Beethoven + Tolstoy + Plan-B + NOVA = spectacular drama in the form of The Kreutzer Sonata.
—by Eric Samuelsen
Over the past few years, Plan-B Theatre Company has produced Script-In-Hand Series readings of two of my translations of the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts and A Doll House. Later this month, Plan-B will produce my adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. So what’s the difference between a translation and an adaptation?
When I translate Ibsen’s plays, I am trying to convey as clearly and specifically as possible the Norwegian language of Ibsen’s plays into speakable, actable English. Each language has its own idioms and customs, its own grammar and syntax, its own slang and swear words. And, of course, a play consists of dialogue, conversations between characters, each of whom has his or her own verbal tics and quirks and idiosyncrasies. A literal word for word translation wouldn’t begin to capture the richness of either language. Plus, I’m an American, writing for American audiences. Even the best Ibsen translators have tended to be British. Which is why most Ibsen translations sound kind of stuffy and humorless to this American’s ears.
I’m not capable of doing any of that for Tolstoy; Russian is not one of my languages. And Kreutzer is not a play; it’s a novella. It takes place in a train car, and is framed by conversations among several passengers, with one long monologue by one of them, Pozdnyshev. I cut the framing device, and all the other characters.
But, from the beginning, what was really exciting about this project was the opportunity to include a performance of the Beethoven sonata after which the story is titled. This is not just another play. It’s a collaboration between artists, between Plan-B Theatre Company and NOVA Chamber Music Series, between actor, playwright, director and musicians. Between Tolstoy and Beethoven. Pozdnyshev’s monologue, performed by Robert Scott Smith, is his frankly rather self-serving confession for having murdered his wife, driven to jealousy by seeing her perform the Beethoven piece with another musician. Violinist Kathryn Eberle and pianist Jason Hardink will be playing Beethoven’s music, interspersed with Pozdnyshev’s story. What a grand experiment!
This is as exciting a theatrical opportunity as I have ever been offered. And certainly, Beethoven’s music is arguably the most important element in Tolstoy’s story. But so much of the story is about other issues, especially Pozdnyshev’s mordant commentary on the rituals of upper-class Russian courtship, illicit sexual liaisons and the expectation of marital fidelity. The sexual double-standard and Tolstoy’s dissection of it makes up a lot more of the story than the music does. To some extent, my adaptation does not do full justice to the main themes and ideas that animate the novella, but to read the whole story aloud could not take less than five hours.
My theatrical focus had to be on that intersection between the music and the murderer, the power of Beethoven’s great work and the insane jealousy it provoked. I had to somehow enable the audience to feel the music, in some small way, the way this killer felt it. That meant, inevitably, leaving out a lot of the social commentary of Tolstoy’s work, but I felt modern audiences don’t need a reminder of the patent hypocrisies and grotesque oppression of women that characterized late Victorian society. I wanted, rather, to remind audiences of that period and its culture.
That’s why we’re calling it a “loose adaptation.” The challenge isn’t fidelity to the specifics of Tolstoy’s language, it’s trying to capture the emotional impact of Beethoven’s music and Tolstoy’s story, while also giving voice to Tolstoy’s thematic concerns, and his critique of the way the 19th century constructed gender and codified marriage. His world is not our world, but overt sexism, sadly, remains, and, now as then, sometimes finds an outlet in jealousy, rage and violence. It’s an ugly story, set alongside ravishingly beautiful music. That tension should make for spectacular drama.
Eric Samuelsen has previously premiered Miasma, Amerigo, Nothing Personal, Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana, 3 and Clearing Bombs at Plan-B; the latter was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. His adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata receives its world premiere October 18-November 9 at Plan-B in a co-production with NOVA Chamber Music Series.
Tickets and information at planbtheatre.org.