Passion for both politics and theatre came early to Eric de Vroedt (°1972). Already as a child he admired the then-prime minister Joop den Uyl, resulting in a determination to study political science. But being an energetic little fellow, his mother encouraged him to follow drama courses, and thus his love of theatre was born. De Vroedt discovered that his drive to persuade people and to tell stories – which is why he wanted to go into politics – were actually better suited to theatre, and following a drama instructor’s recommendation he decided to enrol in theatre school. He gained admission to the School of Acting in Arnhem, but during his study there he was strongly gripped by the war in Yugoslavia. It forced him to ponder what it actually means to be politically engaged, and how he could respond to such events as a theatre maker. Following his graduation in 1996 he teamed up with a number of former classmates to found a theatre company, Monk. There he evolved as a director and a playwright; a career that he would continue to pursue after leaving Monk.
A number of serious societal and political events occurred in the years following his graduation. De Vroedt felts such a strong need to respond to these events that he decided to write new plays that directly address the events in the world. This marked the start of his mightysociety series (2004-2012), which would eventually come to consist of ten parts. “My position was: let’s stop doing the Ibsens, Chekhovs and Shakespeares, because those pieces are no longer about the day and age we live in. I felt this very strongly in especially 2002, 2003, in the wake of the 11 September attacks, the murder of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, and the rise of terrorism and globalisation. It’s irrelevant then to stage a drama that only takes place in some little fjord,” he explained in 2017 on the website of the VPRO media company.
In his mightysociety project, de Vroedt addresses the topical issues both through content and through form. His pieces are about themes such as terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, globalisation and Geert Wilders. The setting can be a healing session in one piece, an anti-musical in the next, or we find ourselves attending a press conference. The theatre texts are fast and satirical, but never become one-dimensional, since all the pieces are based on very thorough research by de Vroedt. Various issues are examined from various angles, and what is proclaimed as the truth at one point can easily be discredited a few moments later. De Vroedt does not shy away from critically examining his own work, either, as he does in mightysociety 8 (2010). The piece is announced as an anti-musical about Geert Wilders, but turns out to be about the playwright engaged in a conflict with himself. For is there really such a difference between de Vroedt’s politically engaged theatre and a musical without any real content? Is his own work not just a matter of preaching to the converted? Definitive answers are rarely offered, but his plays do raise and scrutinise a wide variety of issues, leaving the audience with little choice but to reflect on these matters.
A striking aspect of all the mightysociety pieces is the impact of language. De Vroedt overwhelms his audience with a blaze of words delivered in devastating dialogues.
AYGÜL You read my columns too?
SVEN You bet I do, I devour them.
AYGÜL With tingling ears.
SVEN With reverberating ears, the way you don’t mince your words.
AYGÜL About time someone said so.
SVEN That is why I said so.
AYGÜL We’ve been gagged for too long.
SVEN You have been gagged, dammit you’ve been gagged.
AYGÜL At least now we can say what we –
SVEN Don’t say, can’t say.
AYGÜL Now you’re gagging me again.
SVEN You just can’t say what you think these days.
(from: mightysociety 3, 2006)
With his mightysociety series, de Vroedt sets the tone for a new type of engaged theatre. He also introduced a new phenomenon, the ‘side show’: a fringe programme in which he places the plays in a broader socio-political context. Through lectures, films, interviews and debates, themes from the plays are addressed by experts in the field. Over the years, the mightysociety sideshows have received hundreds of prominent people from the worlds of politics, science, art and journalism. De Vroedt produced his mightysociety performances from 2004 on under the banner of TA-2: a talent development programme set up by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which enabled him to evolve further as a major stage director. In collaboration with TA he directed, besides the mightysociety performances, pieces including A Streetcar named Desire (2008), The Entertainer (2014) and Koningin Lear [Queen Lear] (2015).
In 2016 de Vroedt joined Het Nationale Theater in The Hague, becoming artistic director in 2018. At Het Nationale Theater he wrote and directed his next major theatre project titled The Nation (2017): a marathon performance in six episodes on the turbulent multicultural society in the Netherlands, concentrating specifically on The Hague’s Schilderswijk neighbourhood. De Vroedt spent a year walking around this neighbourhood in preparation for this piece. It furnished him with a wealth of material which he then incorporated in the six episodes. The piece portrays the various layers of society – police officers, jihadists, business people, politicians, journalists, welfare workers – each committed to their own interests. The Nation is de Vroedt’s answer to the current status quo of theatre. In line with his mightysociety project, he feels more strongly than ever that theatre must not ignore today’s society. To survive as an art form in the 21st century, theatre makers must engage with the concerns of a contemporary and culturally diverse audience, and must seek new forms that appeal directly to their life world. That is why de Vroedt again employs a form that is responsive to contemporary life, by casting The Nation in a Netflix-type format, full of exciting cliff-hangers and referencing the popular pastime of ‘binge watching’. The episodes are each an adaptation of popular television genres, such as the police series, the talk show, the documentary. Reality and fiction, dramatized and virtual reality are cleverly entwined, and just about all of the urgent issues that people feel strongly about nowadays are dissected down to the bone. De Vroedt continually reiterates the question: can we still see another person as an individual, or do we only see our own stereotypes?
DAMIR Do you think it’s because of you that I don’t want to shake your hand?
KEURSMA No, I assume it’s because of a religious rule that you wish to observe. But I would like to…
DAMIR It’s not about you and not about me. It’s about something that’s bigger than either of us. It is a metaphysical moment in everyday reality. It’s about submission.
DAMIR About the willingness to efface myself. To efface you. To keep our potential desire under control. To do away with every instance of intimacy, even if it’s just touching hands. This way, at the very instant of our very real greeting, God himself occurs.
KEURSMA I get a sense of distance, more than anything.
DAMIR And I sense the immediacy of God.
KEURSMA But I’m left standing here all alone, holding out an unanswered hand.
DAMIR You’re completely absorbed by a sense of humiliation. Are you not lonely, in your cocoon? From where you can only relate the whole world to your own brain? As if everything in the world only exists in relation to you. Which is the biggest lie ever. You really don’t count for anything, Hester. Really not. All of us are nothing. We don’t have a clue as to what is going on, here in this universe.
(From: The Nation, episode 3)
The text of The Nation is to the point, witty, and full of surprising twists and turns. It is a razor-sharp analysis of social issues on the one hand, while making the personal interests of the various characters palpable on the other. These are flesh-and-blood people who regularly leave the audience moved. According to de Vroedt, theatre offers a perfect stage to reveal the human dimension to social and political issues. Theatre allows him to offer nuance, to present different views and to make these comprehensible to the audience. As he explained in an interview with Het Parool newspaper in 2017: “Ultimately, it’s about the moment when the overload of information and chaos are captured in an artistic form that suddenly makes the real problem tangible. So that the members of the audience truly grasp the complexity of the issues and of the surrounding debates, and thereby experience a catharsis.”
As Eric de Vroedt’s plays always mirror contemporary issues and events in society and politics, in combination with careful observation of ordinary people’s everyday lives, his works constitute important historical documents. They reflect on a specific period in national and international history, and analyse the state of society during that period. De Vroedt’s pieces thus eternalise the Netherlands of yesterday and today and thereby reach beyond the time and age in which they were created.
Written by Manon Wittebol
Translated by Jan Warndorff
- Go, baby go!* (2002)
- Couleur Locale* (2003)
- pendant la nuit* (2004)
- mightysociety1 Hoe ook ik leerde te houden van het nieuwste politieke wonderkind* (2004)
- mightysociety2 Hoe ook ik ineens verzeild raakte in ‘The War on Terror’* (2005)
- mightysociety3 Hoe ook ik de laatste seconden van een zelfmoordterrorist beleefde* (2006)
- mightysociety4 Hoe ook ik het geluk zocht in de Global Age* (2007)
- mightysociety5 Hoe ook ik verlangde naar een nieuwe utopie* (2008)
- mightysociety6 Hoe ook ik de oorlog mee naar huis nam* (2009)
- mightysociety7 Hoe ook ik vergrijsde maar me jonger voelde dan ooit* (2010)
- mightysociety9 Liefde in tijden van gifaffaires* (2011)
- mightysociety10 Hoe ook ik de liefde vond in Azië* (2012)
- The Nation (afleveringen 1 t/m 6)* (2017) (translated to German and English)
*uitgegeven bij De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek