Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clafouti for Americans

By Clayton Smith, Audience Development Coordinator

If you’ve seen God of Carnage, it’s safe to say you now have a rather in-depth (and possibly nausea-inducing) understanding of clafouti (above); what it is, how it’s made, whether or not it should be refrigerated, and so on.

Clafouti sounds like a delicious dessert, especially with Veronica’s gingerbread twist. According to Neena Arndt, the Goodman’s literary associate (and dramaturg for God of Carnage), clafouti is a traditional French dessert of the peasants. Think of it as the ratatouille of the pastry world, or, to get more to the point, the French version of American pie. It’s cheap and, I believe, fairly simple to make, which means it’s anything but a treat reserved for society’s upper crust.

God of Carnage was originally written by Yasmina Reza in French and set in Paris; when it was staged on London’s West End, Reza and her long-time translator Christopher Hampton collaborated on an English translation. And when God of Carnage finally made its Broadway debut in 2009, Reza and Hampton tweaked the script again to create a more Americanized translation. The choice of clafouti in the original French text insinuates some remarkable things about these characters. In God of Carnage, Veronica’s clafouti recipe comes from Michael’s mother. Because clafouti is a classic peasant dish, the idea Yasmina Reza is probably trying to convey is that Michael comes from a lower class, which certainly explains his eventual proclamation that he is “a [expletive] Neanderthal.” The use of this dish also gives us some insight into his wife, Veronica. She has taken the original, simple pear-only recipe and enhanced it by mixing apples and pears and giving it a gingerbread base, much the same way that she’s taken Michael, a simple man, and enhanced him by making him act like a sophisticated, liberal socialite.

Above: Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher) and Michael (Keith Kupferer) chowing on clafouti.

In this translated version, though, the presence of clafouti means something else entirely for Michael and Veronica. Based on its name and the fact that it’s not a particularly widely known dish in America, Americans are likely to view clafouti as an exotic, decadent French dessert. To American audiences, it gives the characters an air of sophistication and affluence without the subtext of Michael’s simple beginnings and Veronica’s desperate need to put a varnish on them. A more obvious American equivalent, I think, would have been a pie. Perhaps if Reza were an American writer (or Hampton, who is British, were an American translator) Veronica could have served Michael’s mother’s old fashioned apple pie, updated with pear slices, a thick gingerbread crust, and maybe a cinnamon-vanilla drizzle glaze, and the point would have been made in a more direct manner.

The translation of a work from one language to another is a tricky process. What strange script or story translations have you seen on the stage that have made you tilt your head and say, “Hmm?”

Clafouti mage by www.WorthTheWhisk.com [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
God of Carnage production image by Eric Y. Exit

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