Features Q&A and Interviews Published 23 June 2011

Anna Ledwich

On sex, death, and decadence.

Daniel B. Yates

DBY: I think it was Yeats who said these these were the only two topics that could be interesting to a serious and studious mood – sex and death. And then Schnitzler himself said “I write of love and death, what other subjects are there?”

AL: It defines our life though, the idea, the realisation of our mortality, and the desire to procreate. And it kind of does boil down to those two elements. We ping-pong back and forth mercilessly between those two extreme states.

DBY: You’ve spoken before about your own fascination with sex and death, and I wondered whether this fascination might have occurred, without wanting to get too personal, relatively early in your artistic life?

AL: I guess so. I mean I’m a bit of a square really, to be frank, so I kind of find that anything that explores the extremities of human behaviour on stage, the vicarious thrill I get from making work, the opportunity to explore all of those dark corners without having to go out there and do it all myself. So there is something of the avatar, I guess, in getting actors to explore it, to investigate it, to talk in those dark corners, of one’s psyche, and of the way human beings relate to one another. I mean it’s all there, it’s every day, it’s completely present. I guess I do have a fascination because my life is realtively ordinary, and centres around shopping and doing the laundry.

DBY: It’s interesting that you say sex is completely present. Because arguable sex is more culturally present, in art, advertising, and casual conversation, than it has been at any point in history. I’m interested to know how a portrait of fin-de-siecle Vienna, which sets up bourgeois repression against an avant-garde sexual liberation, still holds up. If sex is everywhere, and everyone’s; if it’s the stuff of commodity and spectacle, does sex still have any subversive power? And if so where might that power lie?

AL: I think it does, but in some way the focus lies elsewhere. We live in the reverse [of C19th Vienna] in a way, we live in an incredibly sexualised culture, where sex has become part of our vocabulary, a norm, but we still have a very ambivalent attitude towards it and it still unsettles us. You follow all the recent allegations about very high profile people and their love lives, that still holds a fascination, and still inspires a sense of moral indignation as well, which just goes to show that we still carry with us the same residual attitudes towards how people sexually express themselves, and I don’t think we can escape that. But we kid ourselves, sometimes, I and we think we live in this incredibly open, permissive, sexually open society but in fact we have a deeply anxious relationship with it, and that will continue to create more great drama.

DBY: So perhaps still a bit of bourgeois hypocrisy lingering around the place.

AL: Well yes. And we have a really uneasy relationship with death, and we don’t really integrate it as part of our culture, and it’s something that we’re in complete denial about, an unackowledged part of our every day living. And whether it’s a particular kind of Anglo-European thing I’m not sure, but that hasn’t changed I think over the centuries.

DBY: I wondered if coming to these texts, in the wake of feminism and Queer, whether these old white dead guys’ ideas about sex looked at all suspect?  And how you might have had to deal with that?

AL: Yeah, it’s interesting too, especially when we get into sexual politics, and that’s something that dream story explores in quite a subtle way, is that is describing a nascent, and particularly from a female perspective, a nascent experience of sexuality, and perhaps hinting that these should be integrated and celebrated and are not to be ashamed of. The male character very much carries with him a sense of shame and repression about it, and the controversy over Lulu, and I was really interested last year that there was still that same attitude towards it, the male character’s deeply misogynist attitude towards women, and because Lulu was so sexually uninhibited, a free spirit, she must therefore die.. and that’s a very symbolist notion that woman equals sex equals death, and that she’s a siren dragging men to her doom, and yes I do think that’s still present in our culture today, and I think that we categorise certain women as femme fatales and that they cause the downfall of certain men, so it’s a very uneasy relationship between the notion of women being unihibited sexually and the destruction which might follow, and again that’s played out every day in our newspapers.

DBY: The notion of decadence has two inflections, the first a kind of moral disapproval, the second a sense of cultural decline. Do either of these come through in Dream Story?

AL: Certainly the former, in the sense of where one’s moral compass lies, less so with the latter. I’ve very consciously not attempted to change the location of the play, and move it closer to Eyes Wide Shut as a contemporary English parallel, because in a way its more interesting for its historic parallels, so it’s very much within its period. But, what it does tap into is stil the same anxiety, I guess a sense of how people morally anchor themselves in any given society, and interestingly in the earlier part of the century there was an extraordinary move towards, not industrialised but more technologised, and certainly in terms of women becoming more emancipated and much more independent. Sexual expression becoming much more open as well, and in terms of sexual undercurrent a rippled all throughout the work, especially of Schnitzler, because of his ambivalence towards that shift in society. But interestingly he trained as a doctor and he carried with him that classic sort of doctor anxiety of knowledge gives you power, but knowledge also gives you fear. One very much equals the other.

DBY: So a sort of a sense of Counter-Enlightenment there. Have you ever read Schnitzler’s orgasm diaries, in which he records every orgasm he has?

AL: No! I haven’t. I read Wedekind’s Erotic Diaries last year in preparation for Lulu and it, and certainly in terms of reading the biographical background for Schnitzler everything begins to fall into place, particularly in terms of his relationship with women. And what was striking is that he seemed to have an awareness of his own fallibility and perhaps the capacity of men and women to not know themselves, and through the process of the drama find some kind of awakening, and that’s one of the threads of Dream Story, the sense that people have been sleepwalking through their lives and experiencing an awakening which is actually quite traumatic, suddenly looking at where they are.

DBY: With Lulu you had lots of artistic precursors to navigate, the Berg opera amongst them. Here the most prominent is Kubrick film, have you been aware of it throughout the process?

AL: Not really, it was very useful to watch it in terms how faithful the narrative was to the novel. I was really struck with how it followed each event to the letter pretty much. He tried to explain away the ambiuguity by putting in these tidy sort of epilogues, which sort of explains the characters behaviour and why they ended up in all these strange situations. So I’ve gone in the opposite direction and really embraced the ambiguity of the novel, so people may walk out of the play saying “I don’t know whether any of that was real, or any of that was dream, or where reality and dream might combine”, but allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions is very important to me. Whereas in Eyes Wide Shut was slightly heavy-handed, trying to lay on the atmosphere very thickly, whereas battling with the psychological truth that these two actors are going through, so we’ve tried to approach it from the ground-up, being very much about this marriage, and two people that are trying to make sense of what it is they have in their lives and how that manifests, and obviously because we’re in the theatre it’s about taking the opportunity to really exploit the theatrical potential of the strange descent, which the main character especially goes into, exploring sexual desire.

DBY: Would you describe yourself as decadent?

AL: I have my moments.

Dream Story is playing at the Gate Theatre until 16th July 2011.


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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

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