Scholars' Association News
Issue 28
November 2013


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Seeking the truth in tragedy
A discussion with Anne Bogart
Rendering and editing: Leda Bouzali

Anne Bogart, one of the most innovative and renowned directors of modern American theatre, was invited last December by the affiliate Onassis Foundation U.S.A., to participate in a series of discussions organized by the Foundation with the help of distinguished philosopher Simon Critchley. This particular discussion was about seeking the truth in ancient Greek theatre.

Anne Bogart is Artistic Director of SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992, and she teaches at Columbia University where she runs the Graduate Directing Concentration. Among the numerous plays she has directed are included Euripides’ Trojan Women adapted by Jocelyn Clarke, staged last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and earlier at Getty Villa in Los Angeles, and Sophocles’s Antigone, also staged at Getty Villa. The celebrated American theatre director instigated the conversation with a general statement about ancient Greek theatre.

Anne Bogart (Α. Β.): Theatre is unique in that it is the only art form that examines humans’ overall course by asking the question “How are we getting along?” Usually a play happens when something goes wrong: the Trojan Horse is brought into the city of Troy, the city is taken and sacked, and women suddenly go from being the hype of aristocracy to being slaves. Through this event a social system arises. I would say that’s true with Death of a Salesman or Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf ?

One reason Greek plays endure is because they are still asking questions that are relevant to us. We performed Trojan Women in Connecticut shortly after Hurricane Sandy had destroyed the city. It was indeed a shock to hear Hecuba mourn at the sight of her beloved city ruined and lament that “The life I knew is over.” The theme of the play was so timely and opportune! Trojan Women has always been a play dear to audiences because it certainly touches on primal and visceral issues.

So, plays start with something that goes wrong. The pendulum of life suddenly swings big and the play begins. Every great play is a world out of balance and usually there are people who do horrible things to each other. Equally strange is the way in which every play combines two realms that co-exist: the blatant story that unfolds is about a society trying to reorganize itself and restore its equilibrium, but at the same time the audience watches a group of actors getting along in their own social system. Actors know that you cannot hide a bad rehearsal in a performance because the audience can sense how well actors respond to one another.

We live in a transitional era when many things are changing. Our society changes into a less hierarchically determined, less top-down structure, and the theatre’s job is to take in these changes, how we are changing as humans and find a new way for society to organize itself. We live at a time with huge explosions of change.

Simon Critchley (S. C.): Indeed theatre appears and tries to answer the questions that arise in moments of crisis, when one world is passing away and another is coming into existence. In one of your interviews, you have said that “if the word theatre were a verb, I think it would be “to remember”. What if for what theatre is trying to remember, there is no memory for us?

Α. Β.: I’ll speak very personally. I got to a certain age and I got very angry at great teachers such as Harold Klerman or Stella Adler, for everything that I had inherited. Who are we if we stand at the shoulder of giants? How do we remember and how do we re-appropriate their vision in our own circumstances? I am interested in the “baggage” that every great play comes with. Can anyone pretend that this baggage does not exist?

In approaching the Trojan Women, what I find interesting is that academics hate the play because they say that it is badly written and nothing happens, that it is about a bunch of unhappy women who just get unhappier. And yet in its history this play is adored by audiences. In my production, I wanted to do a play where all women were on stage at the same time without a chorus, mainly for financial reasons. Is it possible that Cassandra, Andromache and Helen on stage can also be the Greek chorus? Can they be all women and particular women at the same time? That is a more post-modern idea I think.

S. C.: You said that academics hate the Trojan Women. But the first “academic” was Aristotle...

Α. Β.: …who hated theatre...

S. C.: And Aristotle says that tragedy produces fear and pity through mechanisms of reversal and recognition which lead to a catharsis of emotions.

Α. Β.: One way of looking at it is “to shed light to dark places”. As a director I find it very helpful to think of catharsis as putting a flash light in areas we don't look at.

S. C.: The truth of tragedy is that it is about suffering and that suffering has a meaning in so far as it leads to a certain outcome, the catharsis. In Oresteia we often come across the line “we must suffer, suffer into truth”. The suffering of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon leads to the truth which is the establishment of a civic order in Athens. In Trojan Women though, Hecuba just suffers and suffers and suffers. In Euripides’s play Hecuba, the heroine transforms into a dog in the after life. So, things progress to the worse only. Euripides is unpleasant to the audience because his heroes seem to suffer needlessly. His work may be interesting but it’s not the usual grand story we are used ancient Greek tragedy to be about.

Α. Β.: There are two things that interest me in Euripides; first that he is a deconstructivist, he is taking things apart as opposed to his close predecessors who were building things up. So, as a child of post-modernism (and I think post-modernism is over because we have deconstructed to a point that is now meaningless, and we need to reconstruct what is a story, who's telling stories, what they are about), I do relate to Euripides more than I do to the more classical.

The second thing I find interesting is that the Trojan Women were probably about the massacre in Milos that had happened a few years earlier. Most of the audience were military who had been culpable for the massacre in Milos. And that to me is so brave, that he would have the audacity to make a play about current events through the lens of the distant past.

So, theatre is about memory: if one can channel the memories of the dead one can actually talk about the present moment, if they have something good to say.

S. C.: The Trojan Women appear at the moment of a decline in Athenian democracy in the fog of war. The grandeur of Greek tragedy is inextricably linked to the splendour of ancient Greece, and yet Trojan Women is about a shameful event. It is amazing how most ancient Greek tragedy serves as a mechanism of virulent critic. In your performance you show the suffering of Trojan women as a story that people will remember and will tell in years to come.

A. B.: The fact that the play portrays women of a glorious citadel highly educated while the rest of Greece is portrayed as barbaric is massive. Peter Brook in an interview once described a village in some place in Africa where every year the young and the old men go out to hunt and they come back with all the meat and have a big festival. Then, the young men get up and perform parodies of the hubris of the older men, making fun of their misbehaviour during the hunt. And Peter Brook said “That’s the function of theatre”: critic and resistance. So the reason why ancient Greek theatre lasts to date is that it is as useful and irritant to this day, a horsefly.

S. C.: The main characters in Euripides are often women (Medea, Hippolyte, Andromache, Helen, Alcestis, Cassandra, Phaidra) who experience violence in combination with a sense of grief. In Trojan Women, Hecuba laments her city and her children. I would like to ask you about the role of lamentation, which is central in Greek tragedies.

Α. Β.: When it comes to lamentation, people usually imagine screaming women in tattered gowns with shorn hair, and thus avoid being exposed to such a spectacle for two hours. In my version I wanted to give Hecuba the moment to lament but till this moment women are not in shorn hair and tatters because the night before they were having a party. The Trojans think they have beaten the Greeks, meanwhile the Trojan Horse was dragged into the city. It's the next morning…!

Secondly, after a big destruction people begin thinking what to do next and use the height of their intellect to figure it out. In Trojan Women I wanted to see a group of women, of highly educated aristocrats, trying with their razor brains to find ways out and yet to end up to such miserable a place. It is at that exact moment Hecuba earns her right to mourn.

According to Lacan, we live in three realms in our life; the symbolic, the imaginative and the real. We avoid the real because it is related to death, which we are called upon to face in extreme conditions only. The play has to strip down to the real but you can’t start with the real as it is just unbearable. How do you get to a place in a theatrical rite that allows us to share the real for just a moment, to touch on it and then to be catharsized? I think Trojan Women does that.

The word theatre comes from the Greek word “θεα” (“thea”) which means “to see”. I used to believe that theatre is where the audience comes to “see”. But I recently understood it differently; I think it is where the audience comes to see the actors “see”. In Trojan Women this element is intense. Hecuba turns her head to the audience and she sees her city, then she turns to Cassandra who has gone crazy, and she changes because of what she sees.

S.C.: Normally we would look away but the theatre compels us to keep our eyes fixed and face reality.

You can listen to the discussion here.

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