You’ve been translating Vaclav Havel’s writing for a quarter century now. What events led to you translating his works originally?
That happened gradually, more by accident than by design. I had already translated two major novels by the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, and was then offered the chance to translate Havel’s influential 1977 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” It’s a brilliant descriptive analysis of how the system, which Havel called “post-totalitarianism,” actually worked. It argued that the Soviet system could be resisted and ultimately overcome by non-violent means: by “living in truth.”
Then, when Havel’s letters from prison were published in samizdat [literature or other media clandestinely distributed in Soviet-bloc countries] his American agent turned to me for a translation. Letters to Olga turned out to be a classic – some critics think it’s his best book – and it probably established me as Havel’s unofficial translator. I went on to translate his first autobiographical book, Disturbing the Peace, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I edited Open Letters, a collection of Havel’s essays, and when he became president, Havel turned to me to translate his major speeches, speeches that he delivered in English around the world, including one he gave in Philadelphia in 1994. Finally, I translated his presidential memoir, To the Castle and Back, in 2006.
The theme of moving, of leave-taking, and of cutting down was something I may have brought upon myself: the play I’ve long been preparing to write will work with these themes; it will attempt to allude to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to Beckett’s Endgame, and above all to Shakespeare’s King Lear. It will be about a statesman who has lost his position and has to move out of the official residence provided by the state; it’s surrounded by an orchard, and he can’t come to accept it. The loss of his position and all that pertains to it means the collapse of his world. He goes slightly mad from it all. (The interesting thing is that I started writing this play before the revolution, that is, sixteen years ago, and then I tossed the manuscript away in the belief that after all the changes taking place, the theme would no longer interest me.… But it’s far more probable that, having thought about it for so long, I’ll never get it written, and then someone else – most probably my longtime friend and colleague Tom Stoppard – will write a play about a writer who prepared his whole life to write the most important play of his life and, of course, he never writes it.)
-Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back
Walter Bilderback: Can you tell us a little about your background and your development as a writer?
Yussef El Guindi: I was born in Egypt; moved to London when I was 4. Went to school there until I was 17. Spent a year in Paris. Then went back to Cairo for my undergraduate degree in English and Comparative Literature. From there, I went to Carnegie-Mellon University for a graduate degree in Playwriting. Kicked around San Francisco for a couple of years after that, doing brief stints as a reader at the Magic Theater and as a dramaturg at the Eureka Theater. I landed a position as playwright-in-residence at Duke University for 7 years. Then moved to Seattle, where I pursued poetry, acting, film-making, before finally settling down to write plays full time. That’s the short and dirty. Actually, the short and dry.
In between all that one-thing-following-another, life sort of happened. And some sort of voice happened. Facilitated, I think, by my getting my citizenship in 1996. That event, strangely, concentrated the mind wonderfully. It gave me a subject matter. Or rather, it brought together a bunch of amorphous elements and subterranean emotions that were in effect, but to which I just couldn’t give a name to, or find a coherent story for. And that story was the simple one of the immigrant journey. One that had begun when my family left Egypt when I was 4. Becoming a citizen, in a way I hadn’t anticipated, plugged me into that unique template that belongs to this country in particular. Few countries owe their national character, and very reason for being, to the immigrant. This country got to be what it was with journeys such as mine. Millions of little such journeys. In Europe, if you’re an immigrant, you will always remain a foreigner, no matter how long you stay in England or France, etc. You will never quite be English or French. In America, some may gripe at immigrants, but this country’s life blood depends on them. Becoming a citizen plugged me into my own journey. Strangely. It allowed me to write about it.
How did you become a writer?
I wrote stories as a young child, but in high school and college I really wasn’t writing creatively. I was acting in plays and studying literature. I felt I was either going to pursue acting professionally or get on a PhD track in English. Fortunately, I was attending college in New York City. So I was able to see what an actor’s life is like and decide it wasn’t for me. I interned at an Off-Off-Broadway theatre while I was in college and I sat in on auditions and rehearsals. I found the auditions really frustrating because the actor has such limited control over the process. At the same time, I was watching rehearsals for very new plays. The writers were rewriting a lot and I was very turned on by that—the process by which actors and audiences show the writer what their play is and isn’t. Obviously, you don’t want to be a slave to that kind of feedback, but I’m still really excited by the period of discovery in the rehearsal room. I feel like there are subtexts kind of bubbling under the surfaces in my plays and a lot of times actors see them when I do not.
As a successful writer for both the stage and television, what are the challenges distinct to each medium for you and what are the strongest similarities?
I feel a play has to say something important, or really shift an audience’s consciousness in some important way. I don’t feel that pressure in television, and that’s not to say I take it lightly, but I do think in film and TV it’s enough to entertain and I don’t feel that’s enough in theatre. Partly that’s a function of this cultural moment. Film and TV are increasingly accessible. I have movies on-demand through my cable service that were in theaters last week. The point is… There’s so much great film and TV available in my apartment, so I bring very high expectations to theatre. It’s expensive, it’s uncomfortable. More and more I regard plays as the place you go to hear some truth or ask some question that film and TV can’t or won’t give you.
The challenge I find writing for television is that you don’t have an audience captive from episode one to episode twenty-two (unless your audience is watching the season in order, beginning to end, on DVD, of course—but you can’t count on that). So you really have to be thinking clarity clarity clarity when you write. You have to make the episode accessible to a new or newish viewer, and I find that obligation somewhat limiting. Of course, the really excellent cable dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” assume the audience is committed to watching the whole season, so the writers can get into character arcs and nuance and ambiguity. The shows I’ve written have been police procedurals. That kind of show is designed to be syndication-friendly. The episodes need to stand alone, you can run them out of order… I like those shows a lot, but they don’t accommodate character complexity very well. The goal is entertainment.
What are some of the elements of Becky Shaw that drew you to it?
I find the characters in Becky Shaw incredibly delightful and extremely slippery. Each one, in their own way, is reprehensible but impossible to dismiss. One of the first things I look for in a play are characters who are complex and contradictory, characters whose intentions are not easily defined. And, these characters are full of contradictions, they're mysterious and brash and vulnerable and outrageous. Their desires and demands and philosophies drive the plot instead of the plot driving them, and for me, that's thrilling theater.
You mentioned both dioramas and paper dolls as being inspirations for the set design you worked to create with Mimi Lien--how do these things inform the world of Becky Shaw that you're creating?
Gina's inspiration for this play are 19th century novels such as Vanity Fair. These are novels about women and class, and I was trying to remember how, as a child, I was introduced to class, and how we recognize class in the United States. In our country, class is mostly defined by the haves and the have nots. Yes, 'royalty' of sorts does exist in this country, but really, it's driven mostly by economics and access. So, I was thinking a lot about accoutrements rather than blood-lines. In a way, stuff is the most visible sign of economic status in this country. We all start out naked and adorn ourselves, which is where the paper doll idea came from. The diorama is an extension of the paper doll idea in a way. I was very drawn to a permanent exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum when I was a child. There was a room that had tiny dioramas of drawing rooms from different Western European countries from 17th to the 20th century. These drawing rooms were furnished according to a particular socio-economic reality. The boxes were all the same, but the way they were adorned differed drastically and I was absolutely mesmerized by the sumptuousness or blandness of each environment. The dioramas were behind glass and there was a brass bar at about ankle height for small children to stand on to peer in. I could never get enough of that exhibit, I wanted to climb inside the worlds and live there, but was always kept at arms length from the rooms due to the barrier of glass and the labels with the relevant information about a particular room placed beneath the scene. I like this idea for Becky Shaw; I was intrigued by the idea that we might observe the unfolding of this drama inside categorized rooms as though it were a kind of social experiment.