The funny thing about a multilingual play is that you feel like you understand the actors even though they’re talking to you in a language you’ve never spoken. Two weeks ago, I saw Yale Vermilion Theater, a student-led multilingual performance group, stage No Exit in Mandarin, and I relied entirely on the English subtitles projected on a screen above the stage.
No Exit takes place in Hell: an eternal prison that resembles a classy French drawing room.
The Vermilion Theater’s production was different from a movie where subtitles and images reside on the same plane—the spoken language propagated past me in the air and vanished into the plaster walls of 53 Wall Street.
With the dialogue’s vitality stripped away in the lifeless subtitles, I had to reconstruct the nuances of the performance from spoken syllables I didn’t understand. The difficulty posed by my partial incomprehension seemed to elevate the meaning of the play beyond the content of Mandarin or English words.
Why, then, did language feel all the more feeble the longer I listened? The central irony in No Exit is that the three main characters cannot unmask themselves to one another even when they have nothing more to lose. Despite being in Hell, protagonist Garcin is dishonest to his two associates and barely honest to himself. In a language I don’t understand, he seems obscured not only through his lies, but through a frailty inherent to our languages, a frailty that now makes him literally incomprehensible to my ears rather than just shrouding him under the weakness of words.