Anton Piatigorsky in conversation with Aparna Halpé

Anton Piatigorsky is an award winning writer of plays, librettos and short fiction. Anton is the recipient of two Dora Mavor Moore prizes for best new play, and his play Eternal Hydra was chosen to inaugurate the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre in 2002. As a librettist, Anton’s Airline Icarus and Inventory with music by composer Brian Current was performed at the VOX festival for the New York City Opera in 2007 and 2010. His current collection of short stories The Iron Bridge follows the life of 20th century dictators as teenagers, and was the runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award.

Anton’s adaptation of S. Ansky’s classic, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, saw its world premier at the Soulpepper Theatre Company on the 21st of May and has already garnered significant critical attention. The Dybbuk plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts till June 18th.

AH: Can you take us back to the beginning, when did you start writing?

AP: I started writing at the end of high school – a direct outgrowth of acting. The experience of inhabiting and performing characters kindled my desire to write my own plays. Because of my earliest roots as a high school actor, I still think of writing as analogous to an actor rehearsing a play – it’s trying out different approaches and attempts at an idea, always with the hope of gradually honing in on an expression that I can stand behind (and fully realize). Writing, for me, then, is practicing – and continuing to work until my creation feels honest.

AH: You seem to have a fascination for the strange, for inversions and uncomfortable explorations. Writers like China Miéville, for example, would look back to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. What were your early literary obsessions?

AP: I know China Miéville is just an example, but I’m glad you bring him up. I love his work, especially the way he’s interested in creating worlds that embody his complex observations into contemporary society. A good example of his approach can be seen in the overlapping, sometimes independent and sometimes crosshatched, twin cities featured in The City and the City. A world like that doesn’t try to solve or explain ours, rather it just lets the contradictions of modern culture shine in naked exposure. My early literary obsessions were writers like Miéville, who built complete worlds in text. Explicit world-building is often what I hope to do in my work.

Samuel Beckett is one of my earliest obsessions (in adulthood, at least), and remains a deep inspiration. All of his plays and mature fiction more or less live in the same bleak world. In Beckett’s world language turns in on itself, cancels itself, is reduced into saying nothing (an extreme inversion of Joycean language, I think). In his world, the aesthetic is minimalist and gray, and highly conscious of itself as ‘bleak’ (an extreme Protestant aesthetic, I would argue, as Beckett had Protestant roots – and was highly conscious of those roots, as he was growing up in a country that was largely Catholic). Also, I would best describe Beckett’s morality as purgatorial – individuals are reduced to suspended, tortured selves, with few remaining personal distinctions. They are people who do nothing active with their lives but wait for a relief that will never come (a modern version of Dante, I’d say: Beckett’s favourite writer). My own personal history and background is nothing like Beckett’s, so there’s no way I could ever write works that draw direct inspiration from his world. Still, his work remains a formal model for me, an example of how to create complete and strange environments out of my personal obsessions and personal history.

AH: The Kabbalah is a constant framing device in your early plays, can you tell us about this?

AP: The Kabbalah was especially important to me when I was younger. I studied it quite closely (with an academic approach, not a religious one), by reading Gershom Scholem, other contemporary scholars and translations of original texts. Kabbalah is just a way to explore the hidden, mythological meanings of traditional Jewish ritual. It’s not something apart from traditional ritual; it only deepens one’s understanding of it. Ritual turns myths into something more than ideas or stories; they become active and meaningful parts of peoples’ lives. Since theatre is such a ritualized art form, I found in Kabbalah an analogy for what an ambitious writer can do – an example of how to explore the hidden meanings of theatrical ritual (or any ritual), and bring it to life. Most of my early plays used Kabbalah in relation to secular rituals or myths (such as the ritual of speaking in a psychoanalyst’s office, or the Western American myth of Manifest Destiny). By juxtaposing the traditional religious belief system of Kabbalah with various contemporary secular ones, I wanted to explore something general about how myths are created by curious people and communities, and then used explain their worlds.

AH: In a cultural moment where celebrity versions of esoteric forms of knowledge like the Kabbalah become representational, how difficult is it to draw on such symbolic structures without appearing exoticist?

AP: Esoteric knowledge like the Kabbalah doesn’t appear as exotic if it isn’t exotic to the writer. It’s not exotic to me at all – it feels very human to me, something I could’ve believed in myself if I’d grown up under the right circumstances, in a deeply religious background. I understand Kabbalah as a profound mythological engagement with traditional Jewish teaching – that’s what it is. I’ve learned about how the Kabbalah has functioned in traditional Jewish settings over hundreds of years, in many iterations, and I’ve thought carefully about what those various iterations and ideas have meant for communities. I can see and articulate how Kabbalah has helped believers explain their world, and helped explain the role of human action. I don’t worry about celebrities or anyone else using Kabbalah in a superficial way; that’s their problem, not mine. Using it superficially only means that they don’t really understand the tradition they think they’re invoking. They’re creating something else from it, for better or (usually) worse. I’m not using it in a superficial or ‘exotic’ way at all, so if it appears that way, then it’s the viewer or reader who is bring their preconceptions to the script. It’s not me.

AH: Your ability to cross genres is truly staggering. How does one shift between writing plays, librettos and short stories?

AP: By making mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. It feels like it took me forever to learn how to write a half-way decent play, and then I had to start all over learning new tricks with librettos and fiction. Each form conveys a great deal of meaning. I think I needed to learn how all those different forms work in general, and how they differ from each other. But each one keeps revealing something new to me, so I’m always struggling to learn more, or to correct my mistaken assumptions about form. I’m always trying to figure out how to adapt my new knowledge into my writing.

Here are some examples of what I mean. Plays, I think, are hopelessly tied to ritual. So when I am writing a play I think about writing a blueprint for a ritual experience. A play, for me, is a series of moments to be experienced publicly, by a community. A play is never just a series of words. Stories, in contrast, are private documents, to be read (or listened to) alone. I think of stories as direct, private communication from an author to an individual reader (or listener). Stories are made up of words that are essentially whispered to a reader, one person at a time – very different from a public ritual. But that’s not complete, obviously. That definition of prose fiction doesn’t take into account the graphic nature of text, which can also convey meaning, and is something that a writer like Mark Danielewski thinks about very explicitly. So I always have more to learn about form.

AH: How does one set about “translating” a work like The Dybbuk which has such a canonical status in Yiddish and Hebrew literary culture? Given that you translate a world with a language, and given the particular historical trajectory of this play, there must have been several challenges that you had to face during this process.

AP: In my initial drafts I kept a great deal of Yiddish words and expressions, but as the drafts progressed I cut more and more of them, substituting English words. I found they only alienated people who weren’t familiar with those words, and the culture they carried along with them. Along with translating the play culturally, I also made the text contemporary for our actors and audiences. At the same time, though, I kept and even expanded many of the particular Kabbalistic and folk references in the original text. This combination, I think, draws us into the world of Brinnitz – it makes us feel like we, too, could live amongst its citizens – while simultaneously letting us know that these people have very particular knowledge that we would have to study carefully if we wanted to join them. I hope my version, then, humanizes and clarifies the people of this play while respecting and even magnifying the intricate intellectual and spiritual world they live inside. I wanted to write it so that a very knowledgeable and observant Jew would say yes, that’s a good window into this particular aspect of my culture while also giving a non-Jew who knows nothing about that culture a way inside it, a way to feel complicit in the action and story. I wanted to spark curiosity about the baroque metaphors and references these people use.

AH: The issue of gender seems to be particularly fascinating here, particularly in relation to questions of agency and vocality.

AP: I agree. What’s particularly interesting to me about gender in the play is way the dybbuk, itself, does not fit into the otherwise strict gender categories that define the larger community. The dybbuk is a male and female person simultaneously – a shocking ‘abomination’ to this community that strictly separates gender in all activity. When you read the play closely you realize that the souls of Leah and Channon are actually quite content living together in one body. Leah never asks to be separated from her beloved Channon, and Channon has clearly found his true home inside Leah’s body, cleaved to her soul. So the exorcism is done for everyone else’s benefit, not theirs; it is done to maintain what is ‘right and proper’ for the community. Nobody really takes the desire of this inter-gender human being seriously, although that desire is stated quite clearly from both Leah’s and Channon’s perspectives. It is true that this dybbuk gives agency and vocality to a woman in a strictly engendered community, but at the same time it also gives a man from that community an opportunity to express his desire for love and romance outside the terms of his traditional religion. Women are not the only ones trapped by strict gender division (although women, of course, too often suffer the brunt of the pain). The dybbuk frees both Leah and Channon from the restrictions of gender roles. And it also forces us, the audience, to consider the high price that has to be paid when a community forces people to fit into its usual gender categories. Although the setting and references are extremely esoteric, it’s hard to imagine a more contemporary play, especially as Western society is finally beginning to take seriously the needs and desires of people who don’t fit into the traditional sex or gender categories.

AH: For the uninitiated, who, or what, is The Messenger? It seems particularly interesting that Ansky chose to add this particular character into his revisions of the play. Do you get the sense that he was speaking of the madness which was about to collectively overtake his people?

AP: In my opinion, the Messenger’s role and meaning is pretty unclear in the original play. I greatly adapted and altered that character’s action. For me, the community of Brinnitz is a deeply traumatized one, and the action of this play can be seen as that community processing and fixating on its trauma. In that context, then, I think of the Messenger as a kind of midwife or therapist for Brinnitz; he is present to help the traumatized community play through its crisis. He has special wisdom and training; he is an expert in the brand of spiritual crisis they are facing. He has arrived to help them through it; he gives them the information they need to understand what is happening to them; he eases them along in their decisions; he even articulates the voices that are too drowned out, terrified or buried to speak. He’s very good at his job – an excellent therapist/midwife/spiritual guide. I think Ansky was hinting at all this in his original play, but he didn’t really carry his idea through to its necessary ends. I hope that my version of the play finishes that work. If it does nothing else, I want my adaptation to give the Messenger clarity, and to give him his rightful place in the story.

AH: One last question for fun: If you could share a bottle of wine with any character dead or alive, real or fictitious, who would it be?

AP: That would be Queequeg, definitely. There are not very men out there in this world who know how to be a true friend to another man. Queequeg knows – I’m sure I could always count on him.