition in literature, as witnessed by some of the earliest extant texts, as many scholars will testify. This passage also shows how needless repetition, that tended to slow the action down (in this case the third Romeo) has been sensitively excised. 

As a further way of ensuring that the audience truly engage with the drama, a variety of acclamations is provided for audience use, immediately after the climax of the piece. These range from the sublime: "Wow, who would have thought it!" to the profound: "I could climb a mountain." Moreover, in the grave scene, when Juliet discovers what she takes to be the dead body of her lover and kisses him, the audience is now to exchange kisses with all those in reach, as a way of entering more fully into the dramatic potentialities of the scene, and ensuring that the message of love is transferred to the real world, and not merely left behind after the performance.     

To meet the cultural needs and aspirations of different groups, a variety of endings is available, as options, at the discretion of the animator (the term director is no longer to be used, due to its fascist and authoritarian implications). In many of these simplified endings, it will be noticed, the couple live happily ever after. This is more truly an ending for our times, when the spirit of the nations demands an accentuation of the positive in the texts. 

Again, we can predict howls of anguish from one or two extreme conservatives, and one has been rash enough to print and distribute a defamatory article which claims that these endings betray the text. It is important to emphasise a number of points. The first is that the original ending will remain available (in the new translation) though we suspect few animators will, in practice, choose to use it. The second is that this is a return to an older literary tradition, and therefore more authentic to the nature of drama in itself. The third is that the over‑riding principle must be what the people demand, and the experts are agreed that these endings are the ones that the people will demand, once they have got used to them. 

As this text is purely a response to popular demand, it is now mandatory, and the old versions must not be used. However, recognising the difficulty some particularly old and decrepit actors may find in learning the new lines, it is still permitted for such actors (certified by a competent authority as being both old and decrepit) to perform according to the old texts, as long as they do not do so with an audience. 

This generous concession shows the concern of the Commission to minimise any distress (however irrational) that these changes may cause. While some lobbyists on the liberal wing of the literary establishment have complained that the new version has not sufficiently challenged the homophobia of the previous traditions, it should be noted that with Version 2 and appropriate optional passages, it is possible to use a text that has no explicit reference to the gender of either protagonist, and that this is compatible with lesbian and gay productions. 

Further, we may be sure the commission will address this serious issue with sympathy and a radical commitment to justice in future revisions of the text (for this is by no means static: a truly dynamic text will need re‑writing on a frequent basis), and also in their treatment of future works (the forthcoming Antonia and Cleopatra looks set to break some new ground here). We also await with unreserved enthusiasm their non‑racist version of Othello, the Multicultural Ombudsperson of Venice, and their de‑mythologised rendering of A Midsummer Time's Reverie

Youth, in particular, will find the revised texts accessible, relevant and meaningful; but it is no less clear that the whole community will be enriched and nourished afresh by the inexhaustible wealth of the literary tradition made newly available to them. One thing is certain: this movement for Literary Renewal will result in packed theatres, filled with audiences entering ever more profoundly into the dramatic experience.    

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