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Modern American Classics on Vienna's Stages

Margarete Rubik

The project will focus on the plays of O'Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee, but will also include famous contemporary plays (e.g. by Mamet or Kushner) and the plays of Wilder (very popular on the Vienna stages). In general, American drama was less frequently and widely performed in Vienna than British drama, though some of the well-known plays were given several productions, so that a profile of changing cultural attitudes might be traced.

Theoretically, theatre has a high potential for cultural mediation, but was this potential realised in the concrete performances? The project will focus on the central question of the way in which American plays were used as a means of culture transfer and culture translation, and in which this transposition into the target culture was achieved. Is there an interest in entering into a genuine dialogue with the source culture, or are play texts in fact excised from the source culture and perceived as trans-cultural humanitarian products which 'speak to' people around the world? Is theatre perceived and treated as a culture's "act of self-reflection" (Fischer-Lichte) and a "gateway to cultural dialogue" (Shaked) or, in an essentialist perspective, as a general human performance, which, rather than mediating the foreign, in fact aims at assimilating it and at affirming the known and non-specific? Do productions and reviews treat these dramatic texts as products of a particular national cultural context or do they rather reflect a bourgeois interest in global cultural consumption and (pseudo)cosmopolitan conventions of 'Bildung' (education and sophistication).

The translation of foreign dramatic texts involves a number of steps, from verbal translation to performance and finally reception (as far as they can be reconstructed through theatre programmes, reviews, photos etc.), all of which will be analysed in the light of this central question.

In particular, a number of problems will be addressed:

What time lag is there between the play's first night in its source culture and the various Viennese performances? In what way did reception differ from the first night in the source culture? In what way did perception of one and the same play change in the course of time? Why were famous plays, e.g. by Miller and Williams, taken up for re-interpretation at specific times? Is there a special topicality in these plays? How often was a specific play performed in Vienna? How did the interpretations vary in the course of times and in what way did they reflect their cultural and political context? How was a production received and why?

What role do the visual and performance aspects of a production play in the translation of a culture? In what ways do these features (in addition to the text itself) contribute to marking the play as particularly "American" – and what is the audience reaction to such markers? The 1983/83 performance of Miller's Death of a Salesman in the Akademietheater, employing a number of cultural icons to explicitly draw attention to the "American dream", was regarded as "Anti-American" by some of the reviewers (earlier productions in the 50s and 60s had stressed the universal appeal of Loman as an "Everyman").
What cultural conventions in the target culture facilitate the reception of a dramatic text or make it difficult? What cultural knowledge is presupposed by the source text and how does the translation and production deal with these difficulties? What concepts in the intended translation are likely to create problems in comprehension? Thus the 1965 production of Williams' Glass Menagerie evidently felt that D.H. Lawrence might not be recognised as a potentially scandalous literary celebrity and therefore inserted an explicit reference to "Lady Chatterley" for the benefit of the audience.

More importantly, what character types or literary genres present problems of cultural transfer, because no adequate models exist in the target culture to which translators, directors and reviewers might have recourse? (e.g., Amanda's background in Southern plantation culture; the genre of tragicomedy; the mixture of epic and dream elements in both Death of a Salesman and Glass Menagerie, which were originally rejected as technically immature). In what way do presumably "foreign" cultural traditions constitute a difficulty for reception (The fact that Tom addresses the audience in Glass Menagerie was confusing in the two early productions, even though one would have expected some knowledge of Brecht's theatre at the time after the 2nd world war) What models are used for comparison and reference? (Miller and Williams, e.g. are regularly compared to Ibsen and Strindberg)

Iser claims that translations from one culture to the other are undertaken in times of culture crises. In what way do reviews mirror such tendencies to re-define the indigenous culture (especially in the time of the Allied occupation of Austria) by setting it off from the 'imported' US cultural product? There are indeed early reviews of Miller and Williams which seem to stress Europe's cultural superiority vis a vis a US culture still adhering to the unstructured, expressionist styles of the 1920s. Such reactions are the reverse side of the coin of cultural assimilation. They are also at work in national stereotyping, e.g., when nagging Amanda in The Glass Menagerie is interpreted as a typical "American type of woman" in some reviews, although her Southern background is regularly downplayed or only half understood.

What is the relation of a production and its reception to the "Zeitgeist", to national stereotypes current at the time, to the general political situation at home and abroad, and the bilateral political and cultural relations between the US and Austria?


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