Dev Virahsawmy

Border Crossing Shakespeare

— Dev Virahsawmy

In the old colonial days, knowledge and some experience of the works of the great old bard were considered vital for social promotion. As a secondary school pupil, I studied Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest. After secondary schooling, I had my first stage experience as Sir Andrew at the then famous Youth Drama Festival. At university, I studied many of Shakespeare’s plays. After university, I must have taught more than a dozen of his plays.

After my first degree, I followed a course in Applied Linguistics planning to write a dissertation on Mauritian Creole (MC). Great was my surprise to discover that Julius Caesar had been translated into Krio, a Creole language. Moreover, I learnt that Julius Nyerere, who was at Edinburgh a few years before me, had translated the same play into Swahili. I remember saying to my wife that as soon as I had some free time I would translate the play and call it ‘Zil Sezar’ which I did some twenty years later.

Shakespeare and Language Planning

My school and university days have simply established links between Shakespeare and what would later become the task of a lifetime. It all started with an intuition: Mauritian Creole (MC) has the potential of unifying the different segments of the Mauritian population. Consequently it would eventually be known as ‘Morisien’ (Mauritian). University studies had helped me with the basic knowledge needed but the most difficult part lay ahead: convincing people; struggling against prejudices; laying of building blocks, etc.

The intelligentsia of the sixties and seventies were dead against any form of promotion of MC which for them was a dialect, a pidgin, a patois, some form of broken French but not a language. They would argue that the profound thoughts found in Shakespeare could never be said in MC. I had to prove them wrong. So I started to translate Shakespeare: Enn Ta Senn Dan Vid (Much Ado About Nothing), Zil Sezar (Julius Caesar), Trazedi Makbes (Macbeth), Prens Hamlet (Hamlet), Lerwa Lir (King Lear). Later came Enn Afro Dan Veniz (Othello), Lerwa Bwar (Twelfth Night), Ramdeo Ek Ziliet (Romeo and Juliet). If initially the main preoccupation was to support my claim that MC was fit to become the National Language of the Republic, my translation work started to develop new orientations. How could I use the prestige of Shakespeare to favour nation building? Could the theatre do to Mauritius what it did to the English or Irish Renaissance?

Shakespeare and Nation Building

Before the advent of theatre in MC, plays in the prestigious Plaza Theatre or Port Louis Theatre were almost exclusively in French with very few productions in English. Zeneral Makbef, Li and Zozef Ek So Palto Larkansiel (Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) were to change all this. People from different walks of life could experience the magic of dramatic works in their own language. Through Zeneral Makbef, Shakespeare was helping Mauritians to chart a new course for their country. In MC there is the saying “donn enn dizef, pran enn bef” (give an egg, take an ox) which is, in a nutshell, the main message of Shakespeare’s tragedy as highlighted by Banquo:

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

In the political satire in MC this becomes the main theme. After Zeneral Makbef came a rewriting of the Tempest entitled Toufann which heralds the triumph of ‘metisaz’ (cultural and biological miscegenation). Kalibann (Caliban) is the hero who eventually marries Prospero’s daughter and becomes king. Next came Sir Toby, a musical comedy on the theme of the Eros/Thanatos conflict (inspired by Michael Walling’s production of Twelfth Night in Mauritius).

With the passage of time language planning recedes into the background and the development of positive responses to the different challenges of social and cultural development starts to occupy the foreground. A good example is Ramdeo ek Ziliet (a rewriting of ‘Romeo and Juliet’). It’s about love between a Hindu boy and Christian girl viewed from a feminist perspective with reminiscences of A Winter’s Tale.

Moreover Shakespeare’s works come in handy when taboo subjects are treated. Dr Hamlet helps a cancer patient to die; President Othello is gay; Cleopatra is a sex worker in love with a young man, Antony. Names from the plays of Shakespeare are used instead of local names to avoid fruitless and sterile polemics.

Shakespeare and Enduring Border Crossing Values

The old bard’s plays can also be used to deal with and present powerful enduring values. Trazedi Makbes shows that evil will give you an egg to take an ox; Lerwa Lir echoes teachings of the New Testament, The Bhagavad Gita and The Koran namely that life is a contradiction: the old king starts to think clearly when his wits are gone; he starts to win when everything is lost; as in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he has to die to be born again (Corinthians 15:35-49); Gloucester starts to see when his eyes are gouged out; Hamlet grows spiritually until he becomes a Christ-like figure ready to die to purge the world (there is a divinity in the fall of a sparrow); Othello stabs himself to kill the evil in him (hell is not the other people, it is in oneself).

I have often leant on Shakespeare to build a dramatic literature as part of the national culture of New Mauritius. Language planning, nation building and the teaching of basic values are done through tears, laughter, songs and dances for like all lovers of Shakespeare I listen to the music of the spheres and watch Lord Shiva as He creates the world in a dance.

But most important of all, I have discovered God who is Mama-Papa (Mother-Father), an embodiment of love and mercy. That is the point I wanted to make in my translation-adaptation-Mauritianisation of Romeo and Juliet. A tragedy of fate (star-crossed lovers) becomes a tragi-comedy in which the benevolent Providence (Bondie) uses art (a statue as in A Winter’s Tale) to bring reconciliation and reunion. Am I still following in the bard’s footsteps unconsciously?

I would like to end with a few words of Sheik Sufi who replaces Friar Lawrence in my version of the play:

O Bondie Lamour-Pardon         – God of Love and Mercy

dir tou bann zenerasion         – tell the people of the world

toulezour met dan later         – to put a seed in the soil

enn lagren ousa enn plant – every day or plant a tree

pou dir nou Mama-Papa         – as a way of saying to Mother-Father

ki nou bien sagren erer         – we’re sorry, really sorry

ki finn fer zoli zarden         – to have turned a garden

vinn dezer ek simitier.         – into a desert, a graveyard.

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