Jan Decorte is one of the most distinctive Flemish theatre makers of the past decades. His influence on the movement to innovate Flemish theatre during the 1980s was crucial and continues to this day. The Flemish Community honoured him with the 2018 Flemish Prize for Overall Cultural Merit. At the same time, he is an artistic loner who has always gone his own way. Decorte is the writer, actor and director of his own productions. His career, which now covers fifty years, is an uncompromising search for the essence of theatre, text and acting. ‘Career’ is perhaps the wrong word because work and life are inextricably linked for Decorte. The major crises, depressions and torments in his life are reflected in his texts and productions. His life partner Sigrid Vinks is his closest artistic collaborator and she has acted in all his productions since 1984.
Tragedy and archaic violence
Few theatre makers have renewed themselves as often and as radically as Decorte. Even before graduating from directing in Brussels, he wrote several baroque and lyrical dramas with mythical and violent fables that suggest the influence of Artaud and especially Jerzy Grotowski, whose ritual and physical theatre Decorte discovered in those years. Kosmika (1969), for example, treats the primal tension between good and evil in three stories based respectively on the Eddas (Northern European mythological songs of the gods), the regicide Macbeth, and the perverted child rapist Gilles de Rais. Macbeth is a common thread in the work of Decorte. In his own words, his passion for the theatre ignited when his mother pushed that tragedy into his hands. Shakespeare’s play and the possibility of tragedy are also the subject of the thesis he wrote at the end of his directing education. The Jungian archetype plays an important role in this. Macbeth explicitly appears again twice: in 1987 with Macbeth Party, and in 1994 with Bloetwollefduivel [Bloodwolfdevil], two key moments in his development. Shakespeare’s King Lear, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet also appear more than once in Decorte’s oeuvre.The tragic awareness of human existence is the core of his theatre work, although it would take a while before he found its most striking expression.
Decorte taught directing during the seventies and forms a generation of theatre makers that would break through in the eighties. In his texts he uses a seemingly realistic idiom that is close to the spoken language, but that retains a lyrical-ritual undercurrent. Behind the anecdotal story hides an archetypal fable: in the case of Jongens [Boys] (1973), it is the Christian passion story and for Landschap – Lear [Landscape – Lear] (1975), it is based on King Lear by Shakespeare, two fables about violence, suffering, death and demise. These texts are far from the political engagement that defined the dynamics of Flemish theatre in the 1970s. Decorte is not about an analysis of social abuses or the class struggle, but rather a descent into the dark caverns of the soul. In his texts and theatre, Decorte will continue to explore images of suffering, blood, hanging, crucifixion, violence and sacrifice in order to explore the abysses of human existence.
Fragments of the repertoire
In the second half of the seventies, Decorte refrained from writing and turned his gaze to the classical repertoire. The influence of German theatre can clearly be felt. The mythical dimension of Artaud and Grotowski is replaced by the materialism and pessimism of German regietheatre. Decorte undermines the traditional theatre codes: he deliberately lets his actors explicitly speak and act ‘amateurishly’ in order to sabotage any emotional identification of the audience with the story. It is a disruptive reckoning with the conventions of a bourgeois theatre and the certainties of a bourgeois ideology. Decorte’s radical handling of texts shows itself in his idiosyncratic translations of repertoire pieces such as Maria Magdalena (1981, Hebbel), Torquato Tasso (1982, Goethe) and King Lear (1983, Shakespeare). These translations display a high sensitivity to the plasticity and concreteness of language. In his translations, Decorte often retains the syntax and word order of the original language: hyper-correct, but precisely because of this, ungrammatical and alienating. It is also at this time that Decorte discovered the work of the aforementioned East German author Heiner Müller, whose texts he staged in 1981 with Mauser/De Hamletmachine and in 1983 with Der Auftrag. Müller’s handling of texts is crucial for Decorte. He breaks open the traditional theatre text into a visionary montage of lyrical, epic and dramatic elements, full of fragments of political history and current events.
Equally radically and unexpectedly, Decorte breaks with his meticulous staging of the repertoire and starts what he calls his ‘poetic actional phase’ with Scènes/Sprookjes [Scenes/Fairy Tales] (1983), Mythologies (1984), and Anatomie [Anatomy] (1984). Decorte himself now also appears on stage. A dramaturgy based on the hyper-correct translation of the repertoire and an almost anti-theatrical staging makes way for a dramaturgy based on text collages and children’s games. It is a logical step: the linguistic architecture – whose decay is already visible in the meticulous translations of the repertoire – now completely collapses. Only fragments of the repertoire remain that can be acted and edited as desired. This is where his interest in comedy begins – Kleur is alles [Colour is everything] (1985) – and for the simplified rewriting of classics: In het kasteel [In the castle] (1985) based on Hamlet, and Op een avond in… [On an evening in …] (1986) based on Hedda Gabler are the first works in this direction.
Decorte’s dismantlement of classical theatre and the classical text reaches an end with Macbeth Party (1987). The text has been reduced to a few A4 sheets hanging on the wall. The beginning and end of the production, which takes place in a large mansion, are completely indecipherable: the actors walk back and forth with golden crowns and wooden swords, and everything ends in a party for the confidants. Much less is no longer possible, and Decorte too is aware of this. He starts writing texts again, which results in his so-called AIDS Trilogy: Het Stuk Stuk [The broken piece] (1987), In Ondertussendoor [In between the meantime] (1987) and Naar Vulvania [To Vulvania] (1989). These are comedies about the adventures of the Existential Prince – Decorte himself –, an outdated version of The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry, full of slapstick, silly jokes, puns, meta-theatre, art-philosophical statements, fantasises about sex, uncomfortably light-hearted discussions about AIDS, suicide, etc. It is an important step in the development of Decorte’s later, consciously naive, minimal writing. In contrast to the early work that was made almost in opposition to the audience, Decorte now looks for more generous communication with the spectator. He even appeared on television as a regular guest in a game show and sits for a number of years in parliament as a representative of the R.O.S.S.E.M. party, a Belgian libertarian political party also inspired by anarchism, founded in 1993 by Jean-Pierre Van Rossem and dissolved in 2014.
With In het moeras [In the swamp] (1990) and Meneer de zot en het kind [Mr. Fool and the child] (1991) – rewrites of respectively Woyzeck and King Lear– Decorte completes the contours of his ‘childlike’ writing. That which is ‘childlike’ is best summarised by the simple formula: “childlike = childish – (sexual) innocence”. ‘In other words, ‘childlike’ can only be the violated adult. Decorte received the 1990 Dutch-Flemish Playwright Award for Meneer de zot en het kind. From then on, Decorte focused almost exclusively on ‘compacting’ major tragedies in all meanings of the word: shortening the text, limiting the characters, reducing the plot to the essence of the fable, and re-translating it into the poetic, minimalist, ‘childlike’ idiom that has become Decorte’s hallmark. Due to these interventions, the texts are no longer adaptations but new autonomous pieces. Few take the repertoire as seriously as Decorte: he bases himself on Macbeth, Oedipus, Im Dickicht der Städte, Ivanov, The Tempest, Oresteia, Much Ado About Nothing, Die Rauber, Othello… At the crossroads of the archetypal, tragic and childlike, Decorte stages the primordial conflicts – the struggle between man and his destiny, between man and woman, between reason and intoxication, between revenge and justice, between rebellion and authority, between guilt and innocence, between torment and desire for redemption, between destruction and purity – in a consciously naive and seemingly simplistic language with a minimalist design.
Descent into hell and resurrection
Decorte omits in the published texts capital letters and punctuation marks: two organisational principles that give order to the language flow and make it readable. The writing seems to come from a deep libidinal layer. The phonetically written words are reconnected with the body, with the breath, with passion, with the libido. The phonetic writing – and thus letting go of the official spelling –, the strengthening of the Flemish idiom, and the ever-slimmer text columns characterise the further development of his texts. The text column often appears in the middle of the page, surrounded by more and more white space. It becomes, in a certain way, increasingly lonely.
Decorte best describes his existential feeling with the religious title he gives to the last act of Bloetwollefduivel: Descente aux enfers et résurrection – von Satan mich befreiet Jesu [Bloodwolfdevil: Descent into hell and resurrection – Satan frees me from Jesus]. He wrote the text in a time of deep crisis. Man, lost somewhere between angel and beast, is a plaything of the forces of good and evil, of redemption and damnation, at the mercy of passion and violence, guilt and shame. In his visionary and associative text from 2005, which is reminiscent of both slam poetry and Heiner Müller, the archetypal suffering of Christ on Calvary is connected beyond the boundaries of time and space to the battlefields of Napoleon, destroyed Iraq, the terror of the Taliban, the fate of Palestinians and the death of the refugee Samira Adamu on her forced return to Africa.
Decorte’s theatre is a long and painful search, full of fractures and obstacles – a descent into hell and a resurrection – towards a contemporary and personal tragic expression that the writer ultimately finds in his ‘childlike’ writing: an intentionally naive, minimal, Flemish, lyrical and musical idiom with which he looks into the abysses of humanity.
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Written by Erwin Jans
Translated by Dan Frett
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).
- De beer die sterft (1968)
- Kosmika (1969)
- De bende van Jan de Lichte (1970) – in collaboration with Jan Devos
- Het Spel van de Spaanse Monnik Ambrosio (1971)
- Jongens (1973)
- Landschap – Lear (1975)
- Vrouwen (1976)
- In een modern appartement, het is avond (1978)
- In het kasteel (1985) – to ‘Hamlet’
- Kleur is alles (1985) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- Het Stuk-Stuk (1986) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- In Ondertussendoor (1987) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- Naar Vulvania (1989) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- In het moeras (1990) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- Meneer,de zot & tkint (1991) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’ (translated to French)
- Titus Andonderonikustmijnklote (1993) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Oeuvres’
- Bloetwollefduivel (1994)
- Bêt Noir (1999) (translated to German, English by Jan Decorte, French and Swedish)
- Marieslijk (2000)
- Sasja danse (2000)
- Amlett (2001) (translated to German)
- “Betonliebe + Fleischkrieg” Medeia (2001)
- Cirque Danton (2002)
- Cannibali! (2003)
- O Death (2004) (translated to German)
- dieu& les esprits vivants (2005)
- & en burgaudine (2005)
- Wintervögelchen (2008)
- Bakchai (2009)
- Niks of niks (2012)
- Schiller/Tasten (2012) – published by Bebuquin
- Shylock (2013) – published by Bebuquin
- Geboeid/Prometheus (2015) – published by Bebuquin
- Ne Swarte (2016) – published by Bebuquin
- De recordpianist (1976) – adaptation of ‘Der Dauerklavierspieler’ by Horst Laube
- Lieve Hemel! (1997) – translation of ‘Mensch Meier’ by Franz Xaver Kroetz
- Peer Gynt (1979) – adaptation of ‘Peer Gynt’ by Hendrik Ibsen
- In het Kreupelhout (1980) – translation/adaptation of ‘Im Dickicht der Städte’ by Bertold Brecht
- Maria Magdalena (1981) – translation of ‘Maria Magdalena’ by Friedrich Hebbel with Sigrid Vinks
- Mauser (1981) – translation of ‘Mauser’ by Heiner Müller with Sigrid Vinks
- De Hamletmachine (1981) – translation of ‘Die Hamletmaschine’ by Heiner Müller with Sigrid Vinks
- Herakles 2 of de Hydra (1981) – translation of ‘Herakles 2 oder die Hydra’ by Heiner Müller
- Torquato Tasso (1982) – translation of ‘Torquato Tasso’ by Goethe with Sigrid Vinks
- De opdracht (1983) – translation of ‘Der Auftrag’ by Heiner Müller with Sigrid Vinks
- Hartstuk (1983) – translation of ‘Herzstück’ by Heiner Müller
- King Lear (1983) – translation of ‘King Lear’ by Shakespeare
- Verkommenes Ufer – Medeamaterial – Landschaft mit Argonauten (1983) – translation of ‘Verkommenes Ufer – Medeamateral – Landschaft mit Argonauten ‘ by Heiner Müller with Sigrid Vinks