A short essay commissioned by Surrogate Productions to accompany their stage adaptation of Édouard Louis’ book Who Killed My Father (2018).
Nora Wardell’s adaptation of Édouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father mirrors the source text by imagining its own staging:
‘If this were a text for the theatre, here is how it would begin…’.
This speculative opening – ‘If..’ – is a feint, not theatricality for theatricality’s sake but a reminder of what is happening now, in front of us. And I don’t just mean the act of showing something on stage, but the play’s engagement with the particular moment of history in which we find ourselves: where Covid’s long drawn-out months of waiting have collided with a political era in which ‘progress’ seems an increasingly difficult joke. For all that this work traces Louis’ familial history, this play unfolds as to continually remind us that the past is anything but distant and that the personal is political.
What has happened in the past is happening now, and this shapes what we can imagine of the future.
There’s a concept in the work of continental philosopher Michel Foucault that describes writing a ‘history of the present’ as an attempt to understand the forces that have produced the conditions of here and now. The goal of such a history is to render the past as active rather than inert, and as continuing to shape the present. It understands history not as the straight line of progress but as the expression of struggles over the meanings of gender, sexuality, race and class. These are power struggles centred on the body, its value and its capacity for truth-telling. Theatre – and perhaps solo performance in particular – tries to give that body a voice.
I’m getting far ahead of myself, perhaps because the shape of this play invites us to think in loops through time – moving back and forth between memory and the immediacy of direct address. Memories are told and retold, with the work of retelling reminding us how some stories are judged less worthy than others, even before they are heard. As Édouard addresses his father, ‘shouldn’t I repeat myself when talking about your life since nobody wants to hear stories about lives like yours?’ Édouard speaks to us through his father’s literal and figurative absence, through the half-memory of his mother’s affection for her second husband and through stolen images of his father’s youth. These stories are themselves rehearsed, moments to which Édouard has seemingly returned again and again in the attempt to give an account of his own life. The photo of his father dressed campily as a cheerleader for some unnamed party is set, years later, against that same father’s embarrassment that his son should make himself a spectacle, dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl for all his friends.
The Barbie Girl story. Ouch.
Nearly every non-gender conforming person has stories like this, even those lucky enough to have been raised with loving families. Stories in which the discomfort of a sibling at your excess or flamboyance spilled out from behind a polite smile, or when a parent or trusted teacher simply couldn’t look at what you were doing for fear of what they’d show on their face. Shame? Embarrassment? And you, the child, who can read that discomfort as clearly as words on a page but has yet to give it a name. And you, the child, who wants to be the centre of attention, wants to be loved.
Look, Dad, look!
At the heart of this work is an invitation to think about queerness, masculinity, and class – or, more accurately, to think about the forces which require a certain kind of masculinity to reject queerness in order to be considered valuable. You can think of it in terms of a bargain, told through the story of Édouard’s father.
The bargain works like this: when you’re a young man, you can bend the rules: you can wear cologne when other men don’t wear cologne. You can enjoy yourself; you can cry at opera if you like, just at the sheer beauty of it.
But then there’s a moment when you need to strike a deal and become the kind of man whose hard work and conventional masculinity will be rewarded with security and status. This means drawing a line between yourself and the kinds of men who might threaten this social order, not least by having the kinds of lives and relationships that do not centre on raising children.
And you will strike this deal like your father before you, because it’s what men do when they provide for their families, and because this deal was struck on your behalf before you were even born – by your grandfather, and everyone else who carried the male line of your family.
This play is partly about what happens when that deal is shown to be bankrupt: a way of rationalising and naturalising inequalities of class, and the ways in which we are taught to mistrust and mistreat each other. But it’s also a rallying cry: a refusal to accept these logics and their violence, because simply naming them – and the politicians whose policies preserve them – is not enough.
‘Are you still involved in politics?’, asks Édouard’s father in the play’s closing moments. ‘Yes, more and more involved’.