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October 21, 2013

Marie Antoinette, in a Marie Antoinette World

Marie Antoinette at Soho Rep
By Shoshana Greenberg

History teaches that Marie Antoinette was the French Queen sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution, but David Adjmi’s play goes beyond history inside the mind of this contentious character. Marie Antoinette began as part of Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab and is now playing there through November 24 after productions at American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. Adjmi talked to Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg about history plays, the culture of celebrity, and writing Marie Antoinette.

What drew you to the character of Marie Antoinette?

I have a whole rehearsed thing that I could say, but the truth is that I wrote this play very, very quickly in a burst of weird inspiration when I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2006. I was working on another play and I was having such a problem writing it so I sort of gave up. I was sitting in the library reading a book, and a character in the book mentioned Marie Antoinette, and there was a fulguration of lightning in my brain, and I just said, “Oh my god, I’m going to write a play about Marie Antoinette right now.” I finished in seven days. I just went to the library in Peterborough, NH, and I got everything I could about Marie Antoinette, and I just immersed myself in it for three or four days, all day and night, I barely slept. And then I wrote the play a few days after that.

Was this your first history play?

Oh yeah. Young Jean Lee, the playwright, always says, “I take something I’d never write about so that I can force myself to write about it.” I had to really ask myself, well, what is a history play for me? In a lot of ways, I’m not really writing a history play -- it’s like a mock history play. I really am more interested in the psyche of this character. I’m focusing a lot more in the play on what it means to be a person. There’s a trial and error for the character where she’s trying to understand what it means to have a self, and it’s a very torturous thing for her. This revolution that happens in the culture actually breaks her apart and actually exposes what’s inside of her. She’s forced to confront not only her emptiness but also the stirrings of a real self. She’s been treated so badly all her life. Her mother basically traded her off in a political alliance when she was 14, and she had sort of become French by default. She was Austrian and she couldn’t speak her native language anymore. It was quite awful, what happened to her, and she was very damaged. And that damage led her to make certain choices. I was interested at looking at historical events through that very particular lens of her subjectivity.

What was your process of researching and writing?

I did not want to write a traditional history play with long expositions about politics and history. I really wanted to get the skeleton of history. I read de Tocqueville and a bunch of children’s books, and then I looked on the Internet. I had a couple more sophisticated books where I sort of cherry-picked the chapters that looked like they’d be relevant to what I wanted to write about. Generally, [heavy research] really derails me, and I become a slave to the research rather than the research informing what I want to write about.

This play has had a few productions leading up to this one. Have you made any major changes in the writing after seeing those previous productions?

I haven’t made tons of major changes but I’ve made lots of little changes. And we needed to accommodate the [now smaller] scale of the production. I think some of the humor was a little bit broad. It was good for a big proscenium arch theater. We could get away with it. But we had to scale some of it down. The intimacy of the physical production is significant. It changes and alters everything.

What do you think that audiences will enjoy and relate to about Marie Antoinette’s character?

She’s very annoying in some ways, but I find her very endearing. I like characters where we’re seeing the contradictions. It’s like Walter White in Breaking Bad—you don’t know how to feel about him. I’m hoping that I created a character that can push and pull at audiences’ sympathies, where you do hate her but she’s fascinating in the way that Lady [Macbeth] is fascinating. I feel a lot of sympathy for her because I don’t necessarily feel that she was fully in control of her life, and I feel that she was scapegoated by the culture. She was made to carry the onus of all the problems that were plaguing France at the time. Was she entitled and over the top and opulent to the point of ludicrous? Yes, she totally was. But I’m interested in why. I’m interested in how she’s a symptom, not just a cause.

Do you see any parallels to celebrities or political figures of today at all?

In some ways it’s a play about celebrity, and in some way it’s about a woman who invents a kind of celebrity for herself. And she invents her celebrity because she needs to find some meaning in her life, and she feels if people like her hairdos and her dresses and if she feels pretty, then she’ll be a person. She won’t feel empty. This archetype we have to solve. It’s a problem archetype and it’s very pervasive at the moment. We have to understand how we as a culture can fix it. I looked on Twitter the other day, and people were like, “I’m totally Marie Antoinette.” At the same time she’s perceived as being spoiled and excessive and pernicious. She draws up these very deep internal contradictions in us and these mixed signals we get from the culture today.

You have a long relationship with Soho Rep. What do you enjoy about working there?

At a certain point in your life as a writer you go, “I just want to work with people who care about the same things I care about.” I don’t need to be on Broadway. I don’t need to be in the biggest theater. I just want to do my work and grow as an artist. They offer that at Soho Rep. It’s an amazing theater.

Production photos by: Pavel Antonov


Shoshana Greenberg (@Vmarshmellow) writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 5:57 PM

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