Ted Hughes: Language and Culture.

Interviewers: Stan Correy and Robyn Ravlich. March 1982.

Transcript of the “Doubletake” interview of Ted Hughes by Stan Correy and Robyn Ravlich,
first broadcast 1982, reproduced by permission of Radio National and the ABC (Australia).

Transcript © Ann Skea.

R.R. In recent times the study of language has been taken out of the domain of the poets and given over to the linguists. Most writers are concerned with language as an instrument. However, Ted Hughes, the English poet and writer, has taken language as a territory for vigorous exploration and in that territory, so the idea goes, there are meanings to be found and mapped rather than just articulated. The language need not be that found in our high culture, in our poetry and novels but, as well, in everyday speech. In addition to his poetry Ted Hughes has made rather dramatic language experiments into two theatre events. In his adaptation of Seneca’s play, Oedipus, he pared the English language back to basic rhythms and words. And in his play, Orghast, which he performed at Persepolis in 1971, he stripped even familiar words away until he found an almost unconscious language of utterance. Stan Correy and I talked with Hughes about these experiments and we began by asking him just how much the literary tradition, in our culture, has impinged on the traditional oral forms of communication.
T.H. Well, I think we were in a situation analogous to, say, the end of the eighteenth century in England, where they felt an enormous… everybody felt - everybody sensitive to language felt an enormously elaborate literary tradition had completely swamped any natural expression – any possibility of stating all kinds of attitudes and feelings that had developed under the surface and were obviously wanting to emerge. And so they – well, I suppose Wordsworth began with his manifesto about the language of men, and so on, and started writing these perfectly simple little ballads that everybody laughed at, because they were so completely simple. But out of that, [came] new attitudes to the immediate relationship between language and what you need to express. It was as if that motive was the real mainspring of the whole literary movement that followed. And I think maybe – not so much now recently – but we’re still in a movement that’s maybe fifty years old, where the two things are happening simultaneously, aren’t they? Where there are writers who are trying to simplify language and draw it as plainly as possible back to spoken language – back to an oral tradition; and parallel with it, there’s a whole… there are several schools of language that are elaborating it and making it almost a freakish art-object, in novels and, I suppose, in poetry too. And so we’ve a continual chronic state of trying to renew a language, that now… that we’re continually somehow overburdening with literary effects and devices and stiltifications.
R.R. Is this just common to the language of Western culture – to English? Do some languages wax and wain in this regard? Have strengths and weaken?
T.H. I don’t know. I don’t know enough about other languages. But in English I think part of it, maybe, that in fact we’re now going through one movement after another. Every five or ten years a whole new lot of young writers appear and everything written previously seems too rigid to them; or too stuffed full of things that they don’t want to manage, and have no… feel no affinity to; and so they’re continually trying to renew language.
S.C. The question of renewing language. You talked about, previously, the simplicity of language: It’s very important for someone who is, for example, translating plays for theatrical performance. In 1968, you adapted Seneca’s Oedipus for a Peter Brook production. Now Seneca’s plays are regarded as fairly scholarly exercises, rather than pieces for performance. As a poet, how did you transform that dead language (I suppose) into something living and dynamic for the theatre?
T.H. I think that the job posed the basic problem of your translator. That really, before he translates, he has to decide what kind of translation he’s going to make. He’s got to decide whether it’s going to be a crib, which is just simply to show a reader what the original is in its barest terms, without any ambition to translate any poetic or extra tones it might have: or whether he wants to use it as a springboard for his own new inventions, something like a whole gymnasium of new exercises and techniques for himself, to crack something open in himself, and develop himself in some way. And the latter sort of translations are like Lowell’s Imitations, and so on, and Lowell’s plays, too. And I suppose at the other extreme, there’s just the old school cribs.

When I translated the Oedipus, I went back to a school crib. I had a Victorian translation which is a very elaborate, stately translation of these very stately, elaborate passages of Seneca’s, stuffed full of all… a whole cartload of references to mythological figures. And I had a crib, just a plain word-for-word crib, and a little bit of Latin of my own. And I began by making an absolute word-for-word translation, so that it was just like a – just, well, every variant, and so on, – bracketed variants. Just plain stilted Latin sentences into an English vocabulary. A completely unreadable thing really. But that gave me the… a sense of what, maybe, there was in the original, which I couldn’t get from the Victorian translation. All you got from that was stately Victorianness. Then, since I was working with a particular bunch of actors and a particular director, and the director and I knew exactly what sort of play we wanted to produce eventually – and it wasn’t simply a representation of the Latin Seneca: in other words, it wasn’t a museum performance… trying to restage what probably the original Seneca looked like… it wasn’t… had nothing of that. We just wanted to use the text as the basis for a ritualistic drama about Oedipus.
R.R. The Director is Peter Brook. Just previously we were talking about how every five years or so we’re getting writers peeling back language – looking for the new ways, rejecting what came before – how much went into the choice of Seneca’s Oedipus? Just why that sort of work, that comes almost from a language that we now consider dead, and a play so very old? Is it that the mythic quality remains a very constantly recharging aspect?
T.H. That’s right. And I think it was Peter Brook’s interest in Oedipus – not mine. I was merely called in to do the job of translating it. And his interest in Seneca goes back a long time. The Seneca versions of the old Greek stories are very barbaric, very raw. Under this enormously ornate temple of language there’s a very primitive, raw shape of a drama. And this is what he responded to. And this is what he wanted to dig out from all that language. And from the start, it was my idea in the translation to do that – to find some way of discarding the ornateness and the stateliness (and in a way, there’s a great majesty of the thing, because they’re enormously, impressive, majestic pieces) and to bring out some quite thin but raw presentation of the real core of the play. And in doing that, I shed every mythological reference, which shortened the play by about a third. I shortened every sentence. In fact, I discarded sentence structure. I just dropped, finally, into phrases and words. And all the time this was made much easier for me – I didn’t have to imagine a whole new dramatic language and think, “Well, that will sound fine when the actors get at it” – the actors were performing my translation all the time I was translating. So I came up first of all with one version of a part of it, that seemed to me very bare, and to have got through to something essential, and they began to perform and rehearse it, and I began to feel, because of the whole drift of the way Peter Brook and myself – in a sort of joint effort – were driving towards the, some, intense situation in the middle of the play – that this language began to seem too elaborate. And I stripped it again, and I stripped it… and this process went on and on and on. I went through many, many drafts until, finally, I was down to about 250 words – that’s what it felt like – and a rigid, sort of ugly language, which somehow seemed to come out of this central situation that we were driving towards. But I didn’t add anything. I just drew what there was out of the original text or out of the original – the implications of the original text. And ended up, finally, with a very short play which just was about … just a play about this central situation, this little naked knot. And I felt maybe it was much too naked and much too pared away, and the whole thing then just had to depend on pace and intensity. It couldn’t – there couldn’t be any leisure – because there was no dimension in the language and the whole language was travelling too fast for there to be any rest in the action . So the play finally just had to be performed like an express train. And really that determined, finally, the speed and the bareness of the language that I finally came to.

But I felt that I’d really deprived myself of all kinds of opportunities doing that, But just the way we did it and the very practical necessity of producing the play in that way, forced us to that language. And I thought afterwards that really the way to have done it would have been to go the other way, and make a very elaborate language: try and devise some quite stately formal language, so the whole thing would have been much more statuesque and so on. But it seemed in the early stages of the rehearsal that that just wasn’t possible – that sort of language just sort of fell off the play. Until right at the end, when they got to the final performance, and there was just one sentence in the play, that I left in because I’d got infatuated by this particular sentence early on, and that’s a very formal, rhetorical shaped sentence, and suddenly, when we’d got to this final state of performance, this sentence was suddenly quite the most interesting sentence in the play. Suddenly that – the life that we’d drawn the whole drama down to – was able to carry that kind of formal, elaborate sentence. But it was too late then to go back and rewrite it all, and probably wouldn’t have been possible anyway.
R.R. You’re talking about living, growing, changing processes there. How does it feel, being someone who is first and foremost a writer, working in this very living, dynamic role of a translator and adaptor – working with a company of actors who are working through this with you – as opposed to the more literary tradition of translation in the style, say, of Robert Lowell?
T.H. Well I don’t know if… I don’t really have any experience of translations of plays of any other kind – well of any others than that one I did there, and then other dramatic pieces I did with Brook later, so I don’t know… how far that other translations have gone on with the actual rehearsals and have grown with the growth of the conception of just what the play was going to be, finally. When I went to Persia with Peter Brook1, we were to put on a performance there of – just a performance – there was no basic play – nothing – it was just left up to us. And we had a dozen actors, all different nationalities – different languages – and he just asked me to make a play out of Prometheus Bound2, Life is a Dream3, and then all sorts of other little stories that we gradually put onto it, and the texts of the Avesta – the early Persian religious texts. So on that material we began to devise a performance – a sort of show.
S.C. Did your experience with the Oedipus play… did Seneca’s Oedipus affect the way you approached these new works with – for the Persian experiment?
T.H. These were very different. First of all, not having a simple single story at the centre – there was nothing to home in on in that intense way. We had to invent a long series of small scenes. And Peter Brook’s basic idea was to, in fact, make it up of many little bits and pieces of the original language or languages. So there was ancient… he found some Professor who had reconstructed the pronunciation of Ancient Greek; he had chunks of Spanish; he had a Persian lady4 who’d reconstructed the original pronunciation of the Avestas which she claimed had been completely forgotten, and she had a whole method of pronouncing these texts, and it was really a whole vocal training. It was a… most wonderful sounds. And the original idea was to have a long – like an opera – of clashing languages and sounds. Nothing comprehensible linguistically at all. The sense had to come from the situations that we devised out of these basic texts that we used. And eventually we did devise a kind of play, about and hour-and-a-half. But the original languages were too stiff to use, really, and it was also better for me, I could work more easily, if I… when I… devising my scenes, I simply wrote them in another language – so I invented a language.
R.R. Can I ask you… how you began to go about a task like that? I know you had the Ancient Persian languages and some others as a guide, but how do you begin to really… more than peeling back (the process you’ve spoken of before)… it’s really throwing it all out. And where do you look for it?
T.H. Well I… What made it easier – and it was really much, much easier than I would ever have imagined – was that the play itself provided a closed system of themes. The basic idea being Promethus and the vulture, and the basic myth of the early Persian religion, and the Life is a Dream – the prince – the cast out prince in the prison who is put back on the throne for a day or two – all these were… I tied all these together in one big system and that gave you certain basic ideas and basic images, which I used as the main ideas for my language. So the main idea in the whole play – the main image which Peter Brook built the whole play around, was just fire. So fire was my first word. And I invented a word for fire. And then another big image was the sun. And so I invented… my word for sun was made out of my word for fire and a word for eating, and so on. So it was like a little hieroglyph word – like a little bunch of images. From there I went through my basic set of themes and having got the sounds for the basic themes the rest of it was developed from that.

I could then develop a whole language by a sort of metaphorical process – of making bundles of the sounds that composed these other ideas, so that any particular word that I needed in my text, I could fit together out of the sounds that I already had. But that became too rigid. That became just like using another language. So after I’d written quite a lot of it in this language, I began to recompose the language and improvise the language. In the end, I abandoned the language altogether and I wrote just in sounds, which I composed through my scene – through the particular scene. We composed it musically; we orchestrated the sounds. And we could only do that when we had the actual scene developing in front of us. The actors knew the way through the scene, they knew approximately the drift of feeling and meaning behind the sounds, and from that point we could begin to cut down the sounds, so that we ended up with a play of cries and whispers and chatterings – really a sort of vocal, musical piece that went with a very active and, in the end, a very effective action.

And the whole thing was – grew out of itself and belonged to itself and couldn’t have been done in any other way. I could never have… I don’t see how it would be possible just to make a play of sounds and then give it to a director and say: “There you are, here’s a play”.
R.R. I think that what I was getting at before … that it’s a very special circumstance of having actors working with you…
T.H. That’s right. And you have the action, and you find the vocal music to express the action – or to give the actors a way of expressing what they’re going through at that moment. And, in fact, early on, I had translations of my language, of my texts. And of course that was disastrous, because if the actors knew the translation- if they knew the ordinary English, or ordinary meaning of the sounds they were uttering, they just spoke them like ordinary language. And the whole point was to have them speak, not like ordinary language, but have them speak like a sort of super animals and super birds and super-musical beasts. And in the end that’s what they did speak like.
R.R. Really it sounds very much as if it is a primeval, almost an unconscious collective language, that lies in the minds of most people. As well as the actors being able to use the language, do you think in performance people were able to go with it as well – that the audience could recognize as a language these utterances and actions that would have gone with them?
T.H. Well I think… It had the satisfaction of music. You felt it was making very important meaning, of a musical kind. You could feel the very… The whole thing had to depend on the shape of sound and feeling; the tensions and relaxations of these noises was the whole music, and so that’s what you responded to. It was just intensely interesting sound / action combined, which wasn’t music, wasn’t language, but it was on the edge of both and, at the same time, it was completely embedded in a very visible evident action. You know people don’t stand and make these sounds at each other like two cats in a garden, they were in the middle of heavy things going on. So you were always interpreting the action; or interpreting the sounds by the action; interpreting the action through the sounds. The whole thing was a very strange experience.
S.C. Orghast seems very much like an ultimate theatrical experience. After that experience, how far do you think – when you approach language – how far can you develop – after that experience, after using language in such a way? In what direction can you go?
T.H. Well you don’t go any further in that direction. You abandon that and start again with simple, plain speech.
R.R. Does it distress you, after being so involved in such a … it sounds such a visceral and muscular production, to hear the everyday speech of people outside of the literary and theatre traditions that seem to be bubbling over with all sorts of theories and works with words – just to hear the everyday speech of people?
T.H. But in fact Orghast was – in that way – was nearer to ordinary speech than most literary speeches. What stands between you and whatever’s going on inside the play in most poetic dramas, is a mass of maybe highly elaborate and intricate language – but, to some degree, an unnatural and unliving language.

So Orghast was really one step beyond Oedipus in stripping off that intrusive formal, merely communicative or intercommunicative element of language - that intellectual and loaded side of language – to a system of noises – music – that people make to each other. People, for the most part, aren’t telling each other anything; they aren’t giving each other important information; they’re comforting each other with all kinds of musical noises. An ordinary person’s speech is infinitely more alive and musical just as sounds and as the note of a voice that you interpret very, very accurately – whether it’s a false note or has a false element in it – you can read that very, very sensitively just from the sound of a voice and the inflection of a voice. And in ordinary conversation this is a very rich experience. And it’s that richness that we tried to draw on in Orghast, and it’s that richness that you’re always trying to get back to when you say: “We must write ordinary speech. We must use the speech that we do use, that we ordinarily do use, because that’s the only living speech, for some reason or other”.
S.C. Are you participating in any further theatrical experiments using language, not in the way you did in Orghast, but perhaps on a different level?
T.H. Not at the moment. No. No.
R.R. What you were just saying about everyday speech that seems to not have interference of sophisticated and complicated language in the way of it all. Does it then suggest that… if for a lot of people, they’ve considered that cracking literature is almost cracking the code to a culture… would you go as far as to say that if we crack dialect or speech or peculiarity of speech on the street, then we have, really, more of an insight into that culture than through the official culture itself?
T.H. Well I think they’re both aspects of the same thing aren’t they? I think in the idiom… in just ordinary idiom that everybody uses, you hear it all. And in the literature you hear it all but translated, as though literature is a more formal ordering and translation of what you hear otherwise. But in literature, you don’t hear it just as language, you hear it as a system of attitudes and feelings and ideas and so on. Whereas in the speech of – in ordinary speech – you hear it as a purely musical, animal chord which you respond to immediately – but you understand in a very complicated way. You can make enormous interpretation of it. And so I think you have to take them both together.

But what you can’t do, I think, is formalize ordinary speech. You can’t say: “I will now write in the speech of the people”, because you write it as a writer. You’ve already… your attitude to it turns it into a formalized language, and it finally rests with just the few writers, at any time, who somehow or other manage to be able to do it. Everybody realizes it’s an ideal but there are very few writers that can actually tap that colloquial expressiveness of ordinary speech in a written language.
R.R. You’ve grown up, I think, in a region that has its own dialect almost and a social character that expresses itself through its language, or its quirks of language. How much does that come as a comfort or equip you to deal with language in general? The dialect of West Riding – is it?
T.H. Yes. West Yorkshire. Which I don’t speak any more really, you see it disappeared somewhere. But writing verse, it’s what I hear. And, maybe because it has disappeared and maybe because it isn’t the language of English culture, maybe it’s enabled me to keep hold of what was associated with it in the beginning. In other words, if I had grown up speaking… if my first language had been ordinary English… then the language would have been wide open and permeable by all the later added cultural influences and those first things – that I can hang onto in verse, and make something of in verse – would have been enormously overlaid and evolved and so on. As it was, I suppose they were sealed off and so stayed out of it, were unaffected – as if they were a different language, I suppose. I think it’s useful to have your mother tongue and your childhood tongue as a slightly different tongue.
1 In 1971, Ted Hughes joined Peter Brook and the group of actors who then were part of Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research in creating Orghast for performance as part of the Shiraz Festival in Persia.
2 Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. In 1965, Peter Brook had commissioned Robert Lowell to make a translation of this play but the production fell through.
3 Calderón, Life is a Dream.
4 Mrs Mahin Tadjadod.

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