It is generally accepted that Tony Harrison is not quite like his contemporaries in English poetry. That is true in more ways than one, although at the same time, seen from another angle, he is clearly aligned with many of the poets of postwar Great Britain. On the obvious level, he can be distinguished because of his use of his poetic gifts in the service of the theater. The role of translator and adapter is difficult to assess and is often unheralded. Indeed, it might be argued that the least obvious intrusion of the translator is the best indication of how successful that act of necessary manipulation of another’s text is, since what is desired is a mirror image (in another language) of the original act of creation. Harrison, however, has not always confined himself to such gentle tumbling of art into another language, and it is of some value, when speaking of him as a writer, to look at a work such as Phaedra Britannica to see just how “creative” he can be in the face of a foreign text, using a flexible, almost unhinged couplet to turn Racine’s Phèdre into a play about the English and their personal and political involvement in India. The result is not Racine, and it would be silly to suggest that it is, but it is an interesting example of how a late twentieth century poet can make verse drama despite its unfashionableness, and make it without ascending to fulsome, pumped-up afflatus, which would be risible, at the least, and pompously...
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