On 24 January Molier-e‘sTartuffe opens-at Edinburgh‘s Lyceum Theatre, proving once again that the Auld Alliance lives on. Glasgow poet. Liz Lochhead talks about her new adaptation to Nigel Billen. Photograph by Tim Richmond.
MOL|ERE,SGOTSAND LIZ LOGHHEAD
‘I’m not in my prime yet. but I jolly well ought to be. I‘m thirty eight. It‘s about time I stopped thinking about myself as a young apprentice and pushed myselffurther‘.
For the last four years Liz Lochhead has been happy about her writing— not that it is necessarily any good, she is quick to add - but happy about being a writer. It has been one of her most prolific periods and one in which monsters seem to have dominated. Her collected poetry. Dreaming Frankenstein was published two years ago and last year she adapted Bram Stoker‘s Dracula for the Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. Her latest project has been providing a new translation for Moliere‘s monster figure. Tartuffe. also for the Lyceum.
‘I made a real fool of myself by asking Hugh Hodgart why Alan Drury who translated The Miser hadn‘t put it into rhyming couplets. He said it was because it wasn't one of Moliere’s rhyming plays.‘ The Miser had been something of an unexpected box-office success for the Lyceum and Liz Lochhead's interest in Moliere‘s couplets didn‘t go unnoticed. ‘Then ofcourse they give you the job‘.
The translation dominated our discussion. We met. before moving onto a nearby cafe’. in Edinbugh University‘s sixties-built arts tower. As writer in residence — amazingly enough the first female to hold the post — she has an office and a perhaps not quite constant stream of graduates and undergraduates with their own writing to show her. ‘I was a little afraid ofcoming here at first because I’m not an academic — I went to art school - but sometimes I feel more academic than they are. Some ofthem who have done English degrees and might be doing post- graduate work don‘t even seem to go by the rules of writing. Ifyou ask why did you put an adverb here instead of an adjective they say that‘s very pedantic of you— “Can‘t it mean this?“ — and then I say well not really ifit normally means that. To twist language you’ve got to take it first at its normal value.‘
Liz Lochhead has been twisting languages in the plural. From French to English and Scots. hers will not be a simple translation and she will. of course. be keeping the rhyme.‘lt‘s not a Scots translation — the Scots Language Society will probably hate it— but there is a lot of Scots in it. the kind that my Grandmother used when I was around.’ Tartuffe follows a much criticised Scots version of
LMoIiere‘s The Bourgeois
4The List 24 Jan —6 Feb
Gentilhomme at last year‘s Edinbugh Festival — a production which has nevertheless been. under the guiding not to say dominating hand of Rikki Fulton. a huge popular success. ‘I didn‘t see that thank goodness. but from what I‘ve heard I don‘t think I would have approved. You see I don‘t think Moliere is cosy and that‘s the problem. When you put something into Scots it doesn‘t mean they all have to talk like Scone 1603. I‘m not at all interested in the past and this production is set in the twentieth century and I suppose. though not particularly specifically. in Scotland.‘
Liz Lochhead‘s Tartuffe is very much a contemporary piece. She wants audiences to think of it as just as funny as The Slab Boys and the importance ofthe Scots is in the ‘class range ofspeakers‘ in Scotland. ‘I had a certain way of talking to my Gran which is quite different to the way I would speak in London. The play is almost about the kind of language that we use. a certain linguistic hypocrisy.‘ In the adaptation Scots is used in preference to standard English by characters according to context and what they are trying to get from each other. ‘sooking up. ifyou like. to use a good Scots word‘. Language has become the key to bringing the characters alive: ‘People like recognising these characters and types and l have tried to make these people who are very alive and real in the Moliere (it seems to me from my very bad French) but cardboard cutouts in the standard English translations come alive in the way theyspeakf
But Liz Lochhead‘s interest in the way the characters speak seems to be only the tip of her understanding of the sc0pe of Moliere‘s work. ‘Moliere‘s not Feygleau. What you get with Moliere is answers to the most interesting questions in the Universe — “ Who‘s really screwing who and who‘s paying for all this'."‘. Moliere is all about love and money and both things are desperate. There are desperate facades in family life. Its called Tartuffe the Hypocrite but I began to wonder who the hypocrites really were. It isn‘t Tartuffe — he‘s just a con-man — but he exposes everybody else‘s hypocrisies.‘ Much of the writing of the new version was done by Liz Lochhead on a recent trip to America; ‘As I was writingabout Tartuffe I would be thinking about Reagan. Why do people turn to crutches all the time? There are
1 people about politically, Thatcher
for one. Reagan for another who seem to me to be certifiably mad but people who espouse values like the home. the family. stability are leaning on these politicians. It seemed there was a lot about that in the play. One of the characters makes the point. the best weapon these people have is that we actually grant them the power to step on everyone. It‘s us who create the madness; it‘s silly to think of the 'I‘artuffes invading us. they only prey on the shaky things already there.
‘Moliere suffered a lot of censorship of Tartuffe and was forced to alter the end of the play. I think he altered it in such a way that if you read it very carefully you can see that there is a very ironic black laugh to his ‘happy ending‘ and l have tried to put that back. (‘omedy is actually one ofthe most profoundly pessimistic things because what it actually says is that nothing changes.‘
Liz Lochhead admits to a slightly whimsically sad tone running through her own poems and performance pieces and it seems it might be sotnething that she will try to avoid when she next writes for herself. However she draws a clear difference between writing for the stage and writing poetry. ‘I can‘t control poems. I‘d hate to think they would stop coming but 1 can‘t write them to order.‘ Some of her poetry just arrives ‘has to be said and all I have to do is write it down. I suppose the unconscious has already cooked it pretty thoroughly" — but for the most part it is obviously much harder work. When the words won‘t come at all she thinksofthe job ofwriting: "l‘hat job that isn‘t real anyway letting you down. You think Dad was right. why don‘t you go back to being a teacher: why has nobody married me. why don‘t I have so many children I don‘t know what to do and have no time to write in the first place. All the things that you know are not true‘.
Despite having just returned from London where she has been recording a poetry reading and interview for a new Channel Four series on contemporary poets. and despite numerous other television appearances as well as sold-out cabaret evenings round Britain. she claims that she doesn‘t ‘have a public following; I'm not a personality". As her prime approaches who can tell where fame will will take her: ‘Ifthe (‘hannel Four programme works 1‘“ probably be asked to do more things which would be nice. Really I just want to keep working.‘