ON ROMANTICISM AND DESTRUCTION
When Danish writer-director Lars von Trier first conceived of his 2011 film Melancholia, it was as an adaptation of Jean Genet’s play The Maids. Little of this original ambition has survived in the film, but elements are there if you look hard enough. In many ways it’s still the story of two sisters trapped within an oppressive social system, seeking an increasingly desperate means of escape. Genet’s protagonists, Claire and Solange, do not succeed. Von Trier’s protagonists, Claire and Justine, do—but lose their lives in the process, caught between Earth and a rogue planet called Melancholia.
With theatre deep in the DNA of Melancholia (as it has been with many of von Trier’s other film projects, notably the Brecht-indebted Dogville and Manderlay), it has been a fascinating and rewarding process excavating and re-building this film for the stage. We quickly discovered that at the core of its story, the film is almost Chekhovian. In another time and place it could be a contemporary version of The Cherry Orchard: a family of aristocrats (varying in class and station) gathered in a Manor house to discover that their way of life is on the verge of total collapse.
Brecht, Genet and Chehkov however, are major figures of modern drama, engaged in creating works of social and political realism. And one of the fascinating features of Melancholia is its obsession with an earlier art movement— Romanticism. Throughout the film a number of great works of classical Romantic art are directly referenced: from the churning dread and never-sated longing of Wagner’s ‘Prologue’ from Tristan und Isolde, to a liberal quotation of images of suffering by Blake and Millais. Its representation of nature, too, can be seen as a reference to Romanticism. In the rolling tableaux of the film’s prologue, Justine is seen entangled in vines, and Claire’s legs sink knee-deep into grass as she flees in blind terror, carrying her child. This is the full force of ‘The Sublime’: a colossal cycle of death, rot, regeneration—beautiful in its majesty, but also terrifying, indifferent, and all-consuming.
This strong Romantic undercurrent represented one of our first major challenges in finding a new form for Melancholia onstage.
Von Trier’s aesthetic manipulates a striking counterpoint between domestic intimacy and this lavish, sumptuous quotation of classical art. Our challenge was to create a theatrical equivalent without simply aping the film and blocking the audience’s chance to see this story with fresh eyes.
To begin we engaged in a process of stripping Melancholia down to the bare bones of its narrative: creating, in effect, a psychological chamber-drama, where the planet was not a physical object, but a source of pressure—present only in the fissures it creates in these characters. And in the process, we came to a fascinating realisation: that Romanticism was not just a series of visual and sonic references, but one of the story’s fundamental attributes, predominantly located within the character of Justine.
Though Romanticism is primarily associated with a search for emotional truth and redefinition of aesthetic beauty, it was also driven by a deep humanism and revolutionary spirit. Many Romantic artists used their work to critique fascism, industry, urbanisation, the Church, and censorship—and as many used it to espouse nationalism and fascism. It was, in many ways, a movement of idealists and dreamers. This notion still resonates today in our characterisation of those who seek alternate systems of social governance as ‘Romantics’.
In this sense we can understand Justine’s trajectory within Melancholia as a kind of revolutionary arc. Both Acts are set within a vast Manor house and golfing estate. It is an artificial family home, staffed by tuxedo-wearing butlers: an almost-cartoon picture of wealth, consumerism, inherited privilege and suffocating ritual.
In Act One, Justine attempts to disentangle herself from this world. Trapped in the forward-grinding machine of her own wedding, she tries to destroy her relationship with her employer, her husband, her family. But her failed efforts to do so reduce her to the catatonic wreck we see at the beginning of Act Two.
Having lost all faith in the capacity of the world to change, or the capacity of humans to escape it, she lashes out in dark euphoria— welcoming the planet. She tells her sister that ‘the Earth is evil’ and deserves to be annihilated. But we only ever witness the destruction of one part of Earth: the Manor house, the golfing green, and the fraudulent values they uphold.
Many analyses of the story have described Justine’s will towards destruction as ‘depression’. It is significant, however, that as much as Justine displays symptoms of what could be recognised as depression, von Trier never once uses this word in his text. Nor does he use the word ‘suicide’ or suggest that she wishes to end her life by her own hand. Von Trier does not pathologise Justine, as her sister and brother-in-law do. On the contrary, he hints that her lens on the world is, in fact, elevated— another presence of Romantic, post-Enlightenment thinking in Melancholia. We are told that ‘99% of scientists’ believe the planet will not collide with Earth. But this empirical, scientific, ‘rational’ knowledge is shown to be inadequate. Justine and Claire’s intuitive knowledge of the planet and its trajectory is upheld, even as they process this information in vastly different ways.
This divide, and how it plays out between the sisters, contains many of the story’s defining questions for an audience. If there is to be no future, what is the value of the present, and how do you define hope? If the world is godless, and there is nothing after death, if there is no legacy to leave or wisdom to pass on, what do we live for in the current moment? Do we bind ourselves to the comforting denials of civilisation as best our class station will allow us? Or do we embrace nihilism, even as it inevitably destroys our humanity?
Melancholia does not give a definitive answer, but provides space for the audience to examine their own values in relation to its story. It has been a privilege and joy to facilitate an incarnation of von Trier’s work where this dialogue can open up in the charged environment of a theatre for the first time, between an audience and a live cast of phenomenal performers.
ADAPTED FOR THE STAGE BY / Declan Greene
DIRECTION / Matthew Lutton
PHOTOGRAPHY / Pia Johnson