True dramas, how do you turn these into theatre? For his stage texts, Stijn Devillé (°1974) likes to start from a thorough preliminary study of the actual facts, in order to humanise them into a more varied scrutiny of the court of history. The beating heart of his theatre texts are difficult moral dilemmas.
Repertoire of recent history
‘Memory gets lost / in forgery / in hindsight/ interpretation / from back to front / anticlockwise / from right to left – / what is that / a collective memory?’
This open question, from one of the three characters in La dissection d’unhomme armé [Post mortem of an armed man] from 2002, reveals almost the entire further oeuvre of Stijn Devillé. His pieces do not just focus on painful memories of this or that character, but on shared dramas that have seldom ever moved an entire country or that are still dormant.
Their public nature makes these events a kind of repertoire: the repertoire of recent history, or even current events. Which is to say: these historical events are already a story, often in multiple versions, written together by the media, the higher powers or those directly involved to justify, condemn or obscure certain acts. It is these – sometimes distorted – stories that Devillé reprocesses. His writing re-opens their motives to scrutiny, switches the narrative perspective, helps us to again read between the lines. His storytelling theatre calls on perpetrators and victims for a reconstruction, and let us judge their considerations again. What Devillé strives for seems to be a better understanding.
In La dissection d’un homme armé it concerns three monologues by paratroopers/soldiers, neatly distributed over the twentieth century in Belgium: they talk about the misery in the trenches of 1917, the murder of communist party leader Julien Lahaut in 1950, and the lynching on ten Belgian paratroopers in 1994 in Rwanda. All three are forced as pawns to make a wrenching choice on the confusing chessboard of (geo)political interests. And this perhaps applies to all the texts of Devillé: they question how ethics relates to politics, aesthetics, economics, ideology. What is a person’s individual responsibility in exceptional situations with collective after-effects?
Existential finger exercises
Devillé has written more than fifteen pieces in almost twenty years. In this you recognise the rhythm of a theatre-maker, with a new creation almost every season. Thus Devillé graduated in the mid-1990s: as director from the RITCS in Brussels, in addition to studies in Romance literature and theatre studies. He then co-founded the Leuven-based music theatre company Braakland/ZheBilding in 1997, where he also directed all its productions. Moreover, he wrote four of them together with Adriaan Van Aken, his artistic companion at the company. In the meantime, after a merger with De Queeste in 2015, Braakland has been expanded into Het nieuwstedelijk.
Devillé developed only gradually into an author. His unique voice, style and poetics took time to develop into what they are today. Thus his debut Variaties [Variations] (1995), an absurd one-act play for two men and a woman, still strongly bears the hallmark of the actors themselves. They skip from one topic to another and in and out of incoherent masquerades, shooting games and empty dialogues with an egg, a Stetson and a sucked-out eye. It is a finger exercise, more against the classical playwriting art than becoming a part of it. Devillé never again wrote metadrama.
His pieces with Adriaan Van Aken also tended to fall outside the boundaries of his own authorship. Kasper (2003) is a variation on the fate of the German foundling Kasper Hauser, who spent his first sixteen years in a cellar: the uneducated human being as an empty projection screen, on which an entire community can celebrate its lust for spectacle and its xenophobia. Burgerman, a monologue from 2006, sketches a reverse movement: how a successful HR manager steps out of his pre-programmed life, tearing along the nocturnal motorways, away from his wife, his work, his villa – straight into his existential crisis.
‘Idiot was the word that came to mind, and that’s where it took up residence for many weeks, in my central cortex.’
All are existential allegories, specific blueprints of a general human life. Their historical context in itself matters little.
Pen drawings from multiple points of view
This feels completely different in Immaculata [Immaculate](2004), Devillé’s and Van Aken’s strong evocation of school shooting dramas à la Columbine, but then transplanted to Flanders. First, four narrative voices, four students, powerfully personalise the normal course of events at and around the Immaculata Institute, to then allow the actual shooting drama to polyphonically explode as if in a film. As in almost all of Devillé’s pieces, the visualisation of the event is already very strongly embedded in the text itself, and the then staging with four standing microphones was sufficient.
Dramatised short stories: that’s how you could describe texts like this. Characters and an auctorial narrative perspective are meticulously edited together, like a single living pen-drawing made from multiple perspectives. The theatre text therefore transcends its characters: there is no question of naturalistic sociolects to distinguish their social backgrounds: they are all parts of a single collective (writers) consciousness.
Within this, zooming in and zooming out constantly alternate: from squeaky sneakers full of panic running across the stairs, to more distanced reflections on how an entire society deals with these kinds of dramas.
‘The prime minister who comes back from holiday / the afternoon news / the reporters from Terzake / the king’s speech / experts who are called in / neighbours who recall memories in front of cameras / how we rescued their cat from a tree /how we once babysat their children.’
In Immaculata you feel the compositional skill of an autonomous playwright, who finds his necessity not in the dialogical limitation, but in the many complex connections between one specific incident and the entire spirit of the times. Even though Immaculata avoids explaining this high school killing, Devillé and Van Aken do embed it in a neo-liberal society in which one student is dropped off at the school gate in a BMW, and another comes from a deplorable home situation in a bus. Social awareness, also of the underclass, is by no means foreign to Devillé. If, in addition to Tom Lanoye, one playwright in Flanders can claim the title of ‘drama writer of the fatherland’, it is he.
Dissection until death
It is precisely here that La dissection d’un homme armé already set the tone so strongly in 2002. In the personal questions of the speaking soldiers resound the broader ethical questions of each decade. To what extent are you responsible for your own actions in an irresponsible situation? How many immoral choices justify a higher ideal? Where does national interest end and your own right to survive begin? In Deville’s pieces, such questions are not a pseudo-philosophical decoration, but the actual springboard. They are deliberately subtly translated and registered in specific portraits, but they again unravel themselves completely, by viewing them from different angles and honing in on them further.
This makes ‘dissection’ a nice ambiguous word for Deville’s writing. Not only substantively, but also stylistically. With a pen like a filleting knife, almost photographically sharp, Devillé etches in La dissection d’un homme armé the re-experiencing of his three voices. The rats, the mud, the madness in the trenches. Lahaut pissing himself after five shots, the cold sweat of his killer. The dogs in Rwanda snooping around in the soft blood of still living bodies with loose limbs in their mouths. The rotten smell of dehumanisation rises almost sensitively from the entire triptych, while the testimony about Rwanda also philosophically explains:
le président est mort! … est mort!
between the attack
and the flight home
before the eye of the world
my men in zaventem
cut the blue berets
with their bayonets
our batallion’s part
had already been returned in 10 bodybags
i knew their names:
lotin dupont leroy plescia
meaux debatty renwa bassine lhoir
10 men not 11
nevertheless eleven piles were lying there to be identified
the banality of puzzle work
in the minds of
a strange process
of objectivation takes place
of any feeling
the body before us
seems to be no longer human
but only a thing
a wholly technical problem
a lifeless object
we do not kill it ourselves
in our eyes
it is already dead
the soul already
dis-connected from the body
what we do
is merely rip the body open
reduce it to pieces of meat
i need that distance
but now from this offal
my have to reconstruct my own men
at the airport back home
outside of the eye of the cameras
i grabbed my own son
my whole jolting body pressed against him
nothing nothing in this world can…
i’ve considered asking for retirement
War is an often recurring theme for Devillé: from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his early piece In Shatila (2003) to the political interplay behind the Second World War Hitler is dood [Hitler is dead] (2009) or Leni & Susan (2014). ‘You have no idea what a war is like,’ Leni Riefenstahl reproaches Susan Sontag. It is precisely this gap that Devillé tackles in several works: he brings madness back to life, as if you were in the middle of it yourself. Even apart from war, death runs like a thread through his work. Unlike in Greek tragedy, murder does not happen behind the scenes, but in front of the camera. Sometimes death strikes suddenly, as if to emphasise its banality. Other times it is meticulously developed, and the impact is even greater.
The monologue Zoon [Boy] (2006) follows the latter line: for a full page, an abandoned mother testifies about the love for her son, until he comes in contact with drugs and even threatens her. Finally, she herself will release him from his suffering.
‘When hes dead, I put the cord away again. I embrace him, only then start to cry again. I’m taking back your life, my son. I sit like that for hours. My little son on my lap.’
Zoon is Medea by the Dardenne brothers, based on a newspaper article: a tribute to an unlawful act and death. But can this mother be condemned? Devillé leaves the answer in the grey zone in which he likes to dip his pen.
Dialectics in dialogue
Morality is a complex story, as his masterpiece Hitler is dood states like no other, which was awarded the playwright award by the Dutch Language Union (Taalunie) in 2009. It is here that Devillé for the first time stages historical characters by name, from Herman Göring to Albert Speer. With great rhetorical power he paints their experience at the Nuremberg trial in 1946. At the same time he introduces the methodology that will be perfected a few years later in his major trilogy Hebzucht, Angst & Hoop [Greed, Fear & Hope] (2012-2016), about ten years of banking crisis in Europe: with a wide range of characters from the high cenacles of power, from a long list of sources, directly inspired by historical events, for a clash between divergent ideological points of view. Hitler is dood is classic drama and Netflix at the same time.
But above all the work makes explicit the deeper basic structure of so many other texts: the dramaturgy of the trial. Time and again, Devillés docudrama circles an open or hidden question concerning who is to blame. Who is responsible to what extent for (exceptional) choices? Which mitigating circumstances play a role? The value of his oeuvre then lies in his balanced nuance of generally accepted opinion about Nazis, bankers or child murderers. His works like to give voice to the wrong side of history. Over the years they have become more and more ‘debates’, with dialogues full of dialectics. Within the deeper contradictions on which they build, the chosen characters stand on a continuum of possible positions. But they always hit home. And that is the difference with their non-fictional sources of inspiration: as ‘wrong’ characters, they not merely rhetorically play to the understanding of the audience, but first and foremost emotionally, through the heartbreaking personal choices with which they struggle. Devillé makes them people again.
Thus his Leni Riefenstahl in Leni & Susan stands in the first place as human being for intuitive physicality and pure artistic aesthetics, while Susan Sontag, also as human being, plays the voice of rational criticism of art and politics. So too are the leftist activists in Groupe Diane (2017) first of all mother, son or injured personality. Only then do they differ in their ideas about the key question in the work: can armed violence make a difference in changing the world? The Serbian Ratko mercilessly punctures their revolutionary utopia as the persistent whining of a Western middle class: ‘You yourself are the product of capital, your political impact is zero.’ As a public prosecutor and lawyer for the defence, Devillé is happy to let the witnesses speak. That is what makes him a drama writer for the fatherland: by allowing completely different visions to clash andemotionally substantiating them, he also arouses discussion among each audience.
No work has succeeded in this more than his three-part masterpiece Hebzucht, Angst & Hoop [Greed, Fear & Hope]: the three basic emotions that Devillé detects underlying the drama that has filled the newspapers in recent years: the financial crisis since 2008. How thus to make the difference? Devillé chooses a family saga: the perfect dramaturgy to contribute to humanising the intimate ties between the banking system and the political enterprise. Thus his storytelling theatre moves more than ever in the direction of a well-made play, but the basic form remains the tribunal, with the final judgement always being the monologue of a child at the end:
‘Today’s prosperity is worth nothing, because they’re underminging the prosperity of tomorrow, and the future has long since begun.’
At the same time a certain completion is achieved with Hebzucht, Angst & Hoop. Where is the writer himself in this entire balanced picture, among all the piles of books on his desk? In Gesprek met de regen [Conversation with the rain], Devillé treats for the first time his own history, to arrive at that one day when his own child almost died falling down the stairs at night, barely surviving the fall. So back to death, and so back to life: that is the confrontation that the couple in this playfaces,with what their lost child is doingto their own relationship, far away from home in a foreign country. Away with the world, away with history, back to the essence.
And sure enough a bit of spirituality also squeaks through the text: the dead daughter is the third voice in this dialogue. As if the Leni in Devillé was (just for a while?) briefly victorious over the Susan, and deep feeling takes over from intellectual analysis. At the same time in Gesprek met de regen you feel yet another insight since Hoop continue to work: that theatre today perhaps can mean more if it ends in a crack of light through all the darkness. The path taken in Devillé’s oeuvre from La Dissection to this dialogue is a long night journey to the day.
There is no solution for our problem
There is nothing to resolve
This is what’s left
a cardboard box
With some stuff
That’s the reality
We are going to have to keep each other afloat Adam
I’m so tiredof this constant up and down
I can’t stand myself with all this grief
I don’t want to bethe bereaved mother any more
I want a life
I need a story
I’m desperately in need of a story
Everything throws me
Again and again
And I have no control
I don’t knowwhat ’s going to happen now or tomorrow
There’s so much going on simultaneously in my head
I need a story that’s predictable
with a beginning
a middle and an ending
Especially an ending
For God’s sake
Life doesn’t have a plot Nikki
It just happens
There is no meaning
This is the engine of Stijn Devillé’s writing, and at the same time the great paradox: the full realisation that humanity’s paths through history are actually mistakes, but that it is impossible to live with them without the persistent attempt to still make a coherent story of them – even if this will always prove to be a forgery, a construction after the fact. Which is why the chronicler in Devillé continues to dissect our combined present and past and to reassemble it: because life without any human understanding equals death.
Written by Wouter Hillaert
Translated by Dan Frett, Rina Vergano and Sara Vertongen
Wouter Hillaert is a Belgian cultural journalist. For 15 years he has been working as a freelance theatre critic for the Flemish daily newspapers De Morgen and De Standaard. In 2003 he co-founded the free cultural magazine rekto:verso on arts and society of which he is still one of the coordinators. His main topics are theatre, cultural policy and community arts. In 2014 he initiated the Flemish civil movement Hart boven Hard, and is still its spokesperson.
- Memento (1994)
- Variaties (1995)
- Clopixol 200mg (1998) – in collaboration with Geert Six en Klaartje Mertens
- Mitrajet (2001)
- Vertigo (2001) – in collaboration with Adriaan Van Aken
- La Dissection d’un Homme Armé* (2002)
- Kaspar* (2003) – in collaboration with Adriaan Van Aken (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- In Shatila (2003)
- Immaculata* (2004) – in collaboration with Adriaan Van Aken (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Lev* (2004) (translated to French by Maryline Van Parys)
- Burgerman (2006) – in collaboration with Adriaan Van Aken
- Zoon (2006)
- Hitler is dood* (2009) (translated to English by Sara Vertongen, German by Uwe Dethier, French by Maryline Van Parys)
- Hebzucht* (2012) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Angst* (2013) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Leni & Susan* (2014) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Hoop* (2015) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Groupe Diane (2016) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- Gesprek met de regen (2018) (translated to English by Sara Vertongen, German by Uwe Dethier, French by Maryline Van Parys)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek