The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Greek tragedy that rings true with young Japanese audiences An interview with translator Harue Yamagata
May, 2005 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
Playwright: Euripides
Translation: Harue Yamagata
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Cast: Shinobu Otake, Katsuhisa Namase, Kotaro Yoshida, etc.
Photo: Masahiko Yakou
(c) Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
Sep. - Oct. 2006 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
Playwright: Euripides
Translation: Harue Yamagata
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Tomoko Nakajima, Yukiya Kitamura, etc.
Photo: Hirotaka Shimizu
(c) Horipro Inc.
The gods always make appearances at the climax of a Greek tragedy. This is something that is unfamiliar to Japanese audiences. What is the significance of the gods in Greek tragedy?
They don’t necessarily always make appearances at the climax. There are two patterns that the appearances of the gods as follows: One is when the gods appear in human-like roles in the play like The Bacchae and Prometheus Bound. The other pattern is when they appear at the end of the play to resolve the situation, as in The Orestes or Iphigeneia in Tauris.
Concerning the beliefs at the time, there appears to have been strong belief in the gods for the first 200 years or so from the time of the establishment of the myths in 8th century B.C., but it is believed that the belief in the gods had lessened significantly by the 5th century B.C., the golden age of the tragedies. For example, Oedipus Rex begins at a time of plague, and in fact there was a serious plague at that time in history that killed about one-third of the population. Even if one believed at first that faith in the gods could save from the disease, when he sees everyone around him dying regardless of whether he had faith or not, it shakes one’s belief. At times the gods may be a source of refuge and salvation, but at other times people find themself wondering what the gods really are. These feelings come out in the plays, where you may see people expressing doubt about the validity of the words of Apollo being pronounced by a messenger of the god.
Furthermore, about twenty years after that play was first performed, came The Orestes with a line that says “Apollo was wrong,” which is a clear criticism of the gods. But, that doesn’t signify a complete loss of belief in the gods. Even though Jocasta criticizes Apollo’s prophet, she makes offerings to Apollo’s alter praying for peace of heart. And even Orestes, after criticizing Apollo, pledges to obey his words. There is clearly some ambiguity about the existence of the gods in the tragedies. But, this probably reflects the actual consciousness of the audience of the day.
Contemporary Japan is also a place where faith has weakened, but we still have the customs of praying at times like exams and praying for safe births. So, some form of belief in the gods still remains. In the same way, if we are surrounded by things beyond our comprehension and irrational and we don’t know how to cope, saying that it is the fault of the gods so that it places beyond our power. In other words, it is a fatalistic faith. In short, literally “deus ex. machina.” (laughs)

The themes that are found in the Greek tragedies are the universal themes of desire and deception that are unchanged 2500 years later. They can seem more like depictions of modern society than plays at times.
For example, they say that Hamlet is a tragedy, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.
Hamlet eventually could get revenge for his father’s death and dies himself with a sense of satisfaction. Things go well thanks to the providence of benevolent gods, so it is not a tragic story. This is also a difference between the Christian god and the Greek gods, and I think that the Greek tragedies are stories about people who are in such irrational and hopeless situations that they say, “Why does all this misfortune befall me?” So, having a god come out and say whatever they please to end the play is certainly irrational as well, but it can also be seen as a reflection of the way life is. I believe that very outrageousness and irrationality itself is tragedy.

There also must have been further change in the image of the gods appearing in the plays in the era when belief in the Olympian gods was replaced by Christianity.
That’s right. Again it became a bit more ambiguous. Today 90% of the Greeks are Christians, so the gods of the Greek tragedies tend to be looked at in the context of the Christian god. Of course they know that the gods of the tragedies are not the Christian god. Even though they know it, it is still hard to get past the image of the Christian god, and I believe that this dilemma is reflected on the stage as well. In short, there is ambiguity about the roles the gods play in the tragedies and about the way the actors play those roles. When I see the plays performed in Greece, there is always something unsettling about it. So, I think there is something similar about the discomfort Japanese actors have playing gods and discomfort Greeks have. So I might even say that when it comes to the ambiguity of the god role, the Japanese with their lack of religious consciousness can do a better job (laughs).

What is it in particular that you would like to communicate to audiences concerning the Greek tragedies?
I want the audiences and also the actors to find the “laughter” in Greek tragedies.
At the first meeting with the actors and staff for the production, I always say to them that it is all right to laugh in a Greek tragedy, and that if they find a place in the script that they find amusing, they can feel free to make the audience laugh at that part. I think about that in the translation too. For example, I was very happy when Kotaro Yoshida got the audience to laugh when he delivered the line “I am king, but I don’t have the character of a king” in his role in Medea. In that way, Greek tragedy can be made more fun if you try. This is the laughter that comes while being faithful to the original play. The universal aspects of human folly and humor are the same for the Japanese and the Greeks, and I think that my own originality can play a role in “being faithful to the original” in translating the Greek plays.

In the performance programmes and at the end of your script books there are short essays about interpreting the Greek tragedies with titles like “Read this to get three times the enjoyment out of the play.” I enjoy reading them because I feel the thread of your interpretations as a scholar of Greek tragedy.
At first, I was worried that the audience would need some background knowledge in order to really appreciate view a Greek tragedy, so I wrote interpretations for the spectators in the theatre.
In ancient Greece as well, on the night before the drama contest during the Dionysus Festival there was said to be an event at which the playwrights themselves spoke before the people of the town to introduce the highlights of their plays with statements like, “My play this time is of the killing of Medea’s own child. You will not be able to watch it without tears filling your eyes!” In other words, not all the ancient Greeks in the 5th century B.C. understood everything (laughs). And, although the human relationships we see in the Greek tragedies are quite complicated and confusing, those relationships are explained several times in the course of the play through the dialog. So, the plays are written in such a way that if one listens and follows the story, those relationships eventually become clear. The explanations I write are not aimed simply to explain the contents of the play but to serve as a sort of guidebook with background material to make the viewing of the play more interesting.

What are your plans for the future?
Mr. Ninagawa has been asking what we should do next, but since he already has 11 productions scheduled for 2007 that he is working on, nothing has been decided yet. Though until now it has basically been a process of translating the plays that Ninagawa has asked me for, I try to concentrate on translation myself if there is going to be a long vacation out of my regular job. I have already completed my first drafts for the translations of Euripides’ The Bacchae and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Since Japan will be adopting a jury system by the year 2009, I am secretly guessing that the next one might be involved with trials (laughs). So, there might be attention on the trilogy of The Oresteia, which contains the ramifications of a jury’s judgment of a murder trial. In the spring of 2007 I also want to translate Iphigenia in Aulis, which deals with the incident of a sacrificial death that also inspired the plays Electra and Orestes that Ninagawa has already done productions of. But, since I write four drafts for each translation, there is still a long road remaining after the first draft is finished. (laughs)
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