BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
The current production of “Bacchae” by Euripides playing at the Getty Villa has a great deal of talent associated with it. Its performers are members of the reputed New York-based SITI Company; its director is Anne Bogart, the influential force behind the movement-driven Viewpoints technique; and its translator is the esteemed poet Aaron Poochigian.
Poochigian is held in high regard for his Greek translations, which include the works of Sappho and Aeschylus; he is equally celebrated for his own compositions, published in such volumes of poetry as “The Cosmic Purr” and “Manhattanite,” and in the verse novel “Mr. Either/Or.”
Descended from immigrants who first settled in the Central Valley back in the 19th century and made their name in farming, Poochigian followed another path. He earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota, after a year-long research fellowship in Greece.
For a while, Poochigian called New York City home, but he has now made his way back to Fresno, where he resides in the family home and devotes himself full-time to writing poetry – except when opportunities like “Bacchae” come along.
“Bacchae,” which opened last week, tells the story of Dionysus, god of wine and theater, and his arrival in Thebes with a chorus of women devoted to his worship. As the ranks of his zealots grow throughout the city, its king, Pentheus, tries to suppress the Dionysian fervor. His attempts, however, meet with ferocious resistance by Dionysus’ devotees – including Pentheus’ own mother and aunts – who murder him by literally tearing him apart.
Poochigian’s translation is a triumph – a remarkably lucid and vibrant rendition that is the highlight of the SITI production. The script’s language is precise, yet sonorous, expertly constructed in iambic pentameter to both moving and chilling effect. Bogart’s staging is more uneven, and some of her stylistic choices (one character speaks entire passages in Japanese) and modernist touches (the cast’s first appearance is to the lyrics of “I Put a Spell on You”), flirt with gimmickry. A seasoned cast is led by SITI Artistic Co-Director Ellen Lauren, whose androgynous turn as Dionysus beams with comic and tragic accents.
I spoke with Poochigian about the production (while it was still in rehearsals) and about his approach to translating the underlying text. Below are key excerpts from our conversation:
ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN: Let’s begin with your Armenian background and the path your ancestors followed to America.
AARON POOCHIGIAN: So I’m half-Armenian, and my great-grandfather Bedros Poochigian came to America through Ellis Island and then settled in Southern California, eventually. He lived in Fresno and had a number of sons who had land and were farmers, great farmers, primarily in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Fresno. I now live in my grandfather Vaughn’s house, the old farmhouse, that’s become my writer’s retreat here in Fresno.
A.K.: So are you in Fresno for just a spell, or are you making it home?
A.P.: I’m living there now, and I’ve just decided to be a poet. I’m lucky in that I still have a bit of land and the house, and I just write poetry. We’ll see how long I can make it last.
A.K.: Your most recent work is a new translation of “Bacchae.” Why did you decide to translate this particular work, and what distinguishes your translation from those that have become before it?
A.P.: I had retired from translation. I had decided just to work solely on my own original poetry, but I had worked in the past with the Getty and the SITI Company, and SITI Company, based in New York, approached me with the possibility of translating this play for the stage and for them, and offered a commission.
My translation is different from the other available translations in a number of ways. Most often, this play, which in the ancient Greek is poetry throughout – it’s incantatory, rhythmic verse poetry – is translated as prose for a reading audience. So through my translation I wanted to get closer to the original, in a sense, by preserving the poetry of it and also by making a version for the stage, and what that means, “translating for the stage,” is that the translation needs to be immediately comprehensible to the audience. Whereas a reading audience can refer to footnotes or look things up in the dictionary or online, a theater audience, in order to be moved by the words, needs to understand them immediately, so that’s the primary consideration of my translation, and the other major one is the preservation of the poetry.
There are two major sections, the spoken sections which are verse, and then the sung sections which are for the chorus, so I wanted to preserve the meter of the poetry, the metrical richness of the original by translating not just into one meter, but into a variety of them that capture the rhythmic richness of the original.
A.K.: The relationship between you, a poet, and your audience is ordinarily a direct one. In creating a work for the stage, however, you have a director and performers as intermediaries. How did you feel about entrusting your work to others for interpretation and presentation?
A.P.: Let me tell you, there is no greater pleasure than hearing trained actors read your words. It’s the great joy of my life. All of the actors in SITI Company are experienced in verse drama, they’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, for example, and so they were able to understand what I was doing with the poetry and to run with it. I myself have been driving down from Fresno to the Getty to work with the actors, and we have been revising the script somewhat when the actors have questions, and I’ve been there to answer their questions about pronunciation and interpretation. [For the] SITI Company . . . the creation of a play is very much a collective process. The actors have to create the state of play, trying different things and finding what they want for their character, so it’s been a lot of fun for me to be a part of that process.
A.K.: In what ways have either the actors or Anne Bogart caused you to rethink your work, either in envisioning a line differently or being actually moved to change it?
A.P.: They helped me make the translation for the stage that I was looking for. First, there were time constraints: The Getty production, contractually, can’t be longer than 90 minutes, so we ended up cutting – not a lot, but making prudent cuts of sections that would alienate the audience. Also, in terms of practical considerations, in the original we think there was a pyrotechnic display when fire shoots forth from the tomb of Semele [the mother of Dionysus], and we cut that from the play for a number of reasons – primarily because it’s just not safe to have fire in California right now, and the Getty didn’t want to worry about it, and I understood. So, yes, the interaction with Anne Bogart and the Getty producers helped me come up with a script that’s tailored to the space and this particular production.
The actors have been helpful in making the translation consistent and also in rendering epithets – that is, characteristic titles for gods in some immediately recognizable way. The god Dionysus is often referred to by his name Bromius in the script, and we decided to render that onomatopoeically, we decided to render that by what it means – the roaring god – every time it comes up, and that’s one of the ways we can make the ancient text immediately comprehensible to the audience.
I’m talking now to the University of California Berkeley Press about publishing “Bacchae.” That translation will be much stronger for all the workshopping it’s had with the actors, but also it will be full-length and will include the cuts we had to make for this particular production.
A.K.: What specifically about Bogart’s direction and her Viewpoints technique, which incorporates movement aligned with a specific space, enhanced this particular text?
A.P.: They’re still in the process of doing that, but what they’re doing in terms of grounding the words in bodily movements, as I see it, is bringing the choral sections to life. In contemporary productions of ancient Greek tragedy, how to handle the chorus is usually the big problem – and usually a big drag on the production, frankly. Actors can handle the scenes in which the characters are interacting, but how to deal with this body of people that’s always on stage and then suddenly breaks into song is usually problematic and usually ends up getting cut, terribly.
Because of its ensemble nature, its collective nature, the SITI is the only company I’ve worked with so far that has managed to make the choral sections integral to the production, not just mere interludes in song. As it’s set up now, the actors enter as a body, a chorus, and characters emerge from the chorus, this collective, and then they’re absorbed back into the chorus once their part is played. Anne has been particularly interested in “Bacchae” as Euripides’ last play, and some scholars have argued that it’s very metatheatrical, that Dionysus is very much the director, that in it Euripides is saying goodbye to the theater. Anne has been very interested in that idea, and I hope it doesn’t mean that she is saying goodbye to the theater as well. Oh, but I started digressing . . .
A.K.: Digressions are good. What do you perceive the contemporary relevance of this millennia-old play to be, especially for the age that we are living in? This play sort of has at its center a vengeful figure lashing out for personal slights. Should we read any political metaphors into this?
A.P.: Wow, I don’t know if I want to jump into that whole conversation. I will – but I don’t know if I want to. First off, the play is very rich and open to interpretation in terms of the relationship between the free practice of religion and the laws of the state. And that is a very timely issue. To what extent, then, someone’s discomfort, for example, with homosexuality or gay marriage entitles them to not serve people – the law is dealing with these issues right now. In this play, we have a radical new religion making its way for the first time into Greece, and that presents Pentheus, who is the king of Thebes, with a conundrum: on the one side, you have the chorus saying that all gods must be worshipped, regardless of what one feels about them. You have the chorus saying that, and you have the Greeks strongly believing that. And you have, on the other hand, chaos created by this new religion, which Pentheus, as king, has to try to deal with. Pentheus doesn’t believe that Dionysus is a god and tries to restrict the worship of this god; he makes the wrong decision and ends up not just dying for it, but dying in a horrible way, being ripped apart by his mother and aunts, his head carried in on a stick. And so the play certainly deals with the tension between law and religion, and the management of a peaceful society and the free practice of religion.
Certainly, also, the play gets into immigration issues, in a number of different ways. That’s a very timely issue as well, and our production is going to play up that connection with immigration. Dionysus is himself both a native and a stranger. He is born, the first time, in Thebes, when he is blasted out of his mother’s womb, and then he’s sown into Zeus’ thigh and born elsewhere in the East a second time. And so he’s coming back home to Thebes, to the first city in Greece, to introduce himself as a god and his new religion, and he’s both a stranger and a native. And to make this even more timely, he brings with him a group of raving worshippers called the Bacchae; they are females from Asia Minor, what’s now Turkey, and they follow him, as I say, as ecstatic worshippers. They are foreigners in Thebes and they’re bringing a new religion and they’re trying to change the culture, if you will, and they are imprisoned for it before Dionysus sets them free, so we have imprisoned immigrants, yes, in the play as well.
But I don’t know if I want to go any further in terms of overt contemporary political references in the play.
“Bacchae” plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at the Getty Villa through September 29. Reserve Tickets.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work, “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is currently having its world premiere.