Saturday, June 21, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's interpretation of the scene is just as tonal a shift musically as it is in the play. Le cimetière (The Cemetery) is a silly rock ditty that creates the gallows humor image of gravediggers bowling with skulls. And while Yorick doesn't specifically figure, Hamlet seeing the whole of humanity in an unknown skull does, irreverent rhymes evoking kings, priests, courtiers, poets, singers, politicians and more, even managing to wring some pathos out of the song near the end. Here is the text in the original French, then a fairly literal English translation (certainly not meant to compete with the original in terms of poetics).

Le cimetière
Les fossoyeurs jouent au bowling
Têtes de turcs, têtes de kings
«Vous avez fait d’assez vieux os, place aux jeunes »
Crient les morts nouveaux

Crâne roule et tourneboule
Qui es-tu revenant de terre ?
Tes yeux vides sont pleins de mystère
Avant la pelle, avant la pioche
A quoi ressemblais-tu caboche ?
Crâne qui roule et tourneboule
Quel chapeau te couvrait la tête
Une calotte ?
Une casquette ?
Que vendais-tu à la sauvette
Du Jésus ou de la courbette ?

Crâne qui roule et tourneboule
Quand tu avais, de ton vivant
Une langue derrière tes dents
Etais-tu poète ou menteur
Politiqueur ou bien chanteur
Qui es-tu revenant de terre
Tes yeux vides sont pleins de mystère
Quand ils pouvaient rire ou pleurer
As-tu aimé ?
As-tu aimé ?

The Cemetery
The gravediggers are bowling
Whipping boys, kingpins
"Enough with your old bones, leave room for the kids"
Shout the newly dead

Skull rolls and whirls
Who are you, revenant from the earth
Your empty eyes are full of mystery
Before the shovel, before the pickaxe
What did you look like, noggin?
Skull that rolls and whirls
What hat was on your head?
A cap?
A cap?
What did you sell in haste?
Some Jesus or low bows?

Skull that rolls and whirls
When you had, during your life
A tongue behind those teeth
Were you poet or liar
Politician or singer
Who are you, revenant from the earth
Your empty eyes are full of mystery
When they could laugh or cry
Did you love?
Did you love?

First, a few notes on the translation because it doesn't do justice to Hallyday's word play. "Têtes de turcs, têtes de kings" would have literally been "Heads of Turks, heads of kings", but in the first part, I translated it to what that expression means, and in the second, offered a bowling pun that matches the songwriter's intent. The word "tourneboule" ("whirls") sounds literally like "turn-ball" which is also part of the bowling image. Finally, "calotte" and "casquette" are both "caps" in English, resisting efforts to translate them differently. A translation meant to be sung and recorded would doubtless substitute one of them for a different hat, if one ending in "-ap" were found.

Though this peppy number is filled with black comedy, it does have its poignant moments. The newly dead shouting for the older generation to make way for the younger is both an image of the cemetery as clearing house for the living, and a reminder that skulls are being thrown about to make room for the youthful Ophelia. And with the final question, the Hamlet of the song takes a step away from the Hamlet of the play, giving an emotional context to the cadavers around him. Did they love? Did HE? And in Hallyday's opinion, is that the better mark of a life well lived? Hamlet-as-written cannot succeed until he takes his revenge, but Hallyday's Hamlet cannot win unless he knows love. And Ophelia's death may mean he's already lost.

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