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This report is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

Ted Hughes: A Reconciliation Eavan Boland

Why, a British drama critic asked recently, did Ted Hughes choose to spend his last months translating Racine's Phedre, a play the director of the new production in London and New York City described as 'a torture chamber of the spirit'? After all, the French alexandrine couplet is notoriously hard to replicate in English cadences. And then there's the word count: it's been estimated that while Shakespeare used 21,000 words in his plays, Racine used less than a tenth of that number. However accurate the statistic, the impression is clear. Racine is a bleak taskmaster; the thrift of his language is a translator's ordeal.

Then why would Hughes take Phedre on? The plot of an incestuous queen and a catastrophic outcome is gloomy and strange. Suggestions - also recently made - that the distraught Phedre was a Plath-like image from his own past seem hopelessly reductive. And yet, in the blocky, fast-moving free verse he used to translate it (Phedre: A New Translation by Ted Hughes), he seems utterly at home with the action. Toward the end, when Theseus says 'the favour of the gods terrifies me'; a window of explanation opens: the theatre of ominous occasions, and their inevitable results, is not so far from the world Hughes knew as a young poet and suffered as an older one.

Who was Ted Hughes? Now that he is dead, there is a special meaning to the question. Poets like Hughes - there are always a ...


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