Monday, April 25, 2011

Is It Name's Day or Birthday? Depending on If It's Chekhov

Last Friday, I attended a very engaging performance of "Three Sisters".  It was publicized as a new version by Sarah Ruhl, based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron of Anton Chekhov's play.

There has been a trend to stage seminal plays with "new versions".  This concept of new versions often baffled me.  After having attended several performance of such new versions, I realized that some free adaptations were involved, often remove some historical and cultural references not imminently familiar to average American theatergoers.  It often succeeded in making the plots and dialogues easier to follow, in exchange, sacrificing the richness of the details and subtleties.

Ruhls' version was elegant and eloquent - however, a sense of innate melancholy was shortchanged by melodramatic and some Americanized jokes made no sense in Chekhov's imperial Russia.

I am limiting my discussion here to one point.  The first act of the play took place on a special day.  Which day was it? Depending on if you are asking Chekhov or Ruhl.  Chekhov would tell you that it took place in the youngest sister Irina's "name day" while Ruhl told us that it was Irina's birthday.

One can argue that the change was not a big deal.  In a way, it didn't change the trajectory of the plot and pacing, and would not confuse audience who are not familiar with the concept of name day or name's day, it indeed warrants little objection.

However, it affected the characterization of Irina.  She chimed joyously how happy she was on that day since she got up.  Here, if we knew it was her name day, we would have understood that she felt especially blessed by her patron saint on that special day, and there was a larger celebration and meaning to that day - a day of her particular blessing, a second birth, and a connection to holy purpose and mystery.

When we sat in the audience, hearing her chirping about her joy in her birthday, it was hard not to feel narcissistic streak in her, which Chekhov didn't not give to her characteristics.

Another well-known name day party in Russian literature is Tatiana's in Eugene Onegin by Alexandr Pushkin.

Therefore, this small deal not not really too small, and I, once again, champion a strict literal translation.

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