The suspension of freedom | Édouard Louis

“The first time that I experienced real confrontation in theatre was in high school. We were taken to the theatre to watch Angels in America. At that time, I had no access to arts. I was not reading yet. My family rejected books because they felt rejected by books. They grew up in a milieu were nobody would go to school or university. A book for my mother or father was like the symbol of the life they didn’t have, the life of people who went to school, who studied, and therefore, had a more privileged and easier life. So as a result, they did not like books. Culture rejected us, so we rejected culture. But then with school, we went to watch this theatre play, a play about homosexuality. Suddenly I saw men kissing, having sex and in a very explicit way. It was everything that I knew about myself, of my desire for other men, but that I was trying to hide from others the whole time because I was ashamed, of me, of these desires. And suddenly those were exactly the things I saw on stage. I actually walked out of the theatre, stood up and said: “I don’t want to see that gay stuff.” But it was too late. Something inside me was broken and open. I had seen these men touching each other and couldn’t escape the fact that it was all that my body was asking from me.

What is important in this anecdote is not me, my person, but this: theatre can be so powerful in forcing people to see, what they usually avoid, what they have built exit strategies for or against, to not watch, or not listen. Even if they know these things they avoid do exist, and are there, around us, not only as desires but also as violence, racism, poverty and hate. Everybody knows these things exist but often people try to avoid being confronted with reality. Confrontation is what interests me about theatre. A room filled up with people, who have to stay and listen. Of course they can walk out, but there is still, a kind of physical power of theatre. A book you can just put aside or away, theatre you cannot. You have to keep watching and be confronted with what you see. This is the potential radical power that theatre has, the suspension of freedom for a brief moment.

Theatre should never forget this unique power, because along with the power goes the responsibility of the choice of what you are talking about. And that’s why theatre should always be made with a certain feel- ing of shame, confronting the public, the actors, the makers. To what and whom will we listen and what and whom will be silenced? Of course you can stage The Hypochondriac by Molière, I love Molière, and when I read it I am moved to the core, but at the same time migrants are dying, the Amazon forest is disappearing, women are being sexually assaulted and not being believed as victims. I think it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, referring to Baldwin, who said: when I walk down the street, I see these beautiful little streets, with beautiful little trees, and a beautiful little bench, it makes me angry because I know it’s a lie. The world is not like this. This aesthetic that I am seeing is not representing the reality, what is currently happening in this world. And that’s the same for me: I go to the theatre and I see The Hypochondriac, and I think this is a lie, this is not what is going on around us, this is not what we live in. Reality is actually a delicate issue. It’s what builds us, it’s everywhere around us, but it is the most difficult thing to see, to touch, to represent. Isn’t that strange?

There is still an old-fashioned ideology of what art is, an engrained ideology for centuries: the less you say, the more artistic you are. The more you suggest things, and the less you show them, the more powerful you are. We created this very strange system, in which, if you do art, the best compliment people can give you is: “It’s wonderful because everything is suggested, because it says nothing.” This is only serving the people’s strategies to not watch, to not be confronted. Often the art field gets tangled up in their own exit strategies. What I believe is that we should use theatre as an art of confrontation, and a place to fight the system with the system – because of course theatre is always part of the system we live in: who goes to the theatre? Who can afford it, who was educated to go there? Who is absent? I think we lose our time when we ask ourselves: can theatre be completely out of the system – a system of class, of oppression, of racism, etc. What is interesting is to use the system against itself, like Jean Paul Sartre when he was publishing books in the most prestigious French publishing house, back intime, or when Toni Morrison was teaching in an Ivy League university.

How did I start with theatre? Because I was gay and not masculine, my family, my surroundings were telling me that I was different, that I was wrong and I searched for a possibility to escape. In middle school I remem- ber, I joined all the associations of the school, because I wanted a place where I would be loved and accepted: chess, comics, t-shirt, poetry. And one day I went to a theatre class. It was strangely easy, because, like many LGBTQ persons, I was born as an actor, in spite of myself. As a gay kid I was always hiding, pretending to be straight, pretending to be masculine, to like girls, to love soccer. I had no choice, but to be an actor. And when I went on stage for the first time in middle school, it was easy, I wasn’t scared, I was 12 and already had 12 years of training. Theatre gave me a weapon to fight the system I was living in, to change my reality. Now I want to try to use it in order to change other people’s reality.”

Extract from a conversation between Édouard Louis and Milo Rau about ‘Why Theatre’, 30th of June 2020, Paris and Ghent.

Édouard Louis is one of the most successful young European writers of his generation. The autobiographical essays and novels of the “wunderkind” (New York Times), in which louis deals with his descent from a proletarian background and his homosexuality, have been translated into 30 languages to date.