Laurynas Adomaitis, the author of “Alice”: ‘Traumas change thinking about justice and revenge’

“Alice”, the new production of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, addresses the consequences of the 2015 terrorist attack in the Bataclan nightclub in Paris. How can justice be restored when 130 people lost their lives?

The trial of the only surviving suspect, Salah Abdeslam, triggers the interest of the young lawyer Alice (played by Aistė Zabotkaitė). Hoping for a reckless partner in her pursuit of justice, she gets a job in the office of Frank Berton (Vytautas Anužis), a barrister who works exclusively on controversial cases.

‘To me, the most important thing was to show the ways in which the events affect the characters’ emotions and cause deep traumatic experiences. We all know about those events, don’t we? Each of us was somewhere when this happened. Some were in Paris, others in Vilnius. So what? The psyche can be affected from a distance, and people very easily identify with traumas,’ says Laurynas Adomaitis, the playwright. He is interviewed by Daiva Šabasevičienė. “Alice” will premiere the coming weekend, on 23 and 24 October.

 

First of all I want to congratulate you on the successful defence of your doctoral dissertation on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Vilnius University trains philosophers as well, but your return to Lithuania was important to us all. How did you manage to complete probably the hardest stage of your studies during the lockdown? What are your plans in Lithuania?

Thank you! Defending the dissertation was very important to me. It felt like reaching a summit of some sort. Indeed, it triggered a desire to climb actual mountains. However, after a short holiday I realised that having an academic degree in no way meant there was no more need to learn. It was natural to start looking for new challenges. Right now these challenges are fighting among themselves to attract me.

I am an eclectic person, and I see strengths in this. Eclecticism is good because it stimulates interest in everything. I find everything interesting and am open to diverse fields. That was why I chose philosophy – it restricts the human least of all, and requires the least specialization. As a philosopher, I can delve into anything – cooking, artificial intelligence, theatre… At some point we looked down on eclecticism, but for the modern human it is a virtue.

The virus has affected others, and it has also affected me. I had to accept a different regime. Yet the lockdown period was productive for me, and the viva voce defence was organised in Italy, in the historic Sala Azzurra. It left a deep impression.

 

 [Laurynas Adomaitis. Le Lithographe. Paris, 2019.]

 

This is your second appearance in the theatre world. A couple of years ago you wrote an interpretation of  “Woyzeck”, and the premiere of “Alice” is coming soon. It would appear that, without the skills of a dramatist, you made up your mind to write drama texts. How special is this process?

Writing a play is an extraordinary process and I don’t know if the skill for it can be nurtured in any other way than through practice. Being eclectic, I didn’t find the world of literature and theatre entirely alien. I have some theoretical knowledge about writing for theatre. I would single out David Mamet’s writing workshops and some theoretical texts by David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates. However, theory tells us about how Mamet, Wallace, or Oates write and not about how I want to write. Philosophy taught me that there is no universal method in such things.

My dramatic vision evolved along two other paths. First, I made a conscious decision to stop reading classics. I’m sorry, classics, you’re great. It was a decision based on purely aesthetic considerations: I wanted to immerse myself in the modern world; I had been studying history in academia and there wasn’t enough time for everything. I tried to not read any fiction written before 2000. This is just a heuristic rule and it has exceptions. Yet thanks to it I’ve discovered impressive authors and works that have considerably changed my viewpoint. Without a doubt, writers are the most creative people. I find it much more interesting what they, and not political scientists or ‘experts’, have to say about our times.

And the most important thing in theatre was the practice of writing. Unfortunately, the most effective way of learning is from your own mistakes, but for that you need an occasion and an opportunity to write. Therefore I treasure the Woyzeck experience, with all its drawbacks. It gave me two invaluable years of playwriting practice. I learned even more while writing “Alice”, and I would probably write differently now. But there’s no need to get entrapped in paradoxes. I am proud of what I’ve written, and the creative team have brought “Alice” to life. It’s simply wonderful.

 

It is interesting that the ocean of philosophy is so broad and yet you find time to emerge from it and dive into waters of a totally different nature. What makes theatre interesting to you?

 In theatre, there’s a narrative, an element that philosophy lacks. In philosophy, we mostly follow the logical sequence of the argument and do not create a narrative. But narratives hook our imagination in a stronger way than logic. Therefore working with theatre is interesting. When I write for theatre, my aim is to create something engaging. In philosophy, meanwhile, I can’t opt out of the requirements of truth, clarity, and explicitness. On the other hand, philosophy offers a multitude of viewpoints. Therefore, when I am creating characters I ask myself what their worldview is. Also, what sort of world do we build in a production? One can probably associate one philosophical personality or another with each character. Conversations between Alice and Frank Berton could be conversations between Carl Schmidt and Hans Kelsen or somebody similar. I think that philosophy and theatre fit and complement one another, but at the same time they do not exhaust one another as each possesses unique, characteristic elements. We return to eclecticism: one should take an interest in everything and integrate different spheres.

 

When you were writing the texts of “Alice”, were you thinking of particular actors or was the text formed by events?

When we started writing “Alice”, we didn’t know a thing. I am using the plural because Antanas came over and said, let’s produce “Alice”. OK, but what? Is it a play for children? That was the start of the long road we’ve taken together. Eventually, when we made the final decision about the context of the play, I immersed myself into analysis of the events of 15 November 2015, into literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, collective trauma, terrorism, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, on the lives of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and on Frank Berton. We had to look through a multitude of photos and video recordings, and some of them shocked us both. I don’t expect the theatre-goer to register all of these contexts, but you can’t avoid a certain degree of madness when exploring such a topic. And that madness will be there. These were the things that were pushing the writing of the text forward. And yes, we had some actors in our sights. I’m overjoyed with each of them. I think that Alice’s character played by Aistė will be the biggest discovery for the audience. I’ve never seen such subtlety and such transformation on the stage before.

 

How did you develop the structure of the play? What was the focus of your attention?

The story line of the play is a dramatised version of real events. One can say that the play is based on real events but is told through Alice, who is a fictional character. To me, the most important thing was to show the ways in which the events affect the characters’ emotions and cause deep traumatic experiences. We all know about those events, don’t we? Each of us was somewhere when they happened. Some were in Paris, others in Vilnius. So what? The psyche can be affected from a distance, and people very easily identify with traumas. Traumas change our thinking about justice and revenge. We are all victims of terrorism because terrorism is directed against society as such. Terrorism aims to radicalise our conscience and turn us into terrorists, at least in our thoughts. Terrorists will have achieved their aim when we ourselves start blowing everything up. That is how I imagine Alice’s inner monologue.

Apart from the story line, the dialogue is an essential part of the dramaturgy. When writing, I always like adding technical details and intertextuality. When writing Woyzeck, I was deep into the notion of ‘the yips’, linguistic slips, created by Nicola Barker. They resemble Freudian slips of the tongue, but are more playful and ironic. At the time we worked with the actors a lot and tried to insert errors and slips into the dialogue. With Alice, I resorted to theories of negotiation that teach one how to use discretion and empathy to disarm the opponent. Both Alice and Berton are expert negotiators and that’s why it’s so interesting to listen to them.

 

How special will “Alice” be?

“Alice” will show that trauma accompanies every large-scale tragedy. The whole world reacted when the Islamic State started – and are now carrying on with – the attacks in France. But what happens after? How is justice to be restored when the consequences are irreversible? Alice encounters this question when she starts working in Frank Berton’s firm. Berton represents Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect of 13 November attacks. Berton defends the foundations of a free France that are based on the presumption of innocence and forbid throwing stones at the accused.

Alice is not convinced by this attitude. She grew up amidst references to the world of Lewis Carroll in which the word (world?) is not solid and language contradicts itself. She realises that speaking will not calm down the nation and will not restore justice. Meanwhile, the law is just a word that sounds differently to each and every one. Therefore Alice seeks a different justice. Her justice is sudden, strict, and irreversible. The dialogues between Alice and Berton are a collision of two visions of the world. Alice emerged from the tragedy that we all experienced but never thought through to the end. Now Alice musters her courage and empathy to take us to a different land of miracles, one in which justice exists.

 

The rehearsals are intense. How deeply are you involved in the process?

I am trying to be involved as much as I can, skipping between my different obligations. I love being in the theatre – the connection with the actors and the whole team is terrific, and it’s pure pleasure to me. There’s this cliché that the dramatist submits a play to the world and forgets it, hands it over to somebody else. I guess this happens. Alice, however, is something special: I just can’t stop thinking about the play and its themes. Therefore I care, I am there; we are polishing the details and will probably keep polishing them up until the last minute.

I find it fascinating to see how a performance is born. It is as though something evolves out of nothing, close to a miracle. When we first gathered for rehearsals in the summer, there was nothing. Now there’s a whole new world that arises from the text and our conversations.

 

The premiere is very soon. What kind of performance do you expect? Does success remain the central criterion?

 To me as a dramatist, it is important that the play finds its way to the stage. I see that as my success. And as for Alice, we will shortly see how it fares. I am hoping for a very subtle and stylish performance, one in which you desire to live and one that you want to discuss. I hope that soon we will talk of justice and dream about it.

 

What is happening in your field, philosophy? What is the difference between Lithuanian and Italian scholarship?

I think it’s wrong to divide research between countries. There shouldn’t be a national science. Although my institution was in one particular location, during my doctoral studies I felt a part of the global field of research. That’s how it should be. One of my colleagues is a good example: she studied in Italy, was writing a historical work on the interwar period in Lithuania, and did archival research in New York. Even the history of Lithuania isn’t localised in Lithuania. I, personally, undertook study visits in France, Canada, and Germany.

But I understand that you are asking about the academic atmosphere. To be honest, I haven’t been active in the academic life of Lithuania for several years, but as far as I know, positive shifts are taking place. People I know and my scholar friends have a better life. Yet one major question remains: the funding of higher education, or, to be more precise, the funding of the academic staff. With sufficient funds we could attract top-level researchers, which would lead to a rise in the level of scholarship. This is simple, and everything else is comparatively insignificant.

Philosophy as a discipline is going through interesting times. Obviously, I can’t speak of the whole because I am unaware of a lot of things, but I will point to a number of issues, which, I think, are gaining relevance. What was the influence of female philosophers on the evolution of philosophy? How should the emergence of consciousness in the evolutionary context be understood? Are animals capable of perceiving? How significant are superstitions and emotions in politics? What is the future of artificial intelligence? In what way does communication gain significance in different contexts? How can computational methods be applied in philosophy? How to define probabilities and quantum paradoxes? What else? The best is to think of one’s own question. Right now I am thinking of when it is ethical for one artificial intellect to attack another artificial intellect.

 

Returning from a very different context, what caught your eye in Lithuania?

In Lithuania, there are lots of young, trendy people, and an incredibly strong contemporary art scene, and Vilnius is one of the most fun and stylish European cities. I noticed that much more young people have taken up sports. During the lockdown, we bought out all the second-hand bicycles – more had to be imported. But social exclusion is palpable in Lithuania, and part of the people look disappointed and angry. I noticed that little by little we are awakening from amnesia and remembering the heritage of Lithuanian Jews. Food culture is still stumbling, alas: there are many attempts, but the disparity with countries with culinary cultures is still glaring. To sum it up, we are doing great in IT and the arts. We are doing very poorly in cooking.

 

I thank you very much and wish you a gripping premiere.