Theater, 49.2 (special issue – “Scenes of Suffering”)
In the summer of 2018, Édouard Louis’s second novel, Histoire de la Violence (2016), appeared in English translation (as History of Violence) at the same time as a stage version of the novel premiered at the Schaubühne in Berlin under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier. The description novel is slightly misleading, however. Louis’s book describes a rape and attempted murder that the author experienced in his own apartment in December of 2012; Louis is the novel’s central character and narrator, and the book’s dust jacket clearly marks the novel as a description of events that actually occurred. If Louis calls the book a novel, then, he just as distinctly asks us to understand the novel’s events as real, the author’s own experience.
Louis was violated at gunpoint in his apartment on a recent Christmas morning, and the bulk of the novel recounts the story of this violation, its aftermath, and the author’s attempts to cope with the political and psychological tolls the violence takes on him. He details his struggles, after the rape, to trust other people, to avoid the racist feelings that come into his head, and to connect with his friends and his family. Louis also describes the mental efforts he makes to keep his memory of the evening the way he wants it. Louis’s novel is about story (histoire) as much as it is about violence, and in many ways what Histoire de la Violence explores is how violence becomes language – the ways that we transmute violence into language and the operations of power that those transmutations subtend.
The transformation of violence into language is, of course, central to the history of theatrical representation, and theorists as far back as Aristotle, have long written about the effects of violence and the language of violence in the theater. But Louis’s novel and Ostermeier’s stage adaptation allow us to explore new questions related to these translations and transmutations. In particular, this essay will argue that the language of violation puts questions of identity, subjectivity, and confession into stark relief. On the page, History of Violence has been described as an insightful commentary on class, racism, and violence in France. Its stage version asks us to consider deeply how and why we tell stories of violation and to look carefully at our own need for testimony and truth. Louis and Ostermeier also pointedly address the question of who gets to tell stories of sexual violence – stories that describe us at our most private and vulnerable, stories that, for some of us, seem to reside at the very center of our subjectivities.