Deconstructing the Past: A New Look at History
Interview with Guy Cassiers
By Edwige Perrot
Translation: Jane Bemont
Q : Political violence is a recurring theme in your work: Sunken Red, Mefisto for ever, Wolfskers, Atropa, Duister hart (Dark Heart), and soon, De welwillenden (The Kindly Ones). Why is it necessary to bring this subject to the stage?
Guy Cassiers : The most telling example is not even on your list. Twenty years ago,
Arrow, by Martin
Amis. The manner in which Amis tells the story is very relevant for the theme
of power and memory, the importance of knowing your history and using that
knowledge today. Time’s Arrow tells a
story of a man, but in reverse. It begins with his death, at the moment that
his consciousness abruptly reawakens, because of the electric shocks that the
doctors give him. From then on, the character moves back in history,
step-by-step, moment by moment, as if the events of his life unravel one by
one, down to the smallest detail. His consciousness, which does not understand
what is happening, nor what all of this is leading to, tries to grasp the
process it has been caught up in.
The most striking aspect of the book, for me anyway, and of the play that we made out of it, is the fact that the life of this character will only start making sense during World War II, when he is a doctor in Auschwitz. Just like in the rest of the book, that phase is also told in reverse: men and women rise up out of the ashes; the doctor gives them hair and gold teeth. And at that moment, his consciousness realizes that returning to the past has a purpose, that it gives meaning to things.
I found it impressive to rediscover the history of World War II from the unusual perspective of this story. Going back in time and deconstructing the logical sequence of events not only makes it possible to more directly access the facts from the past, but also the meaning of those facts, their significance. And to learn from that. The procedure of reversing the course of history, from effect to cause, creates an emotional intensity that brings back the reality of things and offers insight into how they went, into the mechanics of it all, so to speak. That makes me as a person responsible for making sure that these mechanisms are never set in motion again. We must remain alert. Everybody says, ‘Look, that’s in the past, it will never happen again….’ I believe that everything can happen again.
Theatre as a bastion against forgetting
Q : Theatre seems to be a
place of remembrance for you… but at the same time, it’s a place that lends
itself to fiction.
G.C. : Indeed, I think it’s very important to keep remembering history. What’s most important is not to just know what happened, but to evoke a personal emotion in the spectator so as to create a connection with the past. We must maintain our connection with history, take our responsibility by remembering, and by applying that memory in the future. You don’t simply carry history with you; you draw lessons from it for later on. That’s precisely where theatre can be of use, where theatre can help us: by way of fiction, it succeeds in giving historical facts an intensely emotional charge.
I have the idea that nowadays we are constantly exposed to an overabundance of images showing us horror, destruction and suffering from all over the world. But that’s the problem with images: the more often you see something, the more you get used to it. We grow so accustomed to seeing things that seem to surpass the bounds of reality that we ultimately become blind to them, and start to forget them. Art keeps us from forgetting.
Searching for the mechanisms of violence
Q : History, power and its attendant horrors are often personified in your plays by characters who are cruel – who have become so or are so on stage: a young murderer in Rotjoch (Butcher Boy); a victim of the Japanese concentration camps in Sunken Red; the dictators in Wolfskers; a witness of the colonial terrors in Duister hart (Dark Heart); and soon, an intellectual brute in De welwillenden (The Kindly Ones). Why is it essential for you to examine violence through these different prisms?
G.C. : At the beginning of Sunken Red, we see a completely isolated man. He does not want to communicate and maintains that his life is over. What makes the book so sublime and what we also tried to achieve with the play, is that you initially resist taking a liking to this figure. You don’t want to identify with him under any circumstances.
But over the course of his testimony, you start feeling guilty about that resistance, about your quick and easy judgment. Because no matter how unsympathetic he may seem, once the man has related what he experienced in his youth, you begin to have a better understanding of his behaviour. Not that that excuses his faults, but as an audience we do ask ourselves what we would have done if we had been in his place, if we had gone through the same thing. Could we have become like him, in that situation?
A similar process is at work in Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy (Rotjoch in the stage adaptation). It’s about an isolated child from an underprivileged social and family environment who does not fully comprehend the world around him. The boy works in a slaughterhouse and after a while, he no longer sees any difference between animals and humans. He ends up murdering people, for he has simply never learned to develop his own feelings and ideas. We turned the book into a theatrical monologue in order to focus on the interaction between the child and the world, to show how the boy perceives the world and how he experiences other people. The lines spoken by the other characters were shown in video projections on stage.
The spectators could read the lines themselves, and by watching the actor’s reaction, they understood what kind of impact those words had on the child, they gained insight into his world and his behaviour. We wanted in the first place to emphasize the distance between this child and the world – in order to fathom the character, but especially to show how someone can become a murderer, to reveal the mechanisms of that process. So that’s why I put cruel personages on stage – powerful personages or, on the contrary, personages living on the fringes of society, people who are lost, who cannot find a place in the world and commit inhuman deeds. Understanding how something like that works is crucial, I believe, to preventing it from happening again.
The darkness in each of us
G.C. : In Duister hart (Dark Heart), we see a character who goes looking for a man in order to offer him help. Increasingly, however, the journey he undertakes seems like a descent into the abyss, in the sense that he himself also begins to gravitate toward evil. At that point, we realize that each of us harbours a sort of inclination toward horror.
The same goes for De welwillenden (The Kindly Ones), in fact. Here, the character acknowledges that he personifies evil, that he has done everything a person ought never to do. But he also asks us the question: Given the same situation, would you have handled it differently? At first, we firmly state: That would never happen to us. But strangely enough, the further we read in the book, the more our certainties begin to falter, the more we start doubting that we would have indeed done it better and begin to wonder whether we wouldn’t have acted just the same as him. It is important for us to be aware of the danger that these things could happen again.
Q : Is that why you use video
images, to steal into the minds of the characters and reveal their internal
G.C. : Indeed. It’s necessary to put situations and characters on stage, but in fact, their thoughts are what is most important. That’s what it’s all about. About people’s behaviour and their relation to language. How does language influence that behaviour? Power doesn’t just accrue from what you say, but largely comes from the art of expressing it with finesse. That’s how you win people over. We are continually seduced by the power of the form in which language is couched; the content only comes later.
Q : Language and text are always an essential aspect of your plays, just like video projections and images…
G.C. : For me, the essence of theatre is language itself. Language must be an important part of it: we have to think about the way we use it, and the way that it is being used. Images can make an extremely big impact in an extremely short time, but with them, you lose touch just as easily. Language works slower, I feel; we digest it in a different manner. From a purely physical standpoint, that process has to take place in a different part of the brain. I completely agree with what Susan Sontag wrote in one of her essays: ‘There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”’
In other words, thinking can protect us from our own cruelty. It may sound simple, but I believe that’s the essence: you have to make people think, you have to nourish the debate. War and violence break out when language collapses, when it fails. That’s why I think it’s important to work on the quality of language and reasoning.
Language that defends the indefensible
Q : In a number of your plays, you investigate the connection between power and language, as a reaction to the rise of populist ideas in Flanders and Europe. Precisely how do you see the relation between power, violence and language?
G.C. : That was indeed the case with Mefisto for ever. We are working on De welwillenden (The Kindly Ones) and Le sec et l’humide by Jonathan Littell in the same way. We want to show how the fascistic identity is partly generated by language, and how that influences our behaviour. Littell studies that process in Le sec et l’humide, where he conceives an analysis of the writings of Léon Degrelle, basing it on the sociological model of Klaus Theweleit. He does the same in The Kindly Ones although he doesn’t say it there in so many words.
You read how the extermination of the Jews during World War II could be explained and even justified through language. It is a truly astonishing book, because it minutely describes how, in each case, murder is justified in a new manner. The manipulation of language makes it possible to defend the indefensible, precisely by creating a distance between people and their feelings. Then you see how great the power of language can be, how we hide behind it in order to do things that we know are wrong, or to turn away from people for whom we are in fact responsible.
It was by means of language that those who were responsible denied their deeds, whereas they knew well enough that what they did was wrong. I see many parallels between our era and the past which Littell describes with such a feeling for detail in The Kindly Ones. I’m not talking about the events as such, but about the way we behave and use language to repudiate our individual responsibility.
Theatre aimed at addressing individual responsibility
Q : We could conclude from your views on theatre that you make political theatre. Do you agree?
G.C. : In my opinion, the role of theatre consists of helping spectators accept their individual responsibility. I do not make political theatre, in the sense that I do not want to foist my personal ideas about a particular topic on people. On the contrary, it is fundamental that they form an opinion of their own, develop their own line of reasoning and become aware of their responsibility as an individual. That’s why I try to supply as much information as possible, without working restrictively. The power of theatre is that it can supply the means to develop such a talent yourself. I never under any circumstances want to convince people to start thinking in a certain way, or to pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong.
Theatre needs time, and distance. In today’s world, it’s already asking a lot to take two hours out of your time to think about a theme, certainly for young people. Our experience of time is changing completely. Theatre creates a kind of time bubble and offers us tools to look at the things we think we know in a different way. Moreover, fiction brings us mentally closer to reality. After all, it is thanks to imagination, which is stirred by fiction, that we develop an intimate bond with something or someone – a very personal entranceway. That is the basis of all theatre. That’s its power.
This interview appeared in:
Testimony between History and Memory
121, October 2015, p. 59-63
De welwillenden (The Kindly Ones) opens on the 10th of March 2016 in Antwerp (Toneelhuis, BE).
Tour dates De welwillenden :
10.03.16 Toneelhuis, Bourla, Antwerpen (BE)
12 - 13.03.16 Toneelhuis, Bourla, Antwerpen (BE)
15 - 19.03.16 Toneelhuis, Bourla, Antwerpen (BE)
23 - 25.03.16 Le Phénix, Valenciennes (FR)
29 - 30.03.16 Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Gent (BE)
02.04.16 CC Hasselt (BE)
06 - 09.04.16 Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam (NL)
12 - 16.04.16 Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam (NL)
06 - 08.05.16 Istanbul Theatre Festival (TR)
18 - 21.05.16 Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam (NL)
24 - 28.05.16 Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam (NL)
02 - 04.06.16 Kaaitheater, Brussels (BE)
07.06.16 Stadsschouwburg Groningen (NL)
10 - 11.06.16 Stadsschouwburg Utrecht (NL)
14.06.16 Parkstad Limburg, Heerlen (NL)
16 - 17.06.16 Rotterdamse Schouwburg (NL)
22.06.16 Chassé Theater, Breda (NL)
05- 08.10.16 MC93, Paris (FR)
11 - 12.10.16 RomaEuropa, Rome (IT)
19 - 20.11.16 Festival Temporada Alta, Girona (ES)
23 - 24.01.17 Maison de la Culture d’Amiens (FR)
Production Toneelhuis, Toneelgroep Amsterdam
In collaboration with Le Phénix, Scène nationale de Valenciennes (FR), Maison de la Culture d’Amiens (FR), Istanbul Theatre Festival (TR), Festival Temporada Alta (ES), Festival RomaEuropa (IT)
Co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union
Tour dates Sunken Red :
27.11.15 Parktheater Eindhoven (NL)
02 - 18.12.15 Théâtre de la Bastille, Parijs (FR)
06.01.16 Schouwburg Kortrijk (BE)
19.01.16 30CC, Leuven (BE)
02.02.16 CC Maasmechelen (BE)
14.06.16 Koninklijke Schouwburg Den Haag (NL)