The Playgoer: Francophobia at the NYT?

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Francophobia at the NYT?

I'm completely nonplussed at Jesse McKinley's "story" in the Saturday Arts section on the upcoming production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis at BAM. The facts are pretty straightforward: like most plays at BAM, it's an import from abroad, in this case France. The great Isabelle Huppert has been performing the play over there already, in French, of course, and will continue doing so here. Why would anyone expect otherwise?

Well McKinley and the Times thinks it's really odd (hilarious? outrageous?) that a knowledge of French might be asked for by decent theatregoing Manhattanites. (As if it's not bad enough we have to schlep out to Brooklyn, they might as well have added...) Now BAM does lots of foreign language productions (a bit of important context not to be found in the piece) and the barrier is usually overcome by "supertitles," headphones, or some such device. So, true, it is noteworthy that BAM is only offering partial English titles for this particular show. Why--you may ask--has a line-for-line translation been vetoed here? That would be an excellent question, perhaps leading to revelations about artistic choices of the director and his star. But it is not a question you'll see asked in this article.

Instead McKinley offers this glib and superficial account:

Ms. Huppert will perform the show essentially as a monologue, standing nearly motionless for 105 minutes without intermission. There will be a few English super-titles but very little else to help those of us without a working knowledge of the language of love.

("Language of love"? Don't Times editors have a cliche squad? Is this really the implied level of discourse for a NYT arts reader now?)

I guess this gets to me because I have had some of the most amazing theatregoing experiences of my life at foreign-language performances. (And most of them were at BAM) When you are liberated from the habituated "hanging on every word" posture and stop just passively following one line of dialgue to the next, you start noticing subtle things about staging and the physicality of actors' bodies and even voices. (I will always remember the robust sound of Ingmar Bergman's ensembles, for instance.) Supertitles can actually be a terrible distraction from the stage (there's just nowhere to put them as conveniently as in a movie-frame), and I try never to resort to the dreaded headphones of "simultaneous translation" when usually two announcers--one male, one female-- read all the parts in a monotone usually employed for NPR headlines. Obviously, intelligibility of the dialogue is important. That's why, if it's available, I always try to read the play beforehand. When it's a classic, like a familiar Shakespeare, it's really no problem to at least follow where they are in the play.

Such effort is called preparing. And perhaps what ticks me off is that is what is mocked most in McKinley's article. Starting with the headline: "Sending a Warning on an Unusual Play (Go Pack Your Pocket Larousse?)". Right. As in, "Warning: thought and active spectating may be required." The blunt topic of this short article quickly boils down to: BAM fucked up and programmed a Frog play with no subtitles.

So it is that Joseph V. Melillo, the executive director of the academy, recently took the unusual step of writing a letter to ticketholders of "4:48" essentially telling them what they were getting into. "As some ticket buyers may be unfamiliar with the play," Mr. Melillo wrote in a letter dated Sept. 20, "I wanted to elaborate on some of the unique aspects of this staging so that you can have the best possible experience at BAM." He then outlined the play's lack of "plotline, time, location or staging notes," and the decision to perform it in French.
Interviewed yesterday, Mr. Melillo said the letter was simply "truth in advertising," meant to inform his audiences that the show was "not the norm of what you experience at BAM."

So the idea we're supposed to get is Melillo has had to do massive damage control. But, actually, I think it's great for a producer to want to "prepare" his audience and give some context. While Melillo, even at a non-profit institution, must keep his eye on sales (and the "advertising" of his product), it's not a dissimilar impulse from the lengthy notes directors and dramaturgs might put into a program (or a theatre company's newsletter) in the hopes patrons might step up and take an active role, or "assistance" as the audience's role is actually referred to by--guess who--the French.

Understandably, some may choose not to sit through a whole 100 minutes(!) of partially unfiltered French spoken by a beautiful and powerful actress--in a rare New York stage appearance, I might add. For others, that sounds like already a more intriguing evening of theatre than most of the lame shows the Times has been giving space to lately. (Count how many promos they did on Naked Girl on the Appian Way, for instance, before Brantley panned it as a highbrow sitcom.) And there's even a simple way around the language barrier that McKinley never mentions. Read the play! It's published. Here. Okay, so it may add $10 to the ticket. But I'm sure that's immaterial to the demographic the Times has in mind anyway. Perhaps Melillo even suggests this in his letter to ticketbuyers. We'll never know since McKinley doesn't say.

So is the Times out to embarass BAM? Or is this just the slyest kind of PR, posing as critical reporting, but in fact existing only to promote the next big opening, for which tickets are still available? Or is this the dumbing down of arts coverage just proceeding as planned...


Anonymous said...

Bravo--I agree entirely. Reading a play in conjunction with seeing it can be particularly rewarding in this case because of the unconventional nature of the text. I was astounded when I saw 4.48 Psychosis last year and astounded again when I read it (I won't attempt to say why), and I'm now eagerly awaiting my chance to see it at BAM.

DL said...

It makes me happy this post. Because i am a french theatre girl in seattle and i can't see it ! and i really want to !!!!
so tell me how it is, would you ? !!!

DL said...

oh and i read the article and i also thought that it was anti french but i didn't want to say it in my blog and have people tell me that i was making it up because i am French. so i am glad i wasn't being paranoid.

Playgoer said...

Courage, Petit Bout. Stand up for your mother tongue!... thanks for reading

Anonymous said...

I want to see this play, and I'm going to see this play, but I'm not a BAM season ticket holder (i sneak in on student rush) so how am i supposed to know to order the play from amazon a week in advance of when i see it? If BAM is serious about their audience preparing for a foreign language show, they should recognize that there are THIRTY holds on the script at the NYPL and no copies at the Brooklyn Public Library. It just comes off as rich man's theater. I'd gladly go to the show two hours early and read up if they provided copies of the english script for their audience. The point of the NYT article which i agree with is that BAM is not being helpful at all to people who want access but can't organize their lives around the BAM program.