It's seldom that we can see a life-changing experience yawning in front of us," James Magruder wrote in the journal he kept on Triumph of Love, the 1997 Broadway musical for which he scripted the libretto. "What could be worse -- if something happens to me because of Triumph of Love, or if nothing happens?"
Triumph, which closed on Broadway after three months, didn't turn out to be life-changing. But that's OK with Magruder, a longtime member of the dramaturgy staff at Center Stage, where his new translation of Moliere's The Miser opens Wednesday.
"It was such a fluke -- I mean a fluke that I should be, without ever aiming toward it, writing a book for a Broadway musical, which in the end, I think, was one of the reasons why its failure on Broadway didn't devastate me. And it wasn't like Triumph took eight years to get there and disappeared, and it wasn't as if everyone hated it, and it hasn't died since," he says.
Furthermore, if the musical, which was based on an 18th-century French comedy, had been a hit, Magruder speculates, "it would have been life-changing in an adverse way. I would have sort of felt that I had to move to New York immediately and start writing another show, and ... I wouldn't have been writing all these things that are just so important to me."
He is referring to his original writing, which lately has expanded to include short stories. Two of these have recently been accepted for publication, one in The Gettysburg Review and the other in the Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly. His first novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, is under consideration by several publishers in New York, and he's halfway through his second.
Love Slaves, according to Magruder, is "an affectionate, ribald look at my first year of grad school at Yale." The autobiographical element has been a regular feature of his writing, which also includes plays. Bad Beans, for instance, a quartet of one-acts that were produced at the Theatre Project in 2000, dealt candidly with subjects ranging from living with HIV to romantic and filial relationships.
A Moliere niche
In contrast, translations of period French plays are about as far as you can get from the life of this 43-year-old Washington native, who grew up in the heartland of America -- Wheaton, Ill., where he got his first taste of theater in high school.
Magruder was in the doctoral program in French literature at Yale University when he transferred to the Yale School of Drama, eventually combining his courses of study by translating three classic French plays -- Eugene Labiche's Eating Crow, Alain-Rene Lesage's Turcaret and Marivaux's The Triumph of Love -- for his dissertation. Published by Yale, the dissertation, titled Three French Comedies, won a 1997 award from the American Literary Translators Association for outstanding translation. His nonmusical translation of Triumph was produced by Center Stage in 1993; Eating Crow was produced in Texas in 2001; and his translation of Turcaret made its debut at Washington's Catalyst Theater Company this past fall.
Since earning his doctorate in 1992, Magruder has completed four more translations, three of which are Moliere comedies. Center Stage's production of The Miser, directed by Baltimore native David Schweizer, is the third time the theater has produced this satire on greed. But this is the first time it has used an American translation.
For that matter, Magruder says, there aren't many American translations of the play, which he finds surprising since our native tongue offers a real boon to translators of French literature. "American English has twice the vocabulary of French because English is half Anglo-Saxon, half Romance-derived. And then American English evolved so quickly that, for a given French adjective, I have seven or eight choices, which is great for comedy," he says.
The Magruder touch
For The Miser, he has hewed more closely to the original text than he did with his two previous Molieres, which he dubs "Moliere Hellzapoppin'" -- The Imaginary Invalid, in which a character appeared at one point in the guise of Hillary Clinton, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which ended with an international trade show.
But that doesn't mean that he hasn't taken certain small liberties with The Miser, such as filling in some of the details. For example, he explains, when Harpagon, the tightwad title character, gives a dinner party, "He wants to keep costs low, so he tells his cook, 'Serve lots of filling foods that nobody likes,' and that's the joke. And that's pretty funny. The idea is to fill them up on things that people hate. So for me, it's irresistible to name what those things are -- you know, tripe, things like that. It's just kind of elaborating."
Other liberties include giving Harpagon's two children and their love interests "more to say and more to do," a choice he justifies by the fact that, thanks to modern psychology, "we understand father-children conflicts. ... I know they're boiling underneath."
Another psychological tweak is that "Harpagon's relationship to his money is more sexualized than you might see in other productions. He refers his cash box as a woman. It's kind of like the money is his mistress, and it gleams at him and winks at him."
The Harpagon whom audiences see actor Tom Mardiro-sian portraying at Center Stage is intended to be harder-edged than usual. Part of the justification for this comes from a production of Monsieur de Pourceaugnac that Magruder saw in Paris this past summer -- his first Comedie Francaise production of a Moliere play.
"It was dark. It was mean. It was terrific to see what I thought could be true," he says. "How do the French do it? They honor the darkness and the tonal weirdnesses."
Doing more writing
Magruder completed the first draft of his Miser translation in 2 1/2 weeks. "By the third draft," he says, "I'm not looking at the French anymore." That draft received a staged reading in Center Stage's First Look program in October, and the draft he completed afterward went into rehearsal last month.
Besides his own writing and his work at Center Stage, where he holds the title of associate dramaturg, Magruder is in his seventh year teaching translation and adaptation at his alma mater, the Yale School of Drama. This semester he will also be teaching dramaturgy at Swarthmore College.
Ironically, even though the musical version of Triumph of Love was a commercial failure on Broadway, it has proved to be his most produced work. He estimates that there have been 35 productions. Magruder hasn't seen many of these, but he's looking forward to a forthcoming student production at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I'm really excited to see the one at College Park because I want to see it done with college students and for a college audience, and see if it holds up," he says.
Four years ago, Magruder, who had been Center Stage's resident dramaturg, reduced his hours to part-time so he could concentrate more on his writing. This isn't limited to fiction or even playwriting. He's done a film treatment of Paul Monette's National Book Award-winning memoir, Becoming a Man, and, though he's hesitant to say much about it, he's also got an idea for a new musical. "I've tasted blood, and I want more," he kids.
Midway through his life and career, Magruder finds himself taking stock. When he came to Baltimore in 1991, his infection-fighting T-cells were down to 17. A dozen years later, his T-cell count is a healthy 700. "I'm older now than I ever intended to be," he says, jokingly quoting one of the characters in the musical, Chicago.
And though it may have seemed that nothing positive could come from his disease, five years ago when he volunteered for a study at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Wilmer Eye Clinic, he met his life partner, Steve Bolton, a research nurse at Wilmer.
Looking back, Magruder realizes what he would have missed if Triumph of Love had been a Broadway triumph and he had moved to New York. "I have been so productive since meeting Steve. I've written four short plays, two full-length plays, a novel, a handful of short stories and four translations," he says. "My life's in a good place."
Lately, however, he's had to put his original writing on hold so he could immerse himself in The Miser. He's hoping the production will evoke a similar reaction to one he witnessed during a performance of Center Stage's 1993 production of the nonmusical Triumph of Love.
"One of my favorite moments," he recalls, "was when a man in the audience shouted out at the princess: 'She's a deceiver!' When you can get an audience to react to something that's almost 300 years old, that's delightful.
"There will be certain moments in The Miser where audiences will just laugh themselves sick, I hope, and that'll be Moliere and that'll be [lead actor] Mardirosian and that'll be [director] Schweizer, and a little bit of it will be Magruder."
"There will be certain moments in The Miser where audiences will just laugh themselves sick."
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 8