As Artistic Director of Untitled Theater Company #61, Edward Einhorn has brought a variety of fascinating and challenging productions to the stage. His current project, a new translation and adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (reviewed here) featuring exquisite masks and a rocking, swearing Chorus, plays at La Mama in New York City through March 3. I wanted to know more about how he approached crafting a production of a 2,400-year-old play for a modern audience, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about it.
According to your program notes, this production has its roots in an earlier plan for a graphic novel version of the play, in which you were collaborating with graphic novel series Age of Bronze‘s Eric Shanower. Can you talk a little about this genesis? And what made you choose this particular play to adapt in the first place?
Eric Shanower and I first worked to together on my novel, Paradox in Oz, which he illustrated. I had been reading his comic series, Age of Bronze, and had particularly noted how much I enjoyed the sequence based on Iphigenia in Aulis. It sent me back to the original play, and we started talking about doing a new translation and transforming it into a graphic novel – the way I conceived it was that it would be sort of a play on paper, taking the original text and using graphic novel techniques to bring it visually alive.
Once the adaptation was done, I began playing with the idea of staging it, and using Eric’s art as part of that process seemed a natural choice. Comics seem to me to be a spiritual descendent of mask work – tableaux used to tell a story. I also use banners to allude to a theatrical form called cantastoria, a 16th century theater tradition using picture stories that is a clear progenitor of comics. The masks are often used as puppets onstage, part of another related theater tradition.
The art forms span millennia, as does this story, which has been told and retold in so many forms that I felt it appropriate to use vocabulary culled from the history of visual storytelling.
Laura Hartle in the title role of “Iphigenia in Aulis” directed by Edward Einhorn at LaMama. Photo by Richard Termine.
How do you see Iphigenia in Aulis as resonating with contemporary tensions between democracy and mob rule?
I started working on the project at the same time the Arab Spring began. I had previously written the libretto for a piece called The Velvet Oratorio, which told the story of another, very successful public uprising, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. But it has always seemed to me that democracy, which we at times hold up as an unadorned virtue, is a deeply flawed system. Here, we have been warned about the tyranny of the majority, but historically, the will of the people has often had a bloodthirsty edge. The violence in the Middle East that has accompanied the Arab Spring reminds us once again that the line between democracy and a mob is at times a thin one.
Euripides was a critic of democracy at the time [the 5th century BC], fearing it could descend into ochlocracy (mob rule). One needs to look no further than the ostracizing of Socrates, voted upon by his fellow citizens, for the crime of having unpopular beliefs, to see democracy’s dark side. One fascinating thing to me about Iphegenia is that the real antagonists are offstage – in the end, it is the call of the mob that dooms Iphigenia, despite Agamemnon’s best efforts to reverse the fate he put in motion.
Ivanna Cullinan as Klytemnestra and Michael Bertolini as Agamemnon in “Iphigenia in Aulis” directed by Edward Einhorn at LaMama. Photo by Richard Termine.
Your bio notes that you previously adapted and directed Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Do you have an overall philosophy about how to present ancient Greek drama for a modern audience?
My main goal is simple, though at times deceptively difficult: it is to present the work clearly and compellingly. I feel that the language often used in Greek translation stands as somewhat of a barrier to understanding, and while in Iphigenia I still use heightened language, I tried to make sure that each sentence would be as clear and easy to speak and to hear as possible. Often, these translations are written by scholars with a deep understanding of the ancient language but with less skill in playwriting as an art.
I also write with a director’s eye, noting the original themes so that I can highlight them in my word choice and perhaps reflect modern parallels in the language I choose. Thus, when I begin the process of direction, part of the job has already been done.
I try to be theatrically innovative in my staging, because I think that theatrical innovation is often demanded in order to keep a text fresh and relevant. However, any innovation I use must be in service the historical text and ideas. My main goal is to communicate, and my least favorite theater is that in which a director’s love of his own innovation buries the original text. I feel I have succeeded when an audience member walks out feeling like he or she has a deeper understanding of the original thoughts behind the play.
Iphigenia in Aulis has been translated into English numerous times in the past. In terms of translation and adaptation, what is the genesis of the text you used?
I referenced about 10 prior translations, as well as the amazing website Perseus, which gives a word by word translation of all Greek dramas. I also did some research to make sure I understood the unstated nuances in each line, before I ventured a translation.
My first drafts are always a mess – very literal, very awkward. Then I put them aside to give my brain time to detach itself from the phraseology of the original text, so that when I come back I can find ways to make the language flow.
I did make a few minor changes, and a major change for this production. The major change was in the language of the chorus members, which I deliberately made more contemporary and vulgar, knowing the choruses were going to be sung to rock music. It seemed to me that this also made them sound lower class and connected them to the energy (and violence) of the masses.
Other than that, my biggest change was really a restoration – most scholars seem to agree that the first scene, as transcribed, is a conflation of a dialogue (perhaps written by Euripides, perhaps not) and Euripides’ original prologue. I put the prologue once more at the beginning and then patched the area in the dialogue where it had been later placed.
I don’t think I’ve seen masks used precisely the way you use them in this production – mounted at the top of staves, held either by the character him/herself or by an attendant, used in dramatic gestures, but not generally placed over the face. What were you aiming for with this device?
Each mask in the production is an object, whether it be weapon, staff, or totem of office. I wanted to recall the original mask use, but also participate in a whole realm of visual storytelling, which includes the graphic novel images on which the designs of the masks were based. In this case, I felt like they could most effectively be used to indicate the public versus the private personas of the characters. The mask became the public face, and the further the actor was from it, the more they expressed their inner emotions.
The masks and staves appear to be really exquisitely crafted. Can you tell us a little about the creative design?
Jane Stein based the images of the main characters’ faces on Eric Shanower’s art. Jane is an experienced mask maker, and besides having the skill to translate his two-dimensional images into beautiful three-dimensional forms, she was able to give each of those masks a further personality by associating it with an object that the character would carry, be it staff or weapon or scepter. She also crafted more traditional masks, to be worn by the musicians, and masks for the singers that also became their headdresses.
I have known Jane’s work for awhile, and it is extraordinary. I was very lucky to have her involved.
Tell us a little about Untitled Theater Company No. 61 – mission, history, plans for the future?
Untitled Theater Company #61 is a Theater of Ideas: scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical. Some of our best known work involves our long collaboration with former Czech President Vaclav Havel, which included a full festival of his work. We have also done a number of adaptations of noteworthy science fiction novels, such as Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. Upcoming work includes Money Lab, a series of short pieces examining economic theory; The Pig, or Vaclav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig, our original translation of Havel’s final work; and The Exagogue by Ezekiel the Tragedian, the oldest surviving Jewish play, written by a Hellenistic Jew in the 5th century and telling the story of the Exodus in the style of Greek tragedy.