‘Where are you from?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Everyone comes from somewhere.’
‘From the fog.’
The character Sigrid in De verschrikkelijke moeder [The Terrible Mother] (2004) by Alex Warmerdam has no idea where she comes from, and she is certainly not the only character like that in the author’s plays. In Alex van Warmerdam’s universe, the characters seem to have been planted from somewhere out of the blue by their maker. The world of van Warmerdam stands on its own, and whoever engages with this writer’s plays more frequently will instantly recognise this world. The plays are often populated by families who find themselves trapped in stifling relationships, by dominant women and seductive girls, and by men who are unable to suppress their desire. His characters live in isolation or are on their way to some place, although their exact destination is never clear. It is all about the situation they currently find themselves in, which is often already absurd enough.
Alex van Warmerdam (°1952) was born in Haarlem. After graduating from the Graphic Lyceum he attended the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, where he graduated in free graphics and painting. Van Warmerdam is the co-founder of the musical theatre company Hauser Orkater. With plays such as Het Vermoeden [The Suspicion] (1977) and Zie de Mannen Vallen [Watch the Men Fall] (1979), the company became highly successful at home and abroad. He first started working as a playwright during his time at Hauser Orkater (1974-1980) by contributing texts to the various productions. When the group dissolved in 1980, several other companies continued as the Orkater Foundation. Together with Thijs van der Poll and his brother Marc van Warmerdam, Alex van Warmerdam established theatre company De Mexicaanse Hond. For this company he wrote and directed several plays. Van Warmerdam also acts, composes music (often in collaboration with others), and works on stage design.
In van Warmerdam’s first plays, including Graniet [Granite] (1982), De Wet van Luisman [Luisman’s Law] (1984), De Leugenbroeders [Brothers of Lies] (1988), and Het Noorderkwartier [The NoorderkwartierDistrict] (1990), the dialogues are often interspersed with songs and musical pieces. The texts from this period still contain many stage directions and thus resemble a film script more than a traditional play script. Van Warmerdam extensively describes the images and actions in between the dialogues. At any moment, the spoken texts can switch to a film clip, a talking painting, or human silhouettes cut from wood that are part of the decor. In addition to the actors, there are always musicians on stage, ready to walk into a scene and burst out in song. In Kaatje is verdronken [Kaatje has Drowned] (1993), there is more room for the dialogues between the characters, and in Kleine Teun [Little Teun] (1996), the musicians have disappeared completely. The layering of the story, for which van Warmerdam in his first plays used various types of media and complex role changes, is now achieved mainly by the use of language and characters. In the following years, van Warmerdam increasingly developed his specific writing style in plays such as Adel Blank (2000), Welkom in het Bos [Welcome to the Forest] (2002), De verschrikkelijke moeder (2004), Wees ons genadig [Have Mercy on Us] (2007) and Bij het kanaal naar links [Turn Left at the Canal] (2011).
Meanwhile, van Warmerdam also made a name for himself as a filmmaker with the film Abel. In this genre, too, he has developed a distinctive style of his own, not only as a director but also as an author, composer and actor, and as a set designer. Titles such as De Noordelingen [The Northerners], De Jurk [The Dress], Grimm and Ober [Waiter] bring van Warmerdam to new heights in both the Dutch film world and internationally. His film Borgman was the first Dutch production in 38 years to be selected for the main competition of the prestigious film festival in Cannes.
Van Warmerdam’s world
A striking feature of Alex van Warmerdam’s early work is that the leading roles are often played by men. Women are usually portrayed as mysterious creatures, with whom the childishly clumsy men hardly have any contact even though they love to fantasise about them. Kaatje is verdronken was his first play with a female character in the lead role. The story revolves around fifteen-year-old Kaatje whose emerging sexuality and rebellion drives her parents to despair. From that piece onwards, women increasingly play a prominent role in van Warmerdam’s work; they are often dominant mothers and spouses (Kleine Teun, De verschrikkelijke moeder, Adel Blank), but also desirable muses (Wees ons genadig) or preys to be chased after (Welkom in het Bos). Van Warmerdam also starts to situate his plays more often in a family setting. It is an ideal setting to trigger his imagination. As he explained in an interview with newspaper Trouw, “There is always so much going on in a family, you can let anything happen without having to explain it”. Within the battlefield of the family, there is always someone who wants to break out and step into the wider world, but often there is no way out. Everything stays within the walls of the family or the village. And when an outsider suddenly invades the closed community, it causes tempers to rise even further. And if one nonetheless manages to break free, it often leads to nowhere. In Welkom in het Bos, two women roam through a Shakespearean forest, encountering several strange characters along the way, while it remains unclear where they are actually going.
It is equally uncertain where the van Warmerdam characters come from, what their background is and what drives them. The parts are not always easy for the actors to play. As the actor Aat Ceelen once said in a speech in the 1990s: “The scripts written by Alex van Warmerdam are the most terrible and miserable texts ever written for actors.” Ceelen, who played in many works by van Warmerdam, of course said this smilingly. What he meant is that the characters often speak for themselves to such an extent that it doesn’t leave much for an actor to add.
You have a son. You never told me that.
Why would I? The son exists, we mention him occasionally. Why would I say: ‘Dora, I have a son.’ I wouldn’t say: ‘Dora, I have a bicycle’, when you can simply see me cycling.
(from: Welkom in het Bos)
Van Warmerdam does not need the psychology of the characters to bring them to life. “When I create characters, I actually don’t know anything about them. If you were to ask me: ‘That man has a daughter, does he have more children?’, then I wouldn’t know,’ he said in an interview with Vrij Nederland magazine. His characters exist by the grace of the moment, which is what often makes them so entertaining. What you see is what you get. They almost never bog down in sentimental thoughts or confess their secret emotions. That is simply unnecessary, as they just tell it like it is. Their language is direct and revealing.
‘Now I am eating my pastry and tomorrow you will have a moustache.
And the shame you feel for not growing a beard is extremely outdated.
You’re not a Batavian.’
(from: Adel Blank)
Nevertheless, van Warmerdam sometimes adds counterstrokes to his style by suddenly letting his characters burst into lyrical song, to express their inner self. When Elvira in De verschrikkelijke moeder explains to her brother that she wants to move up north with him, the mere idea terrifies him. After all, every man poses a danger to her.
“And don’t fall for his blue eyes and tender hand gesture, for the flask with the cool water and for the unsalted bread; don’t fall for his ornate chest hair and his sweet body odour reeking of goats.”
But Elvira is not looking for a man, she simply wants to go out:
“A calm wave is what I want; the flag of the herring cart fluttering in the wind.”
The plays by van Warmerdam are often populated by people that live on the fringes of society. They live in their own universe, where nothing is obvious and the strange becomes normal. This is why his pieces are sometimes described as ‘modern fairy tales for adults’. Van Warmerdam was strongly inspired by the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers, and this influence is often apparent in his work.
With his play Bij het kanaal naar links, van Warmerdam takes a slightly different path. For the first time he adds a touch of contemporary social critique. Bij het kanaal naar links is about the fear of the unfamiliar and of hatred within one’s own culture. By exposing our national character, van Warmerdam addresses currently relevant themes. It is a play in the typical van Warmerdam style; again set within the cramped walls of two families. However, with this script, he also breaks out of his own universe by engaging with the reality of everyday life.
In 2011 van Warmerdam received the Dutch Language Union Toneelschrijfprijs, an annual literary award, for Bij het kanaal naar links. According to the jury report, “Van Warmerdam’s sense of image, language, pace, content, seriousness, and humour all come together perfectly in this play”.
Written by Manon Wittebol
Translated by Jan Warndorff
Hauser Orkater collective
- Op avontuur (1972)
- Famous Artists (1975)
- Het vermoeden (1977)
- Entree Brussels (1978)
- Zie de mannen vallen (1979)
De Mexicaanse Hond
- Broers (1981)
- Graniet (1982)
- De wet van Luisman (1984)
- Onnozele kinderen (1986) – published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek
- De leugenbroeders (1988)
- Het Noorderkwartier (1989)
- Kaatje is verdronken (1993)
- Kleine Teun (1996)
- Adel Blank (1999)
- Welkom in het bos (2002) – published by Rap
- De verschrikkelijke moeder (2004) – published by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
- Wees ons genadig (2007) – published by Nieuw Amsterdam
- Bij het kanaal naar links (2011) – published by Nieuw Amsterdam
- Het gelukzalige (2016) – published by Nieuw Amsterdam