Play on! Q&A: Caridad Svich on translating ‘Henry VIII’

Caridad SvichOver 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.

This month’s Q&A is with Caridad Svich, the playwright tasked with translating Henry VIII.

Caridad Svich received the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for The House of the Spirits (based on Isabel Allende’s novel). Her new play RED BIKE is currently receiving a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. She is Drama Editor of Asymptote, a literary translation journal, and has translated nearly all of Federico García Lorca’s plays as well as works by Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and Julio Cortázar.

⇒ Read our first Q&A with Kenneth Cavander, about translating Timon of Athens

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

What were your first impressions of the Shakespeare play you translated?

Caridad Svich: When Lue Douthit approached me to translate King Henry VIII for OSF’s Play on! project, I was flattered and surprised. It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays I didn’t know! I had heard of it, of course, (the play that burned down the Globe Theatre in 1613) but had never read it straight through or seen a production of it. I asked several colleagues about it and they all referred to it as the “pageant play.” I was intrigued especially since I’d been having something of an ongoing debate with another theatre colleague about the impact and legacy of the dramaturgy of masque plays in European and US avant-garde theatre. So, the idea of “pageantry” was on my mind.

My first impressions of King Henry VIII upon reading it and beginning the research process for this translation were varied. It struck me as curiously modern, especially in its structure. The play is episodic and proceeds very much as if it were driven by the rat-a-tat rhythms emblematic of procedural TV series like “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.” It’s a play about transactional culture and the weight of conscience. It’s about court intrigue and gossip, backstabbing and betrayals, the desire for power and its abuse, and human collateral damage in “games” of love and war.

A friend asked me as I was starting to work on the translation how I felt about it and I said to them, “Well, there’s something interesting hidden in this rarely performed play: a sly critique of spectacle, not unlike one someone were to write about our current socio-political moment if the focus were almost purely on the machinations of a handful of men steeped wholesale in hetero-patriarchal culture and living life through a materialist lens.” But inside of this play too is the story of Katherine of Aragon, the deposed Queen, the barely hinted-at story of Anne Boleyn and in the end, a worshipful ode to Elizabeth I that rather turns the entire play on its head.

Moreover, whilst the language of the play is relatively plain-spoken, it reminded me of the kind of jump-cut, late-career dramatic writing of Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega, two authors I have translated in the past. You see Shakespeare (and possibly John Fletcher, if one is to believe the somewhat contested argument that this play is co-written by him) streamlining his diction and aiming straight for action rather than favoring the more expansive flights of poetry for which he is known. There could be two ways of thinking of this: one is that given that this is one of his last works for the stage, he is simply done with “word flights” and is focused on simply “getting on with it,” and two is that this seeming shift in diction overall is endemic of many late-career works by playwrights – where suddenly the plays tend to become much more stark and are laid bare, so to speak, onto the page and stage, despite, in this case, moments of visual pomp and majesty.

What did you learn about your Shakespeare play through the translation process? Do you see it differently now? And how did this deep dive affect you as a playwright?

Caridad Svich: In the past, I have written radical reconfigurations or “riffs,” as I like to call them, on some of Shakespeare’s works – 12 Ophelias (in response to Hamlet), Perdita Gracia (in response to The Winter’s Tale), and The Breath of Stars (in response to The Tempest). Working on this Shakespeare play, being inside of its rhythms and energies as a translator, fed in me a desire to go back and re-read the other history plays in his body of work to better understand how Shakespeare interacts with historical figures and makes concrete and sometimes quite bold choices regarding the sharp delineation of characters in terms of pre-Freudian psychological portraiture. Immersed in the dramaturgical structures and linguistic registers of the history plays made me fall headlong in love again with King Henry IV, Part One and as a result, I ended up writing a riff on it entitled Holler River.

What I learned about Shakespeare through this translation process is that the work is, as we well know, undeniable. That is, when the language and action kick in, in tandem, there is a kind of fire in the writing, and it’s no accident that it stoked my own fire as a playwright! I told Lue Douthit after we did the first reading of the Henry VIII translation this year in New York City, “Oh my. I have to write something new.”

There’s such a sense of power coursing through the veins of his writing, even in a play like Henry VIII, which is squarely focused on a doggedly critical transactional worldview, if you look chiefly at the figures of the court in the play, like Cardinal Wolsey. I think what I learned the most in the process of the translation is how the play oscillates between characters’ desire for power, on the one hand, and forgiveness, on the other.