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An interview with Bart Meuleman

Het is begin maart 2010 als we met Bart Meuleman praten. Zijn boek over popmuziek, De donkere kant van de zon, prijkt sinds enkele dagen op de longlist van de Gouden Uil 2010. Begin februari moest hij als genomineerde de Prijs van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap voor Toneelliteratuur 2010 op de valreep gunnen aan Peter De Graef. Zijn dichtbundel omdat ik ziek werd prijkt inmiddels op lijsten van diverse poëzieprijzen. Alvast twee nieuwe theaterproducties zijn in voorbereiding… Plannen te over dus. Wat drijft Bart Meuleman? Wat verbindt of scheidt al deze projecten? Het gesprek voltrekt zich door omstandigheden in twee ‘takes’. Hoe meer de tijd vordert, hoe filosofischer de gedachten.

You currently have a large number of projects on the go. Where did all these plans suddenly come from?

My head feels quite clear again now. For a year that was not the case. A bad work experience had sapped my energy, but now I can start making plans again. Once you have that clarity, that freedom, the plans just come. Or other people invite you to do things.

 One of the things you are working on at the moment is Duts, a television series you are co-writing with Herwig Illegems. Was that your idea?

No, it was one of those invitations. Or to be more precise, it was an invitation Herwig received from Kanakna Productions. They asked him to make a comedy for Canvas (VRT Channel 2). He then phoned me and suggested we do it together. When we first met up, our expectations were not that high, but it was wonderful to find even at the first brainstorming session that our old intellectual affinity had not deserted us. The way we worked when we made plays as De Zweep company was still very much alive: what we think about situations and characters, what happens to them, how they react and so on. I am the co-author, but it is essentially Herwig’s project.

 With a project like that, do you have to adapt your way of working to fit a specific television mould?

We immediately decided to ignore a number of ‘laws’: there would be no ‘bible’, no up-front psychological description of the characters which you have to take into account later on. We just started writing. We asked ourselves simple questions: Where is the character? In the kitchen. OK, and who is with him? And so on. We simply turned a blind eye to many of the so-called laws of television-making. We always told ourselves we would either do things our way, or not do it at all. And so far that seems to have worked, because after the first trial episode, we were allowed to continue. The series will go out in the autumn of 2010.

Who exactly is Duts?

Duts is an unworldly bachelor who lives alone. He looks strange, but he is at one with himself and with the world. That said, the outside world often intrudes into his life in a very aggressive manner. He doesn’t want too much, he observes. He doesn’t talk much either, the others do that. Eventually the others get their aggressiveness back in their faces like a boomerang.

Duts is based on an earlier character called Sleazy Dick Herwig had made a number of ultra-short films about. But there is also something of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot about him. Duts is a very good-natured character. You wish there were more like him.

Do you already have a particular style of filming in mind? 

Yes, we’re working with an extraordinary cameraman, Danny Elsen. Together we go for static camera work, large frames, pale colours, in settings which are stripped down to the bare minimum: for example, a kitchen is a table with a cup of coffee on it and a towel on a hook.

 You are also in the middle of rehearsals for In de strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony)/Het hol (The Burrow) based on Kafka, aren’t you? How’s that going?

We’re now at the stage where I can begin to try out on others and on the theatrical reality all the ideas I have developed over the last few months. In the rehearsal process we allow plenty of scope for discussion, but – fortunately – my ideas seem to be standing up to scrutiny.

 What are those ideas?

In de strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony) is played by four characters: an officer who is about to oversee an execution, a traveller or tourist who witnesses it, a soldier who helps implement the punishment and a condemned man.

For me the production is about the dialogue and tension between those characters. The officer endeavours to explain the administration of justice to the tourist. He tries to explain that a legal system which may seem barbaric to us, has the advantage of certainty: at least in that system you know where you stand. It is not your fault that it is barbaric; it is the law of the land. That law is invisible, anonymous, it is imposed by a higher order. At the same time, you sense from the officer’s argumentation that a new law is not far off.

Then you have the tourist. He is in a very awkward position. You see him think, and even though you don’t know exactly what he is thinking, as a European it is not difficult to imagine. At a certain point he abandons his position of observer and makes a pronouncement about what he sees. That pronouncement will have far-reaching consequences...

 You combine In de strafkolonie with another story by Kafka, Het hol (The Burrow). What do you see as the link between the two?

I see Het hol as a metaphor for an extreme experience of an inner world. It is about the frenetic defence of one’s own territory or place and so of one’s identity. The character who speaks is fixated with that place and the identity associated with it, and constantly imagines it is under threat. The greater the threat, the more he has to try and protect the place. The character’s monologue must spin like a top in that small inner world, which then bursts open to a large outside world, the ‘elsewhere’, an exotic place, Africa... And that is the world of In de strafkolonie. You go from one horror to the next.

 Is that a direct political reading of Kafka?

Yes and no. We looked at a couple of Kafka films, Michael Haneke’s (The Castle) and Orson Welles’ (The Trial). But in our production we don’t want to convey that typical Kafkaesque world with its bureaucrats and its administration. We want to bring it up to date. We also looked at Renzo Martens’ film Enjoy Poverty. Though it’s very interesting, you can’t put across such an obviously political viewpoint with this text. We must avoid those two extremes. Kafka’s text is what it is. In his work you hear echoes of contemporary political comment, but there is always a dark, untouchable nucleus, which relates to what is essentially an intangible, tormented individual. That nucleus cannot be recuperated.

 So who or what is Kafka for you?

Kafka is art as criticism. Art as an endless but also almost hopeless defence of the individual. Art as an inner world. Staging these two Kafka texts is my way of dealing with a writer who has been very important to me, who shaped the way I think and work. After this play I might well leave him alone for a long while.

After a break of several days, we resume our discussion. We return to Kafka and the relationship between art and reality, theatre and politics which underlies Bart Meuleman’s production. In an earlier discussion he had used the word ‘semi-permeable’ to describe that relationship: art is partly autonomous, but also partly permeable and permeated with social issues. We want to know if that is still his view.

Art always has to be a work of art. That presupposes the notion of a framework, a stage. Art is always a form of sublimation. Art is a form of reflection more than a form of action. Art reflects something. It is never life as it is. You can of course flirt with the border, but at crucial moments it is still important to show the distance, to show the work as work.

So what kind of reflection do you want to concentrate on in Kafka?

I started reading Kafka when I was about twenty. I was attracted by the way he imagines - rather than represents - a world of endless contemplation about the individual who is constantly trying to express himself. It is about expressiveness, about the individual who endeavours to swim to the surface for air. Endeavour, that’s what writing is. At the same time, in Kafka’s case writing is also very problematic: in writing, the individual rakes up the very social mechanisms he is trying to oppose. If a fly thrashes about, it becomes even more firmly ensnared in the spider’s web.   

Modernism is about that process, about resistance to social mechanisms carried through to the finest ramifications, until you arrive at the autonomous work of art. Seen in that way you have two movements: you have the individual who wants to manifest himself in all his complexity against social pressure, and you have the laws of society which just become visible through that struggle. It is an endless, almost hopeless struggle which nevertheless continues to be waged. Kafka is the ultimate example of it.

At the moment I am less concerned with the individual’s struggle than with the working of society. In that way politics can filter through, but then be sublimated. It was in that sense that I used the word ‘semi-permeable’: a work of art is never a depiction of reality. It allows the world in, but only partially. It also has its own laws. In that respect the influence of television is very misleading: there is a strong tendency to show reality “as it is”. At least, that is what you are constantly told, whereas I don’t think such a thing is possible.

You also want to tackle another modernist in the theatre. In the spring of 2011 you are planning an adaptation of Maurice Gilliams’ Gregoria of een huwelijk op Elseneur (Gregoria or Marriage at Elsinore) with KVS.

Maurice Gilliams didn’t see himself as a modernist but as a romantic. With that he reveals a duality in modernism, namely that while a person understands his own age very well, he wants nothing to do with it. Eliot, Rilke and others, they couldn’t stand their own era and turned to the past, but precisely because of their extreme awareness of form, they were excellent witnesses of their own era. They see their era as a sort of machine for destroying the past.

That double reflex may also be a construction that allows you to speak out about everything you don’t agree with in the here and now. A person like Gilliams turns to the past in an exaggerated manner to underline his rejection of the present. And in that sense he is a romantic. At the same time I don’t think he was critical enough of the past.

Why are you so fascinated by that ‘double reflex’? 

First and foremost I entered Gilliams’ world though the power of his sentences. They are sentences hewed from stone, sentences in dark cellars. I am attracted by the power of the style. Style, that really is something. It is a person’s highest personal signature for shaping something. In Gilliams’ case, it is an attempt to elevate something which no longer exists, experiences from childhood or adolescence. There are people who deal with that in a ‘small’ way, but with him it is monumental. He gives the ‘stones’ a ‘soul’.  

He worked on Gregoria – an autobiographical novel about a disastrous marriage – for twenty-five years, but he never finished the book. There is a great deal of ‘undergrowth’ in the sentences, but from that undergrowth there emerges a penetrating portrait of a man who is over-sensitive and weak, but also venomous. A man who is not only a victim of the people and the intrigues around him, but who is himself full of contempt for his environment. I find that combination of an arrogant exterior with an intense sensitivity – or vice versa – absolutely fascinating. Gilliams himself was a sort of dandy, a poseur, but with a very impressionable mind.  Gregoria reveals in minute detail the protagonist’s aversion to the age in which he lives. You sense immediately that he is someone who is not at home in his own era.

How do you bridge the time gap between past and present for the modern-day audience?

I think that your production has to show the importance of a person’s struggle. That is timeless. It doesn’t necessarily need to be set in our own time. You have to believe in the importance of that struggle and you must substantiate that belief. You must of course make it accessible to a public that comes and sees it today. You have to create a historic awareness.

Why is that important to you?

Because the notion of ‘yesterday’ barely exists today. Everything is so consumed by a consumption machine which makes us believe we can think sovereignly and have everything there is.  As if how things were created, how long it took, doesn’t matter. Historical awareness is an important weapon in combating triteness.

The plan to perform Kafka fits in with all that too. Kafka may be canonized but he is on the point of petrification, he is becoming irrelevant, whereas in the 1950s and 60s he was hugely important and made a significant contribution to existentialism.

I realize it may not be a popular theme, but I’m not afraid of that. Which is not to say the thought never occurs to me. In a way I thought the same thing about my book about pop music. Who in god’s name wants to read about The Beach Boys? And yet in general it seems to have gone down quite well.

In De donkere kant van de zon, on the one hand you see a longing, a personal nostalgia almost for the music you describe, but at the same time you put everything in its context. That’s an amazing combination.

You always try to write about yourself, about who you were. You try to relive that music but also to maintain a critical distance. After all, pop music is a whole commercial and industrial machine. Despite a certain embarrassment – isn’t pop music too banal to be written about? –, I did want to write about something that was a vital part of my life. You have to take the banal very seriously. Without glorifying it, as is very often done these days. I think that by studying the past we can better understand the present. There is something moralizing in that: you should not concern yourself with today but with the day before yesterday. That’s also how Martens came about. 

So what led to that production which had its première in Ghent in 2006 (NTGent and Theater Antigone)?

On September 13th 2001 I got a phone call from Koen de Sutter, artistic director of Zuidpool. The group was rehearsing Chekhov but after 9/11 it no longer seemed relevant. Wouldn’t it be better to perform new scripts which would be about modern-day politics? That question was put to me and to Paul Mennes and Jeroen Olyslaegers.  I told Koen I couldn’t write about the current political situation. What I did want to do was make a play about the politics of the day before yesterday, research something I could distance myself from, or from which I was already distanced. A historical figure I could get my teeth into. Koen gave Wilfried Martens as an example and it felt right immediately. We eventually spent five years making Martens.

So does that play only say something about the politics of yesterday?

After that production you can reflect on modern-day politics but with the insight the play gives into the politics of the last fifty years. At least I hope so. At the same time I wanted to portray a different picture of the life of a politician from the one we read about in the newspapers these days. Martens was a very deliberate stand against that.

What sort of insight into politics did you gain through writing Martens?

You could almost compare politics to art: politics is a very complex subject which has its own system and dynamics, but at the same time it also gives a fragmented picture, or reflects what is going on in a society. And so is also semi-permeable. In that sense politics is an art, albeit a very ugly art. But it is also a system with laws all of its own. And it reflects on the time, on the society in which we live. That is not to say that certain laws don’t have a great impact on a society, but in my view political debate always lags behind processes which have already occurred in a society.

In Martens’ first period the political culture was certainly different from now. Politicians had more standing. Yet that process of disintegration, of decline, was already under way. Shortly after the war, there was a great idealism and the will to start doing everything differently, better. Twenty years later cracks began to appear. That had partly to do with the very movement from which the new, or modern politics emerged, namely democratization: bringing every child up to be an articulate citizen. We now know the advantages and disadvantages of that. Democratization is the process of which I myself am a product; it is also a process that if full of aberrations. At the risk of being conservative, I can only say that at the very least democratization is a two-edged sword. Articulateness should be a form of reaching adulthood, whereas articulateness currently seems to have a lot to do with becoming infantile. Opinions are two a penny. Just look at the internet; it’s an open sewer.

But I certainly don’t want to glorify the past; I see it more as an endless series of crossroads and I must confess that the wrong road has often been chosen.

How does the poetry relate to all these views?

If I am engaged in writing poetry, I am engaged in writing poetry and not essay. If I want to write an essay, I write an essay and I don’t make a stage play. I keep the different genres separate because I believe in the effectiveness and specificity of all these genres and that applies to poetry too. That is a fairly classic view of the genres. The uniqueness of those genres lies mainly in the devices. A poem cannot have the rhetorical power of an essay. Argumentation develops in an essay and you deploy all the available stylistic devices in your pursuit of conviction. If it’s about knowledge and understanding, then for me it has to be an essay.  

In your poems you also expose mechanisms, but perhaps they are more emotional mechanisms than mechanisms of a society, of an outside world?

I don’t know. For me writing poetry has nothing to do with a request from the outside world. That did happen, for example, with the texts in the book about pop music, which I began writing when I was writer-in-residence for a year with the literary magazine Yang. Before that I had also written essays but then always out of aggression rather than love. I regretted that deeply. It is in vacuous periods of my life that I write poetry…

I only began when I was nineteen and at film school. I wrote out of boredom in the theory of colour lectures. And I only began writing plays when I was nineteen. Before that I had written a few short prose-like things, but it was only at film school that I became interested in theatre, in theatre and poetry. At the time I was very much under the influence of Hans Faverey. Both Jan Decorte and Hans Faverey opened up the world for me. They are both people who unpicked things, who were very radical. When you’re nineteen, that has a certain appeal.

But making your own style of theatre has evolved since then, hasn’t it?

I believe that the power of style in prose, the power of magic in theatre and the power of conviction in essay are very important weapons.

Magic is very important in the theatre. I’ve done with the time that theatre had to be a sort of empty, minimal world devoid entirely of illusion. Partly because I find it has a tedious moralism about it. “Beware because all illusion is a form of deceit”. I strongly believe that people can think for themselves when something is revealed to them. I find illusion a very interesting means of drawing people to something and then afterwards allowing them to reflect on what they have seen. That is something you can only do in the theatre: taking people somewhere where they may not want to be at all but which they then have to think about....

I believe in the image, in the beauty of the image, in the illusion of the image, in the deceit of the image. The whole gamut. It’s also about enjoyment. Enjoyment is permissible. Most definitely. The image is enjoyment.

Interview conducted by Erwin Jans and An-Marie Lambrechts and recorded by An-Marie Lambrechts

February 2010

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