Eugene Onegin: A Scenic Projection

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1936)

Translated by James E. Falen with the cooperation of Caryl Emerson



Caryl Emerson

This translation of Krzhizhanovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which appears here courtesy of James E. Falen, has an instructive and at times excruciating prehistory.

The Russian archival typescript had been known to theater directors since the 1990s, but its circulation was limited. Krzhizhanovsky’s work for the stage survived in roughly a dozen items. The editor of his collected works (2002–11), Vadim Perel´muter, included in volume 5 (on theater) only two original plays and one pantomime: there was no room for adapta­tions. So the play appeared first in English, as part of a Prokofiev volume published in 2008 (Simon Morrison, ed., Sergey Prokofiev and His World), in my “free verse” version with the composer’s markings. It was a good-faith attempt to communicate the play to an American ear and to accom­modate—or so I thought at the time—the comfort zone of American actors.

This solution became increasingly unsatisfactory to me, however, as I continued to ponder the role of rhyme and rhythm in Tairov’s theater, in Prokofiev’s incidental music, and in the stage directions of the playscript. (These directions were often quite precise: Onegin’s rocking chair, for ex­ample, was to rock “to an iambic beat.”) With some trepidation I sent the published playtext to James Falen, dean of American Onegin translators, who did not like it. I thought it was free verse; he insisted flat-out that no matter how I had formatted the lines, it was prose. His reasons reinforced my own growing reservations, and at my ardent plea, Falen agreed to take on the task of “re-stanzifying” the Englished play. This quickly meant working off Falen’s translation of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse (huge chunks of which survive in the adaptation). And what about the comfort zone of the American actor? That became clear only later.

Our director, Tim Vasen, had been skeptical from the start about my free verse. Our 2007 Boris Godunov was still fresh in his memory. For the past two years, Vasen had been taking Russian classes at Princeton. He opened our Onegin Project seminar, which enrolled all our actors, student designers and stage managers, on the difference between Shakespearean iambic pentameter and Pushkin’s tetrameter (“there’s less space to move,” he cautioned them, “but what glorious movement!”). Then he insisted that each member of the cast, whether or not they knew any Russian, learn a stanza by heart in the original. The actors themselves were of one mind. Although politely acknowledging the usefulness of my rhythmic matter-of-fact “trot” to the play, speaking as performers, they felt that the discipline of the Onegin stanza was indispensable to the survival of Pushkin’s story on stage.

For a period of four months (from August to November 2011), James Falen and I worked over every line of Krzhizhanovsky’s playscript. The free-verse (or pulsed-verse) argument rather soon melted away. I realized that even a person of prosaic preferences and Tolstoyan biases could un­dergo a transformation in the laboratory of a master at metrical conscious­ness, an academic for whom poetic form was an ideal and translator’s norm on par with semantic meaning, even in the realm of “conversational speech.”

There were tense moments. Some were psychological: how stylized is Tatyana’s speech? Naïve as she is, should she sound bookish? Lensky in the play is an immature version of Pushkin, and we see him spouting Pushkin’s verse; how should this self-irony be played? Other moments were formal. Krzhizhanovsky embeds a folktale by Pushkin in the play­script, and assigns it to the Nurse to recite: what should its relation be to the Onegin stanza?

In several instances Falen felt strongly that a couplet or a rhyme should be completed, even though Krzhizhanovsky had stopped short of providing it. That closing rhyme would be in every Russian’s ear anyway, Falen reasoned, and we ought to allow it to be in the English ear too. A theatrical production that never came together has no canonized parts. “Now I understand the sanctity accorded to Pushkin’s text by devoted readers and idolatrous academics,” Falen wrote, “but I fail to see why Krzh’s decisions have to be given the same sort of reverence” (September 17, 2011). “He’s an adapter and a not altogether successful one at that. We, too, are adapters and we ought to have at least some slight opportu­nity to put our mark (if we can justify it) on what we do.” But Krzhizha­novsky had been “marked up” by others his whole life, and I irrationally held my ground.

Below are some excerpts from our e-mail exchanges over this joint project, taken from the first two months:

1. July 25, 2011. James Falen to CE (before he saw the Russian text):

Whatever the merits of the play script, its realization in a production for an American audience presents special problems, as you well know. Where a Russian audience may like or dislike K’s decisions, they will at least be thoroughly familiar with EO and with Pushkin’s work in general and will have no problem in understanding what it’s all about. Americans, on the other hand, ignorant of both Pushkin and EO, will have a much harder time responding to the drama.

Although acting, sets, costumes, music, dance, and staging will all con­tribute to the effectiveness of the production (bringing it alive), the prob­lem of the kind of English language in which to embody the play remains tricky and difficult to resolve. I know your own thoughts on this question continue to evolve and that you go back and forth in trying to decide whether to use verse or prose—and which kinds of verse or prose. I can well understand a reluctance to have the dialogue retain all the features of the Onegin stanza, including the alternating feminine and masculine rhymes. This would probably be uncongenial to a modern American audi­ence completely unfamiliar with the work. Furthermore, a dialogue that is completely in rhymed verse would require very accomplished vocal actors to carry it off. On the other hand, a completely prose version wouldn’t be Pushkin. […]

About your own translation, on which I may have been unduly harsh when I gave you my original reaction: It seems to me literate and as far as I can judge (since I haven’t seen K’s script), reasonably literal. For under­standable reasons you opted for prose rather than verse. I do not find it a particularly rhythmic prose and this is a shortcoming in my view. But my greater objection is that it just isn’t intrinsically interesting or compelling in fleshing out the drama, in delineating character or in stimulating an audience’s concern, an investment in the characters’ fates. To put it per­haps unkindly: shorn of Pushkin’s poetry, the language seems rather bland and uninvolving, at times even ridiculous as speech. […]

To summarize some of my reservations: shouldn’t there be something compelling in the language itself, something to captivate the audience? Or will they wonder, “Why all this enthusiasm of the Russians for this guy Pushkin? They say he was a poet.” So here are a few thoughts:

I think when I wrote you earlier I suggested (somewhat crudely) that Onegin might speak in a usually rhymeless but rhythmic prose and that Lensky might speak in rhymed verse. Fleshing this out a bit more, per­haps Onegin might speak in an unobtrusively iambic meter with an occa­sional acerbic rhyme, Lensky in a more obviously patterned and rhymed style. Lensky’s rhymed speech could even sound a bit silly to good effect. For Onegin I think of Shakespeare’s blank verse as somewhat instruc­tive—he of course uses a generally unrhymed iambic pentameter with an occasional rhyming couplet at moments of tension or of charged emotional or psychological significance (or simply of wit). Ah, had EO been written in iambic pentameter it might have been somewhat less difficult to realize on stage. But then it wouldn’t have been Pushkin’s novel in verse.

Tatyana’s precarious emotional and psychological state and her inner steel might also be better conveyed through poetry than through prose. As a general idea, “poetic” framing or coloring can “legitimize” (make real or motivate) the sort of heightened romantic fantasies that inflame Tatyana, whereas recasting them into prose often makes them sound silly and out of tune. As to K’s interpretation of Onegin as a wiser and deeper figure by play’s end, a man who, like Tatyana, grows amid the disappointments and sufferings of life—this, too, might be embodied in his language. His speech might grow more “poetic,” with even rhyme becoming more prominent. […] So, let’s all think on’t.—Jim

2. The Following Day, July 26, 2011. Caryl Emerson to JF:

Jim, thanks for this lengthy and gracious response […] But about not knowing the EO story, I disagree. People know it through the opera, and the key is to peel back Tchaikovsky. […] Also, my translation (I protest again!) is not prose; it has a pulse, it “scans” if read aloud properly, whereas prose does not have a pulse, its intricacy is elsewhere … but for many purposes my translation is not adequate, you are right. […] At issue here is stage speech: does the intricate stanza govern the consciousness of the actor, or does the actor as a person exist around it, deploying it but not defined by it? Consider the live person on stage. It is “ridiculous” (if we think Tolstoy) to speak in the stanza as a believable human being not dis­tanced from herself and not making a poem of herself, and equally ridiculous (boring, banal, empty) to speak this particular story without the stanza. Does Onegin grow into poetic wisdom, or out of poetic foolishness?

3. The Same Day, July 26, 2011. James Falen to CE:

Caryl, we seem to have at least some areas of agreement on at least some of the questions to be resolved on the language of K’s play. […] By your ex­acting standard, it isn’t prose at all, but you’ll agree, it’s not poetry either, or even (in my view) verse. Your translation, for me at least, sits un­happily in some undefined limbo of its own. It’s certainly not grotesque in the way Nabokov’s English version often is, but it shares some of the same deficiencies when viewed as verse. One must not think Tolstoy. Some of your lines have a poetic pulse, yes—but much of the time that’s simply not the case. And an unmetrical line bumbles and bumps, reminding me of a rider not quite in sync with his horse.

The fact that we’re dealing with a translation means that all of the po­em’s native texture is gone, its sounds and the specific freight of its words, all gone. If, in addition (as you well know) you abandon the meter (and ex­cise all of the rhymes as well!), there’s little left; you eliminate not only the wit, but most of the work’s interest. Perhaps it can’t be helped. Maybe the music or the staging or something else can carry the play; maybe, sadly, there’s no way to put it all together more ideally. But I know you want to make this production as good as it can be.

4. The Next Day, July 27, 2011. Caryl Emerson to JF:

Ah, Jim, okay, perhaps we can agree: my translation of Krzh’s EO is not prose, but it is definitely bad verse. My more urgent concern is character. The Onegin stanza is the voice of a Narrator, the play does not have a nar­rator, how do individual personalities emerge and differentiate, once on their own?

On July 29, Falen was sent a copy of the Krzhizhanovsky play in Russian. CE informed Tim Vasen, who would be directing Eugene Onegin and co-teaching a seminar for its actors, of this correspondence and the possi­bility of pulling Falen into the project.

5. From Tim Vasen, August 2, 2011:

hi caryl—back down and out of the sublime adirondacks, just had a quick look at this exchange and I am thrilled with what you and Falen are work­ing on. I think we can have structured language, at times nakedly poetic at times with a ghost of a rhythm, and it will fit in beautifully with the way i imagine the visual production will work. Damn, i wish we’d had him around for BG. It’s an amazing opportunity for the students to be present at the creation, so to speak.

6. August 4 , 2011. James Falen to CE:

Caryl, I’m excited that you and Tim Vasen are leaning toward producing Eugene Onegin: A Drama in Verse. I’ll be happy to contribute whatever I can. I can imagine that at times you despair of the project. Years ago, to express how I often felt while translating EO, I came up with this:

I write at night with inspiration
And suffer an ecstatic fit.
I sleep, exhausted from creation,
And in the morning find … it’s shit.

7. August 8, 2011. James Falen to CE:

I’ve now gone over the entire playscript and have come up with a version in verse. As with the excerpts I sent you earlier, I’ve used a lot of my EO translation, along with lines and wordings of yours. I’ve greatly reduced, but haven’t eliminated, the rhymes. I now see the unrhymed passages as an effective variation in the work’s tonal structure (perhaps a bit like reci­tative in an opera). The speaking of rhythmic and rhymed verse requires considerable skill on the part of the actors. It mustn’t be done in a sing-song way or with constant pauses at line ends. This tends to over-empha­size the rhyme and it makes the dialog sound too artificial. Verse, how­ever, can be spoken in a way that approaches normal, flowing talk.

Like you, I’ve worked hard on this. I’ve tried to make the verse seem effortless, to have it sound as much like natural human speech as I could. But God knows (and I do, too)—it has a lot of flaws. Furthermore, any play needs to be tested in rehearsal (since some things will work and oth­ers won’t). […] All our letters are beginning to seem a bit like a parody of EO, aren’t they? Weirdly apt.

8. August 8, 2011. Caryl Emerson to JF:

Jim, I’m so fascinated by what you have done that I’m trawling through it like a small lizard on a 200-mile-long waterfront. To take only your Frag­ment 2: “What a joke!” Onegin enters the scene prosy and crude, doesn’t even lean toward a half-rhyme … and Lensky answers him poetically (there are two ways to be a poem, and this is not type 1, Tatyana-as-poem, but type 2, poetry-as-artifice, as pretense), so Onegin’s completion of the lines, still in Lensky’s zone, sounds like mockery. Pushkin’s Narrator ab­sorbs and mediates all this, of course, but we don’t have a Narrator, we are down to raw nerves and rapiers—it’s all much quicker on stage, as you point out, than in a book cradled in your lap. […] Only three places in every draft I’ve seen have induced the tiniest wince, I am keeping a care­ful list of wonderful and still sub-wonderful spots.

9. September 14, 2011. James Falen to CE:

Caryl, I’ve received your reaction to Part One in my rendering […] With the exception of your annihilation of what I did with Tatyana’s letter, most of your criticisms I consider relatively minor. We should be able fairly easily to find common ground on those questions. On Tatyana’s letter—I don’t disagree with everything you say, but it’s terribly difficult to do it in a way that honors the rhythm and the form of the verse. These remain paramount to me. We can, of course, dispense with some of the rhyme and we can strive for a greater accuracy in the translation, but the iambic tetrameter is what I cherish. If by “loosening it up” you mean making it more speech-worthy, I’m all for that, but I wouldn’t want it to be rhythmi­cally broken-backed. […]

9. September 14, 2011. Caryl Emerson to JF:

Yes, I hear you about the rhythmic broken-backedness. Please don’t lose heart. The Letter is impossible, I’ve tried it. Nothing is fully satisfactory, of course, but—here’s the living stage for you—it can be fully effective.

My prejudice right now for Tatyana (she seems to be the nightmare) is to perhaps break back for three or four lines at a time only, and even that very rarely, and then resume verkhom, to inject this sense that things aren’t memorized, recited, coyly shared with us by that voyeuristic con­trolling Narrator but bursting out still unformed from poor Tatyana’s 17-year-old living self … yes, it would break, but only for a minute, while she got her bearings. Thus all those skinny airy words: “I’m writing to you … what else is there to say” are intoxicating and authentic; by line 6, things are smoother, more literary, moving at a legitimate metric pace.

9. September 14, 2011. James Falen to CE:

Perhaps the broken back effect that you think would be effective and au­thentic can be achieved with your preferred short-worded lines alone, along with unusual pauses, but with the iambic tetrameter still intact. We’ll see. I’ll try something along those lines. j

10. September 15, 2011. James Falen to CE:

A few thoughts on Tatyana and the “nightmare” of her letter: You and I perhaps have a somewhat different sense of her. She’s not, in my view, some sort of inarticulate creature who can’t use words of more than one syllable. She is, after all, a rather bookish young lady, a reader of roman­tic novels (and epistolary novels at that), from which she can have picked up a certain tone and vocabulary as well as an attitude to life. It’s true that Pushkin describes her as more comfortable in French than in Russian […] and God knows how the narrator may have transformed what she supposedly wrote in French. But in the play, as opposed to the novel, the words presumably come directly from Tatyana herself, not mediated through the narrator’s translation. This does, as you suggest, present us with a problem for the play that doesn’t seem so acute in the novel. But we needn’t overcomplicate the problem. Presumably Tatyana’s register, in French at least, might have included some three- or four-syllable words, even some imported grandiloquence.

11. September 15, 2011. Caryl Emerson to JF:

Ah, Jim, how helpful this is. It’s not the length of the word per se, of course, that lends grandiloquence and artifice; although I do seem to have an obsession with those four syllables of “declaration” in an opening line that markedly has air spaces around its tiny little words, so uncharacter­istically brief for inflected Russian. “Declaration” is not a word that one speaks. A whole other problem is the mountains-and-fountains, which in my mind’s eye are unacceptable equivalent images for the landscape she loves and is leaving, the whole shabby flatness or at best blurry rolling­ness of the Russian countryside.

But I was rattled and startled, Jim, that the possibility of Tatyana “quoting some hifalutin’ Sentimental text” had never occurred to me. Per­haps because we don’t read Richardson and Rousseau any more ourselves (not to mention Don Juan all the way through), and certainly not the way a Russian country lass did. You might be right. This is a mind-opener. […]

Still, if at all possible, I’d like us to try to hang on to the effect of brev­ity and directness at these exposed, hyper-famous spots (I’m writing you, what else is there to say / … Is he a parody?, etc). Partly because, again, speaking the text not through the Narrator but through oneself is simply another task, and even if milaya Tatyana moya is reading / reciting her letter, what she is really doing, dramatically, is exposing her heart. In gasps, leaps, shudders, and (being Krzh) dreams.

Just heard from Simon Morrison, who wants to know “when he can have the Falen drama-in-verse” so as to fold Prokofiev’s music into it. Lord. I rashly told him that the definitive text would be evolving for a long time in its details, but a basic re-versification of the line would be ready in two or three weeks. Which means I get the final third back to you today (by Saturday night). Which I will. C.

That deadline was not met, and October/November devolved into an under-the-wire race against time to stabilize the text. A small number of lines continued to float, right up through to tech rehearsals, as we tried them out in our actors’ mouths. Falen visited Princeton for a day to take in the seminar and coach the cast.

“Krzh felt free to do a great deal with Pushkin,” Falen insisted on Sep­tember 25, “so why can’t we feel free to tweak Krzh? Ever so slightly? And anyway, his script as we have it is more a work in progress (and only one version of the several attempts he made!) than it is a finished and invio­lable work of art. He no doubt would have continued to revise it himself.”

There remained some passages where we both simply had to “grit our ears” to get through. But what an incomparable apprenticeship.