Kolekar on Bouchardon and Ferry, editors (2017)


Bouchardon, Marianne, and Ariane Ferry, editors. Rendre accessible le théâtre étranger (XIXe–XXIe siècles). PU du Septentrion, 2017, pp. 416, ISBN 978-2-7574-1587-0 

Pramila Kolekar, Williams College

This densely packed volume provides a panoramic view of the modalities of cultural transfer with regard to “foreign” French theater from the nineteenth century onwards. It takes into account transnational movement in both directions: the performance of foreign plays in France as well as the staging of French plays in other countries. An international, interdisciplinary conference Rendre accessible le théâtre étranger (XIXe–XXIe siècles): traduire, adapter, réécrire, commenter, programmer, mettre en scène, organized by the Centre d’Études et de Recherche Éditer/Interpréter (CÉRÉDI) at the University of Rouen-Normandie in 2014, was the source for the papers published in this collection; the conference title indicates the different angles from which scholars have considered the rich topic of foreign theater. 

The editors, Marianne Bouchardon and Ariane Ferry, both of the University of Rouen–Normandie, CÉRÉDI, provide an insightful and informative preface, and have also done a commendable job grouping twenty-six disparate papers emanating from the conference into five sections. While some of the thematic groupings are obvious and expected—translations/adaptations of foreign theater in France, examples of French theater performed outside France, and the staging of foreign theater and opera in France—the others are less so. I particularly appreciated the section on the forms and functions of critical discourse as well as the one dedicated to institutions and individual passeurs who work to facilitate theatrical exchange across national boundaries: these, in my opinion, highlighted efforts of dissemination that are often overlooked despite the crucial role they play in the theatrical ecosystem.

The wide variety of topics provides tantalizing glimpses into the research conducted by scholars from different countries and in different disciplines. There is something of interest for anyone working on le théâtre étranger as it relates to France, regardless of whether they approach it from a textual angle or from a performance viewpoint. Taken together, the papers show the various challenges encountered when theater crosses boundaries of language, culture, and ideology. Barring a few exceptions, the contributions analyze translations among French and English, Spanish, German and Italian, all Western European languages; I would have liked to see a more geographically diverse representation of international theaterAll is not lost, however: even as Véronique Boutin evokes “le désintérêt de l’Europe de l’Ouest tournée sur elle même” (219) in a highly informative piece, she nevertheless offers hope of mitigating this disinterest as she describes the initiatives currently undertaken by La Maison d’Europe et d’Orient in promoting dramatic writing from Eastern Europe and Central Asia in Europe and the Francophone world. There are also, in the current volume, two papers dealing with adaptations of Chinese theater in France—an analysis of three separate translations into French of Lao She’s play, La Maison de thé (1957) by Florence Xiangyun Zhang and a paper by Françoise Quillet on translations/adaptations of Chinese Opera in France from the nineteenth century onwards. Linguistic and cultural challenges are expected when continents are crossed; yet, it was still surprising and intriguing to read Pauline Bouchet’s account of the peculiar challenges faced in “translating” modern French plays from Quebec for audiences in France. 

Taken as a whole, Rendre accessible le théâtre étranger has a broad appeal, but does not aim to provide either a historical overview or a current snapshot of French plays abroad or of foreign plays in France. However, the preface does alert readers to the multi-volume project Histoire des traductions en langue française published by Verdier under the direction of Jean-Yves Masson and Yves Chevrel; the volume on the nineteenth century was published in 2012. Although Rendre accessible le théâtre étranger covers several centuries, there are several studies of interest to dix-neuviémistes. A few of them are presented here, randomly chosen to show the diversity of research being carried out in this area. The collection itself opens with a nineteenth-century study by Marie Salgues on the translation of Spanish dramatist Calderón’s plays by Léo Rouanet, Drames religieux de Calderón (1898). Françoise Court-Perez’s piece on Théophile Gautier sheds light on the drama criticism contained within his travel writings, showing that Gautier’s travel feuilletons are a novel and effective means of bringing the dynamism of foreign theater to his readers and making it come alive for them through his lively prose. Castil-Blaze receives some well-deserved attention from Séverine Féron, who illuminates the pivotal role played by this multi-talented writer and musician in translating and adapting foreign-language opera for audiences in Paris, and, unusual for the era, for audiences outside Paris as well. There are two very different contributions on Dumas’s Kean ou désordre et génie (1836), coincidentally sharing the USA as a venue. The first is Barbara T. Cooper’s paper on Kean’s American adaptation, The Royal Box (1897), which analyzes the textual changes wrought by Charles Coghlan, and the manner in which the American press received this adaptation. The other paper, by Michelle Cheyne on the Italian translation of Kean, on tour in the USA in 1881–82, takes note of the commercial exigencies that shape theatrical performances, revealing “la double nature du théâtre, à la fois art et industrie” (327). 

The juxtaposition of contributions tackling the flow of dramatic pieces both into France and outside it gives an idea of the different challenges encountered in each instance. This grants insight into the cultures involved as well as the different forces, historical and economic among others, that shape theatrical exchange. It is never just about theater, but about the circumstances that surround its creation and inform it: as Salgues says of the Drames religieux mentioned above, “[ils] parlent, certes, de l’Espagne, mais en disent surtout très long sur la nation française, en période de forte mutation à l’instar de sa voisine méditerranéenne” (30-31). 

In summary: the papers are interesting and useful in and of themselves, with the collection functioning as a bellwether of research trends in the field. The editors must be thanked for this well-organized volume that additionally provides a twenty-seven-page bibliography and a twenty-page index at the end—a treasure trove for translators and researchers whose work intersects theater; comparatists, historians, and cultural studies scholars will also find this collection of interest. Rendre accessible le théâtre étranger (XIXe-XXIe siècles)is a useful volume that any library would do well to acquire.