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.