Theatre in Translation Part 3: The New Play
The translator is a traveller between words and worlds and cultures. Someone who, in the simplest terms, finds stories in other places and brings them back to us, as narratives that are new and unknown or, perhaps, tell our stories in different ways. Translators open the imagination to and of other worlds, by demonstrating that there are ways of seeing and telling and thinking the world that are not ours. Of course, this process is always mediated, initially through the experience of the translator, or the person who has found the story to be brought across, positioned between the two ‘banks of the river’ as French thinker Jacques Derrida had it.
Head for Heights is producing Juan Radrigán’s El loco y la triste / Mad Man Sad Woman (first performed in 1980) because of this type of mediation, through which the translator sees and hears both the place of origin and the destination. In the mid-1980s, I went to Chile to study the ways in which cultural expression survived under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973 – 1990). Rather than finding the barren cultural wasteland that my faulty and naïve understanding of authoritarianism and my reading about the ‘cultural blackout’ had suggested, I found dramatists and theatre groups making spaces that contested the dominant narrative of tranquility, progress, and modernisation; the so-called ‘economic miracle’ of the Pinochet regime’s version of neoliberalism, whose success was forged in repressive force.
Juan Radrigán was one of the most important dramatic voices of the period. He not only wrote of the margin but from the margins. His subject matter was relentlessly about extreme poverty and marginalisation, and his plays never departed from an expression of the search for human dignity amongst those who were not recognised as part of the new economic and social order. Or if they were, it was as unwanted reminders of what was just out of view of prosperity.
In his early plays, the language, the closed and almost unintelligible speech of the streets, was difficult to understand for those that would be the audience when his theatre moved from the periphery to the centre.
Here was a clear and profound message: that this was a language – Chilean Spanish – that had to be translated and that was not easily accessible because the experiences it spoke of were not recognisable or known because they came from another land from within the country. For Radrigán, these are experiences that people were turning away from in an increasingly stratified and divided society with marked and feared outsiders lurking in the streets and squares and riverbanks of the prospering city.
From this violent and brutal experience, Radrigán wrought a theatre of poetic and troubling impact. I have often described the sensation of translating and seeing the plays come into being as the experience of witnessing the characters find the words to express their longings, desires, losses, and stories for the first, and perhaps the last, time. In this burst of expression, crises are named and lived. His characters move in a wasteland between life and death, looking for the action that will offer their lives the greatest human dignity. As a student, reader, and translator of Juan Radrigán, I have always found his theatre profoundly resonant, and Mad Man Sad Woman is important to me as a play because it forces the imagination to open up to the languages around us that are not properly audible, and to the fault lines of historical experience that sadly unite us.