So my thesis production for my final year of grad school is:


By Bertolt Brecht


(...translated by… ?)


Oh.  I guess my work isn’t done, is it. 


If only I’d chosen “The Seven Year Itch”*, I could have relaxed once it was put in the season.  But no, I just had to propose a play originally written in another language!!!  A classic blunder.  Now I have to choose a translation!  Fortunately, the list of translations, adaptations and “versions” (whatever that means) is minuscule for “Arturo Ui” compared to “Three Sisters” happening earlier in the semester (mad respect to director Dale McFadden for wading into that ocean of choices and emerging with my favorite, the Paul Schmidt), which means it’s possible for me to track down most if not all of the major versions and read them.  AND SO I SHALL.

My research uncovered a handful of major productions, which gave me several names to start my list with.  This mostly overlapped with the results on Amazon and other booksellers.  The only recent production in the Philadelphia area (where I’m from) was a university production within the last decade (featuring a female performer as Ui, I wish I'd have made it down to see it), and I actually had to contact them directly to find out which they used, as they omitted any translator name from their archived promotional/press material.  [Sidebar: can we talk about how frequently press releases, posters and websites omit the name of the translator?  Rude, guys.  Rude.]

Between the department’s generous assistance, inter-library loan and other sources, I got my hands on all the versions I knew about.

Now we must enter the Book BattleDome, a.k.a.:


I decided that to be thorough, I’d go through a series of single-elimination challenges, where I’d read each pair of scripts side-by-side, jumping back and forth after approximately each speech or page.  An illuminating exercise. 

~I will delay reading the version I already know (the Manheim). 
~I will compare the strength of the language overall, but won’t be swayed by individual lines. 

ARE YOU READY?  <<<(I dare you to leave this nonsense on while you read)


Tabori VS. Tabori/Beaton

I decided to read the two most similar versions first, figuring it would be easier to determine a winner. 

GEORGE TABORI was born in Budapest, one of many Jewish writers forced into exile by the Third Reich, so he certainly has a connection to the material.  He’s a playwright and a director as well as a translator, and even directed for the Berliner Ensemble late in life.  An impressive pedigree.  His translation was seen on Broadway in the 1960s, not once but twice!  The first starred Christopher Plummer and was directed by Tony Richardson (with a total cast of 35!!!!!!), but closed after 5 previews and 8 performances.  The second was performed in repertory as part of the Guthrie’s first tour: Edward Payson Call directed Robin Gammell in the title role, it opened without previews and ran for only 10 performances.  I doubt the fault is entirely Tabori’s, as his version still gets done (including a 2002 limited run in New York starring Al Pacino) and Sam French still sells it.  This is simply not a play for open-ended Broadway runs.

Bloomsbury Methuen Drama publishes a version with the following on the title page: “by Bertolt Brecht in a translation by George Tabori/revised by Alistair Beaton”.  So not “adapted” but “revised” by Beaton.  Intriguing.  To me that choice of verb implies less mucking about.  It premiered in 2012 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, transferring to the West End the following year, starring Henry Goodman.  In March this version had a clown-influenced production in Chicago (drat, so much for claiming the Midwest Premiere).

ALISTAIR BEATON is a British playwright, screenwriter and novelist.  This is not my first dose of Beaton: In 2011, Philly absurdism experts the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium produced Beaton’s translation of Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists” (a.k.a. “The Firebugs”), and I played protagonist/victim Gottlieb Biedermann.

The Tabori is the earliest English translation I can find (Brecht had it translated by one H.R. Hay shortly after writing, but it appears to have escaped publication).  And at the time I started this process, the Tabori/Beaton was the most recent version available. 

It’s the OG versus its own offspring...



PLAY-BY-PLAY: Tabori’s translation uses blank verse to excellent effect, and is eminently playable.  That said, this was not a fair fight.  “Revised” turns out to be an apt verb, as Beaton mostly leaves the verse and the drama alone, staying out of the way of Tabori’s strengths.  But in just about every scene, he trims the fat off the longer speeches in ways you wouldn’t even notice if you weren’t holding both scripts side-by-side. 

Beaton also conflates a few characters in mostly smart ways.  Two main examples:

1.  Brecht has four members of the Cauliflower Trust plus shipyard owner Sheet and accountant Bowl.  Beaton cuts that down to four total INCLUDING Sheet and Bowl.  Slightly awkward, but overall worth it.

2.  City Council members Goodwill and Gaffles only exist for a single scene where they give bad news to Dogsborough.  Beaton uses two members of the Cauliflower trust for the same function.  (Bye-bye, Goodwill and Gaffles!)

One interesting difference is that Tabori has the epilogue spoken by the same Master of Ceremonies that introduces the characters, while Beaton has the actor playing Ui “take off his moustache” and speak the epilogue himself.  I’m leaning towards the first approach.  And Beaton gets a bit too cute in the scene where the Actor coaches Ui through Mark Antony’s funeral oration, which might cost him points in later rounds but didn’t hurt him much here.



Manheim VS. Bolt

The heavyweight contender in this entire bracket has to be RALPH MANHEIM.  His translation is the easiest to find and most frequently included in anthologies.  I’m not sure when it premiered, but it’s the version I first encountered as an undergrad, and the version I first fell in love with.  John Turturro starred as Ui in a 1991 Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway production of the Manheim.  When I originally pitched this play to IU, I listed the Manheim, and if there were no other versions available, I know I would be happy to direct it.


I’d heard of a production starring Antony Sher, which turned out to be in 1991 at the National Theatre.  It was translated by RANJIT BOLT, the well-known poet and translator.  His translations and "versions" of Moliere, Corneille and other classics are so popular that I found it odd I couldn’t find a copy of his “Arturo Ui” to buy.  A quick visit to turned up the name of his agency, and I was shocked that a single email to them yielded a PDF of the complete script, featuring crossed-out lines and margin scribbles.  I guess it was never published.


PLAY-BY-PLAY: It was a fairly even match.  Bolt’s verse is superb of course, but the Manheim stayed solid throughout, just as I remembered.  Unlike the qualifier round, both translations here refer to projected text between scenes listing the real historical events that parallel each of Brecht’s plot points.  Bolt even wrote his legends in rhyming couplets of blank verse!  Delightful.

But over time, the way Bolt wrote his “thug-gangster dialect” became slightly annoying to hear in my head, and overall Bolt’s script feels like it drags a bit in places.  Manheim started to land some punches.

Then, a couple scenes before the end, a HUGE unforced error: Bolt completely skips one of the most theatrical moments of the play.  To avoid spoilers, let’s just say Brecht has a character return unexpectedly, in a manner that echoes “Richard III”.  Brecht was deliberately borrowing from Elizabethan structure and style throughout the play, so this is a bizarre omission, with nothing gained from it that I can see.  That alone gets Bolt disqualified.

VICTORY: MANHEIM [Though for a few months after, I toyed with the idea of trying to get the rights to Bolt’s projected historical rhymes, separately.]



Wise VS. Tabori/Beaton

After a few days’ rest, the Tabori/Beaton was chomping at the bit for a new opponent, which I found on Amazon.

JENNIFER WISE is a Canadian theatre academic.  This appears to be her first translated play.  In her introduction, she mentioned a colleague wanting to direct a production where she teaches, but she found the existing translations unworkable (mainly consisting of the Tabori and the Manheim, as Beaton wasn’t a contender yet).  Wise goes on at some length about the problems with the existing translation (hm, trash talking before a fight is allowed, but only if you can back it up).  So she worked on her German skills and rolled up her sleeves.  It’s had other productions since, including (I believe) its New York premiere within the last few years. 

So the first Broadways translation, revised by a Brit, is going up against a Canadian university project...



PLAY-BY-PLAY: A relatively unexciting match, yielding a clear victor.  The dialogue trims and tighter cast size continue to serve the Tabori/Beaton well.  Wise also talks at length in her introduction about the translator’s dilemma when forced to choose between accuracy of the translation and faithfulness to Brecht’s verse structure.  Wise frequently chose to abandon the verse, far more than any version listed above.  She claims this allowed her to better retain an English version of Brecht’s “1930s Gangster-speak” and produce a text that is “speakable” and “actable” in English (to quote one of her glowing Amazon reviews).  The end result, in my mind, is simply less fun than the more verse-faithful translations.  Brecht wanted the audience to confront low-life gangsters speaking in a structure normally associated with Shakespeare’s kings and dukes.  The lumps Wise smoothed out to make it "speakable/actable" turned out to be part of the recipe.



Tabori/Beaton VS. Manheim

PLAY-BY-PLAY: Both scored about equal points on the rhythm of the verse and the power of the poetry.  Manheim is still a powerhouse, but Tabori/Beaton was just too nimble on its feet.  Even with an expected cast of 15, a smaller character list will make life easier for me, my costume designer, my run crew, and I believe the audience too.  I'd be happy to work with either translation, but since there was no obstacle to getting the rights...


Okay folks, you can go home now, it's all ove-




Tabori/Beaton VS. Norris

Call this one the “Battle of the Same Publisher”.  During the early days of this tournament, it came to my attention that the Donmar Warehouse in London was producing the world premiere of a new adaptation by playwright BRUCE NORRIS (“Clybourne Park” and many others) from a literal translation by Susan Hingley (literal translators are starting to get listed in the scripts of adaptations now, which is cool).  I had to choose a translation before the Norris premiered, but I decided to add an extra bout.  (Because after all, it's my blog, dammit.) 

The production sold out, but my dramaturg (who just so happened to have an internship in London earlier this summer) managed to get a ticket, and she brought a copy of the script back across “the pond”.  It played with a cast of 12 (same as the clown-y Chicago production of the Tabori/Beaton), including Lenny Henry as Ui and RSC veteran Michael Pennington as Dogsborough.  So even though we already have the rights to the Tabori/Beaton, I decided to pick up two scripts simultaneously, one last time…



PLAY-BY-PLAY: From reviews and my dramaturg’s reports, I already knew that Norris' version was heavily about Trump.  And the script reflected that, mostly in ways that I feel make the play smaller.  This play is about Hitler, yes, but the fictional setting allows us a broader lens about authoritarianism in general.  Making Ui call a female character a “nasty woman” or frequently complain about immigrants ties it too strongly to one person.  It’s great that “They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists” is naturally a blank verse line with a feminine ending, but it took me out of the story too much to think about Norris’ “cleverness”.  Ui’s last line is “MAKE OUR COUNTRY GREAT AGAIN”, for cryin’ out loud. 

Also, the font is the same for both (being Bloomsbury Methuen Drama), and the formatting seems the same, yet Norris’ adaptation is 37 pages longer than the Tabori/Beaton.  My dramaturg reported that it ran a good 2:45, and felt long to her.  Norris made some cuts that Beaton didn't (Goodwill and Gaffles’ visit to Dogsborough became a quick offstage phone call), but he also added and padded certain speeches and weighed things down.  Norris’ audience participation (including a pivotal silent character in a long trial scene) also struck me as gimmicky and risky.  Norris moved the “Wounded Woman” monologue to an unhelpful place, and conflated it with a named character in a way that felt like a heavy-handed shot at Trump’s treatment of women.  His poetry and verse was overall quite good, but didn’t land any punches on the Tabori/Beaton, and was also quite vulgar in ways that I don’t think accomplished anything.  Beaton is more sparing with his profanity and slurs, which keeps the shock value from eroding through frequent use.  Less is more, Bruce.


I’m still glad I read the Norris, for one thing it was interesting to see a certain major character stabbed instead of shot.  And the way he transitions from Mark Antony’s funeral oration into the next scene is exactly the way I was already imagining it, so I have even more confidence to fiddle with that in my own production.  Norris also assigns the epilogue to the “actor playing Ui” (like Beaton), but my dramaturg remembers it spoken by the announcer.



This required a lot of rereading while double-fisting scripts, but it was quite valuable.  I got a glimpse at different productions via the stage directions, and got several data points on where to place intermission.  I’m confident that IU Theatre is bringing the best possible text to our audience. 

Now I need to figure out the character doubling and choose scenes to use in callbacks, so I’m ready for AUDITIONS…


Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting live theatre. 



*Fun Fact: “The Seven Year Itch” and “Arturo Ui” were among the 6 titles I pitched for my first mainstage last season, as well as “The Exonerated” which is what I ended up directing.  Let’s just say I wanted to give the Play Selection Committee a diverse range of options…


Posted on July 27, 2017 .