Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Danilo Kis: The Theatrical Connection

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Danilo Kis: The Theatrical Connection

Article excerpt

Danilo Kis was a man of the theater, even though most of his literary career centered on fiction and essay writing. He was a brilliant translator of several French plays, classical and modern, most notably of Corneille's Cid and Moliere's Don Juan. The former he translated in the original alexandrine verse, always odd and artificial in Serbo-Croatian and yet in Kis's rendering elastic and rhythmical. For Moliere's play Kis practically invented a sophisticated, anachronistic lingo similar to the one in which the early nineteenth-century literature of Serbs in Vojvodina was written, an effete and elaborate parlance that projects aspirations to noblesse and grandeur, turns the well-known story into a mythic tale of bravado and daring, and places it firmly outside the realms of illusionist theater. Furthermore, some light Musset salon comedies and even modern comedies, especially when in verse, attracted Kis as translation challenges, much as he liked to tackle de Sade's stylistic brio or the poetry of French modernists. Kiss's translations of plays were hardly used in the professional theaters, if at all, a fact he accepted with resignation, as someone who knew only too well his malaise.

He knew it from the inside for in the mid-1960s he was for a while a dramaturge of Atelier 212, the Belgrade repertory theater that from 1958 was in the forefront of the avant-garde challenge to stage traditionalism. It was the place where the plays of European modernism, off-off-Broadway dramaturgy, and new Yugoslav works found their affirmation in a series of bold stagings. Kis lent his support and erudition to this repertory line that familiarized the public with Genet, Arrabal, Ionesco, Beckett, Gelber, Pinter, Bond; and when the task was set in 1969 to do a Greek tragedy in the Artaudian vein, he bravely undertook to adapt Euripides' Electra, sensing fully that all the existing translations, decades old, were unsatisfactory and practically unusable, their language stiff, hopelessly formal, or too close to the humming of Serbian epic poetry. He was trying to find a modern language for the ancient feelings of hatred, despair, and revenge and to tailor the idiom to the spare shape of scaled-down production in which physical action--movement, gestures--was to speak more eloquently than the words uttered by the actors. In this task Kis was a translator and an adaptor, a dramaturge and an inner critic of an enterprise that was equally a challenge for the young actors in it (especially those who played the roles of Electra and Orestes), who had to abandon the formality of delivery, usually associated with Greek tragedy, for a sheer energy and bustle of a physically demanding production.

Eager to concentrate on fiction writing and to complete Hourglass, Kis soon afterwards left Atelier 212 and became a full-time writer. He did not write stage plays, but several of his television plays, written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were produced by Belgrade Television, and some of them years later had a stage production together with adaptations of some of Kis's masterly translations of French erotic poetry and Queneau's Exercises in Style. Between his fiction--and Kis was a slow writer who wrote little, with difficulty and frustration, revising his work painstakingly and taking long pauses between projects--Kis would turn to translation as a relaxing exercise. For many years he made his living mostly by translating poetry from French, Russian, and Hungarian, and to the end of his life a translator's risks and thrills were his passion and amusement. Before his final illness he was contemplating a translation of Corneille's L'illusion comique that later turned from an obscure and forgotten work into a hit that now appears frequently in many contemporary repertories in Europe and North America.

Shortly after the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and while its polemic echoes still reverberated in the Yugoslav cultural arena, Kis had an offer from an ambitious repertory theater in Zenica, a Bosnian steelmill town, to produce a stage adaptation of the book, a task he undertook. …

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