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The Shock of Recognition: Nicholas Rudall’s Translation of Greek Drama for the Chicago Stage at Court Theatre

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter is based on an interview with director and translator Nicholas Rudall, who spearheaded the development of Chicago’s Court Theatre into a professional enterprise, and served as its Artistic Director for over 20 years. He discusses the important distinctions between a translation and an adaptation, which have come to the fore in his own translations of numerous Greek plays, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to Sophocles’ Antigone to Euripides’ Trojan Women. The performability of a translation is revealed to be fundamental to Rudall’s approach, as demonstrated in his Iphigenia Cycle and The Trojan Women, both directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. “Classic” literature more broadly is also considered, with Rudall having directed plays by Shakespeare, Wilde, Chekhov, O’Neill, and Ibsen, among many others.

Keywords: Nicholas Rudall, Court Theatre, Chicago, Euripides, Iphigenia Cycle, Iphigenia, translation, Trojan Women, JoAnne Akalaitis

There are moments in life when time melts away.1 Beyond the pressures of getting to work, picking the children up from school, grocery shopping, and all the obligations that mark our busy, modern lives, there is the stillness of an instant. The photographs that Nick Rudall is perusing in this particular moment to some extent unmask time in the longue durée. Nick is enthused. He has traveled to such places as Costa Rica and the Galápagos Islands with his family, and he enjoys capturing the passage of time through the stillness of photography, finding a kind of theater in these images. He talks excitedly about the creatures that learned to swim over millennia because they had to find food, seeing these places through Charles Darwin’s eyes. There is drama in the vibrant colors and the stories of these diverse species. We are viewing time, the evolutionary changes that come with conflict and harmony, what Albert Murray called “antagonistic cooperation,” in medias res. In this volume, we have now gained two central concepts from the late, great Murray: this second concept of antagonistic cooperation—between old and new, Greek and American, past and present—and then the first one, of Omni-Americans, which we discussed in the Introduction. As we shall see, the Welsh-born Rudall has himself become an Omni-American. He brings a distinctly American idiom to bear on Greek drama.

Nick Rudall: Translator, actor, dramaturge, director, and skilled photographer. To use an Americanism, when he discusses these photographs, like when he turns to drama, or later to the Chicago Bears, Nick is “all in.” “All in” is certainly the way Rudall approaches theater and the translation of classical drama; after all, as he says, “I’m 73 years old, and I’ve been doing it since I was 11.” From such a paragon of old-world traditions—learning ancient Greek as an adolescent; valuing the slowness and stillness of poetry, (p. 765) a medium not unlike photography; the love of alliteration that he learned from his Welsh forebears—one might expect disdain for the new, or at least suspicion of Richard Schechner’s modern shamanism, to cite another approach to classical theater (see Jenkins, Sides, this volume). Rudall’s thick Welsh accent, however, belies a lifetime lived in the United States, as an American—or, more precisely, a Chicagoan. Regarding Schechner’s self-avowed destruction of classical scripts, Rudall says he objects to none of it, which is surprising given that he is such a careful craftsperson of scripts and has been translating for a lifetime. He’s all in. It’s the same way he approaches the impending preseason opener for the Chicago Bears tonight, so—as generous as he is—I know not to tamper with an American’s football time. (There is a viral YouTube video in which a priest hurries through his entire Sunday morning service in a handful of minutes so that he and his congregation can watch a playoff game. Some things are sacred.)

Nick was waiting outside as I approached his apartment in Chicago’s Hyde Park, around the corner from Court Theatre, of which he became founding director in 1971 before spearheading its development into a professional theater in 1975. A generous, enthusiastic, warm spirit, he wanted to make certain that I didn’t get lost. (Nick couldn’t know it, but it’s my tendency to get lost.) It is an absolutely gorgeous, sunny, late summer afternoon. Life is good for me because I am about to commune with a living legend. And like a man who has found his life’s loves, life is good for Nick, whether he is reminiscing about time spent with his family, talking about his love of theater and poetry, or watching the Chicago Bears in only a couple of hours. Justine McConnell is not with me in person, but she has sent some questions by video, and we later craft this essay together, recalling the various plays we have seen together over the years at Court Theatre.

The interview ranges broadly and generously. Before the first question is even formally voiced, Nick has gone right to the heart of the issues involved for someone so engaged with ancient drama on such a multiplicity of levels. It is, he tells us, important to make the distinction between translation and adaptation of a text, and to be entirely self-aware of what you are doing:

Let me start by saying that one of the most interesting questions about all of this is whether you’re doing an adaptation or a translation. And actually, I don’t do adaptations because with adaptations, inherent in the word, is change. Whereas what I have tried to do with the dozen or so Greek plays that I have translated—I have tried not to adapt, meaning to change—but to make a kind of translation that is as accurate as I can possibly make it, in terms of the original Greek; but with a different slant on what “accuracy” means.

Rudall goes on to explain that David Grene, of the important Grene and Lattimore series, was a mentor of his and someone with whom he worked over many decades at the University of Chicago. But their aims, and the “accuracy” to which they were aspiring, was different in each case: for Grene, translation was for academic, instructional purposes. Similar to Edith Hamilton’s work in making Greek mythology accessible for the American classroom (on Hamilton, see Hallett, this volume), Grene intended his translations of Greek drama to bring American students as close to the Greek originals as possible. Students might later learn Greek, but they would have a sense of the aims of (p. 766) the ancient poet even before they did so. For Rudall, the performability of the translation and its aptness for the stage has always been at the heart of his motivation. Making a distinction between the educational translations of someone like Grene, the literary translations intended for silent and solitary reading, and his own translations for the stage, Rudall concludes that “Each one of those has its place, but they can’t be fused.”

The tension which Rudall has identified between an adaptation and a translation lies in the inevitable change that comes with time and context on the one hand, and accuracy on the other. Rudall sees the enterprise as an imperfect art, but it is one in which he is fully invested. So, while Schechner’s Dionysus in 69 is certainly not a translation of Euripides’ Bacchae, it is recognizably an adaptation. The success or failure of a play, whether this example or one of Rudall’s translations, depends on the “slant,” as he puts it.

While the literary translator might try to disregard the inevitability of change, it is a different matter when it comes to theater and the staging of ancient Greek drama for a modern audience. Recalling Grene once again, Rudall laughingly remembers his colleague’s repeated refrain, “Don’t let them wear bloody bed-sheets for costumes!” Even a translator most accustomed to remain as close as possible to the ancient Greek—for the sake of the students for whom he was writing—found it anathema to see a production staged in such a way, with no attention paid to contemporary circumstances or to performance per se, and no attempt made to adapt the drama into one that resonated with both the ancient and the modern worlds. This, of course, underlines the importance of “performance reception” that is at the heart of so many of the essays collected in this handbook: analysis of a text or a translation tells a different story to the consideration of a performance as a whole. The latter will frequently pay attention to the translation used, but an array of performative elements including acting, diction, staging, costumes, lighting, music, location, and contemporary circumstances, will all also inform the discussion (Hall and Harrop 2010).

It should not be surprising that Rudall, upon whom the Galápagos Islands made such a visual impression, often talks about translation in visual terms, as opsis, as images for the stage. One must translate “with an awareness of what the original had architecturally.” He compares the audience in the Greek theater to an audience in Wrigley Field, looking down on the Chicago Cubs playing below. The translator for the modern stage has to keep opsis in mind, always thinking of how the linguistic register is borne out visually. Seen from above, at the top of a Greek theater, or in the bleachers at Wrigley, patterns pop and appeal to the eye in ways that the director must imagine. The translator, a poet, works with this visual field in mind. For Rudall, the linguistic seems to be always linked to the visual, and vice versa. Even his discussion of the Greek playwrights’ reception of mythological material is visual:

The Greek notion of myth, especially in Euripides, is prismatic. Meaning that, the Greeks did not have dogma, and orthodoxy, and statement; every playwright could make changes, in order to look at the intellectual or political question posed.

Rudall understands much of the process of Greek drama visually and poetically, and it is worth noting the extent to which he sees that the Greek playwrights were already doing “reception,” so to speak, in the ways they relate to one another.

(p. 767) So how do we translate for modern audiences in a way that conveys what we see in the Greek? The question is central to any discussion of classical reception. One must “burrow into the text,” an image that Nick uses more than once in the course of our hour-and-a-half discussion. And then, along with his visual sensibilities, he speaks of the music of language: “I think in text … I think in rhythm.” The translator must be interested in “what an actor can get his tongue around in the English language.” For Nick, the process of translation, in which he has spent so much of his life, is a solitary one: “When I translate, I’m alone.” My mind immediately goes to an image of Euripides writing his plays in a cave in Salamina. Once again, time stands still, and the Americanness of this enterprise no longer seems to matter.

At the same time, when Nick puts pen to paper, the images that flood his mind and the streams of which he craftily directs are from modern American experiences. Not only anticipating a theater audience, but anticipating a specifically North American theater audience, has been an important factor in Rudall’s approach. Notwithstanding his upbringing in Wales and the way that Welsh poetry has informed his work, particularly the rhythms and alliterations of Dylan Thomas and Rudall’s own poet-grandfather, nevertheless at a more instantaneous, visceral level, he seeks to connect with an American audience. He has made his entire career in the United States. As he explains,

I consciously try to make my plays more American, in terms of American speech. There’s one other bug-bear which gets to me: one of the hardest things to do when you’re translating is to have an internal judgmental clock about anachronistic words. That is, you have a sense of what a Greek would have said.

To “translate” the contemporary nature of the plays into modern-day America, Rudall not only employs American turns of phrase, but he goes as far as to bathe the drama in an American idiom. His Iphigenia Cycle, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis at the Court Theatre in 1997 and starring Anne Dudek, is an excellent example of his method and its outcomes. For the play, he united Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris into one, and was determined to be linguistically accessible and immediately recognizable and comprehensible for a modern audience. (On November 6 through December 7, 2014, Rudall revisited Iphigenia in Aulis with a critically acclaimed update, directed by Charles Newell. The visual vocabulary was in full display, male actors in monochrome matching the set, the chorus of women in vibrant colors reminiscent of a Seurat painting.)

For Rudall, the story of Iphigenia in and of itself has motifs and themes that resonate with American experience. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which he has also translated and staged, Iphigenia is a victim, in the purest sense of that word; she is a sacrifice. She replaces the animal victim, her blood its blood, so that Agamemnon can appease Artemis and wage his war against Troy. Iphigenia is still victim in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, but at least a right order of things is restored, to the extent that the animal sacrifice replaces the human one in the end. In Iphigenia in Tauris, Euripides flips the paradigm, as Rudall explains:

In Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia is a victim; in the Taurians, she is in fact put in the position of making her brother a victim. The victim is turned into killer. Which is an (p. 768) incredibly complicated political question in Greece, in Athens in particular; just as it is—let’s say—in Israel and Palestine. Victims become the oppressors.

Does this transition not parallel the conversion whereby some of the colonized of North America (the envoys of Great Britain) become the colonizer? The victim, if we think of the American revolutionaries dumping tea at Boston harbor, becomes the killer in time, whether in that particular revolutionary war, or in more recent wars in Korea and Vietnam (in the twentieth century), or Iraq and Afghanistan (in the twenty-first). Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia (2005) discusses this process well, and the topic of American (post)coloniality is one that we have taken up at various stages in this book, notably Goff and Simpson’s and McConnell’s contributions, because it has been fundamental to New World engagements with classical antiquity. As Rudall has hinted, Iphigenia is America; America is Iphigenia.

For his Iphigenia Cycle with Akalaitis, Rudall brought out the everyday natures of the characters involved, in part through these very American concerns. Translating Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis for his own American version, Rudall saw a “suburban” Clytemnestra, a woman who immediately asks about Achilles’ family background and financial status when she hears that her daughter is to be married to him. Rudall thus translates Iphigenia and Clytemnestra into recognizable, modern American characters:

You try to find an American equivalent. That this is a middle-class drama, and then to stress the enormous difference it makes to then go from poignant victim to calculating, comparatively cold, enforced oppressor.

Given how Rudall sees these plays, it is clear why bringing them together in a cycle worked extremely well and helped to focalize the tropes we find throughout this particular mythological motif, through Euripides—and then Rudall’s—prisms.

Two years after this production of his Iphigenia Cycle, Akalaitis directed Trojan Women at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC (March 23—May 8, 1999), working from Rudall’s translation once again. For Rudall, this production exemplified the importance of feeling free to adapt a play to the modern era.

A production that sets the play in a different environment is completely right. … I’ll give you an example: JoAnne Akalaitis did a production—an adaptation … whatever you want to call it—of the Trojan Women. It was at the same time as Kosovo. She’d been planning the production for six months, but the news just came out about the slaughter of the men, and the enslavement (virtually) of the women and children. And when this production started on the stage in Washington, she had used shaven heads for the women; a rape—which is inherent in the story of Cassandra; and it was set in a concrete block at the quayside where the women were going to be deported. And everyone in the audience thought she had done it that day. The news had just broken … But she had been doing it forever, in terms of design and costumes and shaven heads—that was just in her mind.

The modern context is thus inextricable from the quality of Rudall’s translation. In many cases, North America is the specific cultural framework into which he invests his (p. 769) time, seeing modern analogs for the Greek characters and settings. As another example, in speaking about Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, he says that setting the play in this hamlet is “sort of like setting the play in Peoria.” Colonus is to Athens as Peoria is to Chicago, population just over 100,000, to Chicago’s 2.7 million, with all of the attendant differences that the comparison conveys. These analogies help us to map an American landscape for a local theater. Here again, we start with language. Importantly for Rudall, translations for the American stage cannot be achieved by archaisms or what he repeatedly describes as “Victoriana,” thereby evoking the period in which such translations were perhaps most prevalent. It is this tendency to archaize that makes many translations problematic, at least for the stage, and less engaging in performance than non-literary ones:

The tradition started a century or so ago by Gilbert Murray and others, that felt that because this was ancient you should use archaisms and say “thee” and “thou” is completely false, because it was contemporary Greek. It may be elevated in tone but it was contemporary Greek.

Like an Aristotle warning young playwrights about certain pitfalls, Rudall asks the American poet/translator to avoid archaizing in an ill-fated attempt to elevate the language of the play. The quality of the drama is in the language, its characters, and its setting.

America, Chicago, Peoria. We have gone quite local by this point in the conversation, and judging from all that Rudall says about Greek drama within the United States, this is precisely the right movement: from universal to particular. That is, American theater is regional theater, and therefore Greek drama in the United States, if successful, is local, perhaps like all politics. As Nick rightly points out, there is no national theater in the United States, whereas there is such a phenomenon in England. Even the Kennedy Center’s efforts at something that looks like a national theater in the United States is, at the end of the day, local theater; their American College Theater Festival breaks down regionally. Thus, to say that Rudall has been translating for the American stage is to say that he is a Chicagoan. He inhabits the United States locally. This is not to say that as a whole America (here specifically the United States) lacks a theatrical idiom. In addition to the “middle-class” drama that makes out of Clytemnestra an American suburbanite, Rudall cites The Gospel at Colonus as one of the most successful adaptations of Oedipus at Colonus within the context of the United States. (See McConnell, this volume.) Albert Murray points to the African-American as the original Omni-American, and thus it follows that the gospel idiom, along with the blues and other art forms that emerge out of the Weltschmerz of the slave, is in origin an American sound. That sound is the same as the sounds of liberty for which Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” reaches. Nick has been doing the same thing for the American stage when he translates Greek drama. So the American idiom in theater can be regional, middle class, and often has the inflections of the struggles for liberty among particular groups, such as blacks, Jews, women, Latinos, Asians, and other groups in the minority. We also discuss the success of high school theatrical productions in terms of American (p. 770) regionalism. Through no fault of Rudall, Glee, the highly successful television show about high school musical productions, enters the conversation as an example of the tension within the United States of small-town regionalism coupled with a quest for national identity.

The quest for a national theater within the United States calls to mind the quest for a national literature, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Twain, Faulkner, Ellison, and Roth each sought to write the Great American Novel. This is a significant parallel because of Rudall’s efforts through Court Theatre to create what he calls a “literary theater.” The national literatures brought to bear at Court reflect a number of regionalisms, not just in the United States. Through Court, Rudall wanted to stage everything from Aeschylus to Harold Pinter, from Chekhov to Ibsen. The conversation at times sounds like interviews I have read of August Wilson, the black playwright himself so eager for a national conversation about American identity. Similar to Rudall, Wilson saw himself in a longstanding, classical conversation. On the one hand, there is a regionalism in Wilson’s attempt to hone in on “the most important issues confronting black Americans” in each decade of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the poet crafts a classic literature: “I approach playwriting as literature, as opposed to a craft—though craft is important. It occurred to me one day that when I sit down to write, I am sitting in the same chair as Ibsen, Shaw, Miller, Beckett—every playwright” (Bryer and Hartig 2006: 5; 24). The ongoing appeal of Greek drama is in this interplay between the regional (the local) and the larger human conversation. In Ibsen, Rudall sees similar themes about the small-town life—the polis—as that found in the fifth-century playwrights in Athens; the local becomes the universal, the classic emerging from the familiar.

Rudall’s “literary theater” has brought classic literature to the stage, while retaining an emphasis on the contemporary context. The “classic” of such a notion refers not only to ancient Greek and Roman drama, but to canonical literature from all times and places. From Aeschylus to Euripides, Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw to Caryl Churchill, Tennessee Williams to Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekhov to Samuel Beckett—at Court Theatre, Rudall has directed plays by all of them, as well as by many others. This mission has remained central to Court Theatre, even since Rudall retired, as their 2011–12 staging of both Ralph Ellison’s landmark 1952 novel Invisible Man, and Lisa Petersen and Denis O’Hare’s one-man An Iliad, typify. In the coming years, Court Theatre will stage Rudall’s translations of Iphigenia in Aulis, produce a new, commissioned Agammenon by Rudall, and stage his Electra of Sophocles.

The Shock of RecognitionNicholas Rudall’s Translation of Greek Drama for the Chicago Stage at Court TheatreClick to view larger

Fig. 47.1 Anne Dudek as Iphigenia in Court Theatre’s 1997 production of Nicholas Rudall’s Iphigenia Cycle, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis.

Photograph by Dan Rest.

Ralph Ellison, so attuned to American idiom, once wrote of the genre of the novel as the world in a jug.2 For this interview, we seem to have captured the world on a stage. We revel in the stillness of a moment in time, captured in language. That moment was the Athenian stage in the fifth century bce, from which we look prismatically onto the American stage. We are in Hyde Park, Chicago, at a given moment in time, where particular language and images prevail, but we have also glanced at images from the Galápagos Islands and Costa Rica, photographs taken by Nick, which give some impression of prehistory, the drama of evolution through the snapshot of a single moment. For us—a black American born in Brooklyn to Caribbean parents, a South (p. 771) African Brit with Scottish and Dutch lineage—to connect as we have, we must recognize something in these photographs and in the conversation that is our own. Perhaps it is Nick’s love of his family that draws us, making us think of our own. Perhaps it is his love of nature, the childlike wonder with which we admire these photographs. In fact, Aristotle himself spoke of this very feeling of connection and similarity that we have on hearing, reading, or watching the lives of others, as his discussion of our fear and pity at hearing, reading about, or watching Oedipus exemplifies (Poetics 53b1). Just as the characters onstage come to recognize themselves through the narrative process, we in the audience recognize ourselves in the characters onstage. Theater orders the narratives of our lives in much the same way as these photographs have. Or as Nick puts it,

Theater when it is at its best is what I used to call the shock of recognition: that is, the moment when you see Agamemnon talking to Menelaus and you immediately think “I know those two guys. I can’t believe that they talked to each other that way 2500 years ago.”

That’s it: the shock of recognition. He has expressed so clearly what we have experienced so many times at Court Theatre and elsewhere. We’re all in. Nick reminds us of our own fathers, in the same way that Iphigenia reminds us of the experience of Americans, or how Ellison’s character onstage called back memories of experiences we might have had. “It is that thing that when you are in the audience … it is recognizing something (p. 772) intensely from other cultures.” Who knows, but that on some frequencies, Greek drama in these Americas speaks for you, too.3


Bryer, J. R. and M. C. Hartig (2006), Conversations with August Wilson. Jackson, MS.Find this resource:

    Ellison, R. (1995), Shadow and Act. New York.Find this resource:

      Ellison, R. (2002 [1952]), Invisible Man. New York.Find this resource:

        Gilroy, Paul (2005), Postcolonial Melancholia. New York.Find this resource:

          Hall, E. and S. Harrop (eds. 2010), Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural Theory, and Critical Practice. London.Find this resource:

            Murray, A. (1990), The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Cambridge, MA.Find this resource:

              Rudall, N. (1997), Iphigenia among the Taurians. Lanham, MD.Find this resource:

                Rudall, N. (1999), Iphigenia in Aulis. New York.Find this resource:

                  Rudall, N. (1999), Trojan Women. Lanham, MD.Find this resource:


                    (1.) With many thanks to Nicholas Rudall, this interview was conducted on August 9, 2013.

                    (2.) Ellison 1995: 107–43: “The World and the Jug” (first published in 1964).

                    (3.) This is a paraphrase of the very last line of Ellison’s Invisible Man (2002), 439: “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”