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Folger Shakespeare and Beyond: Play on! Q&A: Caridad Svich on translating ‘Henry VIII’

Originally published on May 22, 2018 by Caridad Svich in the Shakespeare and Beyond blog by Folger Shakespeare Library.


Over the next few months, the Folger is doing a series of Q&As with some of the playwrights and dramaturgs involved with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

This month’s Q&A is with Caridad Svich, the playwright tasked with translating Henry VIII.

Caridad Svich received the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for The House of the Spirits (based on Isabel Allende’s novel). Her new play RED BIKE is currently receiving a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. She is Drama Editor of Asymptote, a literary translation journal, and has translated nearly all of Federico García Lorca’s plays as well as works by Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and Julio Cortázar.

⇒ Read our first Q&A with Kenneth Cavander, about translating Timon of Athens

⇒ Read an introduction to the Play on! project by Lue Douthit, the project director at OSF

What were your first impressions of the Shakespeare play you translated?

Caridad Svich: When Lue Douthit approached me to translate King Henry VIII for OSF’s Play on! project, I was flattered and surprised. It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays I didn’t know! I had heard of it, of course, (the play that burned down the Globe Theatre in 1613) but had never read it straight through or seen a production of it. I asked several colleagues about it and they all referred to it as the “pageant play.” I was intrigued especially since I’d been having something of an ongoing debate with another theatre colleague about the impact and legacy of the dramaturgy of masque plays in European and US avant-garde theatre. So, the idea of “pageantry” was on my mind.

My first impressions of King Henry VIII upon reading it and beginning the research process for this translation were varied. It struck me as curiously modern, especially in its structure. The play is episodic and proceeds very much as if it were driven by the rat-a-tat rhythms emblematic of procedural TV series like “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.” It’s a play about transactional culture and the weight of conscience. It’s about court intrigue and gossip, backstabbing and betrayals, the desire for power and its abuse, and human collateral damage in “games” of love and war.

A friend asked me as I was starting to work on the translation how I felt about it and I said to them, “Well, there’s something interesting hidden in this rarely performed play: a sly critique of spectacle, not unlike one someone were to write about our current socio-political moment if the focus were almost purely on the machinations of a handful of men steeped wholesale in hetero-patriarchal culture and living life through a materialist lens.” But inside of this play too is the story of Katherine of Aragon, the deposed Queen, the barely hinted-at story of Anne Boleyn and in the end, a worshipful ode to Elizabeth I that rather turns the entire play on its head.

Moreover, whilst the language of the play is relatively plain-spoken, it reminded me of the kind of jump-cut, late-career dramatic writing of Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega, two authors I have translated in the past. You see Shakespeare (and possibly John Fletcher, if one is to believe the somewhat contested argument that this play is co-written by him) streamlining his diction and aiming straight for action rather than favoring the more expansive flights of poetry for which he is known. There could be two ways of thinking of this: one is that given that this is one of his last works for the stage, he is simply done with “word flights” and is focused on simply “getting on with it,” and two is that this seeming shift in diction overall is endemic of many late-career works by playwrights – where suddenly the plays tend to become much more stark and are laid bare, so to speak, onto the page and stage, despite, in this case, moments of visual pomp and majesty.

What did you learn about your Shakespeare play through the translation process? Do you see it differently now? And how did this deep dive affect you as a playwright?

Caridad Svich: In the past, I have written radical reconfigurations or “riffs,” as I like to call them, on some of Shakespeare’s works – 12 Ophelias (in response to Hamlet)Perdita Gracia (in response to The Winter’s Tale), and The Breath of Stars (in response to The Tempest). Working on this Shakespeare play, being inside of its rhythms and energies as a translator, fed in me a desire to go back and re-read the other history plays in his body of work to better understand how Shakespeare interacts with historical figures and makes concrete and sometimes quite bold choices regarding the sharp delineation of characters in terms of pre-Freudian psychological portraiture. Immersed in the dramaturgical structures and linguistic registers of the history plays made me fall headlong in love again with King Henry IV, Part One and as a result, I ended up writing a riff on it entitled Holler River.

What I learned about Shakespeare through this translation process is that the work is, as we well know, undeniable. That is, when the language and action kick in, in tandem, there is a kind of fire in the writing, and it’s no accident that it stoked my own fire as a playwright! I told Lue Douthit after we did the first reading of the Henry VIII translation this year in New York City, “Oh my. I have to write something new.”

There’s such a sense of power coursing through the veins of his writing, even in a play like Henry VIII, which is squarely focused on a doggedly critical transactional worldview, if you look chiefly at the figures of the court in the play, like Cardinal Wolsey. I think what I learned the most in the process of the translation is how the play oscillates between characters’ desire for power, on the one hand, and forgiveness, on the other.

Headshot Image for Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich

Playwright, Henry VIII

Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the...

Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and NNPN rolling world premiere for Guapa, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based Isabel Allende’s novel. She has won the National Latino Playwriting Award (sponsored by Arizona Theatre Company) twice, including in the year 2013 for her play Spark. She has been short-listed for the PEN Award in Drama four times, including in the year 2012 for her play Magnificent Waste. In 2018-2019, her play RED BIKE receives an NNPN rolling world premiere at theatres across the US.

Her works in English and Spanish have been seen at venues across the US and abroad, among them Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle Series, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Gala Hispanic Theatre, Denver Center Theatre, 59E59, The Women’s Project, Halcyon Theatre, Woodshed Collective @ McCarren Park Pool, Repertorio Espanol, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lighthouse Poole UK, Teatro Mori (Chile), Artheater-Cologne (Germany), Ilkhom Theater (Uzbekistan), Teatro Espressivo (Costa Rica), Welsh Fargo Stage (Wales), Homotopia Festival UK, SummerWorks festival in Toronto, CEAD Festival in Montreal and Edinburgh Fringe Festival/UK.. She is currently under commission from American Conservatory Theatre, Cleveland Opera Theater, and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and she is a 2017-2018 visiting research fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Key works in her repertoire include 12 OpheliasIphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her HeartThe Booth VariationsAlchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s BluesAny Place But HereArchipelagoThe Way of Water and In the Time of the Butterflies (based on Julia Alvarez’ novel). She has radically reconfigured works from Wedekind, Euripides, Sophocles, and Shakespeare and adapted works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her plays have been directed by Annie Castledine, Maria Irene Fornes, Lisa Peterson, Neel Keller, William Carden, Nick Philippou, Annie Dorsen, Katie Pearl, Stephen Wrentmore, Daniella Topol, Jose Zayas, and David Lozano, among many others. In her theatre work she has collaborated with composers Adam Sultan, Graham Reynolds, O-Lan Jones, Michael Roth, the Jones Street Boys, Jane Shaw, Mike Croswell, and Tom Hagerman of the Grammy-winning band DeVotchKa.

Her work has also intersected with communities of multiple diversities with works responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the US Gulf region, veterans and their families, survivors of trauma and those committed to artistic expression of precarity, advocacy for US Latin@ writing voices, and engagement with representations of the “fragile shores” in our lives. She is co-organizer and curator of After Orlando theatre action in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre with Missing Bolts Productions at DR2 Theatre in New York City, Finborough Theatre in London and over sixty venues across the US; and Climate Change Theatre Action with The Arctic Cycle and Theatre Without Borders. She has also published over twenty titles with NoPassport Press by authors as diverse as Todd London, John Jesurun, David Greenspan, Carson Kreitzer, Rinde Eckert, Lenora Champagne and Octavio Solis.

Her works are published by TCG, Smith & Kraus, Playscripts, Broadway Play Publishing and more. Four collections of her works for live performance are published as follows: The Hour of All Things and other plays (Intellect, 2017), JARMAN (all this maddening beauty) and other plays (Intellect UK, 2016); Instructions for Breathing and other plays (Seagull Books UK, 2014); Blasted Heavens (Eyecorner Press, Denmark, 2012). She has edited several books on theatre including Audience Revolution: Dispatches from the Field (TCG, 2016), Innovation in Five Acts (TCG, 2015), Out of Silence: Censorship in Theatre & Performance and Trans-Global Readings: Crossing Theatrical Boundaries and Theatre in Crisis? (the latter two for Manchester University Press, UK). She is co-author of Fifty Playwrights on Their Craft, which is published by Methuen Bloomsbury Drama in 2017.

She sustains a parallel career as a theatrical translator, chiefly of the dramatic work of Federico Garcia Lorca as well as works by Calderon de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Julio Cortazar, Victor Rascon Banda, Antonio Buero Vallejo and contemporary works from Mexico, Cuba and Spain. She is associate editor of Contemporary Theatre Review for Routledge, UK, contributing editor of TheatreForum, and drama editor of Asymptote literary translation journal. She is alumna playwright of New Dramatists, and affiliated artist with the Lark and New Georges, and lifetime member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. She has received fellowships from Harvard/Radcliffe, NEA/TCG, PEW Charitable Trust, and California Arts Council. As an arts journalist, she has written for American TheatreHowlroundPAJThe Dramatist, and Hotreview. She holds an MFA in Theatre-Playwriting from UCSD, and she also trained for four consecutive years with Maria Irene Fornes in INTAR’s legendary HPRL Lab. She teaches creative writing and playwriting at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Primary Stages’ Einhorn School of Performing Arts. She has taught playwriting at Bard, Barnard, Bennington, Denison, Ohio State, ScriptWorks, and Yale School of Drama. caridadsvich.com

Caridad is working on Henry VIII – Click here for more details!

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