For writer, bust proves a real blessing

CATCHING UP WITH... James Magruder

'Triumph of Love' failure freed time for new writing, new horizons

January 11, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

It's seldom that we can see a life-changing experience yawning in front of us," James Magruder wrote in the journal he kept on Triumph of Love, the 1997 Broadway musical for which he scripted the libretto. "What could be worse -- if something happens to me because of Triumph of Love, or if nothing happens?"

Triumph, which closed on Broadway after three months, didn't turn out to be life-changing. But that's OK with Magruder, a longtime member of the dramaturgy staff at Center Stage, where his new translation of Moliere's The Miser opens Wednesday.

"It was such a fluke -- I mean a fluke that I should be, without ever aiming toward it, writing a book for a Broadway musical, which in the end, I think, was one of the reasons why its failure on Broadway didn't devastate me. And it wasn't like Triumph took eight years to get there and disappeared, and it wasn't as if everyone hated it, and it hasn't died since," he says.

Furthermore, if the musical, which was based on an 18th-century French comedy, had been a hit, Magruder speculates, "it would have been life-changing in an adverse way. I would have sort of felt that I had to move to New York immediately and start writing another show, and ... I wouldn't have been writing all these things that are just so important to me."

He is referring to his original writing, which lately has expanded to include short stories. Two of these have recently been accepted for publication, one in The Gettysburg Review and the other in the Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly. His first novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, is under consideration by several publishers in New York, and he's halfway through his second.

Love Slaves, according to Magruder, is "an affectionate, ribald look at my first year of grad school at Yale." The autobiographical element has been a regular feature of his writing, which also includes plays. Bad Beans, for instance, a quartet of one-acts that were produced at the Theatre Project in 2000, dealt candidly with subjects ranging from living with HIV to romantic and filial relationships.

A Moliere niche

In contrast, translations of period French plays are about as far as you can get from the life of this 43-year-old Washington native, who grew up in the heartland of America -- Wheaton, Ill., where he got his first taste of theater in high school.

Magruder was in the doctoral program in French literature at Yale University when he transferred to the Yale School of Drama, eventually combining his courses of study by translating three classic French plays -- Eugene Labiche's Eating Crow, Alain-Rene Lesage's Turcaret and Marivaux's The Triumph of Love -- for his dissertation. Published by Yale, the dissertation, titled Three French Comedies, won a 1997 award from the American Literary Translators Association for outstanding translation. His nonmusical translation of Triumph was produced by Center Stage in 1993; Eating Crow was produced in Texas in 2001; and his translation of Turcaret made its debut at Washington's Catalyst Theater Company this past fall.

Since earning his doctorate in 1992, Magruder has completed four more translations, three of which are Moliere comedies. Center Stage's production of The Miser, directed by Baltimore native David Schweizer, is the third time the theater has produced this satire on greed. But this is the first time it has used an American translation.

For that matter, Magruder says, there aren't many American translations of the play, which he finds surprising since our native tongue offers a real boon to translators of French literature. "American English has twice the vocabulary of French because English is half Anglo-Saxon, half Romance-derived. And then American English evolved so quickly that, for a given French adjective, I have seven or eight choices, which is great for comedy," he says.

The Magruder touch

For The Miser, he has hewed more closely to the original text than he did with his two previous Molieres, which he dubs "Moliere Hellzapoppin'" -- The Imaginary Invalid, in which a character appeared at one point in the guise of Hillary Clinton, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which ended with an international trade show.

But that doesn't mean that he hasn't taken certain small liberties with The Miser, such as filling in some of the details. For example, he explains, when Harpagon, the tightwad title character, gives a dinner party, "He wants to keep costs low, so he tells his cook, 'Serve lots of filling foods that nobody likes,' and that's the joke. And that's pretty funny. The idea is to fill them up on things that people hate. So for me, it's irresistible to name what those things are -- you know, tripe, things like that. It's just kind of elaborating."

Other liberties include giving Harpagon's two children and their love interests "more to say and more to do," a choice he justifies by the fact that, thanks to modern psychology, "we understand father-children conflicts. ... I know they're boiling underneath."

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