The History of Violence
November 13 – December 1
New York City
About halfway through The History of Violence, the narrative of the play begins to collapse in on itself. The story, an adaptation of a memoir by the same name by the French author Édouard Louis, takes place during Christmas Eve. Over the course of two hours, Director Thomas Ostermeier leads audiences through the harrowing account of Édouard’s rape and near murder, in a dizzying series of tellings and retellings, all layered on top of one another.
The play opens with the character Édouard, deftly played by Laurenz Laufenberg, sitting in a white plastic chair while police collect evidence in his apartment. Édouard turns to the audience and begins to tell his story of being assaulted by Reda (Renato Schuch) who had cruised Édouard on his way home, a night of consensual sex turned violent; mid-narrative,Édouard’s sister Clara (Alina Stiegler) and her husband (Christoph Gawenda) take the stage, and Clara begins to tell the story of Louis’s assault over again.
For those who are familiar with Louis’s work, this sort of layering of narratives that don’t quite contradict but nevertheless fail to fall in line with one another, is not new. As Clara begins to tell her husband about the assault, Édouard jumps in to correct her, inevitably leading to the two challenging each other’s memories of their childhood spent in Hallencourt, a working class village in Northeastern France. When Louis begins to tell his story of meeting Reda on the way home from a Christmas party, it’s Clara’s turn to break in to the narrative, questioning Édouard about his insistence that Reda did not set out to steal from him and attack him. By the time the police start questioning Édouard about his assault—and quickly obsessing over Reda’s ethnicity (Kabyle, Édouard corrects them. Right, Arab, the police repeat back)—the audience is already well aware that the play is not only about the violence that is done to Louis, but the aftershock of trauma that will reverberate through his life with each retelling.
“In the [memoir], it’s about different perspectives on one story,” Ostermeier, who not only directs but co-adapted the play along with Louis and Florian Borchmeyer, said about the moments of contradiction. “You can also say it’s about different voices competing, they are in a competition over the truth of the story. That of course is very theatrical.”
Ostermeier first became interested in Louis’s work while he was adapting Returning to Reims, a memoir written by Didier Eribon, who would eventually become Louis’s mentor. Eribon’s and Louis’s work both investigate the generational and physical effects of poverty in working-class France, particularly the violence and homophobia that they both faced while growing up. And although this production of The History of Violence is written and performed in the cast’s native German (with English subtitles), the underlying currents of the pain caused by bigotry, desperation, and homophobia easily translate across continents.
“Everybody can understand the context and make a link to regions of Germany and the States, where they have similar issues of very narrow-minded provincial reality,” Ostermeier said.
The production makes special use of video, with actors using cellphones to project live close-ups of each other onto the screen that hangs across the back of the stage. There is some inconsistency when it comes to what is projected, but when used to heighten moments of emotional intensity, the screen acts as a way to mimic the suffocating reality of trauma and its ability to snuff out the other parts of one’s life. After Édouard, still bleeding and bruised from the earlier assault, manages to break free from Reda and force him out of his apartment, Schuch (as Reda) projects his face onto the screen screaming for Édouard to let him back in, and the fear experienced by Édouard feels palpable, even though the audience knows that eventually Reda will go away.
The production, which originated with Schaubühne Berlin and is showing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through December 1st, is part of a borough-wide celebration of Louis’s work. A few miles east, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a theatrical adaptation of The End of Eddy, Louis’s first memoir, also had its American debut. (An Untitled Projects / Unicorn Theatre, UK production, it was presented as part of BAM's Next Wave 2019 festival.) The play recounts Louis’s experience growing up surrounded by poverty and homophobia in Northeastern France. The story explores the emotional and physical abuse Louis faces from other villagers and family members; yet it also maintains the startlingly sympathetic lens through which Louis views and writes about the generational trauma of poverty and patriarchy and the hoops his father, brothers, and he are forced to jump through to prove their machismo.
When Pamela Carter, who adapted The End of Eddy, and Stewart Laing, who directs the production, set out to bring Louis’s story to the stage for English audiences, they were in agreement—although Louis intended his memoir to be read by adults, Carter and Laing felt it was important that the production be geared toward young people.
“The idea [was] that if we were going to bring it to the stage, that people at the age of Édouard in the book might perhaps be able to see [the production], and see themselves reflected in it,” said Carter. “That felt like quite an important thing to be doing.”
The result is a production that, while occasionally diverging from the novel in order to explain some of the more nuanced political themes Louis explores, refuses to shy away from the story as a whole.
“It’s quite challenging work for an audience,” Carter said. “I wanted to be very careful about not sanitizing the book and not being coy and being dishonest. But of course we wanted to make it accessible to audiences 14 and 15 upwards. And that meant we had certain responsibilities to teachers – there were certain things we should avoid putting on the stage. But sex wasn’t one of them. And certainly not underage gay sex.”
In this adaptation, Oseloka Obi and James Russell-Morley are the only live actors—they both play the character of Eddy as well as a slew of villagers and family members. (Louis changed his name to Édouard later in life, when he moved to Paris.) The actors are also aided by four television screens that take up a large portion of the stage, where they interact with pre-recorded performances of themselves as other villagers in Hallencourt..
“One of the first thoughts we had when we read the book was that we could do it with two actors,” said Laing. “In the book, Édouard describes the family home in Hallencourt as having four televisions in it—that even though they were desperately poor, and sometimes they didn’t have money to eat at the end of the month, there was always this endless and ongoing track of four different televisions playing in the house. So we were really inspired by that.”
While the production occasionally feels heavy-handed to an adult audience, it’s easy to see the deep value the play holds for teenagers around the world.
“We’ve had a lot of feedback from people who said they wish they had seen this when they were young, when they were growing up gay in a village in the middle of nowhere in Australia or in Scotland,” said Carter.
When seen together, these two productions feel like small windows through which one can glimpse deeper into Louis’s work. The preoccupation with narrative, which is not a theme unique to Louis but dominates his writing all the same, is heightened by the very act of watching adaptations of his original memoirs. What makes a story true, the plays seem to ask. What does it mean to tell something from so many different points of view?
After the first performance of The History of Violence, as the actors were taking their bows, Laufenberg ran off the stage. He returned moments later with the real Édouard Louis, who had been watching the play shrouded in the same anonymity as the audience. Louis stepped on to the stage, where he kissed each cast member on the cheek before taking a bow of his own. He smiled, and the audience was once again reminded of the stakes of the story they had just watched. Not only did Louis survive his ordeal, but he had quite literally lived to tell the tale, over and over and over again.
“We’ve been asking [Louis], of course, we’ve been asking him about what it’s like to share this story with an audience or with us,” Ostermeier said after the performance. “And he said that he’s very happy that the burden of the story is taken from his shoulders and somebody else is taking care of [it]. As a theater company, we’re taking care of it, as the actors and as the director. He feels that this is a relief.”