Tribute to the resilience of the little people
“Fuckit, dad, we’re bunglers. Why do we always get done? It always goes wrong for the Geboers.”
That according to Marnix, in De broers Geboers [The Geboers brothers] (1998) by author Arne Sierens (°1959), a hilarious but painful portrait of a marginal family trying to survive in a much too small apartment. Again and again they pay the bill, time after time they are screwed, by society, but also by themselves.
“Their faces say it all. They’re pissing on you. You’re nothing. A louse. The way they pronounce my name: GEBOERS MARNIX. BUT – NOTHING. YOU’RE NOTHING!”
The characters in De broers Geboers dangle at the bottom of the social ladder. The harder they try to escape their own marginality, the more ruthlessly they are pushed back into it. And so Marnix goes to battle against an imaginary enemy, ‘the foreigner’, hoping in this way to command respect.
“For fucksake, Mémé, us brothers have been shat on for long enough, it’s all gotta stop”
Only Mémé, the archetypal mother, remains standing. Without her, the ship would have sunk long ago. Without her, there would be no hope at all.
De broers Geboers is not reality theatre where the marginality of one person is designed to reinforce the normality of another, namely the viewer. It is a tribute to the resilience of the little people. At the same time, Sierens attempts, like Didier Eribon in the marvellous Returning to Reims, to understand why outcasts that are cornered, seek a way out in xenophobia and in the rancidity of extreme right-wing parties. The extravagances of the common man, the floundering of the small people, like a dark red bloodline they run through all the theatre texts of Arne Sierens: men, women, youth trying to survive in the jungle of unemployment benefits, trade union bonuses, paperwork, rent subsidies. Sierens is not interested in the anecdotes of individual lives, but in the human condition, the attempt of people to ‘exist’. He does so with great tenderness, like Louis-Paul Boon. Sierens’ works are not only harsh sketches of the milieu, driven by great social commitment, they are also odes to the grand, heroic struggle of those little people. ‘The history that is not in the books’, to use the words of Boon. All the texts of Arne Sierens are rooted in the everyday. Reality, that is his subject, not the heroic deeds of our repertoire texts. Sierens, however, is not a realist. He’s not a scientific observer of reality that registers and documents reality as clinically as possible. Sierens is an anthropologist: he observes the phenomenon called ‘humanity’, its social reality, and goes in search of the mythical structures behind that reality. He then distorts that reality, enlarges it, moulds it. Sierens makes reality more intense, not to mask it, but to let it enter even harder. His texts and productions are not realistic snapshots of lives,they are an allegory for life itself.
Sierens doesn’t write tragedies, but melodramas. “Tragedy is something for kings, heroes, gods and grand destiny. Melodrama is something between people, things that fatefully go wrong,” he says himself. Melodrama floats on grand feelings: there is crying, shouting, sobbing, and yes, sometimes things are even thrown. He has no fear of sentiment. A smile and a tear, the eternal recipe. Sierens’ melodramas are not postmodern pastiches. They’re not ironic, but loving. “I don’t want spectators, but fellow participants”. His pieces not only aim in the first place to tell stories, but to evoke emotions, to intensify them. Theatre critic Roel Verniers found the productions of Platel and Sierens so intense “that you forget what you know, and you only feel”.
The lives of Sierens’ characters float on misunderstandings, missed opportunities, wrong time, wrong place. They have scratches on their soul, calluses on their hands and feet. And yet they are each in their own way heroes. Because, despite everything, they try to survive. Sometimes these attempts are laughable or pathetic, but they are always moving. Sierens lifts the misery of small people to a higher level: he adds to it an existential dimension. Each character is an archetype in which we recognise a part of ourselves, our vulnerability, our vanity, our fear, but also our courage. They are allegories that, like in medieval theatre, symbolise certain values (not coincidentally he makes of Zingarata a true medieval pageant complete with cart, in this case rented removal vans). Each Sierens text is a social portrait but also an invitation to self-reflection, and even to contemplation, penetrating all the absurdity. Sierens’ characters fight with themselves and with life, like all of us. They are dysfunctional, labile people in search of stability. They undertake, each in their own way, spasmodic attempts to exist, to make life meaningful. This never works out (completely), but precisely in this constant failure lies the vitality of Sierens’ characters. For Sierens, the person is always a bit of a clown, sometimes grotesque, larger than life, but more often a sad, melancholic clown, who – usually against better judgement – tries to make the other laugh. They are existential, metaphysical clowns, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. They are also pranksters, buffoons, know-it-alls who disrupt life. They get themselves into trouble and then attempt to get out of it. And the harder they try, the worse it gets, like Marnix Geboers in De broers Geboers. Sierens’ characters are not driven by their psychology, but by their biological urge to live. They are all heroes and heroines, each in their own bizarre way. A big mouth, but a softie at heart.
Between stage and table
Arne Sierens, born in 1959, grew up in Brugse Poort, a working class district in Ghent. There he learned that stories on the street are waiting to be told. He studied theatre direction at RITCS in Brussels and then became directing assistant at NTGent, Arca and Arena. He joined Parisiana, the anarchist cult ensemble of Eric De Volder and got to know punk. There he picked up the vital anger that would underpin his own work. “The exhibitionist necessity of the live event,” as he describes it. In 1982 he founded the company De Sluipende Armoede together with Jan Leroy. A first milestone in his oeuvre was without a doubt De soldaat-facteur en Rachel [The soldier-postman and Rachel] (1986), a piece about the First World War based on intensive historical research.
Sierens’ theatre is not documentary: it does not record, but gives form. He removes raw material from its context and the anecdotal, further dissects it, to then theatricalise it. This tension between raw reality and accurate form research constitutes the artistic backbone of his research. Which is why Arne Sierens likes Pasolini, Fellini, Kantor, Louis-Paul Boon: all artists who searched in their work for the impossible synthesis between avant-garde art and folk culture, and who searched in their work the genealogical roots of the present.
Sierens’ career developed via a number of collaborations. They often lasted for several years, were intense and energetic, but usually also ended abruptly. Each of these collaborations had a decisive influence on Sierens’ career. An important moment is Mouchette (1990) for Oud Huis Stekelbees, directed by Johan Dehollander. Dehollander is a handyman with a heart for arte povera, a rough bruiser with a soft centre and a lot of cultural baggage, a tender anarchist but also a craftsman who understands how theatre works. Within the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie (under the direction of Luk Perceval), Sierens, as an author, worked together with Dehollander from 1992 to 1994, with among others Boste (1992) and De Drumleraar [The Drum teacher] (1994) as result. They also made Dozen [Boxes] (1993) together. That text was created on the basis of improvisations by the actors. The research therefore takes place on the rehearsal stage – and not on the writing table – via polishing, shaping, rewriting. This intermediate position, between stage and table, will increasingly and more emphatically become Sierens’s stomping ground.
His most well-known collaboration is certainly with choreographer Alain Platel. Together they created Moeder en Kind [Mother and Child] (1994), Bernadetje (1996) and Allemaal Indiaan [All Indian] (1999). Dance, theatre and music flow perfectly together into a language thattouches the hearts of many viewers. The productions of Platel and Sierens are direct, bold, grounded in life itself, but also always poetic and sensitive. In the meantime, in 1995, he joined Stef Ampe and Johan Dehollander at the helm of the Nieuwpoortheater. In this context, Naples (1997) among others was created. In 2004, Sierens forged a new alliance with Marijke Pinoye and Johan Heldenbergh. Together they formed Compagnie Cecilia and created Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand [Our Lady of Perpetual Assistance] (2004), on an ice rink with the audience on two sides. When first Pinoy and then Heldenbergh left Cecilia, Sierens increasingly chose his sparring partners in function of the project itself. For Ensor, for example, he worked with Circus Ronaldo.
Actors have to enjoy themselves in their role, not empathise with it. Sierens’ texts are physical scores tailored to his actors but also shaped by his actors. Each of his texts are odes to the joy of performing. The theatre as quivering life. His career as a writer is largely anchored in the talent of his actors: An Miller, Didier De Neck, Wim Willaert, Johan Heldenbergh, Marijke Pinoy, Titus De Voogdt, Marijke Pinoy, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Tom Vermeir, Greet Verstraete, Sebastien Dewaele, Dominique Van Malder and many others. Sierens’ texts are in fact annotations of rehearsals (with the exception of Lacrima, for which he returned to the writing table). Music and movement act as motor, drive the action, which is then forged into clever dialogues. His texts only come to life on stage, they encourage acting.
Sierens’ uses fundamentally direct language. That language is dialectical, certainly, but at the same time it is also an art language, which is moulded to the mouth of each actor. “What I write is not Ghent dialect. My syntax has more to do with Japanese theatre than with Romain De Coninck,” he says himself. The sentences must sound as if they were plucked from the street. To generate that effect, precise design of the language is required. “If my zipper was stuck from below and from above, you always pried it free,” Mimi says carelessly in Maria Eeuwigdurende bijstand. The expression doesn’t exist, and yet it sounds as if it always existed and belongs in the mouth of Mimi. Sierens’ theatre is very popular with amateur companies. Which is no coincidence: his texts invite acting, are direct, roll easily off the tongue, and come to life immediately. The everyday language and situations are far removed from the ingenious rhetoric that characterises many other theatre texts. The texts of Sierens do not intimidate, but invite, to enjoy them, not to empathise with them. At the same time, they transcend the anecdotal couleur locale. His texts are not just sketches of the Ghent surroundings: they are allegorical portraits of humanity in all its versatility, and especially in all its heroic insignificance. They thus transcend their own context. Everyone has a bit the feeling of recognising a part of themselves in his characters.
Written by Karel Vanhaesebrouck
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Karel Vanhaesebrouck is a professor of theatre and performance studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he teaches courses in the MA program “Arts du spectacle vivant” and acts as a director of the research center CiASp | Centre de recherche en Cinéma et Arts du Spectacle. He also works as a theory lecturer at the Brussel-based film and theatre school RITCS and at ESACT in Liège. He has published widely, both in journals and book, on theatre, culture and history and has works as a dramaturge for different artists and companies.
- De Slaapkameratleet (1981)
- Het Vermoeden* (1982)
- Rode Oogst I (1983)
- Rode Oogst II (1984)
- De Reis naar het Donkere Kontinent (1985)
- De soldaat-facteur en Rachel* (1986)
- Los Muertisitos/Onze Lieve Doden (1988)
- Mouchette* (1990)
- Boste* (1992)
- Kaïet, Kaïet (1992)
- Dozen* (1993) – in collaboration with Johan Dehollander
- De Drumleraar* (1994)
- Juffrouw Tania (1994)
- Moeder en kind* (1995) – in collaboration with Alain Platel
- Bernadetje (1996) – in collaboration with Alain Platel
- Napels* (1997) – in collaboration with Johan Dehollander
- De Broers Geboers* (1998)
- Mijn Blackie* (1998)
- Allemaal Indiaan (1999) – in collaboration with Alain Platel
- Niet Alle Marokkanen zijn Dieven* (2001)
- Martino* (2003)
- Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand* (2004)
- Meiskes en Jongens* (2005)
- Trouwfeesten en Processen, vuile Hoeren, bedriegers, slechte ouders, domme kinders, enzovoorts, tot het einde der tijden* (2006)
- Broeders van Liefde* (2008)
- Altijd prijs* (2008)
- Apenverdriet* (2009)
- Schöne Blumen* (2010)
- De Pijnders* (2011) – published by Vrijdag in ‘Mannen alstublieft’
- Lacrima* (2012) – published by Vrijdag in ‘Mannen alstublieft’
- Gloria (in den Hoge)* (2013)
- Ensor* (2014)
- Poepsimpel* (2015) – published by Vrijdag in ‘Mannen alstublieft’
- Zingarate* (2017)
- Heilig Hart* (2018)
*published by Hulot