Letter from Tim: Antlia Pneumatica
“Art owes its continuing evolution to the Apollonian/Dionysian duality. Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers, the soothsaying god, and the god of light. Dionysian rapture arises…through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. In Dionysian music man is incited to strain his symbolic faculties to the utmost…to tear asunder the veil of Maya.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music
I thought long and hard before quoting Nietzsche in this introduction, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that particular, delightfully unsettling character of Anne Washburn’s work owes much to the striking collision of rational and the irrational impulses in it. At face value, Anne’s dry, casual wit, clearly recognizable characters, and sharply drawn conceits assure the accessibility of her storytelling. In fact, when Anne turned in her commissioned play, Antlia Pneumatica, to us, we jocularly began to refer to it as her Big Chill play. A group of friends gathers for the funeral of one of their own. They reminisce, try to recapture the past, and try to keep their kids offstage. They prep and cook food practically nonstop, even as they get word one by one that most of their friends won’t be coming. Then things get interesting when one of their ex-boyfriends shows. He’s acting kind of strange, strangely candid yet laconic, sexy but diffident. He shows up in her bedroom at night but doesn’t really make a pass. The past hangs in the air. Gradually, things get spookier and spookier. Like The Big Chill, time and memory seem totally accessible. In the movie, everyone felt acutely how time had moved on, but there was something comforting in their recognizability to each other. In Antlia, not just time, but existence itself feels more mysterious, more cosmic. In the end we’re not sure what we’ve experienced. Have these characters summoned the past through their subconscious? Or is the answer simpler and more uncanny than that?
We learn the rules of the play as we interpret the rules of a dream to find a reflection of our reality.
I think it’s helpful in considering the many questions Antlia Pneumatica asks of us to think of it in Apollonian terms. In Nietzsche’s view, Apollo is the god of light and of dreams. He is the god of reality and of artifice. So the theatrical magic of an Anne Washburn play is not really irrational. She is acutely attuned to the palpable ways in which the theater can hold a mirror up to reality and the ways in which it can subvert it. As she says in her playwright’s note, the act of entering a theater and embracing its artifice requires a leap of the imagination that may feel odd, but certainly abides by rules. We learn the rules of the play as we interpret the rules of a dream to find a reflection of our reality.
But there is in fact, a Dionysian streak to Anne’s work as well. We enter the theater to have an experience. And the presentness of the play resides in the emotional ride it takes us on. The Dionysian impulse brings rapture and creepiness, pity and fear into a play. We give ourselves over to it as we give ourselves over to music. The music of Antlia asserts itself right away in the interplay of onstage and offstage scenes and in the presence of actual songs. Eventually, some scenes shift in time as well. These shifts ask us to look at the world differently and they open us up emotionally. So the scene in which the strange title of the play is explained opens up the whole universe to us. It’s an amazing play: generous and unique, a play that is sure to linger with you long after you have experienced it.