While widely admired in Europe, Bernard-Marie Koltès has not had the purchase in the United States that his talent and vision merit. His dark and heady theatre pieces take us to an uncomfortable and unfinished world, not the conventional concrete universe of American theatre. And he writes in long, complex, lyrical sentences that require both the skill of actors to bring poetry alive on stage and the patience of the audience to accept the mysterious — and often louche – exchanges engaged in by his intensely self-conscious characters.
Translating Koltès, as I have done, for the Skirball co-production of In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, has meant allowing myself to be inhabited by his rhythms. But I have also been haunted by the sense that translating French theatre for the American stage can also often mean betting that the public will appreciate a slightly different esthetic, that audience members will be prepared to listen to the unfolding of a dance of language. Other translators of Koltès have adapted his work to appeal to what they perceive as the public’s “taste.” Or they have made sense where Koltès suggests a kind of senselessness that nonetheless becomes understandable as obsession fills the stage space. Koltès builds his universe on a series of transforming images that I have attempted to convey.
He asks indirect questions about the difference between men and beasts, about what it means to follow a straight path to a light that magically skews into an inescapable circle, about attempting to clinch a deal without ever knowing what the opponent has on their mind. Perhaps this is that enigmatic solitude of the cotton fields — existence conjured up as limitless, thankless labor, or as the blurred beauty of white soft flowers that hides a terrible, imploding violence.
Judith Graves Miller, Ph.D. is Professor of French in NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. A scholar of French and Francophone theater, she is the author of “Theatre and Revolution in France Since 1968” and “Ariane Mnouchkine.”