Tom Lanoye (°1958) is currently one of Flanders’ most visible and acclaimed writers. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist and performer. He made his debut in the 1980s and immediately set a new tone in Flemish literature: provocative, mocking, without respect for sacred cows. He was quickly labelled the ‘angry young man’ of Flemish literature. While in his early years he mainly focused on entertaining, since the early nineties he has portrayed himself as the public conscience of progressive Flanders. He takes stands against racism, against discrimination against gays and minorities, and for a multicultural society. He is also deeply concerned about the situation in South Africa, his second homeland. He regularly appears as a guest in current affairs programs, both in Flanders and in the Netherlands, and enjoys a great reputation.
Butcher shop theatre
Although his novels still receive the most attention, his playsare possibly his best works. This should not be surprising, given his family background. Lanoye’s mother was a flamboyant amateur actress. In his later critically acclaimed and filmed novel Sprakeloos [Speechless] (2009), Lanoye would describe how his mother lost her ability to speak due to a stroke. Lanoye also regards the butcher’s shop in which he grew up as a form of theatre: “The small-business environment in which I grew up has something of a theatrical nature. A shop counter is a stage. The same jokes, the same replies: staged cosiness.” Whatever the case, Lanoye quickly sought out the public nature of the stage. He did cabaret and became an advocate of and driving force behind poetry performance. This was a way of opposing a too elitist, too intellectualistic and too linguistic conception of literature. He was directly opposed to the postmodernist and deconstructionist thinking that influenced Flemish literature and literature studies from the 1980s. Performing in front of an audience also had something to do with a plea for more fun: “For me, literature is primarily oral. And why should I as a writer turn away from public life? I have always seen myself as a sort of blues singer, who performs until he falls dead, or at least until he is eighty.” Perhaps language is more of a means than an end for Lanoye. His aim is not to limit himself to a single genre but rather to test different means of expression: “By the way, I’m not a writer, but an author. A writer only writes. I look for all possible ways to present my texts to an audience.” Throughout his career he has done solo performances in which he presents poems, excerpts from his novels and scenes from his plays live, sometimesaccompanied by music or in a multimedia context.
Repertoire in rap
His first attempt at a theatre text is De Canadese Muur [The Canadian Wall] (1989), which he wrote together with his colleague Herman Brusselmans: ‘a heartless family drama about football, alcohol and Flanders’, as it was announced. It is a playful, satirical and cynical piece in which not only references to football, but also to Hamlet and to theatrics itself play an important role. Jules en Alice [Jules and Alice] (1991) – an adaptation of one of the stories from his prose debut Een slagerszoon met een brilletje [A butcher’s son with glasses] (1985) – is a tragicomedy that looks back in flashbacks on the relationship between garage mechanic Jules, with a passion for wrecks, and his wife Alice. Like many playwrights of his generation, Lanoye uses the expressive possibilities of Flemish for the language of his production. This is also the case for Blankenberge (1991). While a movement developed in Flanders from the 1980s that called into question the classical theatre text, Lanoye continued to adhere to dramatic conventions. His major learning experience and his breakthrough as a playwright was the marathon project Ten Oorlog [To war] (1999) that he wrote with director Luk Perceval. The ten-hour production is based on five Shakespeare dramas about kings and the wars of the roses between the house of Lancaster and the house of York over the English throne. Lanoye wrote for the first time in iambic pentameter, a meter that he would continue to refine. The language of Ten Oorlog is a mixture, a rap of different languages and registers, full of references to high and low culture, poetic and vulgar at the same time, sampled literature and street language. Lanoye convinces friend and foe with his stunt.
Ten Oorlog is crucial for the further development of Lanoye. It opened up new opportunities for him as a playwright to rephrase and revise major repertoire pieces, especially tragedies. He wrote some of his best pieces using this method. For his Mamma Medea (2001), Lanoye relies both on the tragedy of Euripides and on the Argonaut story of Appolonios of Rhodes, which allows him to also tell the background of the piece. Lanoye leaves out the choir and focuses on the hard confrontation between Medea and Jason. Sure of his ability, Lanoye began to experiment more with theatre forms. De Jossen. Val en revival der samenhorigheid [The Josephs: Fall and revival of togetherness] (2004) is an artificial piece in which everyone is called Jos(eph). It undermines any dramatic structure. It can be performed as a monologue, but it can also be played by twenty actors. Diplodocus Deks. Triomf der archeologie [Diplodocus Deks: Triumph of Archaeology] (2004) is even referred to by the author as “a tragicomedy of democracy”. It is the story about a community that is being disrupted by progress. It is striking that the story is told backwards.
In the middle of the world
Political and social themes became increasingly important in Lanoye’s work, in his columns, novels and in his plays. In his early columns and essays, he first and foremost entered into a polemic discussion with the literature and literary personalities in Flanders. From the 1990s, social themes come to the fore much more. In his novels, a development from ‘small’ autobiographically coloured stories takes place (Een slagerszoon met een brilletje) to grand stories about the improprieties in Belgian society (Het goddelijk monster [The divine monster], Zwarte tranen [Black tears], Het derde huwelijk [The third marriage]) and in our globalised world (Gelukkige slaven [Happy slaves]). The same happens in his plays. Fort Europa [Fort Europe](2005) is a good example. It is a hybrid text that consists of seven monologues by archetypal characters that can be cut into pieces for staging, but the text can also be read as a short story. Europeans can only become true Europeans by leaving the fort: that is the surprising conclusion that three whores come to at the end of the piece.
Theatre is an art in the here and now. In Lanoye’s texts – whether they refer back to the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare or Chekhov – political and social relevance always resounds. Thus in Atropa. De wraak van de vrede [Atropa. The vengeance of peace] (2008) Agamemnon, during the siege of Troy, takes words in his mouth spoken by George Bush Jr. and Donald Rumsfeld during the invasion of Iraq. The political discussions Mefisto for ever (2006) refer to the then possibility of a breakthrough in Antwerp by the extreme right-wing party Vlaams Belang. In Bloed en Rozen. Het lied van Gilles en Jeanne [Blood and Roses: The song of Gilles and Jeanne] (2011), a clergyman’s interrogation of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais refers to the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church. Revue Ravage. Dood van een politicus [Revue Ravage: Death of a politician] (2015) is about the malleability of a politician and in GAZ. Pleidooi voor een gedoemde moeder [GAZ: Plea for a doomed mother] (2015), the mother of a jihadi fighter speaks. In Koningin Lear [Queen Lear] (2015), old King Lear is replaced by a powerful businesswoman who divides her empire between her three sons, and in De Russen! [The Russians!] (2011), Lanoye mixes scenes from Ivanov and Platonov, two texts by Chekhov, and then adds a number of new scenes to strengthen the bond with the present.
Like many contemporary playwrights, Lanoye writes his pieces embedded in a specific theatre practice. In other words, he knows who will direct his play and which actors will play the roles. Lanoye has workedwith some of the most important Flemish and Dutch directors of his generation: Guy Cassiers, Ivo van Hove, Luk Perceval and Johan Simons. He prefers to write for large ensembles. Sometimes an actor or actress determines the writing of a piece. That was the case with Dutch actress Abke Haring, for whom Lanoye wrote an androgynous Hamlet in Hamlet vs Hamlet (2014). Paradoxically, it is this embedding that allows Lanoye to write stage texts with lasting dramatic power.
He is one of the few playwrights whose theatre texts are automatically considered to be literature in Flanders. Only Hugo Claus preceded him in this. This is due not in least to the fact that Lanoye is well known and that his publisher also publishes his theatre texts immediately. But Lanoye also consciously writes repertoire theatre: texts that aim to, and can be, staged more than once, due to their great actability and their substantive relevance.
Lanoye believes in drama and its possibilities. “I’m a post-Heiner Müllerian. That is, I believe in drama. If we were to condemn drama as such to irrelevancy, I would be devastated. I’m at my best when that drama enters. We cannot leave this to just film and TV series.” He believes in the power of words and rhetoric, in clear characters and in sharp conflicts. In this sense, his work can be called ‘neo-classical’, in the best sense of that term.
Written by Erwin Jans
Translated 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 Canadese Muur (1989) – in collaboration with Herman Brusselmans
- Blankenberge (1991)
- Bij Jules en Alice (1991)
- Celibaat (1993) – after a novel by Gerard Walschap
- Ten oorlog (1997) – after ‘The War of the Roses’ by Shakespeare in collaboration with Luk Perceval, published by Prometheus (e-book)
- Mama Medea (2001) – after Euripides and Apollonios van Rhodos
- Diplodocus Deks (2004)
- De Jossen (2004)
- Fort Europa (2005) – published by Prometheus (translated to English by Brian Doyle)
- Mefisto for ever (2006) – free adaptation of a novel by Klaus Mann
- Atropa. De wraak van de vrede (2008) – free adaptation of Euripides, Bush, Rumsfeld and Malaparte
- Alles eender (ganzenpas) (2008)
- Bloed en Rozen (2011)
- De Russen! Ivanov meets Platonov (2011) – free adaptation of Tsjechov
- Hamlet versus Hamlet (2014) – after Shakespeare, published by Prometheus (e-book)
- Koningin Lear (2015) – after Shakespeare, published by Prometheus (e-book)
- Revue Ravage. Dood van een politicus (2015)
- Gaz. Pleidooi van een gedoemde moeder (2015) – published by Prometheus (e-book) (translated to English)
- La reine Lear (2019) – after Shakespeare