Wilder in the Ukraine

by Julie-Anne Franko

As a 2002-03 Fulbright Scholar Lecturing on “American Drama from a Dramaturgical Perspective” in Lviv, Ukraine, I was greeted by two unforeseeable “opportunities” at the beginning of my term: I had been suddenly saddled with theatre students who did not read in English, and, barring Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, there were no American Dramas translated directly into Ukrainian. Eventually the course was forced to lose its title’s nationality‚Ķ but it also gained a mission. In despairing for the great wealth of literature that was about to go by the wayside, I decided to translate, with my literary partner Vasyl Mytsko, at least one American playfrom the original course for my students.

The Skin of Our Teeth was chosen for a number of reasons. The first and foremost was pure intuition. My life and experiences in Ukraine, whose national anthem begins “She hasn’t died yet” (or “she still lives on” depending on translation), lead me to believe this play would feel itself at home from its starting point. But there were other considerations beyond the visceral. A play was needed to qualify American Drama culturally, aesthetically, thematically, structurally‚Ķ there is no better play to place all these demands on. The last and perhaps most relevant reason for the choice was for its mirth-making. When I recalled the absolute joy of reading this play for the first time, I wished to pass the experience on to the minds and hearts of my students and colleagues.

Having the firm belief that literature created for the theatre needs to be translated through theatre (both in its native language and in other languages), I commissioned Ukrainian actors to take part in readings of the evolving Ukrainian text. Included with the agreement was the promise that we would have the first informal-formal reading that December at the Theatre for New and Young Audiences in Lviv. Many of my Fulbright and theatrical colleagues wished to attend this reading as well.

To implement these requirements, I created a small conference, called “Translating Theatre,” sponsored by Fulbright-Ukraine and The United States Embassy in Ukraine. “Translating Theatre” evolved into a three day conference that brought many of Ukraine’s most esteemed authors and theatre practitioners together for some very provocative discussions on the art of theatrical translation. It culminated on December 16, 2003 with “The Day of Thornton Wilder”; my translation students presented booklets on Wilder’s life and works, as well as small excerpts of Our Town in translation, followed by a viewing of the film of Our Town. In the evening the reading of Skin, complete with slides, sound effects and something resembling a dinosaur, took place in an appropriately unheated theatre. Despite the unfavorable conditions, the audience stayed through to the end. At the reception that followed, there were three and a half insistent points of view: No one believed the play was written over 50 years ago; no one believed that it was written by an American; everyone, especially the actors, were taken with the play’s simultaneous lightness and weight. No one, however, could agree on whether or not a literal translation of the work’s title in Ukrainian was appropriate, as there is no such phrase found in the Ukrainian Bible or anywhere else in the language. For the record, the translators and academics found the literal translation disturbing; the writers and thespians cheered.

Several months later in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a second reading was held at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, with Mrs. Anthrobus being read by the renowned actress Laryssa Kadyrova, who is also the president of the International Theatre Institute in Ukraine. Likewise the reception that followed buzzed with lightness and depth, as well as concerns over what the phrase “skins of teeth” implied. But these discussions went a bit further into the cultural issue of Ukraine’s dearth of knowledge of American Drama and the need to address this issue quickly.

It would be easy to end this piece here and call it a point of fruition; but I suspect that it’s only the calm before the thaw, with Atlantic City and Sabina’s cry that the war is over still to come.

Biographical info: Prior to this Fulbright Scholarship, Ms. Franko was the Resident Dramaturg at the Les Kurbas Theatre in Lviv, Ukraine for 6 years. She has an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale University, and is currently working with Vasyl Mytkso on Ukrainian translations of Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays for the stage.