Anton Piatigorsky Explores History, Literature in Eternal Hydra
Eternal Hydra tells the story of a long-lost manuscript by a mysterious Jewish author coming to light.
“It would be a mistake to say it’s about Jewish identity. Jewish identity is one of the ingredients in the stew of it.” Anton Piatigorsky, the playwright behind Eternal Hydra, is explaining the nuances behind his 2009 work now onstage at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, which features a Jewish character who has hidden part of his identity in 1930s Europe. A literary mystery spanning hundreds of years, Eternal Hydra begins in present-day New York, where a university scholar attempts to publish a famous, long-lost manuscript she has unearthed in Paris. At the same time she unravels the mystery behind its late author, Gordias Carbuncle, and the questionable claims to his authorship that extend as far back as the American Civil War.
The American-born Piatigorsky, who now makes his home in Canada, originally wrote the story as a one-act play for the Stratford Festival in 2002, before reviving it into a full-length production for Crow’s Theatre in 2009. Shalom Life spoke with the author about the evolution of Eternal Hydra, his unusual casting choice, and how his Jewish background influences his work.
How did the idea for Eternal Hydra first come about?
I was reading a lot of modernist literature – James Joyce, Faulkner – these big novels that tried to be about everything. And I was thinking about what was going on historically that let these authors think it was possible to write a book that could be about everything, and what other similar geneses were going on in the world. I was also thinking a lot about political movements like atheism and communism – those pretty all-encompassing views for how the world should look – and about the personality of somebody who would want to see the world in that way. That was the starting point for it, and from there it developed into a bunch of other things.
What are the differences between the one-act version and the full-length version – what did you change and add?
In the one-act version, it was still about this writer and his book, and how it was published. You didn’t actually see Carbuncle really grapple with the substance of what he wrote. I started to feel like in order to complete the story, you really needed to see a chapter of his novel staged. There was also a lot of making the story work better, making little changes to character and theme that polished it as well. But the main thing was wanting to focus the play on the question of, what is the book that this author wrote and what is it about and what does it mean, given all the history of it you see in the play.
There’s a lot of jumping between eras. What was challenging about writing the play that way?
It’s challenging to get the historical times and places right, and it’s challenging when you’re cutting back and forth in a narrative to make sure that the emotional journey is clear. Because the emotional journey for the characters or actors doesn’t always follow a chronological story. [Though] right from the start, it was a very big part of the idea of the play.
Why did you decide to have only four actors playing multiple parts?
Again, it’s really important thematically. Although there are all these different characters, they’re written to be doubled or tripled, so each actor has an emotional journey, and the different characters they play have an emotional resonance with the other characters they play.
Looking up some of your past plays, it looks like quite a few have Jewish themes. Do you often explore Judaism in your work?
I did when I was starting out my first three or four plays had more explicitly Jewish themes than there have been recently. It’s something that I’m interested in, but I’ve always been interested in it in the context of other things. Eternal Hydra is a good example: I’m interested in Jewish identity and external aspects of how it’s been denied or negated, but within a larger context of what else is going on historically, what else is going on with other people’s identities. I’ve always been interested in Jewish themes related to secular themes.
What else are you working on now?
Right now I’m writing some fiction. I’m close to the end of finishing a novel and a collection of short stories. I have a draft of a play I’m in the early stages of working on and developing with the same director as Eternal Hydra, and I’m writing some opera librettos as well.
It sounds like you have your hand in a bunch of different genres.
Yeah. It’s really fun. I really like jumping around, and each genre is a very very different kind of writing and has different requirements on it. It’s exciting to have these different challenges.
Eternal Hydra runs until Feb. 13 at the Factory Theatre. For more information, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.