Paul Pourveur (°1952) started his career as a screenwriter for film and television. Since the mid-1980s, he has been writing mainly for theatre. Thanks to his bilingual upbringing, he is one of the few Belgian authors who write in both French and Dutch. He works for theatres above and below the language border. There is also considerable interest in his work in the Netherlands. In addition to his theatre pieces, he has also published a number of articles in which he theoretically reflects on the challenges of theatre text at the start of the twenty-first century.
Reality as linguistic construction
Pourveur started writing for the theatre at an important moment in the development of the Flemish performing arts. In collaboration with directors such as Lucas Vandervost and Guy Cassiers, for whom he wrote texts such as Le Diable au Corps [The devil in the body] (1986), The Hunting of the Snark (1987) and Congo (1989), Pourveur went in search of new narrative forms for the theatre: “Irrevocably now: a pen leaves behind an ink trail. Rather than memory, I would like to find new times in that trail or at least other times”, Pourveur writes in Congo. New or different times require new or different texts. Pourveur radically rejects traditional dramaturgy: for him, categories such as linear plot development, causality, psychologically explainable characters and transparent dialogues belong to an outdated view of the person and world. He does not take ‘actability’ into account when writing his texts. He demands for himself the greatest possible freedom to compose. He applies only two criteria: his theatre texts must have a certain relationship with the contemporary world, and they must be written for the theatrical disposition, that is to say with regard to the relationship between stage and audience.
Pourveur’s texts are a persistent attempt to undermine genres, codes and conventions. Thus Le diable au corps, a story for a She, a He and a He bis, can best be described as a deconstruction of literary romantic love. Erotic desire, which is at the same time a desire for the origin and a new beginning, is also the engine of Congo. The text consists of three parts. The first part, called ‘Een roman’ [A novel], tells the story of a group of men looking for a woman in Congo, Elise Livingstone. In the second part, ‘Een essay’ [An essay], a woman (Marilyn Monroe?) descends into her DNA. The very short third part, ‘Een appendix’ [An appendix], contains a dialogue, perhaps between 1 and 2, perhaps between a man and a woman, but who these are remains unclear. The search is ultimately a search through language for ultimate meaning, the last solid ground that is unattainable. The many references to literature and film, to high and low culture, make it clear that meaning only comes into being within this network and does not exist not beyond it.
The insight that the human experience of reality, of the other, of humanity itself and of the most intimate feelings (love, sexuality) is mediated by language – and therefore is a linguistic construction – is essential for Pourveur. In The Hunting of the Snark, based on a poem by Lewis Carroll, Pourveur abandons the relationship between words and representation, and gives language its own associative autonomy: “Language can be a carrier of meanings, but it can also be the meaning itself. I’ve always tried to play with these two levels of language. Furthermore, I’ve always explored the possibilities of language. How flexible is language, and what impact can it have?” The immediate consequence of this is that language no longer offers insight or an overview, because it has become its own labyrinth. This is a view that belongs to postmodernism, on which Pourveur explicitly relies in his work. In the Eco-romance (1998), xx and xy create a politically correct list of synonyms of confrontational terms: ‘war’ becomes ‘the defensive state of things’, ‘racism’ becomes ‘the search for authenticity’, ‘corruption’ is ‘ethically different’, and ‘a lover’ is ‘a well-meaning third person’. In Contusione é minima [Contusion is minimal] (1998), the proposal is launched to limit the vocabulary to fifty words. Pourveur plays an ironic game with literary and dramatic genres and intertextual references, but the intent of his work goes further than a superior game with forms and structures.
“Abolish the repertoire theatre”
Developments in science, technology and media have fundamentally influenced our perception of the world. Quantum mechanics opposes the Newtonian worldview, and questions the solidity and certainty of categories such as time, space and matter. Pourveur wrote Noorderlicht [Northern Lights] in 1998, inspired by the Solvay conference in 1927, in which a large group of scientists including Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg participated to discuss quantum theory. In this piece, Pourveur does not speak of ‘scenes’ but of ‘measurements’. Based on certain analogies with new scientific insights, Paul Pourveur goes in search of new dramaturgical concepts and structures, beyond the determinism of classical drama.
Pourveur’s poetics is also closely linked to the awareness of the end of the Grand Narratives, as the post-modern condition was described by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. The major ideologies are a thing of the past and have lost their explanatory power. Due to an abundance of stimuli and data thanks to the explosion of media in the digital age, the experience of reality is fragmented, heterogeneous and chaotic. One of Pourveur’s central propositions is that theatre, and the theatre text in particular, still have not faced any consequences of these evolutions that have a profound effect on our thinking about time and space, about cause and effect, about subjectivity and psychology: “It is absurd to use a three-act structure today, because then you are actually situated in 19th century determinism. The world is no longer as causal. We know this now, so why would you still use such a model?” This attitude implies a rejection of the repertoire and especially of the value that is still attached to it in contemporary theatre. For Pourveur, the repertoire is irrevocably a thing of the past and it makes no sense to pretend that the Greek tragedies or Shakespeare’s writings have anything to say about us because of their universal value and meaning.
But it is not only the developments in science and the media that Pourveur is seeking an answer to in his texts. He also writes his texts against the explicit background of the (inter)national political developments of the past decades: the Dutroux affair, the Gulf War, the wars in former Yugoslavia, 9/11, terrorism, identity politics, the shift to the right and embitterment, economic globalisation and neo-liberalism, the war in Iraq, etc., all appear in one or another form, more or less explicitly, in the texts of Pourveur. The relationship with the now is essential. In his text Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje [The specific weight of Snow White] (1996), Pourveur asks the question how you can write a piece about what took place in Sarajevo. This question is crucial for him because the theatre literature must always be in relation to its own time. Based on the distinction that Jean-Luc Godard made between film and cinema, he makes a distinction between ‘performing a play’ and ‘making theatre’: “A play is self-contained and socially irrelevant. It exists only for the sake of a company, actors, a director and finds its origin, its foundation in the culture of plays or history itself. ‘Theatre’, on the other hand, weaves itself into history, inscribes itself in human culture, has the value of a document and exists despite a theatre company. ‘Theatre’ always has its roots in a contemporary ‘Sarajevo’ and always, intentionally or unintentionally, has some connection with its era. The performance of a play by Shakespeare in 1600 was ‘theatre’. A contemporary performance of Shakespeare, however strongly acted and directed, is always a ‘play’.” Everything that is considered part of the ‘repertoire’ is actually no more than a collection of plays that are no longer relevant to the present: “Create more new texts and get rid of the repertoire theatre. Everything before Heiner Müller belongs in the museum.”
A post-human labyrinth
This desire to break open the structures of thought and writing into a tabula rasa, to a new beginning, to a potential of possibilities, is one of the themes of the text White-Out (1996). Due to the action of a special meteorological phenomenon – a fog so dense that everything becomes invisible – a man and a woman meet. They start a conversation in which they also try to erase their own identities as man and woman. The conversation becomes a labyrinth of references (including to the film Gone With the Wind), of misunderstandings, and of language games. Just as the dense fog ensures that the eye no longer has a reference point and can cause mental confusion, language also becomes a curtain of fog without fixed points. At the same time, this opens up a world of new possibilities, with all the uncertainty and ambiguity that this entails.
The modern couple is also the centre of Shakespeare is dead, get over it! (2003). We follow the meandering relationship of Anna, a fanatical Shakespeare actress, and William, employee of a multinational and a militant anti-globalist. Furthermore, references to Shakespeare’s life also appear and characters have recognisable names such as Margaret (Thatcher) and Ronald (Reagan), Niels (Bohr) and Werner (Heisenberg), Naomi (Klein) and Noreena (Hertz). In a universe marked by ruthless neoliberal globalisation, due to a politically militant counter-reaction, and due to ever-increasing scientific uncertainty about what reality in fact is, his characters search for themselves and their relationship with others among a chaotic mountain of opinions, images, references, dreams and urges. In Bagdad Blues (2005), the male main character narrates, in longer and shorter ‘diary excerpts’, in a pleasant, somewhat obsessive tone, his many conquests in the hotels that he visits as a manager. His reflections on female beauty are, however, increasingly disturbed by stories from Baghdad that are always about the death of a woman. Pourveur wrote the text in 2005, at the height of the crisis in American-occupied Iraq. The story ends with an explosion at Heathrow airport in London, paradoxically intertwined with a hymn for love and a desire for submission. Loneliness, alienation and intoxication of the passions are also the core of Plot your City (2011) in which Pourveur, based on various characters and magnified aspects of contemporary urban life, takes us through a series of imaginary cities: Generic City, Babel City, Panoptic City and Junk City: the urban labyrinth of the twenty-first century. It is the shaping of the modern post-human labyrinth that Pourveur has made the focus of his writing.
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).
- Le Diable au Corps (1985) – after Radiguet, published by Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Hunting of the Snark (1987) – after Lewis Caroll, published by Dedalus and Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Congo(1989) – published by Dedalus and Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’(second part ‘Venise’ translated to French by Paul Pourveur, published by Lansman)
Parade(1989) – after Cocteau, Satie, Picasso
- White out (1990) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Inspiraties 3: About Raoul: Sonic (1992) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Alice =/2 (1993) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Eco-Romance (1994) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Het soortelijk gewicht van Sneeuwwitje’
- Contusione é minima(1998) (translated to French by Elisabeth Brouillard and Paul Pourveur, published by Lansman)
- Noorderlicht (1998) (translated to French by Alain Borlée and Paul Pourveur published by L’arbre de Diane, English by Nadine Malfaitand Turkish by Saban Ol published by Tiyatro/Oyon Dizisi)
- Stiefmoeders!! (1999) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Klein Magazijn 3’ (translated to German by Uwe Dethier and English by Nadine Malfait)
- Le Coucher d’Yvette(1999) (translated to Frans by Paul Pourveur)
- Lilith@online (2000) – published by Bebuquin in ‘Klein Magazijn 4’ (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Locked in (2001)
- Dood Zand (2002)
- Shakespeare is dead, get over it! (2002) (translated to French by Danielle Losman and Paul Pourveur published by Lansman, Turkish by Saban Ol published by Tiyatro/Oyon Dizisi, German by Uwe Dethier and English by Paul Pourveur and Philippe Rixhon)
- De moeder….van mijn moeder (2004)
- Sivas (2005) (translated to Turkish by Saban Ol, published by Tiyatro/Oyon Dizisi)
- Bagdad Blues (2005) – published by Bebuquin in ‘De dingen en ik’ (translated to German by Uwe Dethier and French by Paul Pourveur)
- Tirannie van de Tijd (2005) – in collaboration with Stefan Hertsmans and Claire Swyzen, uitgegeven bij Theatre & film books (translated to German by Uwe Dethier and Spanish by Micaela van Muylem published by Teatro Contemporaneo Europeo)
- Stormgek (2007) – in collaboration with Pauline Mol
- Plot Your City(2011)
- De zoete inval (2012)
- L’homme Blanc (1989) – published by Lansman
- Massacrilège (1992)
- Elle n’est pas moi (1992)
- La Minute Anacoustique (1993) – published by Lansman
- Au Rouge (2001)
- Les B@lges (2002) – in collaboration with Jean Marie Piemme, published by Lansman
- Decontamination (2003) (translated to Turkish by Saban Ol, published by Tiyatro/Oyon Dizisi)
- Marrakech (2006) – published by Hayez and Lansman
- Mère Sauvage (2009)
- L’abécédaire des Temps (post)modernes (2009) – published by Espace Nord
- Godelieve & Clique (2010)
- Des Mondes Meilleurs (2015) – published by Lansman
- Jukebox-opera (2017) – in collaboration with Julie Mossay