Theatre Surtitles: Past, Present, and Future

  • March 8, 2015
  • Parisian theatre
  • Daisy Jacobs

In 1712 Joseph Addison, founder of English daily newspaper ‘The Spectator’, wrote the following:

“There is no question but our great-grandchildren will be very curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country, and to hear whole plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand […] I cannot forbear thinking how naturally an historian, who writes two or three hundred years hence […] will make the following reflection, ‘In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Italian tongue was so well understood in England, that operas were acted on the public stage in that language.’ "

As a student of languages and a lover of theatre, I have always relished watching and reading plays in their original language, and when watching a play in translation, I can’t help the feeling that I’m being cheated, missing out on the “real deal”. The pace, rhythm and melody of a language adds such an invaluable dimension to a piece of theatre, that taking that away changes it completely. But, I don’t speak Russian or German, Italian or Spanish (the list goes on) and there’s no way I’m writing off Chekhov, Brecht, Goldoni etc. just because I can’t read their original scripts, and no matter how much I enjoy going to the theatre, I just can’t see myself coming out of two hours of ‘Три сeстры’* praising the subtlety of the language, and the riveting dialogues...

(*Chekhov's 'Three Sisters')

So for me, this is where surtitles come into their own. Also known as ‘supertitles’, surtitles are still incredibly recent, and their history is not all that well defined. What we do know is that they were first seen in televised operas on ‘caption boards’, which would be held in front of the screen to give viewers a quick recap of what was going on, not dissimilar from inter-titles in silent movies. It is thought that surtitles as we know them today were introduced in Beijing in 1983, followed closely by Copenhagen, New York and in 1984, Canada – indeed the word ‘surtitle’ is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company [2]. The surtitles would be projected high above the stage of the Opera House, allowing the audience to follow the story, without losing the richness of the opera’s original language (at the price of a few days with a cricked-neck).

surtitles opera canada

In more recent years, theatre companies around the world have taken the concept and run with it, using surtitling to open the doors of international theatre to an entirely new audience. The World Shakespeare Festival’s initiative, ‘Globe to Globe’, is a perfect example. Over 6 weeks in 2012, 37 companies from 37 different countries each performed one of Shakespeare’s plays in their mother tongue at the Globe Theatre in London, using surtitles to summarise the on-stage action. Three of the shows then returned to the Globe in 2013, and again in 2014. This year they’ll be hosting The National Theatre of China’s ‘Richard III’ in Mandarin, and Tang-Shu Wing’s ‘Macbeth’ in Cantonese, all with the help of projected summaries. In a similar initiative, the ‘quatrième salle’ (the ‘fourth playing space’) of Paris’ Comédie Francaise tours the world playing French classics in Asia, Russia and beyond, surtitling plays in the local language, thus bringing traditional French theatre to places that would never otherwise have been exposed to it.

globe theatre london shakespeare surtitles

But surtitles are not only a blessing where accessibility is concerned; they have actually become an art form in their own right. In a society that’s constantly pushing and challenging the boundaries and limitations of technology, it’s no wonder that more and more theatre companies are playfully exploring the wealth of possibilities that surtitling can offer. Take Spanish company Atresbandes who toured the UK last year. In their play ‘Solfatara’, the surtitles start by faithfully translating the piece for an English speaking audience, then slowly but surely they begin to take on a subversive character of their own, mocking the scene below, twisting the translation and “arguing” with the actors, until they become a fundamental part of the on stage interactions. It’s shows like this that prove that technology and theatre can absolutely work in tandem, and when they do the result can be electric.

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder surtitled shows have seen such a rapid growth recently, especially in Paris. In September 2014 at the Théâtre de la Ville, Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and her Children’ played in German, followed by ‘Tratando de Hacer una Obra que Cambie el Mundo’ in Spanish, and ‘Ravens, We Shall Load Bullets’ in Japanese. In November of the same year, Young Jean Lee’s ‘Straight White Men’ played at the Pompidou Centre in English, and ‘Fragments’ came to the Bouffes du Nord, with Beckett’s own French script projected as surtitles. In early 2015 we have seen ‘Le Sorelle Macaluso’ in Italian, and ‘Daisy’ in Spanish at the Théâtre du Rond Point, not to mention countless other surtitled productions all over the city. It is an incredibly exciting time to be a theatre-lover, when linguistic and cultural barriers are simultaneously being broken down and embraced, all over the world.

bouffes du nord theatre surtitles

And it’s not only locals that are being let in on the secret of international theatre. The tourism industry is booming, and visitors are no longer satisfied by open top tour buses. Walking down the streets of some of Europe’s main cities, the range of different accents and languages you are likely to overhear is amazing. I for one no longer bat an eyelid when I hear an American twang travel down a Parisian metro carriage, or a group of Australians walking along the quai de la Seine. In fact, Tobias Veit, artistic executive producer of the Schaubühne theatre, said much the same about Berlin, Europe’s most rapidly growing tourist city. The Schaubühne now surtitles 4-6 performances a month in English and French, whilst the city's Maxim Gorki theatre has gone one step further, surtitling 100% of all their performances. Theatres in Spain, Holland, and Japan have recently jumped on the bandwagon too, and now, thanks to start-up company ‘Theatre in Paris’, so has France. For the first time in history, foreign audiences are being invited to step inside Parisian theatres and watch plays in their original language, shoulder to shoulder with local theatregoers.

surtitles theatre edouard vii paris

I think that the Spectator's Joseph Addison would be very pleased to know that we have finally found the ultimate solution to the theatrical language barrier. We no longer have to sit in a theatre pretending to understand, whilst secretly worrying that we have missed a crucial plot strand, or some witty word play.

And the best part of it all? The appreciation of foreign languages and cultures remains completely intact, and in my opinion, even stronger than ever.

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