Play on! Q&A: Kenneth Cavander on translating ‘Timon of Athens’

Kenneth CavanderOver the next few months, the Folger is doing a series of Q&As with some of the playwrights and dramaturgs involved with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

For those interested in hearing what these translations sound like, Classic Stage Company in New York has just announced that it will present 39 readings from the Play on! project in summer 2019, in partnership with OSF.

Our first Q&A on this blog is with Kenneth Cavander, who translated Timon of Athens (as the pilot play for Play on!) and The Tempest. His translations were staged at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014 and 2017 respectively.

Read an introduction to the Play on! project by Lue Douthit, the project director at OSF.

Why did you say “yes” to the project?

Kenneth Cavander: A lot of reasons, too many to go into here, but one above all. Having been raised in England, nurtured on Shakespeare’s plays, worked at the Stratford-upon-Avon theatre dedicated to his memory, I had to confess that when I sat in the audience of a production, no matter how distinguished the company, the director, the concept – I still didn’t understand a good part of what was going on.

Let’s talk about Timon of Athens since it was the pilot play. Where did you see yourself in the writing process in relation to the original text?

As the latest writer on a script that already included at least three others – William Shakespeare, working from a story that had been dramatized before; his collaborator, Thomas Middleton, sixteen years his junior, an up-and-coming dramatist with a reputation for street-smart comedies; and the author of the previous version of the work they had adapted, whose identity has been lost. The two collaborators could not have been more different. Their Playbill bios today would look something like this – William Shakespeare (Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Thomas Middleton (The Honest Whore, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Anything for a Quiet Life).

Timon of Athens
Brik Berkes, Anthony Cochrane and Christian Ryan in Timon of Athens (translated by Kenneth Cavander) at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, 2014.

What was your first impression of Timon of Athens?

My first impression, to be honest, was – what a mess.

Head-swiveling changes of tone between slangy crosstalk and fusillades of insults and vituperation piled on each other like boulders … scenes intercutting between locations with cinematic swiftness … plot themes set in motion only to disappear into the undergrowth … the text more like a mosaic than a blueprint for a connected narrative –Timon of Athens is pretty much what you’d expect from two playwrights of different generations joining forces to do something topical and subversive, who then, for whatever reason – disagreements, more attractive offers, realizing they had bitten off more than they could chew – decided to part company and move on to the next project.

A mess, but all the same a tasty one.

Can you tell us more about the translation process?

Becoming the third, or (who knows?) maybe the fourth or fifth writer on the story of Timon’s sad realization that he had been living a fantasy and his terrifying indictment of a whole society corroded and corrupted by money – that was invigorating. As every one of the translators in the Play on! project has found, there is no need to change every word. Much of the time Shakespeare and Middleton are as pungent and vividly clear now as they were then.

And when they aren’t, there was the fun of trying to get into the same delirious frame of mind in which some of the language was originally begotten.

For example, when Timon rages against the friends who consigned him to bankruptcy, he soars to new levels of bilious sarcasm, as if he was actually enjoying watching himself indict a whole society …

TIMON [William Shakespeare]

Turn incontinent. Bankrupts, hold fast.
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters throats. Bound servants, steal –
Large handed robbers your masters are
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed,
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel …

I didn’t want an audience to miss a grain of the feeling behind this, but the years since the words were written had not been kind to their sense.

So that section turned into this:

TIMON [Kenneth Cavander]

Spread your legs for all comers. Bankrupt?
Keep your money and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates. Servant girl, hop
Into your master’s bed – his wife
Is in the cathouse turning tricks …

Still and all, it was a balancing act, constantly making judgment calls about what would carry into an audience’s consciousness in performance and how far to go in making sure it got there. The only safe way to decide was to be courageous – take risks (as Shakespeare and Middleton had done) – and jump into the Abyss.

Timon of Athens
Anthony Cochrane and Alice Sherman in Timon of Athens (translated by Kenneth Cavander) at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, 2014.

Any last reflections?

Looking back on it now, when the script went into rehearsal at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, directed by Geoffrey Sherman, and when audiences  laughed in the right places and gasped when they should, I realized that the thing had become a collaboration over centuries.

But was it a translation?

That’s not how I think of it. For my purposes, I think of Timon of Athens and the second play I worked on for the Play on! project, The Tempest, as ‘transcriptions’ – the way a composer takes a work such as a symphony and transcribes it for, say, the piano, as Liszt did with Beethoven. The instrument is different; the melody remains.