An essay on how class shame sustains systems of social domination is neither a natural bestseller nor an obvious text for theater. Returning to Reims, by the French philosopher Didier Eribon, has nevertheless made headlines as both of these. Its publication in France in 2009 prompted a national conversation, and it has since been adapted for the stage, most recently by Schaubühne Berlin, who is performing it currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The essay examines the appeal of the political far-right for working class voters in France, who until then had been committed Communists. A few years after the book was published, the mostly disgraced National Front began a surge in the polls that propelled it into the second round of the 2017 presidential election. The text also spoke to Germans fearing a similar phenomenon, when the country elected a neo-Nazi to the European Parliament in 2014. In hindsight, Eribon seems to have predicted those trends.
Eribon teaches at Sciences-Po Paris, has been a regular contributor to the national news and culture magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and became famous for his 1989 biography of Michel Foucault: as a French intellectual, he’s on the map. Returning to Reims caused a sensation as much for his unforgiving analysis of how the political parties on the left lost the working class vote, as for his discussion of his family: factory workers living in dire conditions in housing projects on the outskirts of the capital of France’s champagne region. In a country where class status is rarely traded up, contrary to America’s bootstrap mantra, Eribon had, as many observed, effectively “come out” as an impostor to the world he frequented: a man, in fact, of the lowest rungs of the lowliest working class. But as its title suggests, Returning to Reims is not the story of how he left his origins behind, but of what he learned when he tried to go back to them, after a near total, 30-year long rupture with his family, a decision precipitated, as decisions of this kind are, by his father’s death.
Schaubühne Berlin’s adaptation of Eribon’s essay was conceived by director Thomas Ostermeier, probably the most political director of his generation, with blistering productions of A Doll’s House (as Nora), An Enemy of the People and Richard III, to his credit, in conjunction with the German actress Nina Hoss (of Homeland), whose father was elected to the Bundestag as an early member of the Green Party and who later fought for the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon.
Eribon’s memoir, strictly speaking, or what he remembers of his family and Reims, holds limited interest for the political instincts of Ostermeier and Hoss, except perhaps in how the past can enduringly define the present. They use the conceit of a staged reading to allow Hoss to read the text (Michael Lucey’s English translation), playing a famous actress named Katy who is recording the soundtrack to a film version of the book. Her hushed, mesmerizing recitation is overseen by the film’s affable director, Peter (Bush Moukarzel), and the grumpy owner of the dated, 60s era recording studio where the session is taking place (Ali Gadema).
That film (directed by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey and projected above the stage) feels miraculous at times, following Eribon as he revisits the one-room house where he grew up and as he reenacts, with his mother, scenes described in his memoir as they tried to reconnect after the long years of Eribon’s self-imposed exile. Peter leans on a euphemism to describe the image choices of his docufiction (he calls his style “multilayered”) but these cause some discomfort for Katy (Hoss and Moukarzel’s sometimes comic sparring also acknowledges issues in the current gender/power debate).
For Ostermeier’s purposes, the film deliberately begs questions he has asked elsewhere in his work, about the politics of performance and vice versa. It draws considerably on archival footage, on the one hand – labor union protests in France in the 1960s and the television appearance that catapulted Eribon into every French living room in 1989 when he was invited onto a seminal literary show broadcast on prime-time (the ease and confidence of this young man who was destined to work in a slaughterhouse but sits among France’s literati are quite astonishing in retrospect) – and teases us, on the other, with those fictionalized scenes where Eribon stars in his own memoir, looking pensive on a train crossing the French countryside and conversing with his mother, interspersed with lingering shots of the hardened faces and bodies of the workers of Reims’ factories today, posed deliberately for the camera.
But Ostermeier and Hoss want more: more discussion, more understanding, and ultimately, more hope (Eribon’s essay is as bleak as it is fascinating). They could have let the film speak for itself, with Hoss’ voice-over; on its own, it sums up Eribon’s thesis with compassion and grace. Theater is a forum for debate, however, and the play does Eribon and audiences a considerable service by interrupting his argument and opening it up to discussion amongst the characters. Katy and Peter debate at one point if it would be preferable to cut Eribon’s allusions to class war and conspiracy theories about class oppression, so as not to make the public skittish about the integrity of his ideas. The play concludes, in another micro-lesson on politics as performance that blurs into real life, with a presentation by Hoss/Katy of the life and work of her father, Willi Hoss, substantiated by photos and videos taken from the actress’ smartphone (she also appears in some of these as a child and teenager). This coda to Eribon’s argument might answer a lingering question – surely, the working class has its defenders somewhere? – but walks a fine line between history and hagiography.
Ostermeier turns up the volume on Eribon’s argument in other ways. The soundtrack to the film includes Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” and Gadema, who, like the late Scott-Heron, is a spoken-word performer, raps politics and injustice at the show’s half. His most effective sleight-of-hand, however, is the use of the recording studio conceit to tease out expressions of class today. The play’s trio presents a microcosm of class structure, with elegant, celebrity Katy at the top, early-career director Peter in the middle (Moukarzel gives us a jokester who is both chummy with Katy but rueful of her status) and the mixed-race studio owner Toni, who frets about money and has to cut a session short to buy diapers, on the bottom. Nina Wetzel’s costumes speak volumes, from Katy’s slouchy-chic fashion preferences, to Peter’s workaday trousers and button down shirt to Toni’s baseball cap, t-shirt and jean jacket.
Ostermeier seems here to have taken a cue from Eribon, who writes: “It is always startling to see to what an extent bodies in photographs from the past appear before our eyes as social bodies, bodies of a certain class.” Of course, his observations apply to any situation where we consciously and unconsciously size up people into class categories based on their appearances. Eribon may flagellate France’s political class in his book, but Ostermeier and Hoss’ probing adaptation pushes us to admit that we are all hidebound and complicit when it comes to keeping class structures in place.
Returning to Reims runs to February 25, 2018. More production info can be found here.