Thomas Ostermeier’s Magnificent Adaptation of “History of Violence” at St Ann’s Warehouse

Laurenz Laufenberg, Alina Stiegler and Renato Schuch, Photo by Teddy Wolff.

When the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vest”) protests broke out just a little over a year ago, the leaderless, populist movement was somewhat baffling – as with so much of French social life  – for Americans. Beginning as a protest against a fuel tax combating global warming, it initially seemed the sort of thing Americans could easily place on a political spectrum and understand: A sort of anti-tax, libertarian, “get the government out of my business” revolt. But it wasn’t less state intervention the protestors were demanding so much as more: Better wages, better jobs, more services, more social spending, to support the forgotten and impoverished communities of what’s become known as La France périphérique, “peripheral France,” the deindustrializing small towns outside the gentrifying urban centers of Lyon, Bourdeaux, and, of course, Paris. So what, Americans might ask, are we dealing with with these Yellow Vest-wearing protestors – are they left or right? Tea Party or Occupy? Or some new amalgam of the two – a national conservatism, as Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters are now calling it? So to try to make sense of all this, English-language newspapers and magazines turned to a somewhat unlikely source: the novelist Édouard Louis.

A 27-year-old photogenically handsome young gay novelist and intellectual, toast of the Parisian literati and a graduate of one of the grandes écoles that produce France’s ruling class (upon which so much of the country’s stagnation is blamed), Louis is at first blush a representative of the very elite that the Gilets Jaunes are protesting. True, he was born in Hallencourt, a depressed town of under 2,000 inhabitants in Northern France, but he’d fled on a university scholarship to Paris, changed his name (he was born Eddy Bellegueule), and made his literary fortune with the highly autobiographical 2014 novel The End of Eddy that recorded how he escaped the violence, racism, and homophobia (mainly embodied by his own father) wrought by poverty and despair. But in May 2018, mere months before protests erupted around France, Louis published an enraged polemic that roughly translates to Who Killed My Father (the title is a statement, not a question). Strictly speaking, Louis’ once-estranged father isn’t dead; but he broke his back working a dismal factory job only to be forced back into the workforce as a street-sweeper. Both sympathetic and critical to his father, Louis nevertheless traces blame for the depressing state of affairs that will likely lead to his early death to a series of government policies enacted under administrations left, right, and center, policies which enact a violence against the bodies of the working poor.

It would be wrong for me to overstate the journey of Louis’ work (read his books, or any number of interviews with him to understand his engagements), but there is something beautiful that links the trail of scorched earth Louis left with The End of Eddy and the rage at the state sanctioned abuse of the prior book’s antagonist in Who Killed My Father, and it runs smack through Louis’ 2016 novel History of Violence, which has been adapted into a magnificent play by Thomas Ostermeier at the Schaubühne in Berlin in June 2018, and plays St Ann’s Warehouse here through December 1.

Like The End of Eddy, History of Violence is a highly autobiographical novel that recounts a traumatic experience Louis lived through at the age of 20. The story, which takes place across a couple days, begins with Eddy returning home late Christmas Eve after a party; a man starts to flirt with him on the street, and eventually they return to Eddy’s apartment to hook-up, only to end with Eddy having been raped and a victim of attempted murder. Traumatized and scared to be home alone, he flees the city to stay with his sister, back in the town he worked so hard to escape. He briefly tells her what happened while in the car, but later eavesdrops as she recounts the story – with her own two-cents added – to her husband. This forms the dramatic basis of the play, as each scene, told out of chronological order, becomes contested between Eddy and his sister, Clara, as he fights to define for himself (and the audience) what happened.

Anyone familiar with Ostermeier’s work won’t be surprised by the set onstage: Minimalist design with a huge white wall for projections upstage, a couple easily moveable tables and chairs for creating settings, and topped off by a drummer (Thomas Witte) who live-scores the performance on his drum-kit stage-left. The show is performed by four actors, led by Laurenz Laufenberg as Eddy (the other three actors perform multiple roles).

The play begins with a long and potent visual sequence. As a slow vamp plays on the drums, three actors enter dressed in full-body hazmat suits and begin doing their CSI work on the crime scene. As they carefully dust the floor for fingerprints, the action is live-streamed via iPhone across the backstage wall, the little twirling brush flinging graphite dust across the floor. Laufenberg – calmly but haltingly – tries to explain to the audience what’s happening as he watches the crime scene investigation nervously. Sometimes Laufenberg addresses the audience directly, sometimes he hides behind a microphone stand to use the PA. As he struggles to explain the immediate aftermath, how he couldn’t escape the smell of his victimizer – despite laundering his clothes and sheets and scrubbing the floors and repeatedly showering, “Reda’s smell still clung to it” – the pace picks up on the drums until one of the other actors (Christoph Gawenda) strips off his clothes and turns on a shower onstage, performing the traumatized Eddy’s behavior while Laufenberg watches dispassionately, as though he himself is not the traumatized party. The scene becomes a powerful metaphor for dissociation that will return in more concrete and complex ways as the performance progresses, and Eddy struggles to reclaim the experience and allow himself to occupy the same body-in-distress he can only abstractly appraise at the beginning.

From there, the show quickly gets us back to Picardy, through the car ride with his sister Clara (Alina Stiegler) and into her house where he eavesdrops on her dictating his experience to her husband (played by Gawenda). As much as the show is concerned with the experience of sexual violence, the actual rape and violation is more of the nexus through which multiple strains run. Eddy’s assailant was a small-time drug dealer and, crucially, not white; for the police and his sister, this explains everything. He’s an Arab, or a “North African” as the police put it during their deposition with Eddy, a description tagged on in French criminal reporting much as “Black” or “African-American” is in the US. It’s racist, and Eddy knows it, and tries to push back. In bed together after their consensual sex, Reda (Renato Schuch) recounted his own backstory – he’s Berber, a Kabyle, and his father, like so many immigrants, had come to France to support his family, but who only found violence, oppression, degradation that seemed intended to demean and dehumanize.

As much as Eddy knows this and communicates it, it falls on dead ears. Not only does it seem like splitting hairs to the police, who refuse to change their description from “North African,” but to Clara it’s just her brother all-over-again: An unrepentant snob. He may want to believe that the violence that happened later was opportunistic, accidental, but for Clara, it’s clear that robbery (or worse) was Reda’s purpose the whole time. “It’s obvious he was up to something,” she tells both the audience and Eddy.

The inciting event is the theft of Eddy’s iPhone. While showering after sex, Reda pockets it; Eddy confronts him, Reda refuses to acknowledge the theft and gets aggressive with his denials. But rather than Reda leave or be expelled, Eddy retreats and tries to play it off as misunderstanding, offering Reda a cash reward (since he assumes the theft is for money) to help find the phone. It’s a cringe-worthy scene in which Eddy, so cognizant of privilege but unwilling to lose an iPhone, essentially corners the man robbing him into half-heartedly searching for the very things he’s in the process of stealing.

As the scene unfolds, Laufenberg is dealing with three separate interlocutors onstage: He’s re-enacting the events with Reda at center, around the little bed that was previously the site of so much joy, while also arguing with the police officer (Gawenda) taking his deposition upstage-right, and Clara downstage-right, who’s chain-smoking and challenging Eddy at every turn. And the subtlety of the language is painful to read. To the police officer, Eddy refuses to press charges for “political reasons,” since, “What good would it do if Reda was thrown into prison?” To Clara, he justifies the decision in personal terms, reminding her of their cousin who died in prison, and their grandfather who was “destroyed” by the experience. But all this social justice rhetoric – this seeming awareness of privilege – is re-framed as a weapon against Reda. “You’re so young,” Eddy pleads with him as he’s assaulted. “You have so much ahead of you […] if you behave sensibly, your whole future is wide open.”

Try as he might, Eddy can’t escape the privilege that makes him a target, despite his own background. Even Clara understands this. Recalling that Eddy himself was a wayward kid prone to shoplifting, she tells her husband: “Edouard puts his mask on, he plays the part of the bourgeois intellectual so well, that in the end his equal attacks him, and he thinks he’s from the other side. If he’d told Reda […] things could’ve ended differently.”

Possibly so, but like so much in the play, it’s impossible to be certain about, and Eddy at least realizes that the gulf of race separates him from ever being Reda’s equal. The confrontation with Reda escalates, as Eddy unintentionally piles on humiliation after humiliation, until finally Reda flips, screaming violent homophobic threats at Eddy. A gun is pulled; he nearly chokes Eddy to death before being briefly overcome by emotion, and then in a final violent outburst rapes Eddy. After leaving the sobbing, wounded young man on his bed, Reda seems to have second thoughts yet again on the stairs, and returns to the front door, begging Eddy to let him back in for whatever purposes. Eddy finally throws the books he was so happy to receive as a Christmas gift mere hours before at the door, and Reda disappears.

The interpretations offered by all the different parties are irreconcilable logically. Is Reda a victim of French racism and cultural homophobia, as Eddy believes, who was inadvertently escalated to violence while trying to commit a small robbery? Or, as Clara would argue, is he a violent criminal who planned the entire thing (why else bring a gun?), taking advantage of a naïve and pretentious young man? Or something in between, a possibly closeted violent criminal preying on gay men, as Eddy’s own friends and colleagues argue?

After the rape, we follow Eddy to the hospital on Christmas Day, for both a dose of PEP and the taking of a rape kit. His body objectified by forensics, the site of a violent crime, Eddy is subjected to one more round of silencing and shaming in the supposed pursuit of clarity, if not justice. But forensics can’t resolve anything. It can’t stop Eddy from having racialized fear of dark-skinned men on the street, threatening to tie him back to the miserable culture of his childhood. And it can’t help him heal, either, since it can’t weave the disparate strains of race, class, and sexuality that informed the events together into a coherent whole. And to the writers’ credit, I think, they don’t try to force them into a convenient whole. Instead, all Eddy can do is lie to himself.

Quoting Hannah Arendt, he notes: “[T]he deliberate denial of factual truth, the ability to lie, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source, imagination […] We are free to change the world, and start something new in it.”

For a play that deals so much with sexual trauma, it’s close to endorsing repression, and it’s probably commendable that Eddy specifically suggests it wouldn’t work for most people. But still, the point resonates: The complexity of the situation threatens Eddy’s own ability to understand and define his own experience, so instead, he dispenses with the inconvenient parts and clings to what’s meaningful to him. It’s what liberates his own body from merely being the site of violence – an object – and what allows him to operate in the world, trying to bring about the change he believes in.

Neither the staging nor scenography of History of Violence are earth-shattering or shockingly original; it’s solidly staged and functional in a sleek, contemporary manner, but pulled off by Ostermeier with masterful skill. The performances are subtle, sympathetic and moving. Renato Schuch’s Reda is by turns charming, funny, and wounded; as violent as his character becomes, Schuch deftly prevents him from becoming a caricature. And the long, winding monologue he performs in bed with Laufenberg, recounting his father’s journey to France, is as moving a scene as I’ve seen in a long while. Gawenda has probably the most roles, including two gender-bending turns as Eddy’s and Clara’s mother, but which he manages sympathetically rather than devolving to camp. And Alina Stiegler, whose primary character Clara is the second largest in the show, navigates the tricky terrain of performing racist and homophobic moments without losing Clara’s concern for her brother; Stiegler’s ability to express Clara’s genuine human concern for someone even while being so wrong makes her words and actions so much more painful to witness.

In interviews, Louis has explained that it was the publication of History of Violence the re-opened his communication with his father, which in turn spawned Who Killed My Father. As much as he disagrees with many of his family’s actions and beliefs, he is also aware of the legitimacy of their complaints, which is exactly what rendered him an advocate of the Gilets Jaunes. When Louis took part in protests early on, he marched with Comité Adama, an organization with similar goals as Black Lives Matter, founded by the sister of Adama Traoré, a young man of color who was choked to death by police, similar to what happened to Eric Garner. While the Gilets Jaunes movement was never explicitly about touchpoints like race or immigration, there were enough controversial events – including the highly publicized anti-Semitic attack on philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who supports the movement – that the leaders of Comité Adama realized that the movement could turn either way: either benefit the racist far right, or become an inclusive movement working for the broader social good. Whether their inclusive strategy succeeded or failed remains to be seen, but it’s exactly the sort of freedom to act that Eddy is reclaiming in History of Violence. As the play reaches its end, the crime scene technicians return, again dusting the floor for fingerprints, blown up in a live-feed projection on the back wall. Except this time, as the camera scans the floor for clues, it reveals Eddy. He’s feebly wrapped in a towel, his body both crime scene and his own, and he stares defiantly into the camera, his only gesture holding up his hand making a peace sign.

All in all, History of Violence is one of the fall’s most compelling shows, and essential viewing for those trying to understand the powerful social and political currents affecting our current moment, in Europe or America.

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