Interview: Ellen McLaughlin Talks About Beginning Her Great Work on a Very Old Play
Anyone who saw the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America cannot possibly forget the image of Ellen McLaughlin, as the almost menacing angel, crashing through the ceiling proclaiming, "The great work begins!" While McLaughlin has continued to act since then, she has become equally renowned for her many adaptations of Greek plays including Iphigenia and Other Daughters, Tongue of a Bird, Helen, and The Persians.
Her latest, Kissing the Floor, which begins performances at Theatre Row on February 23, is a rather radical reinvention of Sophocles' Antigone (the classic story of a Greek woman willing to defy both her father and society to bury her dead brother). Here, the work is set in the 1930s, and both Antigone (named Annie) and her brother (named Paul) are still alive, but their unusual relationship does not meet with the approval of society or their other two siblings.
TheaterMania recently spoke with McLaughlin about the creation of the play, the inspiration for its setting in the 1930s, and the joys of being in the rehearsal room for the first time since the Covid pandemic began.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did this play come about?
It started a long time ago when I was given a commission to do an adaptation of Antigone. It's the most adapted Greek play, and it can seem very straightforward in some of its themes — male versus female, old versus young, the dead versus the living — so I'm not surprised that it's often the Greek play people are introduced to in high school. I read a lot of translations and adaptations, as I always do, and none of them were doing it for me. I just couldn't find my own way in.
What changed your mind?
First, one day, I had suddenly had the image of a woman knocking on the floor. I thought, finally, that's something I can work with. Those are the kind of days writers live for.
Second, when I teach, I tell my students to run towards the darkness, embrace what disturbs you, and find a way to make that yours. What kept disturbing me is Antigone is running toward death; her whole journey feels like a very elaborate way to kill herself. What she does is so anti-life; why does she do it? And then I thought about who would be the modern equivalent of Antigone's brother, somebody that no one else would protect or love. I realized that person would be a child predator. But I want to stress this is not a social issue play; I want the audience to think about him as an ethical disaster.
I gather you wrote this play very quickly. Is that normal for you?
I wrote the first draft in two weeks. Once I start, I can't stop. Honestly, my unconscious was working on it even while I was making a sandwich.
Why did you decide to set this play in the 1930s?
I thought the Great Depression was a good time to set this play because it was a time of dread and there were these polarities between the rich and poor. A lot of Greek plays have to do with someone falling from wealth and stature and that is true of Antigone as well. Then, while I was thinking about the play, I read a New Yorker piece by James Thurber from the 1930s about his visiting the old Pulitzer mansion, and I thought that's the house of Thebes from Oedipus, and I realized that kind of house, a decaying mansion, would make a powerfully dramatic setting for this play.
Has the script changed much during rehearsals?
If you had asked me about this months ago, I would have thought the script was set in stone. I wrote this play many years ago. But I have made a lot of revisions after watching this production in rehearsals. You can't know everything about a script until you hear it. And sometimes, an actor will tell you, "I can't get from here to there," so you make a tweak. I am really glad to have actors who are facile with language and, who like me, just want to tell this story properly.
Your husband, Rinde Eckert, is playing the jail warden, Brennan. Did you consider acting in the play as well?
There wasn't anyone my age in the Greek equivalent; Antigone has to be a young woman and it's important that someone her age is willing to throw away her life. So, I didn't add a character for me to play. Ultimately, it's easier as playwright to see what's going on when you're not acting. I am enjoying being on the outside. Moreover, because of Covid, I really missed being in the rehearsal room, so it's great to just be back in one in any capacity.