Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Can there be a worse stage direction for anyone to follow than that given by William Shakespeare in Act III Scene III of The Winter’s Tale? Suddenly, out of nowhere and with no prior warning, a bear rushes onstage and chases off a nobleman carrying a small child. What did The King’s Men do? Did they use an actual bear, controlled by a chain? I suppose bear-baiting and dancing bears were still to be found in England in the 1600s? Or did they throw a bearskin over and actor and have him roar across the stage like the Lion in the yokels’ play, Pyramus and Thisbe? It can’t be played for comedy, because the fate of the child is at the centre of the play. I have to confess I have never seen this play performed, so don’t even know how this scene is staged today.

It’s not the worst stage direction, however. That honour falls on the persons who translated Jean Anouilh’s Medea in the early 1950s, and I believe the credit goes to Luce and Arthur Klein. This is hard to swallow, as Luce Klein was herself French, and would have understood Anouilh’s imagery, but be that as it may. She got it hugely, unbelievably wrong.

In the late 1950s I was working on my thesis, The Medea Theme in Corneille and Anouilh, at the University of Southampton, and decided I’d like to stage an English version of the Anouilh play. It had been produced in London a couple of years earlier, and was available in a collection of plays at the library.

I read it, and fell off my chair in disbelief. The story goes like this: Medea, her children and her Nurse, an old woman who has been with her since Medea herself was a child, are waiting outside the walls of Corinth. Her husband Jason is in the city, negotiating with the king, Creon. What Medea does not know is that Jason is actually negotiating to marry Creon’s daughter, and to abandon Medea. She tries to fight her suspicions and hang on to her faith in and love for Jason, but she begins to question herself. “I feel as if I were about to give birth to something,” she tells the Nurse, “something bigger than I’ve ever delivered before.”

When she finally receives proof of Jason’s great betrayal of her, she screams out, “Enfin je suis delivree! Ma haine! Ma petite fille noire! Que tu es belle!” Now this boils down to the fact that all shadow of doubt has vanished and she is now free to hate Jason for what he is doing. “I am delivered,” she says. “(I have given birth to) my hatred! My little black daughter!” (Hatred is a feminine noun in French.) “How beautiful you are (my hatred)!”

Maybe a little confusing for an English speaker, who does not see nouns as masculine or feminine, but not at all confusing for a French person. It’s imagery. It’s a metaphor. Medea is now free to give vent to her full hatred, and she does.

In the official English translation she lies down in the middle of the stage and gives birth to a little black daughter. Really.

Poor Irene Worth or Mary Morris (one of them played the part in London, but I cannot remember which).

I wrote to Jean Anouilh via his publishers, asking whether I could stage my own translation of the play and explaining why I did not want to stage the official version. His publishers replied that only the official version could be performed.

My possible career as a translator of French plays was cut off at the ankles (I had translated most of Act I, I believe), and Anouilh’s Medea was never performed in English again.

Go figure.

The Miami Triangle

I live in Bermuda. I know. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

No one knows where Bermuda is. Even the British Broadcasting Corporation (Bermuda IS a British Overseas Territory, after all) refers to is as being “in the Caribbean”. One fairly recent Hollywood movie kept placing it in the south Atlantic (confusing it with the Falkland Islands, perhaps?). Just for clarification, Bermuda is in the north Atlantic, a thousand miles north of the Bahamas and approximately 700 miles east of North Carolina.

The one thing everybody in the world has heard of is THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE. The citizens of the Soviet Union were not allowed to know what was going on in the rest of the world during the existence of the USSR, but I visited a year after its collapse and everyone I met asked me about the Bermuda Triangle, and how I had managed to fly out of there without disappearing. My cousin, coming here a few years ago, wasn’t sure what he feared most, the disappearance of the plane he was travelling on or being eaten by sharks as soon as he dipped his toe in the turquoise waters. The fact that no one in living memory had been killed by a shark in Bermuda did not mollify him. It just confirmed that he would die. Needless to say, he survived the round trip AND several swims in the ocean. The only shark he saw was at the Bermuda Aquarium.

Back in the forties and fifties, when planes started disappearing after setting off from Florida – especially the famous Flight 19 from Fort Lauderdale in 1945 – the area in question was known as The Triangle, a vague area with shifting borders. By the 1960s it had been named The Deadly Triangle, which made it far more sinister-sounding, and added the thrill of constant danger. Then journalist Vincent Gaddis, writing in Argosy Magazine, gave it the name The Deadly Bermuda Triangle, and all of a sudden one corner of the location was specified.

It’s also been bruited that the Triangle was to be named the Miami Triangle (as that was the location where most of the disappeared planes left from or were headed towards), but that the Florida tourism authority said it would ruin Florida’s tourism industry. Thus they stuck it to us and called it The Bermuda Triangle.

Now if you look at lists of planes and ships/boats which have disappeared in the so-called triangle (Bermuda-San Juan, Puerto Rico-Miami), you may notice that only TWO FLIGHTS concerned Bermuda in any way or shape: one was on its way to Bermuda from Jamaica, the other had left Bermuda for Puerto Rico. ALL other flights were going to or from Florida, and had nothing to do with Bermuda. Not fair! We Bermudians will spend the rest of our lives explaining to people that life in Bermuda and travel to Bermuda is really amazingly safe.

As for Flight 19, a BBC documentary filmed some 12 years ago (The Bermuda Triangle: Beneath the Waves) set out to investigate and came up with a very plausible explanation: Flight 19’s plan, setting out from Fort Lauderdale, was to fly to Hen & Chickens Islands, do a mock bombing, then over Grand Bahama and back to Fort Lauderdale. There were strong winds that night and, after the mock bombing, the winds took the flight north-east, and the pilots overshot Cistern Cay and mistook Abaco Island for Grand Bahama. Captain Taylor was suffering from spacial disorientation – he thought they were over the Gulf of Mexico at one point and mistook the string of islands by Great Abaco for the Florida Keys. The flight went down about 100 km east of Daytona Beach. The Mariner rescue plane which was sent to search for debris also disappeared, but it was a model which was prone to explosions, so not too much of a surprise.

In an area of sea where there are no visual landmarks, maybe just small islands without houses, it is easy to get lost, and numerous boats and small planes get lost every year.


DON’T watch any movies about The Bermuda Triangle – they’re all *&Q@Z&%!!! But for a hoot you could watch Arthur Rankin’s THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, which was filmed here. It is total balderdash, but worth seeing for the scene in which a giant devil’s turtle rears up from the sea and knocks Burl Ives’s helicopter out of the sky.

Petet Benchley, author of JAWS, fell in love with Bermuda and based his next novel, THE DEEP, here, and here it was filmed, too, starring Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset. It’s by no means a terrific movie – pure hokum – but it’s got some glorious footage of Bermuda, and hundreds of us filled Marley Beach for land scenes (but ended on the editing floor).



Comrade Stalin Stole My Skis

The year I was six I knew I would get a pair of skis for Christmas. In Estonia you start school at the age of seven. Because of Estonia’s hard winters, children travelled to school on skis, and mine had been ordered and were being made, so that I could learn to ski after Christmas. Up till then I could go out only when pushed by Mother or extremely unwilling older Sister in a chair-on-skis contraption (see Snow Bunny and Mother, above).

I was very excited. Wow! My own skis! I would be A BIG GIRL, and not the Boogernose Sister called me.

But life is rarely straightforward. Comrade Stalin – or Uncle Joe, as he was also known – had taken our little country in 1939 and done some extremely nasty things to us. this included sending some 40,000 of our relatives, friends and neighbours to slave labour camps in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Driven back into Soviet Russia by the advancing Nazi troops, Uncle Joe licked his wounds and resentments and waited for the Russian cold to send the Germans retreating, tail between their legs.

In 1944 Uncle Joe’s armies recommenced their advance and we knew that, if we did not want to live in slavery, we would have to escape. We fled one week after my sixth birthday, in September. (I’ll give more details in future posts.)

By storming in again, Comrade Stalin made sure that I didn’t get my skis – or any present – that Christmas. I never learnt to ski. And who knows? Maybe this would have been THE sport I would have excelled in. I could have worn sleek ski suits and flown elegantly down mountain slopes, instead of freezing my butt off in a thin blue Greek tunic and bottle-green knickers on the netball court, failing to catch the ball or net a goal.

There are many, many millions of deaths to lay at Comrade Stalin’s door, and a pair of skis is just a pair of skis. But Comrade Stalin stole mine. So there.


BOOK: INTO EXILE by Elin Toona Gottschalk (available from Amazon.com) My friend Elin – we first met in a post-war refugee camp – recently wrote the story of her refugee and post-refugee days. Our stories are similar, and yet diametrically different. Elin writes poetically and beautifully. I cannot recommend this memoir enough. It was selected as one of the top memoirs by The Economist a couple of years ago.