Bruno Mistiaen (°1959) began his career as a video maker. However, he quickly chose theatre and more specifically writing theatre texts as his artistic medium. In addition to being a writer, he is a director and translator. His first production in 1990 was an adaptation of texts by the Belgian-French writer Henri Michaux. After this, Mistiaen wrote only original work. Since 2002 he has also focused on writing prose.
“Bruno Mistiaen likes to write theatre texts. He is interested in half-hearted, duplicitous, hypocritical and corrupt people”, as he briefly but clearly describes himself. Mistiaen writes theatre texts because he likes to. Not because he was given a writing assignment. Not because he wants to stage his texts himself or wants to see them staged immediately. No, just because he likes to do it. Mistiaen is therefore one of the few playwrights in Flanders who writes stage texts independently of a specific assignment, independently of a planned staging, and independently of a specific company. However, he pays a price for that independence: several of his pieces have not (yet) been performed, and as a playwright he is still relatively unknown. Over the past three decades, Mistiaen has written fifteen idiosyncratic fables in which contemporary society is held up to a dark and painful mirror.
Formally, the theatre texts of Mistiaen can be called classical. They are ‘finished’ constructions. He does not experiment with language or form. He builds his dramas around a conflict, a development and an ending, with dialogue being the main carrier of the action. In terms of content, Mistiaen’s pieces are black comedies. The “half-hearted, duplicitous, hypocritical and corrupt people” who inhabit his universe are our contemporaries. Mistiaen’s pieces are cynical, hard, unsentimental and full of black humour. Due to the grotesque enlargements, there is no traditional character description present among the characters. Mistiaen’s pieces are primarily moral scans of contemporary society. The titles of pieces such as Onze-Lieve-vrouw van Pijn [Our Lady of Pain] (1993), Vacherie (1995), De papa, de mama en de nazi [The dad, the mommy and the Nazi] (2003), Uw Penis [Your Penis] (2011), Jezus is een aap [Jesus is a monkey] (2013), Oorlog, seks en hulpverlening [War, sex and assistance] (2014), and Mijn geld is op [I’m out of money] (2015), Die ster draag ik niet [I won’t wear that star] (2016), Een kut voor een kut [A cunt for a cunt](2017) evoke a world in the morbid grip of sex, money, religion, abuse of power and manipulation. And that morbid grip can be taken literally: many of Mistiaen’s pieces end in murder or suicide.
It is no coincidence that one of his pieces explicitly refers to the paintings of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, two German painters from the interbellum who dealt with the morals of their time in an aggressive, satirical and critical- grotesque way. Mistiaen’s worldview also shows similarities with the in-yer-face theatre of the nineties by English stage authors such as Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and fucking), Sarah Kane (Blasted), Martin Crimp (Attempts on Her Life) and Patrick Marber (Closer) in which manipulation, torture and extreme violence have become everyday conventions. The cheeky and intense plots of Mistiaen’s pieces also tie in with films from the nineties like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino, or Natural Born Killers (1994) by Oliver Stone, about a young couple travelling through America on a killing spree, followed by the media.
Vacherie is a good example.Bobby, a failed model and an equally failed porn star, and his girlfriend Carolien, a prostitute, are responsible for the death of their mistreated and malnourished baby Wendy. The play opens with the daughter lying dead in her cradle and Fiona, a family doctor coming to determine the cause of death. When Fiona understands what happened, Bobby pulls a plastic bag over her head until she collapses unconscious. Bobby and Carolien discuss what to do with the two bodies, they argue and have sex. When Fiona recovers, she is undressed and raped according to the codes of a porn movie. Then Bobby places her head in the gas oven, pushes a candle into her butt, lights the candle and turns on all the stove’s gas knobs. The piece ends with this image derived from SM porn and horror film. Human interaction in Mistiaen’s pieces takes place within a dehumanised and often obscene victim-executioner relationship.
Social and ideological panorama
While Mistiaen may concentrate on the destructive relationships of people in an intimate circle, this never happens in an environment that is removed from society. Quite the reverse: the physical and psychological violence between the characters is always the expression of a social reality. Racism, terrorism, religious extremism, May ‘68, euthanasia, Islam, aid … are implicit and explicit. Thus behind Of Donalda (2012) is a political analysis of the present era in which the old leftist ideals of the 1960s clash with the shift to the right and the intercultural conflicts of the 21st century. The accumulation of events, traumas and ideologies is typical of many works by Mistiaen. Unemployed Ernesto moves in with his parents, Donald and Benedicte, who live in a poor neighbourhood in Brussels. In their youth, Donald and Benedicte intensively engaged in left-wing resistance and an alternative hippie lifestyle. Donald then disappeared from the lives of his wife and son for years. He was unable to cope with the loss of his ideals. The renewed contact with his son is very difficult. With his old left-wing comrade-in-arms Gaston, Donald, who has only a few months to live due to cancer, wants to set up a revolutionary cell to kidnap Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the student leader of May ‘68, during a lecture in Brussels. ‘Red Danny’ must be shown to the world as he really is:
“Cohn-Bendit is a pig, He’s done untold damage to liberation theology, more than all the papal bulls put together. He dragged the revolt of ’68, which was essentially religious, into sex. Student sex. The drain where everything’s blocked.”
Benedicte, thanks to her spiritual disposition, was initially able to reconcile herself to life in the migrant neighbourhood. She even wore a headscarf out of respect for Muslims and sometimes prayed to Allah because after all it was ultimately the same god. Later in the play, she holds a fierce extreme right discourse that she, however, immediately relativises. Ernesto finds his place in the neighbourhood thanks to Mustafa, who claims not to be gay, but Ernesto nevertheless forces him to satisfy him. Ernesto comes into contact with a discussion group of policemen who claim not to be neo-Nazis, yet are deeply concerned about the future of Western civilization. As he feels his end approaching, Donald withdraws into the basement room that was intended for the kidnapped Cohn-Bendit. There he waits until Ernesto and Benedicte, who are now in a relationship and expecting a child, come to suffocate him with a pillow. A contemporary panorama of social and ideological attitudes is observed here through a cynical and grotesque lens.
One of the best pieces Mistiaen has written is De papa, de mama en de nazi. A meticulous and crystal-clear description is made of how a boy, due to the traumatic departure of his mother and the passivity of his father, builds up an imaginary identity for himself as a neonazi via the internet. Mistiaen exposes the entire mechanism as compensation for an outside world perceived as threatening. The boy is even able to motivate his father to parade through the living room in Nazi uniforms and indulge in horrific fantasies of violence and humiliation. He is also able to convince his friend to join him. Together they emulate their Nazi self-projection:
We want to be like the young men we’ve seen on YouTube, with bare torsos, open faces, a special haircut and blissful eyes. This isn’t a game. This is change. There’s finally hope. Our destiny is improving. Our backs are straight. We’re getting followers. They’re flocking to us: the stupid, the lazy, the ugly, the flawed, the penniless, the losers, the TV addicts, the children of drug users, the children of the right-minded, the children of single-parents, the sheep. Not with us: the intelligent, the beautiful, the popular, the right-minded, the serious-minded, those with full pockets, and their followers. We are the Order. We hate chaos. We dress in black and we shout ‘heil’.
The boy is completely absorbed in his new worldview to almost mystical heights:
“Hate was everything, justified everything. The whole world was hate, the solar system was hate, the cosmos pulverised itself, by itself, in itself.”
Rarely has the fascination for Nazism and its inherent nihilism been expressed so sharply and in such a frighteningly convincing way.
Mistiaen’s dramas are a conscious concatenation of brutal relationships and uncomfortable, even repulsive and reprehensible, situations: “It may seem paradoxical, but tragic, heartbreaking, moving scenes are often too easily digestible. Theatre may not be easily digestible”, says the author. His pieces stage morally deviant and taboo-breaking behaviour. They are a slap in the face of a humanistic vision. In the laboratory of his text, the writer places his characters in extreme situations and then – with visible pleasure – observes what happens. If Mistiaen ‘likes’ to write theatre texts, it is for this reason. With the sardonic gaze of the outsider, Mistiaen cuts open the underbelly of society. And what emerges from it is rarely beautiful, but no less real.
Written by Erwin Jans
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Erwin Jans is currently working as a dramaturg at Toneelhuis in Antwerpen. He teaches theater and drama at Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen where he also does research on the history of the dramatic text. He writes extensively on literature, theater and culture. He published Interculturele intoxicaties. Over kunst, cultuur en verschil (Intercultural intoxications. On art, culture and diversity) (2006). He was co-editor of an anthology of Flemish postwar poetry Hotel New Flandres (2008). Together with the philosopher Eric Clemens he wrote an essay on democracy that was also translated in French (2010). Last year he published an anthology of the dramatic work of the Flemish playwright and director Tone Brulin (2017).
- Onze Lievevrouw van Pijn (1994) – published by Bebuquin
- Vacherie* (2010)
- Uw Penis* (2011)
- De Papa, de Mama en de Nazi* (2012)
- Jezus is een aap!* (2013)
- Oorlog, seks en hulpverlening* (2014)
- Mijn geld is op* (2015)
- Die ster draag ik niet* (2016)
- Een kut voor een kut* (2017)
- Grote Nederlagen* (2018)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek