CurtainUp Main Page


CurtainUp Talks With James Magruder About His Translation and Book for the New Musical 
Triumph Of Love

Until recently if you asked an American theater goer to name a long-dead French playwright whose name begins with the letter M, the answer would almost certainly have been Moliere. Since 1990, however, the M-name almost as much on people's lips is Marivaux. Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was born fifteen years after Molière's death and while much acclaimed and produced in his own country and, in fact, taught in French schools, his work seemed to hold little appeal for Americans. With the advent of several new and more contemporary translations of Marivaux's comedies of amour, the playwright's star began to rise in theatrical circles. Since James Magruder is one of the translators credited with polishing Marivaux's reputation, and also the writer of the book for Triumph of Love, we decided to have a sneak peek at the show by an interview conducted by fax.

 The letters JM in the interview that follows precede James Magruder's exact words. The letters CU precede CurtainUp's questions that prompted his responses. --e.s. 
CU: One of the reasons that inspired us to do this pre-opening story on Triumph of Love was the curiosity expressed by a number of readers about the increasingly visible role of the translator in the theater. As one reader put it: "Is it my imaginations or have translators stepped out of the shadows? You seem to see more and more prominent theater people--who are actively involved in the theater, not only translating but adapting, directing, etc.?" Could you talk about this a bit?
JM: There are more translators and adaptors working in the field partially because as funding for the arts, especially the theater, gets tighter, new work gets riskier to do. Producers and regional theaters can hedge their bets a little by pairing an exciting writer with a known narrative; for example,. Tony Kushner and the Dybbuk, Jeff Hatcher and The Turn of the Screw, Seamus Heaney and Philocetes. Also a truly stageworthy translation should only last twenty years, and if Brian Friel wants to tackle Chekhov, it's good for the Cherry Orchard, it's good for the audience, and it keeps Friel writing if he's taking time off between original works.
CU: Did you study French literature with the intent of becoming a translator-- and did your going to Yale Drama evolve as a natural next step to go to this next level you 're at--and how common is this nowadays?
JM: I entered a doctoral program in French Lit at Yale because I didn't have anything better to do at the depths of the last great recession (1982-3) after I finished my BA in French at Cornell. I was interested in theater (having been musical theater performer and show queen* all the way through college--, but theater as a genre resists theory, so I was something of a fish out of water in the French Department. The summer after my MA in French, I went up to Ithaca, NY with the intention of studying for my predoctoral orals and found myself the principal dancer in a summer stock production of Damn Yankees. Clearly my heart was in the theater. That fall I sat in on a dramaturgy seminar at the Yale School of Drama and after two sessions decided to switch schools. Dramaturgy seemed the likely place for someone with my particular skills and talents.
*(Ed: For anyone not familiar with the term show queen, it's used to describe a very avid theater goer.)
CU: And the translating--how and when did that begin?
JM: I started translating because I needed to translate a play in order to graduate from the YDS Dramaturgy program. That first play was Marivaux's The Triumph of Love. My idea was to create a stageworthy translation--not an academic one.
CU: Do you see a trend towards dramaturgs also working as translators?

JM: All dramaturgs should be translators--it's just another tool in their arsenal.
CU: While the prominence of the translator seems a general trend, in the case of Marivaux, the interest in his plays in this country seems to be directly linked to translations like yours. To again quote a reader, "What is it about this dead guy that appeals to translators?"
JM: I was attracted to Marivaux because I'm a huge fan of the 18th century and he was a stylist above all. In my own writing (novels, plays and essays), I too am more of a stylist than a storyteller.
CU: I've heard this word Marivaudage used to describe the uniqueness of Marivaux's style which leads me to a two part question. 1. Could you describe this term in your own words and how you've addressed the challenge of capturing it for contemporary English speaking audiences? 2. Since the Triumph book has been described as very sophisticated and literary, I'm also wondering if this means you avoid modernizing via the use of contemporary catch phrases.
JM: Marivaudage is his invented language of love--full of fidgets, neurotic tics and highly charged declarations of the various stages of falling in love. My solution for translating him was to emphasize the diction shifts of his highflown characters as clues to their wobbling emotional states. This is a translation in which a character can say "Passion's industry has truly come to call" and "Just don't blubber now" or "I think I've blown it with him."

 My translation and my musical book encompasses both high-flown literary language and contemporary diction. Three of the seven characters are servant/clowns whose actions match their masters but whose language is far more earthy. Think Boys From Syracuse.
CU: Since Marivaux has long been popular in his own country, it seems clear that modernized translations such as yours have contributed to the current urge of Marivaux productions. Are there any other factors you feel contribute to the Marivaux U.S.A. boomlet?
JM: Marivaux has come into his own in the nineties not just because of translators, but because he writes small cast comedies that can be done on unit sets. That's a cheapie in regional theater terms. His preoccupation with sex, gender and identity are also very much of the moment. It's just taken Americans all this time to catch up with his sophistication.
CU: You did the play version of Triumph--and now the book for the musical. At what point did you come in as adaptor?
JM: I came in as adaptor right after Michael Mayer (ed: the show's director). Susan and Jeff (Ed: Susan Birkenhead, the lyricist; Jeffrey Stock who wrote the music)

 CU: Tell us a bit about the process of taking the play translation into a musical book form --to create organic transitions from spoken dialogue to song?
JM: The 23 or so drafts of Triumph of Love--the Musical-- will show that my evolution as a book writer was a protracted one. I went from cutting and pasting whole swatches of the play with the songs to streamlining and paring away lines and scenes. Susan Birkenhead-- --was exceedingly patient with me, and I think after two and a half years of work our voices have become one. There are some major dramaturgical changes in the material--first and foremost, we gave the Princess Leonide the conscience that she lacks in the play.
CU: How closely did you work with the lyricist ?
JM: Susan and I spent three weeks meeting every day at her apartment in August 1995 developing the book and song spots together. As I live in Baltimore, we'd fax changes and ideas. She's a dream to work with.
CU: How does your involvement in this show differ from being a dramaturg at Center Stage in Baltimore?
JM: I act as dramaturg at Center Stage. In Triumph of Love, Jack Viertel is the official dramaturg. However, because Michael Mayer and I have spent nearly seven years with this text and know the ins and outs of this plot, I expect I am more empowered than the average book writer. This is a genuine book musical.
CU: When did you and Margo Lion, the producer, first meet?
 JM: Margo Lion first saw Triumph of Love at Classic Stage Company in April of 1994. I met her that summer, on an unrelated musical project

 CU: Margo Lion was recently quoted as saying that the statement "if it ain't broke you haven't looked hard enough" really comes from you which leads us to ask how that statement applies to your work on Triumph?
 JM: "If it ain't broke, you're not looking hard enough" is actually something Jack Viertel said at one of our summit meeting this past March, right after the show closed at Yale. I'm using it as the title of the journal I'm keeping of the experience. It accurately describes the micro-management approach Margo has taken with the material. She is the Princess Leonide character--indefatigable, ruthless, impassioned, and full of love

 CU: Was your part finished by the time rehearsals started--or have you made changes--once you knew the New York cast, or for any other reasons-- at your end?
JM: I only wish my work had finished by the time rehearsals started. I've been putting rewrites in every day for the last eight weeks. We have five new songs since New Haven. The five new cast members--all brilliant--have given me inspiration for new and better material. There's the old saw that says "Musicals are never finished, they're abandoned on opening night." Someday this show will freeze.
©September 1997,Elyse Sommer , CurtainUp.
Our Review of Triumph of Love

Back to CurtainUp Main Page