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How One Playwright Translates the Words of Another

Date: Apr 07, 2016

Thanks to Christopher Hampton, France's hottest dramatist makes his Broadway debut


In French playwright Florian Zeller's The Father, language can be very deceptive. Even though his daughter, son-in-law, and health-care aide talk to him in simple, straightforward English, nothing seems to make sense to 80-year-old André (played by three-time Tony winner Frank Langella). Is his daughter Anne married or divorced? Is her husband named Pierre or Antoine? Is it morning or night, and whose flat is he living in anyway?

The simplicity of the language combined with the potent themes of aging, dementia, and father-daughter relationships are what convinced Tony- and Oscar-winning playwright Christopher Hampton that The Father was the perfect vehicle to translate into English, introducing the red-hot Zeller to British and American audiences. "I first saw the play in Paris in French, and it was just as powerful and devastating as can be," says Hampton about the show, now on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. "I'd been interested in Florian for a while, and I thought this was the ideal play to bring over first because it's so powerful and so universal."

Over Hampton's long and varied career, he's written original plays, translated Molière and Chekhov, and adapted novels for the screen. He has also worked extensively with the French playwright Yasmina Reza, translating Art, Life (x) 3, and God of Carnage into English, though he notes that Reza and Zeller have different collaborative styles. "Yasmina is very questioning and wants to discuss all sorts of decisions," says Hampton. "It was very different with Florian. I sent him the translation and he didn't make any changes or suggestions at all. But once we get to rehearsals and previews, he's very clear about what he feels is happening in front of him."

The duo worked so well together that Hampton went on to translate two more of Zeller's plays, The Mother and The Truth. In a moment of kismet that most playwrights can only dream of, all three shows were running simultaneously in London's West End earlier this year. "But even more remarkably, at the same time he had three different plays running in Paris!" says Hampton with a touch of awe.


When The Father began rehearsals in New York, Hampton came in to do a little more tinkering. "I like to do something that I started with Yasmina's plays, which is to arrive at the beginning of rehearsals and work with the actors to translate the play from English English into American English," says Hampton. "But interestingly, this time there were a lot of suggestions I made where the actors preferred to stick to the English English." For example, Langella vetoed Hampton's attempt to change the word "flat" to "apartment," claiming that "flat" worked better rhythmically. Hampton also confirms that he tried to change one shockingly nasty line spoken by André's son-in-law -- a British phrase unheard on these shores but instantly understandable thanks to its vivid imagery -- but the American cast voted unanimously to keep it in.

The depiction of Alzheimer's in The Father is so eerily accurate that it's surprising to hear that Hampton has little personal experience with the disease. "The only person close to me who had something similar was my famous agent, Margaret Ramsay, who kept working till very late but exhibited many of the signs, like repeating herself over and over," Hampton says. Though Zeller had a grandmother with Alzheimer's, Hampton says the playwright's primary inspiration was the desire to write a show for the great French actor Robert Hirsch, who starred in the original Paris production of The Father at age 89.

With the show now on Broadway, Hampton is convinced New York audiences will embrace Zeller with the same passion they welcomed Yasmina Reza in the '90s. "I think he's a considerable playwright, and I'm hoping this play will establish him in America as it has in England over the last 18 months," Hampton says. And he will be right there with him, translating that deceptively simple language into something we can all chew on for years to come.


Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.

Photos by Joan Marcus. Top image: Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe.

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