Who is Édouard Louis?
Édouard Louis (1992) is one of the most celebrated writers of his generation. His passionate and committed work is embraced by the international theatre world: in a short space of time, his books have been adapted for theatre almost forty times worldwide.
By Margriet Prinssen
Louis writes very personal stories about his youth as a gay man in a homophobic and impoverished working class environment in northern France and connects them with current political reality; he writes about people rarely mentioned in literature or the performing arts. He represents the voice of the "underclass" in a language that is direct and simple at the same time as being of sophisticated literary construction.
In addition to being a writer, Louis is also a graduate sociologist; his gaze is that of the observer who analyses power structures in great detail. His work is intuitive and sensory, psychologically strong, but also always sociologically solidly substantiated, without falling into black-and-white thinking or appearing too pushy.
His debut Weg met Eddy Bellegueule (2014), an autobiographical novel about his traumatic childhood in an impoverished working class environment in the French countryside, was an instant hit. "I don't have any good memories of my childhood," he writes. A sensitive and gay boy, Eddy Bellegueule (his real name) stands out in every way, in an environment where machismo is the survival strategy for men. An intense coming of age story.
With his radically personal work, he not only wants to describe the world, but also to change it.
Geschiedenis van geweld (2016), his second novel, is about a rape that happened to him personally. The book is written almost clinically but impresses with its genuine anger, combined with a sharp analysis of the perpetrator's why, as well as of the shame he feels as a victim. In all his work, Louis links autobiographical data to major social developments.
Touching expression of love
Wie heeft mijn vader vermoord from 2018 is a poignant expression of love from a son to his ailing father and at the same time an indictment of the French state. The father he portrays in his debut as a violent alcoholic is viewed with compassion here. "This is the story of a working-class man whose hopes, happiness, passions and dreams are slowly but surely being crushed by society and politics," he writes.
Increasingly, his main theme becomes: the violence that people inflict on each other is a consequence of the violence that the political system inflicts on us. In his eyes, politics is not innocent. “For many it is a matter of life or death.”
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Theatre plays a crucial role in his life. In the first place because it has meant his rescue from abject poverty. By playing himself, he comes into contact with the imagination, through the stories of others. Moreover, by acting, he learns many new survival mechanisms. His work is characterised by a constant alternation of getting close and keeping a distance, with an unerring sense of dynamics, timing and dosage. No wonder so many directors are inspired by his novels.
Fantasy, empathy and humour
In the Netherlands, it was Eline Arbo who immediately created one of the absolute highlights of the year with her stylised staging of Weg met Eddy Bellegueule at the beginning of 2020. She had the four young actors alternately play the roles of the main character Eddy Bellegueule (his real name) as well as of the characters around him: his alcoholic father, his chain-smoking mother, his brother, the boys next door. The performance clearly shows the suffocation of an environment that harshly condemns and punishes every form of being different. All of this is designed with a lot of fantasy, a great soundtrack and humour. In the playing by the four young actors, a form of empathy with the parents even seeps through. This gives the performance a light touch, which makes the oppression all the more keenly felt.
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Indictment of capitalism
A few months later, Wie heeft mijn vader vermoord is premiered, directed by Ivo van Hove. It is a monologue in which Hans Kesting plays the father (big belly, bent over position) as well as the mother (smoking, nervous) and the son. It is an acclaimed performance in which the son gets close to his once hated father, the factory worker who is now fifty and completely destroyed physically and mentally after an accident at work. The monologue takes the form of an increasingly furious indictment of the all-crushing capitalism with its pursuit of profit. Louis describes the causes of the father's downfall and reconnects private anecdotes with political and economic reality. Kesting does that flawlessly. He shows every side of the son: both the initial shame for and anger at his father and the understanding and compassion that he increasingly feels. Empathy is also a key concept here.
Louis as an actor
In Brandhaarden, Édouard Louis himself can be seen as an actor in the opening performance Qui a tué mon père, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. The performance premiered in 2020 at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, a co-production with the renowned German company Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz from Berlin. It is the first time that Louis is on stage to interpret his own work. It became a sober performance with great impact. “Intense, involving production,” wrote the New York Times. Ostermeier and his Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz also staged Geschiedenis van geweld. The same piece can be seen in a Norwegian version, Valdens Historie. Louis has been involved in the composition of Brandhaarden from the beginning and chose it as one of his favourite interpretations.
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A personal and ruthless portrait
Gevechten en metamorfosen van een vrouw (2021) is the counterpart of Wie heeft mijn vader vermoord; it is the story of his mother. Again a personal and ruthless portrait, but also a political indictment: his mother is portrayed as a victim of patriarchal society and socio-economic conditions. It's only when he sees a photo of her as a young girl – a beautiful, expectant look - that Louis realises that his mother has not always been an old, tired, chain-smoking and snarling woman, but that over time, she has lost all expectations - and the two husbands who tyrannise her. Yet at a later age she manages to free herself from her husband and Gevechten en metamorfosen van een vrouw becomes the story of a woman's liberation.
Louis gave Ivo van Hove, with whom he has become friends, the opportunity to read the story about his mother at an early stage because he greatly appreciated the way in which Van Hove had staged Wie heeft mijn vader vermoord. The performance therefore premiered in De Schuur at the same time that the Dutch translation was published, starring Marieke Heebink. "She does this masterfully: in her role, she traces with great precision the development of a woman who, despite decades of lovelessness, has never been broken," NRC wrote.
Politics and theatre
Louis is no longer a child prodigy – he will be thirty this year – but he is an important voice in the thinking about art and politics. With his radically personal work, he not only wants to describe the world, but also to change it. Politics, he believes, barely affects those in power, but dramatically affects the lives of people at the bottom. Politics is literally about life and death. In an essay in the Guardian, he writes about the environment in which he grew up: "My books were born out of a deprivation: I started writing because I couldn't find the world of my childhood in books. (…) The culture, education system and books made us feel like we were rejected and unwelcome, so we rejected the culture, education and books. If the culture didn't pay attention to us, we would take revenge on the culture. We hated culture. "
In Dialogues on Art & Politics, he explicitly calls on theatre makers and writers to adopt an "aesthetic of confrontation: a view in which art confronts us with the raw, violent, intolerable world behind the ideological veil". If anyone is able to describe the world of the outcasts, the "others", the people who fall outside the mainstream, and get rid of the "elitist art", it is Louis.