ANNE CARSON, ANTIGONE, AND THE PERILOUSNESS OF THEATRE: IN CONVERSATION WITH WILL AITKEN
Phoebe Fregoli: I wanted to start—I know that you mentioned in your book that you were going to turn your experience into an article. I was wondering how you got the opportunity to turn it into a book. Why did you choose to write about it in the first place?
Will Aitken: Good question. It was supposed to be for The Globe and Mail. It was just supposed to be, fly-on-the-wall, this is what’s happening in Luxembourg with a Canadian artist and blah blah blah. The arts editor said he was really interested but he would never answer my queries. But then I ran into the publisher, Bruce Walsh, and I hadn’t seen him for years. He was in Montreal briefly. He had just started at University of Regina Press as the publisher and I had just gotten back from Amsterdam and I told him all the weird things that had happened to me and I thought he was listening really empathetically, and then he goes, that’s a book! But I didn’t talk to him after that. Just a year later, sent him the manuscript. He was floored, I thought oh my god, maybe he wasn’t serious!
[Will and Phoebe laughter]
PF: I’m curious to hear about what you chose to write about that experience and what you decided to include in the book. It seemed like an intentional inclusion of what would traditionally be paratext: your journals entries, and then emails with Anne, and of course research that you did. How did you choose to shape the book and how did you decide on what you were going to include?
WA: I realized that I wasn’t with the company long enough to write a whole book about being in Luxembourg. Three days is not enough. Then I did interviews on Skype with the three principles and I was thinking, how the hell am I going to present this? and I thought, well, I’ll pretend they are all together. And that worked. The more that I read, the more I thought that people need to have some kind of background about more than just my own personal reaction. They need to know what has been thought and said in capsule form. And so that’s what got me onto the third part of the book.
I started writing the first section and I wanted to get more of Anne in it but without making her the star of Part I, and I thought, her emails are so good. We email back and forth all the time, and we always have—since there has been email. So I messaged her and I said, can I use some of your emails? And she said, you can use any emails you want. Which I thought was just, incredibly brave, and trusting, and also very generous. In the end, I didn’t use many—I guess she knew I wouldn’t exploit her.
PF: Yeah, I’d hope so! How long have you two known each other? Where did you meet?
WA: We met at Banff at the writers colony in 1988. We were both beginner writers. It just so happened that she had just signed to come to McGill to teach. We met at lunch and it was just—it was very intense. We really sort of zeroed in on each other. We were there for six weeks. It was a long thing, and we ended up unintentionally creating resentment because we were in each other’s pockets the whole time we were there. We didn’t hang out with anyone else, we didn’t do group stuff, we just went for long walks and such. It was so nice seeing her when she gave me her first poem to read and I was just like…what the fuck!
[Will and Phoebe laughing]
I really was! It was one of her Short Talks, about six lines long, called The Final Selection,and I read it and was just flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe there was this whole world inside this little tiny poem—and history, and myth, and all kinds of other stuff. It was a major revelation.
PF: The book has all of these inclusions of Currie’s problem resolution—how he convinced Anne to write Ivo a new translation of Antigone, even though Anne states Ivo almost lost her when he told her he couldn’t use Antigonick; how he helped Juliette and Anne come to an understanding after Juliette request Anne write new scenes—and of course, your journal entries as well make it a very personal work—which is very brave of you, emotionally. What inspired you to make it so vulnerable? It’s so close to each of you.
WA: I think I’d done journalism for so long—I worked for the CBC and I worked for The Globe and as a film critic and an art critic and whatever all over for forty five years—and I was just so fed up with writing for the constraints that are imposed on you if you write for a mainstream publication. I thought, I’m gonna write a book that’s just about how I’m living this experience, and I’m not going to censor anything.
PF: It’s so much richer for that reason.
WA: It didn’t occur to me before, the “brave” or “vulnerable” part of it, until the book was about to be public. And then I went into a total panic. The couple of editorial changes that Bruce asked for—his demands were very minor, but I think one of the main things he asked me to do were to be a bit more self exposing. And I fought him. I sent him ten page emails about why that wasn’t necessary. Finally, I thought, he’s right. I’d left out the part about feeling suicidal and the dog being ill and the shrink—I just left it out. He said, no, you gotta have that in there. So I put it in as quickly and as condensed a manner as I could manage.
PF: Well, I think what you are exploring is how devastating the aftermath of watching this performance was, and that inclusion makes it that much clearer that it was an impactful experience.
WA: Yeah, I’d never experienced anything that was remotely like that. Ever, ever, ever. I mean, I’ve had plays and films and music and whatever move me and obsess me—like the reaction I had to your theatrical adaptation of Autobiography of Red the other night—when I’m into something, I’m into it in a very intense, full body experience, kind of thing. But I’d never had it rebound on me and become something pathological and really frightening. For a long time, I couldn’t even figure out what was happening. I knew I was sinking into depression but I didn’t make the connection with the play.
PF: Oh, you didn’t?
WA: No. Currie did! As I say in the book, y’know, when my face was starting to break out, he said, well you have seen the play four times in two days.
PF: Such an incredible opportunity, also, just to see a play go from the final rehearsals to opening night—that’s such an exciting window to pop in and watch. But then, it’s Anne Carson’s translation, and Ivo Van Hove is directing it, and Juliette Binoche is in it! Such a high calibre that no wonder it affected you so!
WA: Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so intense. The whole focus of the company, and Ivo, and Juliette. At the time I didn’t know what Juliette’s method was, I kind of just watched it unravel, and then she told me more about it later. And then Anne was sitting next to me and she was—it was funny because I asked her when I interviewed her much much later, I was trying to talk to her about the set, and she had no memory of it. She said, no, I was just listening to the words. ‘Cause she said she had never seen a Greek tragedy where all the words are clear. Where you could understand every word. And I never had either.
PF: I’m curious about was the variance in performances from still being in rehearsal to opening night. Can you speak to that variance in performance; how they differed? Specifically the energy of each performance? I have been wondering as well, as I’m watching Autobiography of Red four times in a row, it has been difficult to—I think because I’m so deeply inside of the work, it’s hard to tell, or exactly target what is different about each performance. So I was wondering if you were able to do that, even though the shows happened in such quick succession.
WA: They were each distinctly different. And I remember the first one seemed the most experimental. They were still trying different things, everybody was trying things differently. I remember the opening scene was not good. It seemed false and contrived and all kinds of things. And then the second run, they had solved that problem. So it worked but—it’s hard to gauge how much my own lack of experience in theatre affected the way I was receiving what was happening—the second one… well I hadn’t read Antigone, Anne’s translation, so the first performance I was concentrating on the words and maybe the second as well. And getting used to the playing back and forth between people being in the chorus and emerging to perform a character and then going back into the chorus. That was confusing. So it was the third performance where it really shocked me, because it all came rushing together. Anne and Currie didn’t see that performance.
PF: Right, they went to lunch.
WA: Yeah. And it was spectacular. It was just, y’know, I mean that’s where I had my epiphany, and—
PF: And that was still in rehearsals?
WA: It was pre-dress rehearsal. Then the dress rehearsal, was, must’ve been that evening. Yes, I saw it in the afternoon, and then I came back and saw it in the evening, and they’d invited rich people from Luxembourg to sit in.
PF: Okay! So it was you and?
WA: I was sitting next to some American banker, and he’s like, I don’t go to plays much.
[Will and Phoebe laughing]
I’m only here because my wife—or brother, or son, I forget what his excuse was—but then, twenty minutes later, he was sitting forward in his seat like this and at the end he said, wow,I’ve seen Shakespeare performed, but I’ve never seen anything like this. That was really cool. The evening of the actual performance was really anti-climatic. It was a very restrained audience.
PF: “Restrained” meaning?
WA: They didn’t seem to be connecting with the play. They were very quiet. Didn’t laugh at jokes. And it had to do with Ivo’s decision to start it really slow and under-miked and really, a very slow build where it’s twenty minutes before anyone really moves. When Kreon is kind of exploding over the stage, and then you’re like woah! And Juliette said afterwards she didn’t think she was good that opening night. Didn’t bother her.
PF: Yes! In my copy of your book that part is underlined where she says that not all performances can be great and that’s okay—such a liberating mindset and of course it’s so true. Every night is different!
WA: That’s why theatre is so exciting.
PF: Yes, exactly! And hearing it from Juliette Binoche is just—
WA: Yeah, she’s a funny mixture of totally practical, no-nonsense, down to earth, this-is-my-job-I’m-going-to-do-it, and then she has this whole mystical side that is really, really intense.
PF: Everything she says and does in the book is so captivating. What do you think is significant about an opening night run? Because what you said about opening night is true in general about opening nights, that they’re never the best performance. I think because of how much build up there is to that run. I always find that in the following ones the actors settle into their characters a bit better—did you find that as well?
WA: People have told me that opening night is always more exciting than the second night ‘cause the second night everyone has come off their high. And then, watching this, I thought, it can’t be that way.
PF: Yeah, I always thought it was the opposite: where opening night is about support, and then later shows are going to be better.
WA: Yeah, that only makes sense. ‘Cause later you lose your self-consciousness.
PF: Yes, at first everyone’s a little tense. Even the audience, it feels like, is holding their breath.
WA: Yes, I could feel that the other night with your production of Autobiography of Red.
PF: So could I! When you said that about the opening night of Antigone as well, that resonated with me because when I was watching my show on Wednesday I kept thinking, this is funny! This show is so funny! And no one is laughing! Then all the other shows this weekend, the audience was so much warmer.
WA: Oh good!
PF: And I wonder if that’s because everyone just relaxed a little. It’s interesting hearing you talk about this similar phenomenon of opening night. And then you left, right? Even Ivo left? What details did you notice about the show from seeing it so many times? What stuck out to you?
WA: It was funny, I got obsessed by the set. I was really fascinated by it. It was so minimal and yet it was so mysterious. Sometimes it felt like a modern office. And that would come up and then go away. Then you’d be in the desert with the video installation. You’d get used to that, and then suddenly it’d be shots of what looked like Manhattan in winter, with anonymous people all wrapped up walking around.
When I saw it the seventh time, in Ann Harbour, the second to last show, I was focused on the set and then I was very focused on Juliette. ‘Cause she was so… just constantly changing, and evolving, and building on what she’d done, or making a sudden departure from what she’d done the day before. That just fascinated me.
Then—the contrast between what she was doing and what the British actors were doing. It didn’t occur to me, at first, that there was anything odd about casting all Brits and a French actor. And then, when it was over, I thought, well that is a peculiar move for him to make. I mean, he could’ve hired whoever he wanted. But he hired very specific kinds of British actors—these kind of really trained, classical kind of guys.
PF: Yes, very much coming from a different school of acting.
WA: Only far later did it occur to me that that may have been a tactical move. I think any good theatre director is probably manipulative.
[Will and Phoebe laughter]
I think Ivo takes it almost to a byzantine extreme.
PF: Yeah, he sounds so intelligent!
WA: And yet he’s so mild-mannered. He never raises his voice. He wears the same clothes every day. Or he has twelve beautiful navy blue shirts and twelve pairs of really nice jeans. He’s very self-effacing. And yet, he’s got, y’know—all these people at his command, a big technical team—and it all seems to run smoothly.
PF: What do you think it is about theatre, specifically, as an art form, that has the ability to impact you so intensely? You’ve said you had experiences with movies and other forms of art, but I was wondering if you feel like there is something specific, like the liveness of it, or the fact that you can go five times and the show is always different but that repetition—
WA: I think it’s the perilousness of it. The fact that anything can go wrong. And that there are all these people up there, about as naked as you can be in life—although you are disguised by whatever character you are playing. My main experience has been with film, which is always perfect. Even if it’s horrible, it’s finished. Whereas theatre is happening this very second! All these people are watching, and you could screw up and lose your lines, or anything! And also the kind of trust that’s involved when everybody is on stage. The trust that everybody is going to come through the way that you are going to come through. When I go to theatre I think I pay a lot more attention because it’s just not that often that I go.
I mainly go to theatre when I’m in London or… in Tokyo. Tokyo theatre is fabulous. They have some of the most experimental directors. They have Yukio Ninagawa who does Shakespeare but he does it in just—I saw a Medea he did, fifteen years ago, that still every second of that performance is fresh in my memory. Medea didn’t have any lines, and it’s set in Japanese occupied Korea at the turn of the century. Behind her, there is a whole line, maybe a dozen judges in black who recite her lines. So it becomes this incredible feminist experience. The only time she speaks is when she screams when she kills her children. And the actress was just… I’ve never seen anybody do physically what she did. She could bend her body backwards until it was parallel with the floor and stay that way. It was mesmerizing. I’ve since read reviews of other things he’s done, and whoever writes about it says, I’ve never seen anything like this!
PF: Your experience of seeing Antigone five times in a row devastated you for how relevant you said it was, and for how much of a contemporary issue it still is. I was wondering if that was pronounced even more because of Anne Carson’s translation?
PF: Even the word pissant, which was a fun anecdote in the book—I was wondering if there were more examples, or in what way she made it more immediate with her translation.
WA: All along with translating, Elektra, and The Bacchai, her thing has been to make the play as accessible linguistically as she possibly can. She’s been experimenting, and using anachronism, and using speech that is colloquial. Is it in Elektra where one of the characters is referred to as a “weapon of mass destruction”? Maybe it’s in a poem instead of a play. But it’s her tendency in all of her writing to introduce things that are discordonant or jarring or pull you up short. For me, with Antigone, it’s where that all comes together in its most forceful almost incantatory way, where the language was just—I mean that’s what I felt the first time I saw it, even when I didn’t know her translation, it was just so brilliantly handled. Every word was exactly right. I was talking to Currie afterwards, who is a very astute critic, and he said Well I don’t know, there are still a couple of clangers! I never got to ask him what they were.
WA: It just seemed like the most seamless writing that she’s ever done and that is saying a lot.
PF: I guess what you are saying about this translation applies to all of her writing, but I am thinking about Autobiography of Red, this complex, emotional interiority that is summed up in two words. Like the babysitter’s “wrong voice”—I know exactly what she means there and it is so clean and simple. Incredible!
WA: I don’t know how she does that!
PF: Me neither! My final question: I loved—I pretty much underlined everything Juliette Binoche said in the book—when she said that Antigone is one of those roles that kills actresses. And I’m sure that in some way, it is a play who kills who is watching as well, to pull from your own personal experience. I was wondering what you think the relationship is between acting, or theatre, and the repetition of performance as a way to explore themes of trauma. Antigone is so traumatic. Even watching Autobiography of Red four days in a row is pretty intense as well, not to the same degree, but it does deal with themes of trauma as well. So I was wondering if you could speak to that relationship, too.
WA: That’s interesting because I’ve been thinking of that a lot over the past couple of days because of the recent Florida school shooting. When I was teaching at Dawson, we had a school shooting.
PF: You were teaching when that happened?
WA: Yes, I was in the building. It was… really horrible. The whole rest of the semester was just nuts. I’ve never lived through, or want to live through, anything like that again. Every year I would do a multimedia production with my graduating students, there were about thirty of them. And we’d do different themes. We decided, four months after the shooting, to do “Alice in Wonderland” but to adapt it to the shooting.
The minute I had convinced them that this was a good idea I thought what the fuck have I done? You’re not a trained psychologist, you don’t know anything about trauma, you don’t know anything about anything! But we did it. It was the most incredible teaching experience I’ve ever had. The students, at first, were skeptical because it was too soon and they didn’t want to relive this. I could totally see that. But then there was this one student who just turned to the class and said, “if we don’t do it now, when will we do it?” And suddenly everyone agreed to do it.
They had so much to say! All of it unpredictable. There was a scene where Alice goes out to a club and does drugs and gets raped on the dance floor. That’s what came out. The school was sending around this horrible pamphlet about what to do after trauma. It said: avoid drinking and drugs. They were saying, no sir, we were going out! We’d get so drunk and so high. Someone said, I had the most sex I’d ever had in my life! So all this stuff came pouring out of them, and I think the audience was really surprised at the angle but I know the kind of solidarity we had after this show was unlike anything before. Because we’d all been affected. But everyone had been affected in totally different ways. And they all got to express that.
I think theater deals with trauma better than any other medium. I’m not sure why. I guess, it brings everyone together, it’s a collaborative thing, it’s immediate.
PF: It’s also immediately collaborative! Meaning, when it’s happening, everyone is involved. As opposed to in film where it’s collaborative but editing, for example, happens completely separate from everything else.
WA: Yeah. And we had people announce when we decided to do it, I am not performing. But by the end everyone performed. And I directed it but they came up with all the ideas!
PF: Make me think of when Juliette Binoche says in the book, “I have to go to my tomb every night. Some people just go once.” She was doing that show for nine months. That is so unique to theatre. You have to go there literally and emotionally every night.
WA: And the students at Dawson were doing that with fifteen weeks of rehearsal and no dramatic experience. I think that can be an advantage! That’s one thing I share with Anne—a kind of horror of acting. So she loves doing performances of her stuff with people that are not actors. We did Antigonick as a staged reading at the Musee d’Art Contemporain a couple years ago and it was all present or former film students of mine. Again, I think out of a cast of twelve, there was one person who had acting experience. I know the audience was kind of shocked by it. It wasn’t a letter perfect smooth production, but it was a group of people who had all very interesting inner selves and I thought they did a phenomenal job. Anne and Currie were there and they were pulled over by it! It had a kind of rawness, which I think is true of your play as well, that I think a more professional performance can only very rarely achieve. I think Antigone achieved it.
For more on Antigone Undone, check out this excerpt and our third Short Take of the volume. Phoebe Fregoli is an undergraduate student in creative writing. She recently adapted and directed Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Last fall she was in conversation with playwright Marina Carr. She is hosting a panel on adaptation on Friday, March 16th, as part of this year’s Off the Page literary festival.
Will Aitken is a Montreal writer and author most recently of Antigone Undone. Will Aitken has written three novels—Realia, A Visit Home, Terre Haute—and a work of nonfiction, Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic. He has been a journalist for various publications including CBC, The Globe and Mail and The Paris Review and he teaches film. He lives in Montreal.