PRINT February 2020



Thomas Ostermeier, History of Violence, 2019. Rehearsal view, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, November 12, 2019. Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

AT THE TOP of Thomas Ostermeier’s History of Violence, the German theater director’s adaptation of Édouard Louis’s 2016 autobiographical novel, three performers clad head to toe in protective hoods and coveralls mark the stage as a crime scene, placing numbered placards at points across the floor. As one begins to dust for fingerprints, another records the procedure on video, live-streaming it in close-up onto a stark white wall looming behind them. Soon, an ominous image of a brush stirring up a cloud of fine powder dissolves into one of falling snow. It is Christmas in Paris and Édouard is alive, still, having been held at gunpoint, strangled nearly to death, and raped early that morning.

In Louis’s book, there is no such scene, no formal search for evidence. Rather, his story is his proof. In the hours following his attack, he furiously scrubbed away all physical traces thereof: the cum; the blood; the smell of sweat, sex, and Reda, his lover turned attacker. What cannot be washed or sterilized, of course, is memory—but it can be laundered, given to others for safekeeping, or with some notion that speaking, sharing, is a purely empowering act. But Louis writes of the shattering effects of sexual violence not only on his body and mind but also on the custodianship of his personal narrative. Whose story is mine now? he seems to ask, constructing History of Violence in dueling first-person accounts, one lived, the other received; the latter belongs to his sister, Clara, who recalls what her brother told her about his rape while adding her own commentary. A third account lurks in the police report that Édouard keeps in his apartment, a souvenir of his official statement to the authorities. But in this record, the author laments, “I no longer recognised my own memories. . . . I no longer recognised my own experience.”

Thomas Ostermeier, History of Violence, 2019. Rehearsal views, St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York, November 12, 2019. Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg) and Reda (Renato Schuch).

These words were spoken from the stage by performer Laurenz Laufenberg, who played Ostermeier’s Édouard—and who, with his blond hair, gleaming blue eyes, and lithe figure, possesses an uncanny likeness to Louis himself. Consider adaptation a forensic exercise, which the play announces as such in its first scene, even if unwittingly: Here is a re-creation of an event first refracted through the lens of autofiction, now translated into a work of theater, and incorporating choice details, residues, of both. (The play was written by Louis in collaboration with Ostermeier and the dramaturge Florian Borchmeyer.) Inherent to this project—and to any adaptation, certainly—are not only echoes and doublings but also slippages, losses. In the case of Ostermeier’s staging, the director, like Louis after his attack, washes the novel quite clean, tidying its central acts—sex and rape and the fictions that spin around each experience—and diminishing its richness and complexity. “I write to shame the dominant class,” the author once told the New York Times. The director, in his turn, seemed to be working on behalf of their comfort.

Ostermeier is head of artistic direction of the Schaubühne in Berlin, a theater celebrated internationally for cutting-edge work. So it is no surprise that his History of Violence was beautifully performed and solidly staged, though with theatrical devices that, when softly deployed, signal experimentalism more than produce it: live cameras and video projections, non sequitur dances that interrupt the arc of the play. (As I’ve confessed before, I am often unclear about the difference between tradition and trope, though it seems to be one of dimension: Tradition implies a certain achievement of craft, whereas trope merely references said achievements.) Across both the stage and the screen, Ostermeier loosely broke up the story: The action was largely played in the room, while select details—of Édouard eavesdropping on his sister, of Reda’s imagined mug shot, of ambient backdrops—appeared as images, both moving and still.

Thomas Ostermeier, History of Violence, 2019. Rehearsal views, St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York, November 12, 2019. Clara (Alina Stiegler). Photos: Teddy Wolff.

Édouard tells his story first to the audience and later the police: How, wide-eyed and wine-giddy, he headed home on Christmas Eve, having just finished dinner with friends; how he was carrying the gifts he’d received in his arms—books by Nietzsche and Claude Simon—when he was cruised by a young Kabyle man called Reda (a smoldering, menacing Renato Schuch). Although Édouard wished to appear aloof, he quickly softened in the heat of the man’s flirtations: “You don’t want to talk? Are you meeting someone? At least tell me your name.” They went to Édouard’s apartment. “Then we slept together for the first time. Then again, and again, four, five times, and in between he slept beside me, just short naps, only a few minutes, during which he’d cling to my arms, to my hair, he’d grab hold of it as if he were afraid I’d disappear.” In the morning, Édouard noticed that his iPhone was missing. When he mentioned it, Reda simmered, exploded, pulled a gun from his pocket—“I’m going to fuck you up, faggot!”—then brutally assaulted him.

Louis writes of the shattering effects of sexual violence not only on his body and mind but also on the custodianship of his personal narrative.

“He had to admit he was being murdered,” relays Clara (performed with electric nerve by Alina Stiegler) to her largely mute husband (a darkly funny Christoph Gawenda). “He realized he was going to die in his flat on Christmas Eve.” As the tale’s second teller, Clara is Édouard’s foil, pushing back against his story with her own version—not of the violence, but of her brother, who’d left their working-class family in the northern French village of Hallencourt to study in the city. Her take:

He’s walking through Paris on that night, and I’d bet my life on it, he’s thinking: How far I’ve come, what a long way it’s been. When he thinks that way, he thinks of me too. Why should he let me off the hook? He’s always reassuring himself, telling himself: I’m different from her now. I’ve made it on my own. It just kills me that he could think such a thing about me. 

One might find Clara insufferable, callous, but she performs the vital service of complicating Édouard’s character, rescuing him from the flatness of victim-hood—a narrative violence of a kind. In one of the novel’s most formidable and fraught turns, which the play does not bring to the stage, Édouard imagines Reda’s life—forging a fiction about his immigrant father’s journey to France from the very few particulars Reda shared with him, entwining Reda’s history with his own family’s. Here, Louis does unto Reda what has been done unto him in the aftermath of violence: He makes up a story to suit his own needs, to meet his own ends. Though in excruciating pain, Édouard refuses to allow rape to rob him of his empathy or his left-wing politics. He reports the crime but does not press charges, invoking the memory of his cousin who died while incarcerated: “Prison is worse than what Reda did to me.”

One of the production’s shortcomings—an unfortunately typical one in our porn-addled yet somehow prudish cultural times—is that it stages only the violence and not the sex, which is instead narrated by Édouard as he lies in bed, quite chastely, with Reda. It’s a dishonest directorial choice, worth mentioning because it undermines the essential and disorienting contradiction that Louis offers his readers throughout the book: that sex is intimacy; that an act of violence upends intimacy but can still lodge one person inside the spirit of another; that none of these experiences should ever be dismissed, judged, or ground down into received narratives. Whole stories are truer than all others: In Louis’s book, it is the sweetness of the hookup that underscores the horror of the rape.

It is neither outrageous nor morally suspect to present sex with candor inside a theater. (Explicitness has its rightful place too, but in the bourgeois sectors of theater, it’s regrettably less likely to be given space and support.) Aren’t sexuality and sensuality as worthy of attention as rape and strangulation? We are now creating and audiencing decades after Carolee Schneemann’s chaotic, erotic Meat Joy, 1964, and VALIE EXPORT’s Tapp und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema, 1968/1989), in which she created a small theater out of a box that she wore over her nude torso as she roamed a square in Munich, allowing passersby to reach their hands inside it. Years later, in The Prometheus Project, 1985, activist and porn star Annie Sprinkle invited audiences to touch her nipples and beam a flashlight at her vagina so they might learn something about the female form. Ann Liv Young’s notorious The Bagwell in Me, 2008, featured the vaginal penetration of a performer by a dildo with a small camera attached to its head. With the bar pushed so far into brave, outrageous realms—albeit, in all of the above examples, by women envisioning the sexual (and sexualized) female body outside of patriarchal norms—Ostermeier’s inhibition seemed gratuitous, if not tone-deaf to the text at hand.

Was the play another estrangement of Louis from his own life and words? In an interview, the author explained that, in fact, he found working in the medium liberating:

For me there is something very beautiful in theater about appropriation. People are suddenly in charge of my story, taking my story from me. Being in charge of my struggles and the issues I want to fight for and fight against. There is something very emancipatory about this experience. 

Perhaps future adaptations of his books will be staged with equal freedom. 

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor at Artforum.