by Kamilah Foreman
Published by Coach House Books, 2009 | 120 pages
If “genius is dead” and “there is no godlike, authorial figure behind the writing of a book,” as the opening lines of Anton Piatiagorsky’s Eternal Hydra declare, then why does appropriation sometimes feel like theft? Though this creative method is well established, Piatiagorsky sets up the fine line between finding inspiration and stealing content almost like a live wire, drawing the reader/viewer into an ethically ambiguous scenario that unravels to stunning effect.
In the play, a long-lost modernist masterpiece titled Eternal Hydra by Gordias Carbuncle surfaces from the papers of Carbuncle’s now senile research assistant. This epic novel presents one hundred narratives—although only ninety-nine were completed—from various cultures around the world, all bound by their common humanity. Decades later, Vivian Ezra, an ambitious scholar, spends six years reconstructing the extant manuscripts, becoming so intertwined in the project that the deceased author emerges from her dreams to guide her. When the book nears publication, however, Ezra is confronted by Pauline Newberry, a writer of historical fiction, with the charge that Carbuncle stole one of his stories. Yet Newberry does not allege that the story was stolen from her; rather, she claims he stole it from the central character of Newberry’s latest novel, the little-known African American writer Selma Thomas.
In short order, Piatiagorsky’s sharp work probes several problems inherent in authorship, including the proper due for the assistant who performs much of the research process; the ease with which an overeager editor, unable to maintain distance, can imbue a work with her agenda; the spoilage caused by an overly revealing introduction or the explication of source material that defangs a literary work; and most troubling, the audacity of speaking for—or even claiming the voice of—the voiceless, especially, as in this case, a first-person narrative from the perspective of a former slave.
In one sense, none of these ethical quandaries matter since the authors, or owners of certain stories, are dead. Yet a central question investigated by the play is how reconstructing any unfinished text by a deceased writer veers into the territory of historical fiction insofar as one must rely on notes, personal correspondence, and interpretations of the history of the period to create a “definitive” version.
The notion of fidelity to the author’s vision evokes a sacred bond between writer and editor, which manifests in the play as two failed romances. The first relationship nearly silences Carbuncle forever, as his assistant may have hidden the novel as revenge. Fortunately, for the reader/viewer, in the second relationship, Ezra has reanimated Carbuncle. We hear his thoughts, or at least, her projection of how this progressive, forward-thinking bohemian expat in mid-1930s Paris may have responded. Ezra’s voice, however, is not the most powerful. Some scenes are excerpted from his diary and correspondence and re-create the facts of authorship (or as Carbuncle would retort, one compelling rendition of the “truth”). By using his perspective, Carbuncle, unlike the nameless slave and Thomas, is allowed to speak again. (Curiously, the play barely hints at what’s at stake for him, an Irish Jew, who decides to stay in Paris, which has become too dangerous for the American, Thomas.)
Reading Eternal Hydra is a wonderful experience that surely cannot compare with seeing it live. Quick pacing and a novel form of repetition relieve some of the play’s intensity. Characters stationed in various points in time echo each other: Ezra’s obsession with publishing Eternal Hydra and establishing Carbuncle’s place in literary history (which will necessarily establish her own) recalls his research assistant’s equal desire for recognition while Newberry’s focus on Thomas sets her up as Thomas’s defender. The play is staged such that the same actors perform these characters, and at times the contemporary ones dissolve mid-scene into their past counterparts on stage. As they morph, the actors seem to swallow their own words from previous scenes. This engaging dynamic that reveals the slippages between what the modern characters presume happened in the past and what actually occurred in Carbuncle’s eyes must be even more poignant for the viewer than the reader of the play.
Oddly, the play’s strongest point is its tidy ending that offers negligible resistance to the questions of fairness and justice that have been unleashed. With references to Hercules’s labors and the Gordian knot, Piatiagorsky seems to argue that these issues of authorship and race are timeless. Thomas speculates that his hydra is not slayed by the novel’s Herculean protagonist “responsible for silencing the hundred voices but also the one who speaks for them,” to purloin Carbuncle’s words. Rather, this many-headed beast dies through the process of writing itself, a verbal incarnation of a fanciful solution to an epic problem.
Kamilah Foreman is an arts editor based in New York.