Can anything in history ever be changed? No, but narrating it again is a good start. Precisely this paradox – or persistent attempt, if you will – marks the theatre texts of Willem de Wolf (°1961). They are ‘histories’: at the same time stories and narrations, not infrequently about major changes. They are looking for something, frantically. But what?
Weighing the pros and cons and wavering
In The Marx Sisters, the piece that Willem de Wolf performed in 2014 with Sara De Roo and Natali Broods, the image passes by of a man on a bicycle who is going to ask for the correspondence between Laura and Eleanor Marx, daughters of the Marx, at the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. He is surprised that the institute still exists at all. Or rather, he observes that he apparently has taken it for granted ‘that everything the Netherlands does related to the social, to history, to silence, to study, to postponement, and to slowness, should have been extinct or whittled back’. He is warmly received and in the reading room of the archive, among many other readers, sifts through the letters.
It is a typical image of the playwright himself: the sifter, the reader, the researcher, the gatherer, the amateur historian. For de Wolf writing theatre is not just a matter of inventing, but rather ‘gathering’. When he published the biennial Boyer lecture for the Dutch Authors’ Union in 2018, it was not a coincidence that he referred to Woody Allen: how he occasionally throws out on the bed a shoe box with notes, pictures, newspaper clippings and half ideas and then tells himself: you have to make do with this. De Wolf uses similar methods. “The things I make are not separate stories of the preserved snippets, but the connection. It is the idea – the myth perhaps – that you might get to know yourself better if you understand the connections between your separate interests.”
Willem de Wolf graduated from the Amsterdam Academy of Theatre and Dance in 1985. That same year, with Ton Kas, he formed the theatre duo Kas & de Wolf, writing some fifteen pieces together in almost twenty years. Take Desperado from 1997: croaking verbiage full of clichés and false grandeur between four injured men about their work, their existence and their women (who left them). A bit of irony is never far away; the joy of performing seems to be the primary aim. They are pieces that revolve around their characters rather than about he who wrote them. Perhaps that is the biggest difference with the phase in de Wolf’s authorship that occurs after 2004, the year that Kas & de Wolf cease because they lost their subsidy. As an individual author – even when writing together with various co-performers or co-authors with companies such as Onafhankelijk Toneel, Mugmetdegoudentand, Dood Paard or from 2010 as permanent member of De Koe – he also tends towards a more personal approach. Now his pieces have (also) become more self-portraits: they excavate for self-insight between the snippets on his bed. Here de Wolf the autonomous writer makes his presence known, the author who today is universally respected for his nuance and precision, his sincere weighing of the pros and cons, his hesitation, his broad cultural interests.
Dramaturgy of photography
Among these broad interests, photography stands out as important. In almost all of his recent pieces, photographs serve as anchor points for the narrative. In Bazel [Basel] (2008) they even form the decor: this piece takes place in and around the famous Kunstmesse art fair where two friends are hanging out in the fashionable lounges of the high society. The entire trade in expensive stylized photos of the underclass they are discussing, mirrors their own fixation on the secret (sexual) contact that one of them seeks with a migrant-waiter from India. The atmosphere that de Wolf evokes is that of films such as La Grande Bellezza or The Square: the sophisticated refinement of an artistic class that sees its own existential emptiness confronted with the genuine need for survival in the suburbs.
But de Wolf also writes with a photographic outlook: like a camera, he scans his situations, makes them coagulate into an interplay of details and nuances and possible explanations for why they are the way they are. Like the encounter of the two characters in Bazel with well-known London gallery owner Maureen Paley at the Kunstmesse, which both recall to one another afterwards:
She’s a bit older now, Maureen Paley, though you can hardly tell, though clearly she herself can tell. Black dyed Adams Family-type hair. Edith Piaf dress. Bright red lips that leave a gorgeous imprint on her champagne glass. Enemy of the passionate urges, Maureen Paley, so unemphatically aware of her own inviolability, her serenity, her stylish nonchalence, her wisdom, her enlightenment, her calm, her elegant impeccability, her reason, her sensibility, her morality, her sensuality, her scepticism, her clarity. Maureen Paley – a monastic mistress. Suspicious. Sizing up each male visitor as a potential suitor for her non-existent daughters.
You greet each other. Very cordially, but very briefly. You walk towards each other with open arms: ‘Hello Maureen’, you say, drawing out the e, ‘Hello Maureeeeen.’ But a half metre away from Maureen, the greeting is suddenly curtailed. Interrupted, as in a rehearsal. A couple of air-kisses, delivered from an even greater distance than Brezhnev used to do it. She was so extraordinary that you decided we wouldn’t walk past her stand again on the way back. ‘Once in a day is enough, with Maureen Paley’, you said, ‘there’s always tomorrow.’ ‘But this is by far the quickest route, otherwise we’ll have to walk the whole way round’, I said. ‘Once in a day is enough, with Maureen Paley’, you said again. The impression we had made on Maureen Paley was, in your book, the right one.
Photography for de Wolf is even a form of dramaturgy. Certainly in his more historical pieces he assembles his scenes around or even as individual photos – rather than as continuous developments. Time and again these frozen snapshots from history are reviewed and reinterpreted from many different sides. Their point seems to be a new mediation between ‘inside and outside’: between the material historical conditions as captured photographically, and the feelings and thoughts that accompany them, which are hidden behind those moments. They offer de Wolf an infinite field of interpretation possibilities, which are also all gladly scanned.
Thus Bazel returns each time to that one moment at the tram stop at 5 o’clock in the morning, where both main characters wait (in vain) for the arrival of the waiter, the object of their desire. The Marx Sisters is about a speech by Eleonor (Tussy) Marx on 25 August 1889 in Hyde Park in London, while her sister Laura stops among the mass of 100,000 listeners. Facts pinned against the wall of memory become fluid again. They come to life again in conversation and contemplation. They are given time, emotions, psychology and philosophy, until eventually an entire theatre text unfolds about, for example, the human paradoxes and the ponderous legacy of Marx. De Wolf’s pieces transform theatre into photography, and photography into theatre.
Open to change
Which makes change the basic theme of this writing. Can the fixed proportions of history be opened up again, like cracking open a door? It is no coincidence that especially the most recent pieces of de Wolf tend to take place against the background of the beginning or end of a historic revolution. Only they are not sketched from the heart of the events, but from their periphery, by second rate characters. Thus Krenz (2011), probably de Wolf’s most personal piece, narrates the fate of Egon Krenz, ‘the predestined successor’ of DDR leader Erich Honecker. Barely a month and a half after his long-awaited palace revolution, he promptly saw the Wall fall and his story ended.
This tragedy of characters in the shadow of the real figureheads, that’s where de Wolf’s interest goes. It is the doubters, those who wonder if they are worthy, whether they themselves could handle the authority under which they always suffered. Not Marx, but his daughters. Not the successful art buyer, but his second. Not Honecker, but Krenz.
De Wolf sees his own position reflected in this, as he explains in Krenz using black and white photographs from 1972: that of the son of a persevering Groningen Communist, while the West is starting to embrace neoliberalism from the 1980s onwards. How hard did he have to try to stick to the belief in the class struggle all these years? In any case, his fascination with Soviet culture would remain great, as it begins in Krenz:
‘He, the boy, fiddled with every little thing, every fragment, to get an impression of the inside of the east. Everything was of significance. The placement of dignitaries on the grandstand at parades, for instance, or the length of a report on a visit to a factory or a birthday, or the presence or absence at official functions.’
History has increasingly made it an exception. And so there is always one figure in de Wolf’s pieces who openly doubts whether he is wanted, whether he is worth it. ‘It’s also something in me’, knows the writer bicycling to the Institute of Social History in The Marx Sisters.
‘For someone who spends so much time doing what he does, it’s a shocking waste that he dares say so little about it. That I’ve never taken the time, consciously taken the time, to explain to my parents, my family, what exactly it is that I do, what I’m striving for. Just that eternal performance of embarrassed downplaying, tangents, the creation of side-issues, like the weather, showers, bad luck. “It’s not important you know, mum, it’s just messing around, and anyway there are only a few of us.”’
De Wolf is Krenz: the predestined successor who is constantly drawn back and forth between a personal (artistic) need for individual freedom and the ideological importance of the collective, of clear rules, fixed relationships. Who is he, who can he be, what does his own need mean, what is his task, how much margin is there for vulnerability and change? And is that change then betrayal or precisely a form of emancipation? De Wolf’s questions are those of many progressives at the beginning of the twenty-first century: where lies the boundary between my and our interests? Thus the more his later theatre texts seem to be historical and documentary in nature, the more contemporary and personal they appear on stage.
Narrations of the narrative
Their key lies in the form of their narration. All pieces since Bazel take the form of reconstructions, in which actors and writers are often included in the play. As a viewing and interpreting subject, they themselves become the object of what they view and interpret. That’s what makes de Wolf’s pieces always mediations, always narrations of the narrative. Talking about what happened seems almost more important than that it happened.
Thus The Marx Sisters starts with a scene in Trieste, in which the author, after finishing a Marx biography, walks into a pedestrian tunnel and gets the idea for his piece, and whom he wants to act in it. The construction is made transparent. Throughout the performance, actresses De Roo and Broods and their historical daughter roles will almost speak together, exchange their voices. In the work of de Wolf, present and past always speak together as one voice. History is never over, but always open.
Also ForsterHuberHeyne (2017), a piece for three actors that de Wolf wrote together with Rebekka de Wit for the Staatstheater Mainz, starts with a prologue. You could even say a meta-prologue. Willem de Wolf, Suzanne Grotenhuis and Vincent Doddema wonder to what extent their transparent self-examination will still be accepted by the audience. ‘What if one has enough of that whole self-understanding thing, of the doubt, the fear, the weaknesses and the defeats? It seems as if de Wolf is asking himself whether his choice for transparency – and that of an entire drama tradition since the 1990s, which he is indebted to – is still desirable. At the same time this is an issue for the left: to what extent can eternal nuance and self-inquiry offer answers to populism?
ForsterHuberHeyne breathes the desire for the revolution before the defilement. The piece aims to get rid of its after-the-fact reconstruction, envisions an eternal start, a permanent openness of possibilities, a postponement of conclusion. It depicts around 1792 the love affair between Georg Forster, an upcoming revolutionary in the Mainzer Republik (the French Revolution on German soil), and Therese Heyne, Germany’s first female publisher, who would later start a second relationship with Ludwig Ferdinand Huber. They do not yet have to bury the revolution, like Krenz. They are at its promising beginning. And that is not only a historical fact, but also an artistic question.
Willem The new is at the threshold. The other. The unknown.
Vincent The first army not to fight for a prince, but for an ideal. That is in fact fighting for itself for the first time.
Willem Progressive and committed. Therese and Georg. And confused. In that instance. Both of them. Everyone is confused in that instance.
Vincent Since the storming of the Bastille a couple of years ago, politics is there for us too. Is more and more our business. That is an incredible emancipation. To be able to say something ourselves. To take control of the dramaturgy ourselves.
Willem We no longer need permission to trust our own perceptions as being just as right and true as those of the powerful. We’re beginning to understand that we can trust our own judgement.
Suzanne From now on everything should actually be a process of emancipation. Dramaturgy as well. Dramaturgy should be a process of emancipation too.
Vincent The way in which we tell each other stories.
Willem Stories and history. The way in which we tell each other history.
Suzanne Georg has already been to Paris.
Vincent Two years ago on the first anniversary of the revolution. 1790. I’ll tell you all about it. In my way. I’m going to completely explain from my point of view what that meant to me.
Willem Overwhelmed. For both of them. Overwhelmed by the novelty, I think.
Suzanne Tossed to and fro.
Vincent Between the urge to conserve and the urge to innovate.
Suzanne Between the inside and the outside.
Willem Just like everyone, I think.
Vincent Between the domestic and the political.
Suzanne Selfishness and solidarity. Autobiography and repertoire, actually.
Willem The same as everyone, I think.
Suzanne Sitting on the fence as long as possible between wonder at all that newness and the sobriety of the end.
Vincent Together with you.
Suzanne In the darkness.
Vincent Poised to jump.
Willem Two progressive, hard-working, enquiring intellectuals living in revolutionary times, then.
Vincent Whom you thought you’d never heard of.
Suzanne That means dreamers, doesn’t it? Idealists? Poseurs?
Vincent Enthusiasts, I’d say. Wondrous enthusiasts.
Suzanne Shall we begin?
Vincent With a new prologue?
Suzanne Just begin.
Vincent Mine or yours?
Suzanne Just do it.
What de Wolf is looking for in his pieces is ‘imagination’: the potential to unambiguously capture another world, as it happened in history, not like pressing the shutter release on a camera, but by just talking it open again and again. This talk is not postmodern deconstruction. It is the sliding of increasingly new interpretations upon one another. The sociology of details as clothing. The “emography” of revolutionaries: resentment or hope? The dramaturgy of the side tracks. The importance of the body in rational matters such as politics. The reconciliation with failure and at the same time the warning for its convenience.
Change, even revolution, begins where the final nail has not yet been hammered. Where the narrative of history remains open for dialoguing perceptions. That is what de Wolf is looking for. The most important thing in his work is not the story, but its telling. And that is why the storytellers always belong in the picture of history. That is why each documentary piece by de Wolf is also necessarily a self-portrait. Because every revolution begins both inside and outside, and in the interaction between. It is this interaction that this oeuvre is about. Why should it be theatre and not photography? Because it’s not about representation, but about imagination.
Written by Wouter Hillaert
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
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.
- Galleryplay* (2005)
- bazel* (2007) (translated to German by Christine Bais*)
- Hannah & Martin* (2009) – in collaboration with Joan Nederlof en Lineke Rijxman (translated to German)
- Krenz, de gedoodverfde opvolger* (2011) (translated to German)
- The Marx Sisters (2014) (translated to German)
- Vermogen* (2015) – in collaboration with Joan Nederlof and Lineke Rijxman
- ForsterHuberHeyne* (2017) – in collaboration with Rebekka de Wit (translated to German by Christine Bais*)
Compagnie de KOE
- De wederopbouw van het Westen: wit* (2010) – in collaboration with Peter van den Eede and Natali Broods (translated to French)
- De wederopbouw van het Westen: rood* (2011) – in collaboration with Peter van den Eede and Natali Broods (translated to French)
- De wederopbouw van het Westen: zwart* (2012) – in collaboration with Peter van den Eede and Natali Broods (translated to French)
- Olga* (2014) (translated to French)
- Beckett Boulevard* (2016) (translated to French)
- HelloGoodbye* (2017)
Kas & de Wolf
- Groenland (1985)
- Allegorieën 1 t/m 4 (1986)
- De genezing (1987)
- De mode (1988)
- Naar de natuur (1989)
- Bio (1990)
- Animo (1995)
- Show (1995)
- Desperado (1997) – published by Bebuquin (translated to French and German)
- Ambitie (1997)
- Hygiëne (1999)
- Op=op (2000)
- Ons soort mensen (2001)
- Stand in (2003)
Kas & de Wolf in collaboration with Marien Jongewaard
- Rodeo (1991)
- Piste (1992)
- De jantjes (1996)
- Mensch durf te leven! (1998)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek