I studied Experimental Theater 3 lifetimes ago at NYU, and have spent the ensuing three lifetimes realizing what a hard life it is to try to be an experimental artist of any stripe, so I fully appreciate a writer's exploration of what can be found when the known layers of a classic play are peeled back and examined from a variety of angles, with the added magnifying glass of hundreds of years having passed from the original play's completion.
While I wish I was intelligent enough or at the very least over-educated enough to fully comprehend everything David Todd was reaching for in Joy in Repetition, it is a fascinating, mind-expanding read, as well as a very touching and funny treatment of one of the most famous plays of all time- Romeo & Juliet. Enjoy!
Drama Editor, Kathleen Dennehy
David Todd InterviewWhat drove you to write this?
Originally, this started when I was asked to adapt Romeo and Juliet into some kind of new text, which wasn’t something I felt particularly comfortable with. It seemed like a lose-lose scenario, as a playwright, to take on such a classic. I knew of successful treatments like the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s R & J, where they transcribed these erratic memories of the original play, but I didn’t have a process like that of my own. So I racked my mind for a while trying to come up with an approach that would be worth doing.
Eventually, I thought the best thing I could do was to try to capture the feeling I was having itself—this kind of dread of how anyone could find a new angle on this exhaustively celebrated source.
I had been listening to a lot of the so-called hauntology music by people like Jon Brooks (who also records as The Advisory Circle) and Belbury Poly, and at some point I thought I could borrow some of their approach. Things they were doing like ‘ghosting’ or layering elements of past and present, using these bad loops that subject their sources to decay, and just generally exploring the idea of dyschronia or time out of joint—all of these seemed applicable to the whole expanded box set of cultural material we have for Romeo and Juliet now.
It’s brilliant that you chose Romeo & Juliet to experiment hauntologically on since it is, as you say, the most famous play of all time, even if people have never read or seen it. And since it’s a play about people imprisoned by a distant past, have you hauntologically experimented on other plays?
This was the first one I’ve done, but think that as a type of collage I could do this with other sources too. And yes, it did seem that R&J lent itself to a hauntological treatment, for the reasons you mention. The idea of being imprisoned in a distant past is definitely important—but also, in a present that is full of specters and loops, and that won’t let any of them out. It’s weird to talk about this because it sounds more theoretical than I hope the play is on the page or as performed. There are a few ditty-style songs that lighten things up, and for the most part I think it’s black comedy. (Comedy is tragedy plus time, as they say.) But for sure, there was a goal to get this sense of simultaneity.
Actually, the idea of the future is also important to hauntology. That is, images of the future that were foreseen but never arrived, or the feeling of living in someone else’s imagined future that doesn’t quite live up to its promise. In some ways, plays like R&J gave their audiences hope for a future that, even after all these years, still may not have been realized.
Have you ever discovered any of the sources of the Romeo & Juliet story that Shakespeare himself cribbed from?
I checked out the sources that are either considered to influence Shakespeare’s version or otherwise predate it. I used excerpts from a couple of the bigger ones, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the script. As I mentioned, the idea of loops and layers was at the core of this version, and I was trying to use the other versions as loops that were running in the background while the loops of R & J were running themselves. There were some more-recent things I considered but didn’t use—like Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul—but the idea was that you could bring in references to these other stories, and that Romeo and Juliet had to contextualize themselves as just one of these sets of doomed pairs.
Your modernization of the dialogue is captivating and gives great insight into what I probably never comprehended from Shakespeare’s version. Did you actually modernize verse or in a line such as-
CAPULET (Aside.) Fear not, Count Paris, you will have my daughter and her dowry as promised. And I will strengthen the Capulet name and our ties to the honorable Prince, your kinsman, providing further leverage against the house of our enemy Montague. It is an arrangement that benefits all!
Or did you craft this dialogue out of whole cloth based on your understanding of the social politics embedded in R & J?
(I have read Shakespeare’s R & J many times, but always felt that so many layers of meaning have eluded me… or evaporated from my mind, which is precisely why I am enjoying your version so very much!!)
It was part of my approach that any new R&J could only aspire to be a footnote to Shakespeare’s play. So I did modernize lines of his dialogue, but mainly with that modest sense of entitlement. In other cases, I would write new lines to bring out subtextual elements in the play, which is what I think I was doing in the passage you mention. I was just recapping what was driving Capulet, which in turn drives a lot of the action of Shakespeare’s version. (Friar Laurence’s ill-advised counsel drives a few things too.) One of the things I never liked about Shakespeare’s R&J is that it is so sympathetic to the young people without accounting for how those young people will eventually turn into old people themselves. The young people are kept out of the ideology of the original conflict that led to this feud between families, so the whole thing is sort of divorced from reality in a way. That leaves the parents in these limited roles—I kept thinking of them as like the adults in the old Charlie Brown cartoons, where you only see them from the knees down, and only hear them in muted monotone. I didn’t have space to expand on a parent character like Capulet, so I embraced making him a villain, I suppose. I tried to deal with this issue by turning up the pressure on Romeo and Juliet, and also other characters like Tybalt.
Romeo seems to know what’s going to happen before it happens- almost like he’s the playwright as well as Romeo, standing inside the play while commenting on how it will all turn out. Who is he? The ghost of Romeo looping back on himself?
In the original play, it seems like Juliet is the more level-headed, while Romeo has this tendency to leap into things. But what I liked about Romeo is that he seems to know the thing he’s focused on—namely, love above all else—is the most important of all. So he does know more than anyone else, in that sense, and is the most fearless about where he’s going.
Definitely there was the idea of Romeo looping back on himself in an uncanny fashion. At some point, I guess the literal conceit of the play is that they are ghosts who can’t really die, in the last third, at least. But Romeo deals with that kind of existential state better than Juliet.
“Time alive is simply pressure, it’s a clock.” This truth consumes me completely! Did you write this line or is it from Shakespeare or another source? And are you examining the very essence of time in applying Hauntology to Romeo & Juliet?
That’s a good line to mention in terms of indicating what Romeo knows. He’s pointing out what’s good about their fate, that he and Juliet have been freed from the pressures of time and real life that turned their parents into what they’ve become. As I’m saying, I don’t want to sound too high-minded about all of this, because I know that ultimately it’s all about whether it works on the stage. But it true what you’re suggesting, that the play is trying to explore time in this hauntological sense. I think I wrote that one, yeah.
I also relish the play as a study of aging- and how aging changes us from hero to villain and our lives from romance to tragedy- it is all about the innate sadness of the human condition. Care to expound?
I guess R & J is one of the first “it’s better to burn out than fade away” stories we all hear. But in this version, I wanted to capture the other side of that coin, which is the quality of something aging and drying out, which is a lot richer and more poetic, at least to me. It’s like when you’re younger, you might read Beckett and like the starkness of his work or the edgier ideas, and then later on you might appreciate the delicate feelings he captures like an intense panic at getting older being mitigated by the diminished intensity of being older—that kind of thing is really amazing to me. Romeo and Juliet are put through some of that, and their perspective has to change a lot. It can be very sad and human, and it’s something that Romeo and Juliet sort of avoid in the original play. I wanted to see what would happen to them as they acquired a greater awareness of themselves. I felt like that was closer to what I considered to be a real true and/or tested love.
The other thing I wanted to change in the play was to bring Romeo and Juliet together in times of grief and stress, as opposed to keeping them apart, which is what the original often does. That was one of the main points to that middle “Redux” section, where their monologues from Shakespeare’s version are combined.
The Thisbe and Pyramus story is hilariously rendered in your play. Juliet keeps wanting a romantic happy end to the stories Romeo tells her but all of the Pyramus and Thisbe endings are tragic and horrible- which hastens Juliet’s own desire to no longer get married but to simply die faster, quicker and basically do anything other than get old… as if age itself is the enemy. Is that your intent there?
That might be one of the more expressly comic aspects of the play. And yes to all of that, really. The desire Juliet has to escape is coming straight out of that central idea of being stuck in time, and stuck in a loop of stories. None of the other stories end well, but for Juliet, ending badly is still preferable to never ending.
The Choragus is like the professor helping us to comprehend what we are seeing. In your opinion is this the purpose of the role of the Choragus in the history of drama? Does he by commenting on the action serve to remind us that this is merely a play or does he play a larger role- focusing us on what we should be learning and understanding- like a teacher or a guide?
I’m hoping the Choragus doesn’t drag too much like a professor might. But he or she is certainly a guide, and it’s his or her job to make sense of things, which I think it’s fair to say is one of the main purposes of the chorus in a classical sense. Tragedies always dramatized moral lessons, and generally were interpreted according to what’s good for the people and the state. But as the Choragus points out, the idea of what’s good for people has, like the metatext around Romeo and Juliet, grown a lot bigger and more confusing over time. The idea of who something is good for is often contended, from various angles, and rightfully so. That’s a good thing in most ways, but it’s also one of the tensions I was trying to get at.
The reason the Choragus talks so much, I think, is to reflect the weight of all that accumulated perspective. The chorus in the original play only appears twice, and I guess it’s questioned whether Shakespeare even wrote the second of those speeches. But I felt an expanded Chorus could get into the issues we have today better than any other character in the play. It seems like the temptation is for the audience to identify with Romeo and Juliet, because that’s how the story works, but the Choragus is probably closer to their point of view.
You mention Greek drama and the Sphinx- and query as to which mythology that story was lifted from… do you posit that all stories evolve and are in a sense cannibalized from other earlier cultures- as is written about in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”?
I think this may be another aspect of what I was just talking about, a take on our present-day perspective, where we’re not interested in these myths for the same reasons that the original cultures were. Like now, we might look at the identity politics in the Oedipus trilogy instead of looking at hamartia or whatever the lessons were supposed to be. The Choragus is saying it was so much easier to assess something back then—which may not be true, actually. It may just be his own excuse for why he can’t figure this story out. But on the other hand, it probably is a lot harder to say something about Romeo and Juliet now that it was four hundred years ago.
“It is like watching the sun set and thinking you can stop it, thinking you can hold on to it, before you realize that’s ludicrous, and you give up, and you find yourself in the dark.” Beautiful sentence. The intricacies of theater, of language and drama and the celebration of youth and love and romance all seem to be an emollient in the face of death. Your characters know that all is doomed and lost, and sometimes they teeter into nihilism, but in the end they go for entertainment- either musical, poetic, dance or love-based entertainment. Care to expound or refute?
I’m not sure if this is answering your question, but one of the things I was wondering about was whether, or how, this play could evoke a tragic aspect and still have that entertaining side. I wasn’t sure if it was only going to feel like a simulation or a gag, and nothing more.
Actually, there was a quote from this guy who blogs as Rouge’s Foam (Adam Harper) that I went back to for this. He was saying that hauntological art has two layers: one is the original element from the past, and the other is the complicating element from the present. And the implication of that is you’re not supposed see one or the other; you’re supposed to take in both at the same time. That’s a big part of this type of art’s effect, this flickering between planes.
The other thing I think Adam Harper said is that the decay of the original element in one of these layered pieces can create a new sense of tragedy. In Shakespeare’s play, the tragedy is obviously the death of these star-crossed lovers—it’s the emotional effect created by the narrative on a content level. But maybe now, this effect is created on a formal level by the erosion of that original image of young love that we’ve worn out, basically like a piece of vinyl. The tragic part today could be that there was no great purging of emotion at the end of that story after all, and instead, all that emotion is still bottled up inside Romeo and Juliet, and us.
We have to look at this story now with all of these qualifications and associations instead of just being able to experience it in a naïve, emotionally invested way. And Romeo and Juliet have to keep living it, over and over, until they achieve this original tragic impact on us, which of course they can’t, because it really isn’t possible anymore. And to put it as a double negative, that might not make a new version untragic, but at the same time there is this kind of surface absurdity about it all, like Tybalt breaking into song.
I enjoy the language traipsing from ‘old fashioned’ to modern- what would you consider your main intention behind that- not just for comedy’s sake, I imagine?
That was definitely part of the flickering I mentioned. And I think…it seems like nowadays there’s an aesthetic of very high-brow mundanity found with people like Tao Lin or the Nature Theater—this highly crafted inarticulateness of their language—and that is another thing I might have been trying to import into Shakespeare’s world. Shakespeare’s language is so beautiful by the standards that are most codified as beautiful, so I thought, Why not try to find these other complexions in his situations? There is also the idea of playing off associations—using some borrowed words from Shakespeare so that the spectator can’t tell whether a line is one that’s new or one they’ve heard before. Again, this all sounds really theoretical, but I think it’s pretty basic as it plays out.
Who are writers you admire?
Growing up, I liked all the canonical alternative writers like Genet and Burroughs and Beckett, Kathy Acker, Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper. In playwriting, I was fond of Mac Wellman and Len Jenkin, Maria Irene Fornes, that whole school of language-based writers. There were other things that affected me like some of the early films of Richard Kern and bands like the Birthday Party.
Who are the writers that made you want to be a writer?
They were the ones I mentioned above, who seemed to have gone somewhere as people, I mean metaphorically, and thereby had some insight to report. I always thought that was the best thing a writer could offer, like a dispatch from the void. Not every writer is going to end up doing that, and most of them are going to live more conventional lives, even if they don’t want to. But it’s a good goal to aspire to.
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