Henceforth there is war between us

Interview with Guy Cassiers

By Simon Hatab 18 February 2017

© Frieke Janssens

Henceforth there is war between us

“Henceforth there is war between us!” (“À nous deux maintenant!”) is the famous phrase pronounced by Rastignac at the end of Le Père Goriot from the hill-top in Père-Lachaise as he decides to conquer Paris. The same phrase could have been uttered by Guy Cassiers as he prepared to direct Trompe-la-mort. The image we have of this Belgian director is one of an artist who has no hesitation in taking on vast literary frescos and giving birth to panoramic productions – as was recently the case with Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) by Jonathan Little. Everything points, then, to his being the right man to tackle this world premiere inspired by Balzac’s saga, La Comedie Humaine. When we met him, he had been in Paris for a week, sitting in on the first music rehearsals of Luca Francesconi’s opera. Having done considerable preparation on the work, he did not hide his excitement at hearing the music take shape at last. Here he draws aside the veil on one of the most secret and intriguing productions of the season.

What was your relationship with Balzac before working on the Trompe-la-mort project?

Guy Cassiers: Of course I was familiar with Balzac’s novels, but I must say, first of all, that I had never read La Comedie Humaine before working on Trompe-la-mort. Unlike the situation that you French people enjoy, in Belgium, it is possible to go through school without reading a single novel by Balzac. His name comes up when one studies 19th century realism, but without any close examination of his work. I therefore discovered Balzac with the eyes of an adult at the age of fifty-six. It is very interesting, as I imagine that, in this respect, my situation is very different from that of the French audiences who will come to this production with, for the most part, a very clear idea of this author crystallized in their imagination since childhood. I am curious to see how they will react.    

What impression did this fifty-six-year-old man get of La Comédie humaine?

G.C.: I had worked a lot on Proust before this. There is a clear relationship between Balzac and Proust. They have Paris and Parisian society in common. They also share a common desire to develop a new, more open form of writing, a system into which they could bring in a whole world. It is certainly a megalomaniac project but one that an artist like myself can only admire. The form they were aiming at seeks to be both close to reality and very free and for this reason Balzac and Proust are, for me, two great masters of creative freedom.    

As a director, you often work on productions that resonate strongly with the politics of contemporary society. What can Balzac tell us today?

G.C.: I am struck by Balzac’s modernity. From that point of view, Piketty’s reading of him is precious. The idea that the past devours the present, just as Chronos devours his children, signifies that, in the society portrayed by Balzac, as in our own, inherited capital has assumed greater importance than the capital constituted during one’s life by one’s labour, blocking all perspective of a future for young people. This is the argument propounded by Vautrin, alias Trompe-la-mort, when he incites Lucien to use marriage or the acquisition of a landed property to climb the social ladder, rather than embarking on a career of some sort … Balzac denounces money's hold on society and the destruction of human relationships in the name of profit. It is because this form of nihilism, propagated by Trompe-la-mort, triumphs today that Luca [Francesconi] chose to make him the central character of the opera.

Who is Trompe-la-mort?

G.C.: Trompe-la-mort is someone who scrutinises the flaws in our society and in whose eyes we can therefore see all its dysfunctions. In La Comédie Humaine, I perceive three forms of power: first of all there is the law, the social contract that regulates human relations. Next, there is money, represented by the character of Nucingen. Finally, there is manipulation, in the character of Trompe-la-mort. All three have blind spots and it is these grey areas that interest Balzac. Using the latter two forces, the characters manage sometimes to change the rules, to modify the very foundations of society. A bit like Trump who, in one week, changes the rules without the least consideration for the consequences such a change might have on the rest of the world.    

The character of Lucien maintains an ambiguous relationship with Trompe-la-mort: he both admires and detests him. What is your view of this character?

G.C.: To tell you the truth, I don’t consider the character of Trompe-la-mort to be any worse than the others. With the possible exception of Clotilde, who is presented as being absolutely honest, there isn’t really a positive character with whom one can identify: this is one of the things that explains that feeling of dizziness that Balzac manages to create. Lucien is no better than Trompe-la-mort: through his own obstinacy, he ends up destroying his environment.    

You spoke earlier of your admiration for the system of Balzac’s novels. Have you, in turn, created a system for the direction of Trompe-la-mort?

G.C.: Balzac dissects our civilisation in order to study it from within. We have chosen to develop that idea, which seemed to us to be fundamental, in a literal way. We decided to incorporate the history of the edifice in which we are performing the production (the Palais Garnier) into the production itself. In La Comédie Humaine, everything is theatre. The characters all play a role, they try to generate a mask that will permit them to survive: Lucien, Esther, Madame de Sérisy…There is a public world and a world behind the scenes. This separation is also to be found in the Palais Garnier. We decided also to direct the eyes of the spectator starting from the stage through spaces known to the audience (the grand staircase…) and unknown (the basement…).

As you previously stated, there is a very strong idea of the 19th century surrounding Balzac’s work. Are you not afraid, in your turn, of being “devoured by the past”?

G.C.: Although Balzac is a 19th century author, the libretto written by Luca is very much of the 21st century: the narrative he develops is strongly influenced by the cinema in the use of flashbacks, the multiplication of its scenes and the instantaneous transitions from one setting to another… . We have worked with contemporary materials to create a modern production. Indeed, the scenographic device that we use – an ensemble of fine video strips – takes up no more space than is necessary: it is very important for us to leave the audience’s field of vision open so as to let the imagination roam freely.
Guy Cassiers
Guy Cassiers © Adrienne Altenhaus

Your work as a director is characterised by its close links with literature. You like adapting works for the stage and taking on grand literary frescos: Tolstoy, Proust, Musil and Littel to name but a few. What significance does literature have for you?

G.C.: In my free time, I read a lot of novels, more than theatrical texts. Of course, the theatre repertoire is fundamental for me and I think it is important to perform it and bring it up to date constantly. But novels provide me with a freedom I don’t have with a play, in which the author is more controlling and often communicates his own idea of the staging of his text. I would add that today we have at our disposal the technical means to combine visual arts with sound that allow us to transpose the universe of a novel to the stage and to go beyond simple dramatic dialogue. On stage we can furnish the mental spaces of the spectator, which was not the case in Molière’s day. There is also another aspect of the novel that inspires me: it’s the serial side of it. As I am the director of a theatre [the Toneelhuis in Anvers which houses the biggest Flemish company], I am lucky enough to be able to create voyages with the audience and not merely productions closed in on themselves: a story above and beyond the productions themselves that aims to create a form of common awareness, of memory shared with the audience. It is important for me to exploit this dimension of theatre. I really like what the serialised work brings to it, and its contemporary form – the television serial, which interests me a lot.   

When you adapt novels for the theatre, you create the adaptation yourself. In the case of Trompe-la-mort, the libretto was written by someone else. Does this feel like a risk for you.

G.C.: It is true that my position is different. I have more “accompanied” the text from its writing to the stage. The final work, with the different levels that Luca imagined, has, in my eyes something unknown about it. It’s a real challenge to stage his complex construction with its forty scenes to be performed in two hours. How does one establish visual continuity? When the music rehearsals began, I also realised that a lot of the information concerning the characters is communicated through the music. It’s very stimulating to try and find a balance between the different elements of the work.

When you staged Les Bienveilantes by Jonathan Littell, you stated in an interview that your adaptation was not so much dramaturgical as emotional. What did you mean by that?

G.C.: When my dramaturge, Erwin Jans, and I work on the adaptation of a work, it is emotion that guides us rather than reason. It is through emotion initially that we try to understand the writer and plunge into his universe. Reason and order come later. We go through tens of different versions that continue evolving right up to the opening night and beyond. The production has to find its shape. That is why I need to do a lot of work in advance, in order to look for the emotions that will guide me at the beginning. Afterwards, one finds reason.

When you transpose a many-layered novel to the theatre, which remains an art of limited means, do you feel that you simplify?

G.C.: No, not simplify. Make choices rather. But that is not what’s essential. The essential thing is what is at the heart of the production.

Just before Trompe-la-mort, you put on another production at IRCAM: Le Sec et l’Humide based on Jonathan Little’s work by the same name. A few days ago, you told me there was a link in your mind between these two productions, which is surprising since one is inspired by the universe of Balzac’s novel and the other deals with the figure of the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle (1906-1994). What connection do you make between these two productions?

G.C.: In both cases, it is a question of examining evil. Le Sec et l’Humide was conceived as a precise grammar of fascism. Trompe-la-mort is a virtuoso of language: with him, language is a tool of manipulation. In Jonathan Littel, we find the idea, borrowed from Degrelle, that language can direct our actions and push us to commit inhuman acts. This is an important question for me. How are we influenced today? How can a man like “Trump-la-mort” become president of the United States?

Could one argue that Jonathan Littel’s x-ray of fascism is the sequel to Trompe-la-mort?

G.C.: Certainly, the collapse of society that Balzac depicts constitutes a favourable breeding ground for right-wing extremism.

Before I conclude this interview I must ask your advice on what to read…

G.C.: It would be some light reading for a change: May We Be Forgiven, a novel by the American writer, A.M. Homes which traces the adventures of a lecturer specialising in “Nixonology”. The perfect book for the holidays. Indeed, I am going to adapt it for the stage.    

Do you ever read books without adapting them?

G.C.: [he laughs] It’s just that my productions take up a lot of my time…    

You were explaining earlier that you were also a fan of television series. Which series do you find inspiring?

G.C.: I really love the fictional renaissance brought about by the new Scandinavian series. At the moment, I’m following a series called Rectify: a man gets out of prison after being inside for ten years. We don’t know if he’s guilty or not of the crime he’s been accused of. The series examines the way society looks on this man. Then of course there’s House of Cards [a series that retraces the career of a politician with neither principles nor scruples who succeeds in becoming president of the United States]. But in that regard seemingly, in the United States these days, reality is slightly stranger than fiction.    

Interview by Simon Hatab

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