History of Violence
Around 4 in the morning on Christmas Eve 2012, Édouard runs into a man, Reda, on his way home from dinner at friends’ house. “He came up to me on the street and eventually, I invited him to my place. There he told me the story of his childhood and his father’s arrival in France after fleeing Algeria. We spent the rest of the night together, talked and laughed. At 6 in the morning, he pulled out a gun and told me he would have killed me. He insulted me, raped me”.
History of Violence holds the power of a life experience. The autobiographical novel was written by Édouard Louis, the brilliant and popular 30-year-old writer. The work was published in 2016 – by Bompiani in italy, like all of Louis’ books, and translated by Fabrizio Ascari – after his successful debut novel The End of Eddy in 2014. It recounts the story of his rape on Christmas Eve, in a tale that intertwines more generic social themes like emigration, racism, poverty, desire and homophobia.
This echo between the personal and political, private and public is what drew Thomas Ostermeier, the 53-year-old renowned director of German theatre, to the book. His version of History of Violence, which will premiere in Italy at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, first came to life at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2018, followed by another show based on the French writer’s book Who Killed My Father? in 2020.
“Louis’ work is interesting to me”, explains Ostermeier, “because it gives a voice to marginalized people, those who live in poverty, those who are disadvantaged in a Europe that wants to be the continent of happy people. Louis speaks of social classes, of the rich and controlling and the poor and marginalized. The last author to do something similar was probably Bertolt Brecht. I consider it an important aspect of my work. These are the matters I have brought to the stage since 1998, since Shopping and fucking, when I produced Ravenhill’s play about people who in London who sell themselves and look for work. On the same topic, I more recently worked on the Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims. Now I have turned to Édouard Louis, who was a student of his. I am interested in writers who introduce class debate to the intellectual landscape. I like to interact with them and give them a voice”.
History of Violence does this in a unique way because the disturbing effects of the sexual violence are not only measured on the body and mind of the victim, a young Louis, but are also reflected in the different authoritarian models ofinstitutional structures – the police and hospital – as well as in the family and the homophobia of the working class, and even the marginalization of the rapist who is an immigrant, a person who was simply unlucky to have been born “on the wrong side of the Mediterranean.” “The private trauma ends up exploring public questions, and the intimate diary becomes a general portrayal of our society,” the director explains.
Where Louis uses writing to find what’s disturbing and express it, Ostermeier follows it with a play, written by him with the help of Florian Borchmeyer and Édouard Louis himself, slightly modifying the original book – cutting a few things and adding some dialogue – and articulating the complex narrative structure on stage with diverse language, live performance, video projections on the back wall that show close-ups of the faces of characters as well as the most dramatic moments, music that accompanies each chapter of the story and animated almost dance sections, which all aims to blend the before and after, double the events and show the different perspectives as the intimate diary does on the page.
The minimalist set by Nina Wetzel is a blank space with just a couple of tables and chairs that define separate spaces. On one side, drummer and keyboardist Thomas Witte plays along with the performance of the four actors, led by Laurenz Laufenberg, long-standing actor from the Schaubühne company who plays the narrator and protagonist. He shares an extraordinary physical resemblance to Louis, which was unintentional, Ostermeier says. Next to him is Renato Schuch as Reda, and Alina Stiegler and Christoph Gawenda who alternate as the various other characters.
“The context of Édouard’s private drama is fundamental”, Ostermeier explains, “When he goes to see his sister Clara in western France and confides in her about the whole incident in search of some emotional protection, she accuses him of being irresponsible and to his dismay it brings back up the spreading homophobia of the he was raised in and of the working classes in general. The same is true for when Édouard realizes that it wasn’t the best idea to go to the police or hospital because of the cold and bureaucratic process of reconstructing the event or the medical reports that possess the usual models of racism and homophobia and not one’s emotions or story». «Whose story is it now?” Édouard wonders.
The show thus becomes an event with a strong emotional impact and offers thoughts for reflecting on the political structure of our world, even those that appear more irreconcilable. For example, there’s the post-traumatic disassociation of the protagonist who sees himself reflected while struggling in the shower to remove the smell of his rapist while also understanding that reporting him gave the police cause to make racist comments. Likewise he feels ambivalence, hate towards Reda but also empathy for those who have encountered violence and oppression as they try to maintain their family in France, victims in turn of French racism.
«The way people around Édouard act and react and Édouard’s own reactions establish a certain complexity that is the political side of the story,” says Ostermeier, “Even if History of Violence isn’t a ‘political’ show. To me being political is something that can affect change in real life. But those who go to the theatre are just a small minority, and alone they can’t do much. Thus, when I speak of political, I refer to the fact that spectators can find something in the show that might become important for them in society,” including the awareness that disentangle the knots that link fear, racism, homophobia, love, desire, attraction and violence.
“For all these reasons, I feel very connected to this work,” says Ostermeier, “I would like to thank Édouard for trusting me with his story. I would also like to thank the actors who took clear, authentic, truthful risks, even in the more intimate scenes of the rape. In my theatre, I try to reestablish the art of recitation to elevate the story. And this story of violence, homophobia, class poverty is also a love story, which is perhaps the most important theme in life”.