Tell It Like It Was

Translator David Slavitt wears the masks of comedy and tragedy with equal ease

Apr 13, 2005 at 4:00 am
So you say you've never seen Seneca's Trojan Women on the stage? Don't feel bad. David R. Slavitt has never seen the 2,000-year-old tragedy either -- and he translated it. But that omission will be remedied when Slavitt attends the upcoming student production at Saint Louis University.

Although the gory Roman tale of revenge and retribution after the siege of Troy is rarely produced these days, at least the 70-year-old Slavitt knows what to expect. "Seneca is brutal," he says by phone from Boston. "The way the play works is that things start out terrible and then they get worse, and then they keep getting worse until it's unimaginably bad, and then the play is over."

Sounds a bit grim. "There's a lot of humor in Seneca," Slavitt counters. And he means it. Humor has been an important part of his own writing life, as far back as the 1960s when he was a movie critic at Newsweek. "I understood 'camp' before it had been defined," Slavitt recalls. "For instance, I was one of the first critics to champion the Roger Corman versions of Edgar Allan Poe. I realized that there was a category of movies that were wonderful-terrible, and films like The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death were wonderful."

After leaving Newsweek Slavitt wrote serious books under his own name, and commercial novels under the pen name Henry Sutton. (His eightieth volume, Change of Address: New and Selected Poetry, was published two weeks ago by Louisiana State University Press.) Throughout his writing career, translations of tragedies by the Greeks and Romans have been offset by wickedly satirical novels that critics have favorably likened to Mark Twain and Nathanael West.

How does Slavitt account for a sense of perspective that allows him to maintain a keen sense of humor while writing about pain, destruction and despair? "I don't know," he answers. But he does know, because a moment later he adds, "My mother was murdered and beaten to death by a burglar, and I was severely depressed for fifteen, twenty years. Still sort-of am. But you don't want to have that be the only note on the keyboard, because you'd go crazy." Slavitt has found respite by spending time with the gods, and making it pay.

"When you translate Ovid or Seneca, you do so because you have the sense that, Hey, nobody's ever understood this before. So it's partly a translation, but it's also partly an act of criticism. You're saying, 'This is what I hear in my head, and it's different from anybody else's version.'"

It was that difference that led director Mary Zimmerman to use Slavitt's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses in her celebrated stage reworking. "I have never met Mary Zimmerman," says Slavitt. "She's just a fan. When I translate these old texts, the hard part is not the writing. The hard part is imagining that there are people who are going to read any of this. Mary is one of those people who suggests that this category is not absolutely empty. I think she chose to work from my Ovid translation because the others are insufficiently funny. Ovid was a very witty guy."

Slavitt missed Zimmerman's production of his translation of Trojan Women two years ago at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where she staged it as a scathing protest against the Iraq war. With lines like, "We must destroy the village in order to save it," it's easy to understand why the tragedy -- and Euripides' older and better-known version of the same story -- is considered an anti-war tract.

But Slavitt doesn't see it quite that way. "That's probably not what Seneca had in mind," he observes. "Seneca was not a liberal pacifist tree-hugger. He was a tough-minded realist. He was Nero's tutor."

But didn't Seneca have to commit suicide after being implicated in an assassination attempt on Nero's life? "It's true that he had to open his veins," Slavitt replies. "But was he part of the plot? I just don't know. As translator, I imagine myself to be Seneca. I might have understood that Nero was beginning to go nuts. But as a matter of personal loyalty, it's like asking a parent to take part in a conspiracy to kill your child. It's hard to read."

The play, however, is another matter: "I think there are a couple of possible interpretations of what Seneca was trying to say. One is that the Romans believed that the Greeks, for all their cultural pretensions, were thugs. Another possible message is that in wars, it's better to win than to lose."

The same cannot be said of politics. Last year Slavitt was the Republican candidate for state representative in his home district in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Throughout the campaign he made it quite clear that he expected to lose. "The election went ideally right," he boasts. "I got 13 percent of the vote. Ordinarily that doesn't sound great, but I racked up more votes in Cambridge than did George W. Bush. He only got 12.8 percent of the vote, so I did quite well."

What did Slavitt get from the election besides the coveted loss? Another book, of course: Democracy in America? A Campaign Journal. Watch for it next year. It should contain a lot of laughs.