As a translator, poet, scholar, and sometime actor, Schmidt enjoyed a distinguished theatrical career that bridged the classic and the avant-garde repertoires. If translation is a form of authorship, then he was the most frequently produced writer at the ART in recent years, having rendered the texts for productions of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities (from German), Racine's Phaedra (French), and Euripides's The Bacchae (Greek), as well as the current Ivanov (Russian). "He was a genuine man of the theater," recalls artistic director Robert Brustein. "And his collaborations with directors were instrumental in helping us to re-vision these classical works."
Liz Diamond directed three Schmidt translations, the ART Phaedra and two productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre. "He never translated from a language that he didn't know the way a poet knows language," she points out. "He understood what it meant for words to live inside an actor's body, what it meant for language to be embodied in space by a living breathing performer."
Schmidt also collaborated with several of the foremost experimental directors of the past generation. He translated Zangezi, by the little-known Russian poet Velemir Khlebnikov, for a 1986 production directed by Peter Sellars. He prepared the text of Jean Genet's The Screens for JoAnne Akalaitis's 1989 production at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. He provided the translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters that was the point of departure for the Wooster Group's 1990 theater piece Brace Up! And in 1995, he wrote the libretto for Alice, Robert Wilson's treatment of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with music by Tom Waits.
Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Schmidt graduated from Colgate in 1955 and came to Harvard to pursue graduate work in Slavic literature. During his years in Cambridge, he balanced scholarly pursuits with a passion for theater that led to his involvement with a legendary circle of friends who performed at the Agassiz Theatre in the 1960s. This group included Kathryn Walker, Lindsay Crouse, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, the director and writer Tim Mayer, and Stockard Channing (to whom Schmidt was married for seven years).
Schmidt went on to teach Slavic languages and literature at the University of Texas at Austin from 1967 to 1976. In the late 1970s, he returned to the Northeast to concentrate on theater work and translation projects, including a three-volume edition of the complete works of Khlebnikov. His translations of Chekhov's plays were published in 1997 to great acclaim. Carey Perloff, artistic director of the Actors Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where two of Schmidt's Chekhovs have been produced, prizes their stageworthiness. "He was himself a wonderful actor and had a clear sense of what is actable. It bothered him that Chekhov was treated for so long like a 19th-century English playwright, and he wasn't willing to `Victorian-up' the translation. For him, Chekhov was modern."
At commemorative services in New York in April 1999 and in Cambridge in June 1999, friends and family gathered to celebrate Schmidt's particular grace, his passion for literature, languages, and life, and his genteel and noble spirit. Those qualities live on in his landmark translations.
Burial: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, USA, Plot: Lot 16726, Section 164
Paul Schmidt, 1993, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1124044)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
The Plays of Anton Chekhov translated by Paul Schmidt
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (April 8, 1998)
Amazon: The Plays of Anton Chekhov
These critically hailed translations of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and the other Chekhov plays are the only ones in English by a Russian-language scholar who is also a veteran Chekhovian actor.
Without compromising the spirit of the text, Paul Schmidt accurately translates Chekhov's entire theatrical canon, rescuing the humor "lost" in most academic translations while respecting the historical context and original social climate.
Schmidt's translations of Chekhov have been successfully staged all over the U.S. by such theatrical directors as Lee Strasberg, Elizabeth Swados, Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson. Critics have hailed these translations as making Chekhov fully accessible to American audiences. They are also accurate -- Schmidt has been described as "the gold standard in Russian-English translation" by Michael Holquist of the Russian department at Yale University.
A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Paul Schmidt, photography by Robert Mapplethorpe
Hardcover: 95 pages
Publisher: Bulfinch (February 1, 1998)
Amazon: A Season in Hell
Written by Rimbaud at age 18 in the wake of a tempestuous affair with fellow poet, Paul Verlaine, "A Season in Hell" has been a touchstone for anguished poets, artists and lovers for over a century. This volume presents the text in French and English with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems (New York Review Books Classics) translated by Paul Schmidt
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: NYRB Classics (December 5, 2006)
Amazon: The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems (New York Review Books Classics)
A master anthology of Russia’s most important poetry, newly collected and never before published in English
In the years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Stray Dog cabaret in St. Petersburg was the haunt of poets, artists, and musicians, a place to meet, drink, read, brawl, celebrate, and stage performances of all kinds. It has since become a symbol of the extraordinary literary ferment of that time. It was then that Alexander Blok composed his apocalyptic sequence “Twelve”; that the futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky exploded language into bold new forms; that the lapidary lyrics of Osip Mandelstam and plangent love poems of Anna Akhmatova saw the light; that the electrifying Marina Tsvetaeva stunned and dazzled everyone. Boris Pasternak was also of this company, putting together his great youthful hymn to nature, My Sister, Life.
It was a transforming moment—not just for Russian but for world poetry—and a short-lived one. Within little more than a decade, revolution and terror were to disperse, silence, and destroy almost all the poets of the Stray Dog cabaret.
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
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