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Should Theatre Programs Be Equipped With Glossaries?

October 14, 2008

The British playwright Mark Ravenhill just wrote about his experience of directing one of his own plays in Armenia. The process is apparently going well despite the language barrier: Ravenhill speaks neither Russian nor Armenian and the actors don't speak English.

But when it comes to staging plays for English-speaking audiences in English, language can prove to be an issue. I've found this to be true on many occasions over the years as I watch American companies produce plays by British dramatists. (I'm sure the reverse is true too; I just haven't experienced an American play produced by a British company in many years.) I've been thinking about the linguistic barrier since the other day when I experienced a terrific San Francisco production of The History Boys, a play about a group of high school students applying to get into Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s by the great Yorkshire playwright Alan Bennett.

There are many elements in this play that don't translate easy for US audiences. If the audience hasn't got enough on its plate coping with the play's many references to T S Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Wittgenstein and obscure Reformation era monastic lore, there are also many impenetrable Anglicisms to parse. Examples include references to "sixth form" (the final two years of high school); the "Carry On" films (a series of popular, bawdy comedies made in England in the post-War years starring many of the same actors); Black Magic (a well-known brand of chocolate assortment made by Nestle that used to be considered fancy); and -- best of all -- "a bit of a pillock" (an insult roughly meaning "idiot.")

I don't think it's necessary to be able to understand all of these expressions, but I wonder whether one's enjoyment of the play is diminished by not getting such references?

Obviously, thousands of people -- both British and American -- cheerfully sit through productions of Shakespeare each year with no idea of the meaning of all of the Bard's words. I also think that if a playwright's writing is eloquent enough, a director's direction clear enough, and an actor's acting bold enough, the meanings of "foreign-sounding" words should come across to a degree anyway. It should at least be possible to follow the gist of any unfamiliar expressions.

So the inclusion of a glossary of terms in the program notes, though helpful in a way, may point to a slight shortcoming in the production.


  • Just saw the Druid performances of Synge's Shadow of the Glen/Playboy of the Western World - it came w/a 2 page glossary of Irish phrases - very helpful in providing context for American audiences.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 16, 2008 at 9:38 AM  

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