On October 11, Thalia S. Wolff ‘22 and Associate Professor of Theatre Kate Bredeson staged a reading of The Inheritors, or The Privileged Students. The project is an English translation of a French play originally written and staged by the Théâtre de l’Aquarium at the Sorbonne University in May 1968 during a time of civil unrest, protests, and strikes in France. Ultimately, L’Héritier ou les étudiants pipés, or The Inheritors, or The Privileged Students sparks conversations about what access to education looks like, social class as a barrier to success, and the systems that establish and perpetuate these inequalities.
The play opens with immediate juxtaposition. Stage right, a desk piled high with open textbooks. The Non-Inheritor sits, working tirelessly as he crams for an exam. Stage left, a bed. The Inheritor lounges casually, self-assured and relaxed before the exam. Wolff and Bredeson’s translation emphasizes this polarization, stating in stage directions, “The staging visibly oscillates between these two poles. Positive and negative; from the bed to the table, from the table to the bed.”
Professor birds, odd as they sound, enter, squawking as they introduce the higher education setting. Although they only appear three times throughout the play, Wolff’s direction had the professors squawk randomly throughout the play, a constant reminder to the audience of their presence.
The play proceeds with the Inheritor and Non-Inheritor preparing for and taking an exam. The Non-Inheritor constantly displays a determination, almost a desperation, to pass the exam as someone who cannot “succeed” without rising through educational ranks. The Inheritor, on the other hand, presents a confidence in his skills, secure in the knowledge that he is born into success. The end of the play (spoilers ahead!) perpetuates the notion of who inherits and who doesn’t, for even though both students are given the opportunity to take the exam, only the Inheritor passes.
In the clear contrast between Inheritor and Non-Inheritor, the play works to expose systemic issues that impact access to education, relevant in both 1968 France and society today. In a question and answer forum after the reading, Wolff said, “There were a lot of reform interests that were being proposed for essentially formal equality in French schools, but that wasn’t really fixing the problem of educational inequity, and I think part of that had to do with the fact that different people were having access to different things, like luncheons at a museum to take it straight out of the text. I think that’s something the original writers wanted to highlight: that even though you give everyone the same exams, that doesn’t mean the same because of that access.”
Wolff and Bredeson’s translation aims to echo this French statement of educational inequity into the English language. The endeavor was not without its challenges, as a great deal of research into cultural references — including card games, children’s games, and other aspects of culture — was necessary to transpose the play into an English-speaking audience’s context. To best grasp the contexts within which these cultural elements exist, Wolff and Bredeson collaborated and consulted with Fanny Abib-Rosenberg, a French language scholar at Reed.
More than this, Wolff and Bredeson struggled to retain poetic devices, such as rhyme and meter, as they shifted from French to English. Wolff said, “We wanted to keep the rhymes because when it shifts from prose to verse seemed really significant to us, so figuring out how to find the right balance of preserving meaning and preserving form was a really big question that we talked a lot about.”
This translation was written with the assistance of the Ruby Lankford Grant for Student-Faculty Collaborative Research in the Humanities. Although the text is not yet available for public consumption, Wolff and Bredeson look forward to revising and polishing their work in the hopes of publication in the future.