Francesca is a one-act play by emerging Norwegian playwright Tonje Dreyer Sellevoll, developed in a mentorship program called UNG TEKST, run by Unge Viken Teater. I had the pleasure of translating this play for my MA Literary Translation dissertation which I submitted in September 2021, as well as working directly with the playwright for the final stages of my translation, and it has since been made available to her for use in performance. This is an excerpt from early on in the play that demonstrates the stylistic diversity, linguistic playfulness and polyphony, and some of the themes of the piece, all of which I critically and creatively contended with for my dissertation. F1 & F2 are two manifestations of the same character.
Extract from Francesca by Tonje Dreyer Sellevoll
Translated from the Norwegian by Lise Lærdal Bryn
Scene 3 –– Francesca Woodman #1
F1 & F2. Mamma always said to me:
F1. You can become whatever you want, my dear.
F2. You can accomplish whatever you want, my dear.
F1 & F2. (In exaggerated American English) The world is your oyster and the only thing between you and your dreams slash visions ARE YOUR FEARS.
F1. I never really understood this phrase, yet it filled me with this sheer and joyous fascination for the United States.
Mamma would always tell me:
Everything will work itself out.
F2. Mamma would always tell me:
Everything will work itself out.
F1. It is Friday. The time is 4:32 AM.
F1. Almost the weekend.
F2. January 19th.
F1 & F2. Biting, icy, inky black.
F1. I am girl, woman, female, childless. I live here, alone. This, here, is my home. The alarm’ll go off in about two hours. I’ve tossed and turned all night, consumed by thoughts I no longer remember. I gave up a little while ago.
F2. I masturbated to the evening news, sent cat memes to my boyfriend, checked the weather forecast for today, noted that the weather forecast for yesterday was accurate. I am a human being, and today I enter my twenty-third year.
F1. I don’t know –
F2. It’s like I can’t –
F1. I stayed late, a week or so ago. At work, that is, after closing. Locked up five minutes before closing time, which is something I do now and then. I’m not ashamed of it. I volunteer for the late shift quite a lot, actually. Take the responsibility seriously. And when I’m the one responsible for closing up the shop, well, then it’s all up to me. Or, what I really mean to say is, I’m good with people. Customer service, right. I’ve received a laminated diploma for the month’s most jovial late shift worker five times. It’s like, at least I have that to fall back on, if I’m caught. But I don’t shirk my duties. And I won’t be here forever.
F2. Two to closing, someone turned up, wanting to be let in, but I pretended I wasn’t there. Even though she yelled
F1 & F2. I SEE YOU
F1. And I saw her, of course. It’s so dumb, but I just couldn’t get myself to go up to the door and unlock it. I’d made a decision, and that decision kind of paralyzed me. I’d locked the door, I’d killed the lights, and she saw me standing there, in the middle of the shop, but after a while of standing and staring at each other, eye contact and all, it just became too stupid, too late, to give in, y’know?
F1. And there was something familiar about the woman, too. As if I’d seen her before. But I couldn’t place her.
And so I said out loud to myself:
F1 & F2. Where have I seen that woman before?
F1. And she just went WHAT?
F2. Then suddenly I came back to myself, even though I hadn’t noticed I’d been gone.
F1. And the woman was, too.
Scene 4 –– Happy Birthday #1
F1 & F2. RRR. RRR. RRR. BEEP.
F1. Hello sweetheart, it’s Mamma, hehe, yes, I guess you can see that. Am I the first one to call? You are unique. Never forget that. Always be unique. You’re probably asleep right now, baby girl. That’s good. Big day tomorrow, or, today. Can you believe how many years it’s been since you were born and turned my heart to glass? No, hehe, listen to me, trying to be all pathetic, no, no, poetic. You’ve always been the poetic one. By glass I mean like a warm glass, or a mug, maybe, a warm mug of cocoa.
F1 & F2. RRR. RRR. RRR.
F2. Hola, chica! Looking forward to the most épique épica EPIC party heute nacht! I’ve become a fucking whiz at Duolingo, just sayin’. You’re the Queen Bee, and tonight we’re gonna dazzle you with glossaries, Glossier glitter, and glam! You fantastic human being you, I’m so fucking lucky to have a friend who –
F2. RRR. BEEP
F1. Oh, hi. Hello? One moment, what’s that—Hello? It is? Oh, yes, there we go. Yes, Berit, stop it, obviously I understand I’ve reached voicemail when you hear the beeps, I’m not an idiot. Hello? Hi. It’s your old man. Phoning in from Thailand! Such a relief not to have to shovel snow all day, I can’t say it enough, hehe. We were at one of those animal shows yesterday, with lions. It’s Berit who’s been obsessed with big cats lately. The show had these big crates that the lion had to stand on, two of them, with this ring between them, and she had to jump through the ring. Incredible stuff. Berit couldn’t bring herself to watch, but I took a selfie that featured Leonora the Lion in the background. I’ll show it to you when we get back. Not quite right, those shows. Yes, Berit, yes yes, I’ll tell her. Berit says hello and sends her love and also wants you to know she’s been writing an article on those kinds of parks. It’ll keep the fridge stocked for at least a few months, so to speak. You’ll have to come along next time, but then it’ll just have to be cheap massages en la playa. Wishing you the very happiest of birth— BRRREEP.
F1 & F2. Hi there, it’s Mamma again.
F2. Yes, so what I meant to say is that you make me feel warm and I’ve been afraid for you ever since you were born, that’s what I meant by glass. A positive glass though! Stay positive, sweetheart. Things always work out for good girls. Of course, you know that. You’re so clever. Happy birthday to you. And me, heh– BEEP.
Scene 5 –– Murderer
F1. When I was younger – like about 10 or so – I thought I would grow up to become a murderer. Like, career-wise, I wanted to go down the murderer career-track. So when I filled out various friendship journals, my entry would say
interests: drawing, biking, stabbing
I was so angry, and it was like I couldn’t release it often enough. So I just held onto all of this anger, deep down. A great, undefinable rage that I couldn’t control because I didn’t quite know how to let it seep out, bit by bit, on a regular basis. Like a stealthy fart.
I once threatened Mamma with a knife and she started to laugh. And I get that now. That she started laughing. I was ten. What else are you supposed to do, really, when your daughter, this pretty little perfect porcelain doll, suddenly stands there, in front of you, snarling. Spit frothing at the mouth, like a dog, like a pit bull, and the weapon I’m holding is a butter knife that’s been passed down the family for generations, my great-grandfather’s name engraved on the handle. I probably wanted to laugh, too, I’m almost certain of it, but when she came out with: sweet baby, come to Mamma, I couldn’t do anything but bark: ANGRY. I did a little EN GARDE and then chucked the knife on the floor, yelled SHTUPID KUHNIFE, before running up to my room, where I had to slam the door three times before I was satisfied, and screamed all my rage into my pillow. Shit, I’m embarrassed just thinking about it. It’s not like I had any real reason to be angry. What was I angry at? Myself? I don’t know. My shaking body rocked me to sleep and afterwards everything was fine and we played snakes and ladders and drank hot cocoa. Everything was fine. But maybe I wasn’t totally fine inside. Because I thought I was gonna grow up to be a murderer, like that was the only thing I was capable of, like maybe that was the only thing future-me deserved. I wrote
Just in case.
Scene 6 –– Francesca Woodman #2
F1. I stayed at the shop for quite a while after I’d closed it. Don’t know what time I finally left. Two, maybe three, in the morning. The sky full of stars.
F2. All I had to do was go home.
F1. But my body insisted on something else. I don’t know. I was afraid of meeting that woman. I don’t like small talk. And I didn’t know how I would’ve explained the way I just stood there like a wax figure at Madame Tussauds. Because that’s the way I felt. I observed myself from the outside. In living color.
F2. What is there to be afraid of –– this woman who’s just out looking to buy some bedside-table reading material?
F1. I started to tidy the shop. Bouncing between book stacks and the sales table, straightened the books on the shelves so that my hand could glide from spine to spine, straightened all the pens and pencils. All the while thinking: this is soothing, this is exactly what I need right now. To tidy up a little. Somewhere not mine.
I tidied the back room, where we eat our lunch. I was a little touched by how tidy it got.
F2. You’ve always been so easily frightened.
F1. And then I started to cry. First a teensy little teardrop, trickling down my cheek, like this. Then another. And another. And another. Eventually it was gushing out, Niagara Falls go home. I was sobbing, hulking, shaking. I lost total control and it made me afraid again. Tried gripping the table to steady myself, but it didn’t help, I just thought: I’ll never be able to stop crying, this is the beginning of the end for me. Because I never cry.
F2. I cry all the time. I cry to films that record real life, like that video with the lion, right, who’s released into his natural habitat, and then when the men come to visit, he recognizes them, you know the one. I always cry when I watch The Lion King. Tiger King. And nature documentaries –– Storm Chasers, for example. There’s so much I don’t understand, and so I cry.
F1. I cried and cried and cried. Finally I felt like a dish towel that’s been hanging too long. And I couldn’t bear that thought, of hanging out to dry. So I slapped myself. Here.
F2 slaps F1’s cheek.
F2. You’re so easily frightened.
F1. And then I went into the storage room. Started tidying up there, too.
F2. I don’t like tidying. I prefer visual chaos. Systemic mess! Mess, systematized!
F1. I felt this anger I couldn’t remember having felt for a very, very long time. You’ve got to laugh. I tidied, intensely and intentionally, all the while laughing.
F2. It’s a little unfair that it’s only ever you tidying that shop.
F1. Don’t wanna go home, I laughed.
F2. I mean, you’re basically a temp.
F1. Don’t wanna sleep in my bed, I laughed.
F2. You shouldn’t have to take on so much responsibility.
F1. I laughed. And laughed. Tidied and laughed. It almost got a little uncomfortable being alone with myself. I’m about to laugh myself to death when I begin sorting the shelf with the customer orders. And then I grab one of the books and just throw it on the floor, like this —
F1 & F2. D-U-H-F-F
F1. And I jump, at that sound, and then I say
F1 & F2. What’re you doing?
F2. YOU CRAZY!
F1. And then I had to laugh some more –– what madness. And then, of course, my conscience kicked in, so I picked up the book, said
F1 & F2. I’m sorry —
F2. Give the book a hug!
F1. And there she was.
F2. A photo book of the photography of Francesca Woodman.
F1. Today, I’m the same age as Francesca was when she took her own life.
F2. Where are you going with this?
F1. She jumped out of a loft window in New York City.
Lise Lærdal Bryn is a literary translator and writer from Stavanger, Norway. She holds a BA in Cross-Cultural Storytelling from the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands in California, and she recently received an MA in Literary Translation from UEA, specializing in theatre translation. Lise was also one of the 2022 NCW Emerging Literary Translator mentees, translating literary prose from Norwegian to English.