Interview with Iphigenia In Aulis Transadapter Anne Washburn
1 . What attracts you to the Greeks?
Sheer entertainment value: big, round characters, crazily tense plots, singing, and dancing.
2. You’ve adapted Orestes, which deals with the tail end of the story of The Oresteia, and now with IPHIGENIA AULIS, you are exploring the beginning or seeds of the tragedy. You seem much more interested in Euripides’ telling of this story than say Aeschylus’. Can you talk about the differences between these two writers and why you gravitate toward Euripides?
I love Aeschylus. I love The Orestia, Agamemnon in particular. I love the humanity and holiness of Aeschylus, the richness of the language, and the way in which he is both very grand and very human.
I was first drawn to Euripides because he is just so modern. In the way he toggles between a very deep sense of irony and a real gravity, his work not only anticipates some of the most interesting modern experimental work but also supersedes it.,I think he’s more sophisticated than we are and so I wanted to learn more about what he was doing by working with the text. Also, Aeschylus feels so optimistic, like America in the 1950s whereas Euripides—a man who watched his city, at the height of its powers, destroy itself in chunks in the name of piety, patriotism, and values—feels super contemporary. The desire to actually work on Orestes somehow came out of 9/11 and wanting to find a way to talk about a culture and an empire which is trembling. In Orestes, we’re seeing the cost of the war through a very personal lens; in IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, we’re seeing how we enter into a war and all the ways in which it is not in fact inevitable.
3. Can you talk a little bit about Euripides’ IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, thought to be the last (or second to last) piece Euripides wrote in exile before his death. What do you think he was trying to tell his Athenian audience back home?
I understand it as a critique of how we arrive at choices. We make dreadful decisions and won’t back away from them because we’re afraid; we hold the course (the Athenians continue to prosecute the Peloponnesian War) although it will only lead us to disaster.
I think it’s also a warning about what we may have to give up to succeed—the best part of ourselves.
4. Many believe the play bears the marks of other writers. Do you feel that as well? Do you think this is a product of it not being finished or a desire, on the part of adaptors, to soften the blow of Euripides’ critique of a warrior society?
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that this play is the work of Euripides, Euripides’ son or nephew, who completed it upon his death, and then at some point, a century later, someone Greek scholars call “The Reviser.” The Reviser might have been an actual person, perhaps an actor or manager of some kind, or maybe a group of actors, who did a lot of rewriting to increase the spectacle and the pathos, and very occasionally, to reduce the political sting. Additionally, as it’s copied and recopied throughout the centuries, little bits get muddled and made up.
Because I can’t read the original Greek (making this I rely on very close translations and detailed commentaries), I can’t pick up on changes in language, but I can feel out changes in tone and mentality. Scholars don’t agree on which parts of the work are interpolated, so I’ve used their comments as a starting point, and then used my playwright head in making my own judgments on what I think will make the best and sturdiest play. This version does include trims around soggier areas I feel are probably from The Reviser.
5. You’ve decided to follow many of the “rules” that the Greeks followed in productions. You’ve asked that all speaking roles be divided up amongst only three actors, which means each actor must play double or triple roles. How did you decide who would double as what and what has this doubling or tripling taught you about Greek Theatre?
I did [choose to follow the rules of the Greeks], but not because it was the Greek way of doing it. In working on the two adaptations I feel like I’m always having to work on ways to counter the reverence and the related disinterest we bring to the plays, which hinders our understanding of the degree to which they remain fully functioning and effective theatrical vehicles. Orestes, especially, is a wild play full of all kinds of arch metatheatrical hijinks, but it just isn’t in us to think of the Greeks as playful in that way. So in making these adaptations, I’m always thinking of equivalencies, of ways to supply the lost quantity of theatrical oomph which we’re not going to credit the original as having. Multiple casting the roles does that.
I divided up the roles according to the way they were done in the original, which is easy to intuit because it’s the only way to get everyone on and off stage at the right points. The original divisions are juicy ones; actors play characters who are in real tension with each other, so that Menelaus, who is gunning for Iphigenia to die, is played by the same actor who plays Clytemnestra, who wants nothing more than for her daughter to live. The actor who plays Iphigenia also plays the messenger who announces her death, and Agamemnon and Achilles are very much opposites, a consummate politician versus a man who is blunt to a fault.
6. Can you talk a little bit about the nature of translation and adaptation? Has this work impacted your own original work? If so, can you talk about how?
I haven’t done so much of it. I think of it in the nature of an apprenticeship. You serve the original—and my goal is very much just to bring the original to life—by giving it the kind of rhythms and mouth feel that make it speakable for actors. In return, you get a much, much deeper understanding of a work you admire.
Both this [Iphigenia] and Orestes are, for the most part, line by line renderings of the originals. I will sometimes cut discussions or inferences which meant something to ancient audiences, but which I think are theatrical dead weight for this one. I will sometimes expand a thought if it seems necessary to tease out back-story or assumptions for our audiences. Every now and then I’ll indulge myself with an entirely new line or thought.
The work on Orestes had a lot to do with the writing on another play of mine, Mr. Burns. I couldn’t say how exactly, apart from the fact that they both involved singing and dancing, but I know that the one informed and empowered the other.
7. What is your next adaptation or translation?
I would love to work on The Agamemnon. I’d like to work on The Seagull some day. There’s a wonderful contemporary Hungarian playwright, Peter Karpati, who has a play called Totferi, which is supposed to be untranslatable, which I’d really really like to take a whack at.