Monday, February 9, 2009

Prime Time

The profs at the Collège des vignes have their own theatre troop, and this was the weekend of their annual production. It's one of the handful of school events in the year that takes place outside of school hours and that parents are welcome, even invited, to attend. So yesterday afternoon found us at the final performance of this year's spectacle, Corneille en Prime Time.

The gist of the story, written by the teachers for the performance, was this: a travelling band of actors has fallen on hard times. Their repertoire is classical French drama: the works of Corneille, a seventeenth-century playwright who wrote epic tragedies and who, to judge from his plays, was considerably less fun than his portrait, above, suggests. From what I remember of French literature, Corneille makes Molière look like Jim Belushi. Just when the troop has begun to despair of ever again playing to a sellout crowd, they are discovered by a producer of reality TV shows and his équipe of designers. A long and detailed discussion that I think was about the ethics of reducing Corneille's drama Le Cid to a 15 minute reality TV sound bite ensues (but I'm not entirely sure; they were speaking quickly, idiomatically, without a lot of amplification, and they were, after all, amateur actors...), and ends with the troop signing on. They give Le Cid a happy ending, the crowd goes wild, and we are given to understand that everyone lives happily ever after.

We saw the third and final performance, and the theatre was full. Faculty and their families, students and their families, from babies in arms to grandparents. The audience clapped, laughed, even waved their arms in the air. We did all those things, too, we just didn't know why we were doing them. Watching amateur theatre in a foreign language is a surreal experience, even more surreal if the story is one you don't know. I could follow Romeo and Juliet in French; I could even follow the major plot points of bits of Molière, though I would miss the jokes. I think that watching this--replete with cultural references and in-jokes and clever asides--was similar to what a French person might experience watching, say, an old episode of MASH, interpreted by the local Little Theatre. Why is the main character wearing a bathrobe, and who's the guy in the dress?

At any rate, C and I had no idea what was going on. The high point of our discomfiture came at the end of the show, when the chorus gathered round the main players, held candles up in the air, and sang and swayed along to a (well amplified) recording of Elton John's Can You Feel the Love Tonight, translated into French. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be able to think of the name of that song, or who sang it. Since that melody was the only thing I could make sense of in the scene, though, I could devote the full two or three minutes that it went on to remembering.

My ears hurt when we got home. Not inside, but outside. It was as though I had strained so hard to listen that the skin around my ears had stretched. I had had a pretty good French week, too, bantered with strangers, explained the French Revolution, even read a little Marcel Pagnol. But the physics teacher in the yellow satin polyester toga reciting Corneille: now I know how far I have to go.

1 comment:

  1. I have the same experience with Italian. My daughter is perfectly fluent; Italians even mistake her for native speaker. Her boyfriend is Italian. When we are there I understand 60-70%, but my ears and head actually hurt from trying so hard to get the remaining 30-40%. And of course, sometimes that remaining 30-40% is pretty important. I just smile a lot and say va bene. (the Italian version of d'accord).