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Joel Pommerat: 'History does not repeat itself. Instead, we can learn from it.' (HF16)

One of the special performances at this year's Holland Festival is 'Ça Ira (1): Fin de Louis' by French company Compagnie Louis Brouillard. I visited the show earlier in Luxembourg and spoke to the director and writer of this over four-hour marathon about the French Revolution. It seems quite something: 40 actors on stage and in the auditorium, and a lot of text, in French. And that about a historical event that turns out to be rather far from the bed for modern Dutch people: the French Revolution.

This relative ignorance is of course unfortunate: the French Revolution brought us the modern rule of law, which stipulates that a majority may never carry out its will at the expense of a minority. It also brought us modern parliamentary democracy and the separation of church and state. And it brought us an occupation by the French armies at the beginning of the 19e century.

Pommerat's play deals with the first three years of that Revolution (1789-1792), the period of the Terror, in which the poor took revenge on the nobility and the clerical elite, and the big cities bathed in the blood of thousands of beheadings and lootings. The modern era did not come about without a struggle, shall we say.

British cartoon on The Terror (1792)
British cartoon on The Terror (1792)

What is special about the show, though, is that no big words and big, recognisable characters appear in it. Nor does the writer take a stand. The play is surprisingly open and also surprisingly easy to follow, especially for someone who speaks a few more words of French than the average participant in 'Ik Vertrek'. I spoke to Pommerat about his choices the next morning.

The show is very open in its communication: all opinions count equally. This gives a refreshing perspective on history.

'I read up very long and very extensively: historical texts, analyses, accounts of events during the revolution. I didn't do that on my own, but together with the actors. Ultimately, my goal is to convey not only the words of that period, but also the soul of what was happening, the physical state society was in. The actors have to incorporate those ideas. They have to feel them deeply. They have to dialogue with the ideas in the play. This requires months of reading in, months of talking, months of taking notes. And that starts long before writing the final text.'

I did not see a single familiar name passing by. No Danton, no Robespierre. Did you delete them from history?

'Every time you see a film or show with historical figures, you take with you all the preconceptions you've got from previous films, from previous books, from everything that has been said about those people before. These get in the way of the truth. You can no longer listen carefully to what was actually said. And so you can't think about the present either. I want the spectator to access the historical event as if he were experiencing it for the first time. The spectator must be innocent and free to hear the words as new. So that he can think for himself about what he hears and sees.

The French Revolution is a historical legend, it has already been used by everyone to proclaim its own message. All political parties have appropriated the French Revolution. Both past and present. It has been completely parasitised. I wanted the parasites out. So I took away the familiar names and put other names in their place. Made-up names.'

You are not taking sides. That is unusual for a modern theatre-maker. How do the critics feel about that?

'Some have complained. That criticism then goes about how this piece does not take sides. It does not pass judgment on right and wrong. It is completely open to all points of view shown. Of course, I do have my own views on history. Only: as an artist, I distrust my own views. I doubt my point of view. I question that. That is the task of any work of art: to question conceptions. That is not to say that all viewpoints are equal, but I myself am impressionable. I can easily be swayed by seductive big ideas. Therefore, I am also very keen to show the ideas, with which I disagree, and then also in the most advantageous way possible. I actually give my political enemies almost more space than my political friends. That makes it more exciting. It's so easy to portray people you disagree with badly. But if they are bad ideas, showing them intelligibly doesn't make them better. They are still bad ideas, just better put forward.

This play does not choose. This play is an account of great events, transcending people. They might as well be Athenians, or Romans.'

Or Europeans. The title 'Ça ira' is reminiscent of Angela Merkel's statement 'Wir schaffen das'. Something she said when people objected to the open borders she favoured. He turned out to be a statement that has since become controversial, and could potentially bring her down, just as Louis, the French king, made his statement 'Ça Ira' on the eve of his own death.

Most of the performance takes place in the auditorium. © Elizabeth Carecchio
Most of the performance takes place in the auditorium. © Elizabeth Carecchio

'That's right. In the German translation, this play is also called 'Wir Schaffen Das'.'

Understandable, but aren't you worried that this might limit it too much to the current situation in Europe?

'Sure, I was afraid of that. I didn't agree at first either. But I speak German badly. The translator, whom I trust very much, explained to me that a literal translation of 'Ça ira' (that will go) would not work. So it's a compromise. I always mind translations, of course. But in the end, I didn't bother further about it, because I also didn't delve into that language enough to judge it.'

But 'ça ira' does say something. It says that the revolution is a monster that - once unleashed - cannot be contained. Is that also your conviction: that the populist bear is loose, even now, and that we face bleak times ahead? 

'No, I am not a pessimist. Nor do I think I know more about how the world will turn out than any other global citizen. I don't know everything. I'm just a puppet, an actor. I am singing along to a song. This is just one of the possible poems that can be written. I cannot say that I have any special knowledge that allows me to interpret the future better than anyone else. The question of whether I am optimistic or pessimistic is totally unimportant. This show is about whether I am telling it well or badly. I want to tell it well.'

This is an almost journalistic approach.

'Not really. After all, a journalist believes in objectivity. I don't believe in objectivity. I have a story to tell. Nothing more. I reconstruct.'

But surely an artist can be expected to have a clear point of view?

'That is indeed what is taught in all art schools: be an artist. Be yourself. Be unique. Make a unique comment on society. But today, everyone has an opinion. And it is also unique. What importance does that have in artistic terms? Of course, it is good that everyone can profile themselves, but what is the artist's special interest that his commentary and opinion would be more important than anyone else's? In a real democracy like the one we have today, an artist is not more important than anyone else. He is not an aristocrat, he is not above the rest. Why should we look at him? He has to do his work like everyone else.'

That's quite a revolutionary statement.

'I think that is a very old idea. It was once abandoned, but I think it is becoming more and more important. The old can become modern again. This awareness of the humble artist is important for now.'

Part 1 of your piece runs to 1791. part 2 will run to 1794. So until the end of the period of 'The Terror'. The period of the mass murder of the nobility and the church. That bears similarities to the current period on the word alone, now that Paris has had two major attacks: The play came out after the Charlie Hebdo attack, but before the Bataclan attack. How does that work for you?

'I find that this play succeeds in making a younger generation aware of history. Once again, we are now experiencing a period when emotions are felt collectively, just as they were then. In fact, now are the ideal circumstances to perform this play. As bad as it is to say that.'

History repeats itself.

'That's the banal idea, but I don't find that so interesting to conclude in relation to this play. Things may repeat themselves, but they also happen in a different way every time. And we do have free will with which we can change things. I am not a pessimist or defeatist. I believe in the responsibility of people. The collective can indeed cause something good.'

Ça Ira?

'Ça Ira.'

Good to know
Ça Ira (1), Fin de Louis can be seen at the Holland Festival on 11 and 12 June. More info.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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