Geneva Convention

NOV 21, 1997

Far from their native Switzerland, François Rochaix and Jean-Claude Maret meet in Cambridge to create an American Bacchae.

When director François Rochaix first met Jean-Claude Maret in the mid-1960s, Maret was a painter who had been recruited to design a set at Rochaix’s Théâtre de l’Atelier in Geneva. Maret soon gave up painting to become a full-time scenic designer. Since then the two Swiss artists have joined forces over fifty times around the world — in Switzerland, England, France, Austria, Russia, Norway, and the United States. Last season Rochaix, now Associate Director of the A.R.T., invited his countryman to design a setting for Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which Rochaix was directing in the premiere of a new adaptation by Robert Brustein.

Early this fall, Maret once again joined Rochaix in Cambridge, this time to review preparations for the upcoming production of The Bacchae. When A.R.T. News caught up with these two old friends at the Loeb Drama Center, Maret’s designs were being realized in the scene shop, translator Paul Schmidt was putting finishing touches on the script, and Principal Costume Designer Catherine Zuber was completing her drawings. We began our conversation with Rochaix as Maret huddled with lighting designer Michael Chybowski; Maret joined us about halfway through the interview.

DK: You have directed many plays by Aeschylus.

FR: Three times The Oresteia. Plus the workshop [with the A.R.T. Institute in 1994].

DK: Euripides is very different.

FR: Very different. When Aeschylus was born Athens was still a dictatorship, and the Athenians still had a unified vision of a world where natural forces are closely related to humans.

But during the life of Aeschylus, the whole world breaks apart and changes, becoming modern with the introduction of democracy. You see this change in The Oresteia. When you go from Agamemnon [the first play of the trilogy] to The Eumenides[the third play], you see how the structure of society is changing the plays. They become much freer. Agamemnon is a classical tragedy. The Eumenidesis the start of melodrama.

Euripides is already on the other side. There is more distance in his way of considering things, more irony. There is even collage sometimes in his techniques. Somebody said that Euripides invented the archetype of the TV melodrama. . . . Aeschylus is still related to Homer and all that is the old world. In Euripides, there is more distance from this old world. I feel this difference in the style.

DK: There is more humor in Euripides.

FR: More humor, yes . . . and also in a lot of plays Euripides takes a position for women, in Alcestis [and] Medea [for example].

DK: Ion.

FR: Absolutely, Ion, and also in The Phoenician Womenand The Madness of Heracles, which I did in workshop with the [Institute] students last spring. There is sympathy for Antigone and Jocasta. The feminine side is more important, and in The Bacchaealso, the feminine side of Dionysos . . . in contradiction to the macho character Pentheus.

DK: This play is at the very end of Euripides’ career, perhaps produced posthumously. He might have written it in exile up north, where Bacchic rituals were more extreme than those he would have seen in Athens.

FR: What is fascinating with the Greek theatre is that we don’t know anything for sure. And I think this gives us an extraordinary freedom we don’t have with authors for whom there are precise biographies. At the time of the Greeks there was no tradition of writing biographies. For instance, the legend that was invented two or three hundred years after Aeschylus died of how he became a playwright. He was guarding a vineyard and fell asleep. In his sleep he had a dream, Dionysos came to him and gave him the order to write tragedies. And when he woke up he tried. It was so easy he continued. It’s also the legend of Dionysos as the source of theatre, because it was Dionysos who inspired him.

In The Bacchae, we have the source of the theatre tradition, of the religious side of theatre. There is one story The Bacchaetells that is important to remember in America, considering that Dionysos is the god of theatre. The Bacchaedramatizes what happens to a country that does not respect the god of theatre and does not subsidize him. The revenge is cruel and terrible!

DK: Do you think there were cuts in government funding in Euripides’ time?

FR: [Laughing] No, I don’t think so. At that time the funding was not a problem, but I mean [in the play] Thebes refuses his rites, they refuse his theatricality, they refuse the mask, and the punishment is terrible. Nowadays, not only here but everywhere, there is a tendency of an economical-suicidal society trying to kill art and culture. It’s salutary to show that theatre is not a weak impulse that will disappear. We have a god of theatre, an energy in us that will react, that will resist, that will fight. Dionysos is a potent god.

DK: There are so many layers of theatricality within the play itself, one might say metatheatricality. As you said, we’re in the Theatre of Dionysos to start with. And yet I don’t think there is any other surviving classical tragedy in which Dionysos is a physical character on stage.

FR: Absolutely. And here he is really developed. But he is present all the time in the Greek theatre, invoked and praised. It’s quite interesting also to see that in Thebes, in the plays that are set in Thebes, it’s a more negative energy, [while] in the Athenian plays he is a totally positive energy. And it’s interesting when you see the Theban plays and the Athenian plays how the energy is catalyzed in a different way. I was fascinated to do The Madness of Heracles because it’s really the first sketch for The Bacchae. Heracles is mad and kills his family as Agave kills her son, thinking he’s a lion. The same theme is repeated later in The Bacchae.

DK: The classicist Froma Zeitlin has written that in general Thebes was the anti-Athens. Thebes was everything that Athens felt that it was not. What we see on stage, of course, is not the real Thebes but the Athenians’ projection of Thebes — which may have been Sparta.

FR: Sparta at the time of Euripides was competing with Athens, stronger militarily than Athens.

DK: And more authoritarian, and, at least the Athenians thought, more xenophobic, less able to bring in the “other” and integrate it. Athens was able to bring the Eumenides in and integrate them, whereas Thebes can’t seem to do this. At the start of The Bacchae, Thebes is a city turned inside out. Thebes is also the city of Oedipus.

FR: And Athens is the city that welcomes Oedipus [in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus], that welcomes Heracles, and all the people who were chased from Thebes. It’s the open city, the city of the future.

DK: Is it the theatre itself that is part of Athens’ ability to do that? Does the theatre not have a role in the Athenians’ paradigm of a healthy society, a place where they can deal with all these terrible things but within a clearly defined space?

FR: Athens is where the Theatre of Dionysos is, where all these plays were created, where he is celebrated. Thebes is punished because he is not celebrated there.

DK: In The Bacchae, a whole generation of men seems to be missing.

FR: That’s right.

DK: Pentheus’ father, where is he?

FR: Echion.

DK: We don’t know exactly what happened to him, and why the rule had to pass to Pentheus. Do you see Pentheus as very young?

FR: Yes. I mean, these ages in myth . . . it’s like when you read the Bible, Noah died at, I don’t remember, three hundred years old. But of course, if I proposed the part of Kadmos to Alvin [Epstein] and the part of Pentheus to Ben [Evett] it’s also to show two generations between them. That is to make it easier for the audience to see that somewhere there should have been a father.

DK: The play in part is about Pentheus’ inability to mature into an adult. He is stuck in adolescence.

FR: Yes. You know I have a mixed feeling about The Bacchae. Pentheus is totally stubborn, totally macho, totally, as you say, stuck, blocked. I mean he has no feminine side, no intuition, no balance. On the other hand, Dionysos is terrible. He is vengeful, violent. I’m saying this because in the Sixties this play was often performed as the play of liberation, of sex, of theatre. It’s one aspect, but something that was totally underestimated was the violent and repressive side of what Dionysos does.

DK: It’s like a bad acid trip. The play has incredible contradictions, a god who is both violent and beneficial.

FR: Exactly, and of course Agave, the sister of Dionysos’ mother, cast doubt about the god’s birth and his divine origins, but the punishment is like something out of the Old Testament. It’s out of proportion, and I don’t forget that. He is the attractive god of the theatre, but this is also a theatre that can be violent and repressive.

DK: I wanted to ask you about the Christian allusions in Paul Schmidt’s text of The Bacchae, such as referring to Dionysos as “the son of God” and so on.

FR: Yes, normally, I am quite resistant to mixing religious allusions. The gods in the Greek civilization had nothing to do with the Christian God. The Greek gods are concrete. A statue is a god . . . the gods exist but the Greeks didn’t believe in them as a Christian believes in God. They believed and didn’t believe, and I find this intriguing. There is a strange combination of something rational and something totally pious.

The Chorus in Agamemnon [lines 160ff] says “Zeus, wherever you are, whoever you are, we are not sure if you exist or if you are, but we better pray to you because if you exist and are behind this bush, it’s better that we celebrate you.” Rationality is totally integrated into the religious vision. You can express a doubt because you’re dealing with the gods as part of a whole system, a way to present rules, to present examples so that humans can live. It’s not a permanent presence of an abstract God within you.

So usually I oppose mixing religious [allusions]. The first time I read this script I was astonished, but because Dionysos is on stage, there is no confusion. We are speaking about a concrete character. This is not always the case in Greek tragedies. The gods are often addressed but not often present. But because Dionysos is physically present in a highly theatrical way there is no confusion. We know about whom we are speaking.

Jean-Claude Maret joins the interview.

DK: Where do the two of you start when you’re going to work on a production? What was your first conversation about how The Bacchaewould look on the A.R.T. stage? François, when you think about directing a play, do you think visually?

FR: I have visual ideas but I am unable to draw them so they are just visual ideas. When we meet for the first time, we don’t even speak about how a play should look. This comes later.

At the start we share a passion for the text, and Jean-Claude has strong ideas about what the play means. The form of the vision — his specialty — comes later.

JM: I start with a vision of what it is to perform this text, what is the goal for the actors. It helps to come in and have a real feeling for the text, how theatrical it is, how much it gives you. The image comes first from what text is on stage. Then we also bring in images from outside. I don’t pretend that every thing comes from inside the text. The Bacchaeis total theatricality.

DK: By theatricality do you mean what the actors do on stage?

JM: It’s difficult to say definitely what is “theatrical.” But you feel it, it’s playful, it needs space.

FR: When you read scripts, some really call out for a space. These in general are the better scripts. There are also scripts in which there is just dialogue and no third dimension. You could do them on the radio, and it would be better.

But sometimes there are interesting texts that don’t call immediately for a space, and you have to find it. Especially in the last twenty or thirty years the new scripts have been much too traditional and old-fashioned. I was fed up, so I started looking into monologues and poems . . . I was more interested in finding theatrically behind these texts than in interpreting texts that were just clichés. But with The Bacchaewe are dealing with a great theatrical author.

DK: So you look into the text and see what’s there.

FR: Looking into the text of The Bacchaeis not so simple, because we had the problem of the translations. Ideally, what I would prefer, and it’s not possible, is to do all these Greek plays in an absolutely word-for-word poetical translation, without any cuts. It’s not possible because they’re loaded with images and a whole mythology we do not know well enough.

So the question of translation and adaptation comes up. Obviously, it has to be in the language of today. But then do we work with anachronisms, or is it better to work with the original Greek images? These questions are incredibly important. In the different languages I speak, I have access to at least fifteen or twenty translations of The Bacchae, and I always begin with a word-by-word translation to know what is really in the original material.

Then comes the question of the adaptation, and here I finally made a different choice than for The Oresteia[when Robert Auletta’s script was used]. For The Oresteia, I was looking for someone who is a poet but is a man who translates everything into pictures of today, who works with anachronisms, sometimes in a provocative way. For The BacchaeI again wanted something which is the language of today, yet close to the original structure. Paul Schmidt was working on his translation independently of our production and I thought it was strong writing so we chose it. His approach does not use anachronistic imagery, but the result is equally modern.

DK: And having made that choice helps you in finding what the production looks like.

JM: Yes, because I do the same in a way. The images that I build on stage are related to the real Greece. You must have a feeling about where it comes from. I am referring to this play, not in general. But it has to communicate straightforwardly to the audience, so it has to include some everyday images as well, something familiar. [If I design] a white house for Pentheus’ palace it is a White House, in every sense of the term, because it is the heart of political power.

DK: Let’s back up a moment and look at the set overall. It is completely black except for this white palace, which is in a classical style. There is another structure on the left. What is that?

FR: It’s the palace of Semele, the mother of Dionysos, and her tomb, which was destroyed by Zeus’s lightening. This is Dionysos, his black side.

JM: The whole set is black. Everything is black because it’s polluted by ashes [from Semele’s tomb]. Yet the new king is trying to keep a white house! [Whether he wants to or not], Pentheus has to deal with the past. The past is there and it is disturbing, even more disturbing than he thought.

FR: And if he doesn’t deal with it, the past will deal with him.

JM: Exactly! But I present the set as something where the past takes place. You can see on the ground plan there is a kind of competition. He would prefer his white palace to be in the center but this old thing, [Semele’s tomb], is still there, even if it’s a ruin. So [Pentheus] takes the place he can. Who is going to see it? Probably nobody, but I think everybody is going to feel it.

FR: We feel it.

DK: So the palace of Pentheus is a new building that looks something like a Greek temple. It starts out pure and white against everything else on the set, which is encased in black ash. Is the architecture of the old building different?

FR: It’s a ruin [so] you can’t tell. It’s a part of a palace and the tomb. And in this tomb there is something real, the vine, the wine, the grape — Dionysos planted it.

JM: Something is alive in the ashes, [as opposed to] the whiteness [of Pentheus’ palace], which is quite dead. On [Semele’s] side, you have ashes, but there is a sign of life, the grape vine, which grows and grows and is green. We have one color there; [the rest of the set] is black and white. Dionysos is intervening.

DK: Kadmos declared the tomb of Semele a national landmark.

JM: So this is why Pentheus can’t get rid of it.

FR: And then there is the grape, this is Dionysos, his signature.

JM: The grape is a magic plant.

FR: When you don’t take care of the grape, it becomes a monster.

JM: It will grow ten meters in one year!

FR: It is a plant you have to prune. It is a also sign of what Dionysos is. It is a sophisticated [process] to make wine; you have to be almost like a physician or a chemist . . . it’s quite complex. And then to get drunk and go into a trance! Dionysos is the god of all this ecstasy.

JM: And wine is the best and the worst. It depends on how you use it. We know how it can destroy people, but we know how it also brings [benefits].

Doug Kirshen is A.R.T. Director of Audience Development.

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