That is what Apollinaire came out to his audience with in 1919. The opening night of The Breasts of Tiresias created a riot. The audience apparently argued about whether they were in Paris or Zanzibar. Certainly a new spirit had been born in the theatre.
Having played the role of The Husband in college, I was intimately aware of the power of this play. However, in rehearsal I remember being quite lost as to what the hell was going on. The director seemed to think that in the confusion we would find meaning, but that didn’t happen. We performed Louis Simpson’s translation honorably not missing a note, but had little to truly grasp onto. There were moments that sat dead on the audience, parading as hollow absurdity.
When Karen Williams offered me “an every Sunday in March at the Knitting Factory gig” my mother was the one who suggested Breasts. In September I decided that it would be TRIBE’s first real offering in New York, but that a new translation, adaptation was needed. I was certain that if I went back to Apollinaire’s original script, the play would make sense.
I called on Molly Gallagher to investigate with me. Not only was she a fantastic writer, artist, and collaborator, she also knew French and was a great friend. Together with the rest of the newly formed TRIBE in New York, we went about our work. The collaborative team met every Sunday for brunch through Fall and Winter. The group of us were incredibly different in so many ways, yet there was great respect for all, which made our meetings exciting and illuminating.
For me the play’s essence is found in the line: “And since that night, I too, light one by one, all the stars within that were extinguished.” This was our job now. To reignite the fire, in the theatre and ourselves.
Louis Simpson read our translation and didn’t like it. He said that he would allow us the performances at the Knitting Factory but would never approve of it again. This I must confess. However, it is my belief that no play or book should be bound to any one translation. Especially one that is over thirty years old. Even if we only changed one word in a line, the line’s meaning completely changed. For example, Mr. Simpson writes The Husband’s first line as “Give me lard, I tell you. Give me lard!”, when we saw the morning domestic dispute as “Give me bacon, I tell you. Give me bacon!”. This is to say that even though over half of the words used in our translation are the same as Mr. Simpson’s, the interpretations are completely different.
Our last night demanded back to back performances, so every one could safely see the show. The week before, James Ferguson got popped in the mouth because he didn’t have room in the small AlterKnit Theatre to get out of the way of Alison Tatlock’s stage hit. The audience weren’t even given seats as there wasn’t enough room. At the end of the day, Time Out New York wrote that the performance was “45 manic minutes of amazing theatre”, and TRIBE had set their precedent in New York.
A little over a year later, TRIBE presented Molly Gallagher’s urban operetta Suc Daddy. The summer after Breasts Molly sent me two poems she had written, “Mr. Scrotum’s Song” and “Eager Beaver”. The poems had Molly’s amazing wit and talent for words and they were also alarmingly honest and biting. I wrote her back, saying that if she continued writing the piece we could take it on as TRIBE’s next work. Come September there we all were again sitting around a table for Sunday brunch, with Molly’s twelve pages or so of text. Needless to say, that was lift off.
It is a great pleasure for me to put these two texts together as they are a testament to Molly G.’s brilliant words and to a spirit that continues to dare the boundaries of theatre. They both are separated by eighty years, yet they seem to come from the same womb, dealing with the same problems of sex and the sexes. They both attack their modern world with poetry and rhyme, and ask more from an audience than their attendance. Engagement is demanded.
If I say anymore, I will have said too much.
THE BREASTS OF TIRESIAS
By Guillaume Apollinaire
Adaptation by Molly Gallagher and Eric Wallach
New adaptation based on the translation by Louis Simpson