Playwright Nicolas Billon talks violence, empathy, and commissioning a brand-new language for his latest play.
The film adaptation of Nicolas Billon’s first play, The Elephant Song (2004), had its world premiere at TIFF this past September. Directed by Charles Binamé and starring Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood, and Xavier Dolan, the film alone would be reason enough to celebrate. But Billon has been busy. His Fault Lines trilogy (Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland), for example, won the 2013 Governor General’s Award for drama—and his adaptation of Brecht’s Señora Carrar’s Rifles, titled simply Rifles, appeared at the Next Stage Festival in 2014.
Billon’s latest work, Butcher, had its world premiere last October at the Alberta Theatre Projects as part of the Enbridge playRites Series of New Canadian Plays, and was released by Coach House Books in November.
Weaving together philosophical meditations on justice and forgiveness with the intrigue of a political thriller, the work includes one particularly unusual element: a language created especially for it.
The story begins when Inspector Lamb—working at a Toronto police station the night of Christmas Eve—discovers an old man, Josef, drugged at his doorstep with a butcher’s hook hanging around his neck. On the hook is the business card of Hamilton Barnes, an intellectual property lawyer Lamb calls in for questioning. There’s one problem, though: Josef doesn’t speak English, only Lavinian. Adding to the mystery, Barnes claims never to have heard of him. When a translator arrives after 3 a.m., she sets the pace for a story involving violence and visceral characterizations that will linger long after curtain call.
If “Lavinian” sounds like the name of no language you’ve ever heard of, you’re not alone. That’s because the language was invented for the play by University of Toronto professors Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradović.
Billon approached Kramer and Obradović—both specialists in South Slavic languages—seven years ago with a rough idea for Butcher. He was hoping to structure it around a new Slavic language—and they agreed to build one for him. Billon named the language “Lavinian” after a character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: it will likely sound familiar to any Slavic speaker, even if they can’t understand exactly what’s being said.
Our interview with Billon—about made-up languages, ingrained hatreds, and the power of imagination—is below.
Torontoist: Kramer and Obradović spent the last seven years developing Lavinian. What did you have in mind when you approached them? How did you go about asking for a language?
Nicolas Billon: I approached Christina around 2007 or 2008 and said, “I have this crazy idea. Would you be interested in inventing a language?” She said it sounded like fun. She didn’t hear back from me for several years, but I was just waiting until I had time to write Butcher. I got back in touch with her two years ago, and she was still interested. She’d developed a first draft of Lavinian, but she felt it sounded a little too invented. It didn’t sound as Slavic as it should. We wanted it to sound familiar but not specific to any country. That’s when Dragana came on board. With the both of them, Lavinian became a language. It’s sort of Russian, but not—sort of Slavic, but not. You can’t place it.
What was your back-and-forth with them like over that time? What were some of the challenges of writing with a language you had to learn about gradually?
I wrote out the Lavinian portions of Butcher in English, but very rarely did I ask the professors to re-translate anything. I trusted them completely in terms of what Lavinian sounds like. The only times I got back to them were when I felt the words they had chosen came up a lot and I needed them to be immediately recognizable, a little harsher. “Kurvetino,” the word we ended up using for “whore,” has a very common Slavic root for “whore,” and you can hear the violence in how it sounds. That was one thing we discovered in the ATP production of Butcher. Almost all the Lavinian is understandable from context.
How did the idea for Butcher come about? Which came first, the Lavinian language or the Lavinian people?
Josef’s confession scene was the first moment I had in mind when I started writing this play. I had a vague geography for Lavinia. I wanted it to be familiar, and I didn’t want to place it in a fantasy. I thought Eastern Europe, especially from the Yugoslav wars, went through quite a bit of upheaval. There were a lot of smaller players involved in that conflict, so I’m just going to push in this other small player that happens to not exist. The Lavinian conflict is partially made up from the Yugoslav wars and partially from the Rwandan genocide. The Achilles heel scene with Hamilton is something straight out of the Rwandan genocide. I wanted to keep the conflict specific to Lavinia, but also make it universal by picking details from other places. One of my favourite words is “eclectic,” the idea being that you basically pick and choose what you want. I feel that writing is a lot about that.
Kramer and Obradović describe Lavinian as “having a sense of linguistic recognition for any Slavic speaker” while making them “feel like they are on the verge of understanding.” There are no subtitles during performances, so a live audience can’t cross this threshold completely or make judgements about these characters without jumping to conclusions. What is the space between the audience’s Lavinian language barrier and Lavinian fluency meant to be filled with?
It’s meant to be filled with their imagination—in particular with Josef’s confession, which is pretty brutal. By having it in Lavinian, that moment will be whatever the audience imagines it to be. The more interesting thing is that with John Koensgen, who played Josef in the ATP production of Butcher, you got the real, profound gut-hatred and violence of the act, which I’m not sure you’d be able to get to if you were stopped by the words and had to filter them. You just got the wave of violence. I was more interested in that than having a description of a horrible act. I wanted to speak about the horror of war without making it pornographic.
Is there room for empathy in that space, for characters who may or may not deserve it?
I know what the answer there is for me: I hope so. I never approach playwriting didactically. I’m not trying to make the audience feel or think a particular way. It’s a question of finding different angles to look at a story and that feels like something we could use more of today, approaching stories with more viewpoints than a single one. I don’t think the theatre is a place to preach. Nothing frustrates me more as an audience member than realizing characters are just mouthpieces for the author’s opinions. I feel that’s belittling, patronizing, and that audiences can make up their own minds. I don’t think it’s my job to make up anyone’s mind.
Translation is essential to Butcher’s story. When characters translate both ways between Lavinian and English, they do so by way of their own phrasings, omissions, and, often, intentions. What do you think they lose in the long term through their selective honesty?
I have never thought of it that way. I think the mistranslation is twofold. I’ve done a fair bit of translation myself, and I know that it’s never a one-for-one, word-for-word proposition. I was also interested in the idea of translation as trap, in the sense that part of Elena’s game of not translating exactly right is to try and trap Hamilton into admitting that he speaks Lavinian. What you mention brings up a larger theme I tried to tackle in Butcher, which is information as a weapon, whether it’s translation or “I know where you live and I know the names of your daughters.” Butcher is not a play about guns, because it is a world where physical violence is of no use against information. That’s interesting to me because of privacy issues, all the big data stuff that’s important today.
In Butcher, communication in the same language is portrayed as a kind of translation by the speaker to whomever is listening. When Josef speaks of his war crimes, he isn’t trying to make his listeners believe in them—he already thinks what he did was right. How does his way of communicating determine his fate?
We talked about that in rehearsal. Part of where I was coming from with Josef is we’re talking about a hatred that has been with him since birth. When he calls Elena a whore, it’s the same thing as me calling somebody a dude. I don’t think Josef is capable of rational conversation. It’s been too long and his hatred is so engrained in him. There was a moment in the production where we found that Josef had, not a change of heart or mind, but a moment where he took a step back. It’s when he calls Elena a whore and Hamilton says, “Have you no shame!” What’s unsettling is Josef’s hatred doesn’t have to have been in him that long. It is easier to hate than it is to love.
Where can we expect to see Butcher in the near future?
We’re working on productions in Toronto and a couple other places in Canada. We’re in the early stages, but it’ll be out sooner rather than later.