In his first three books, French literary sensation Édouard Louis examines his childhood, a brutal attack when he was twenty, and his complicated relationship with his father. All three have been theatricalized and, with the arrival of Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Who Killed My Father at St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York has now seen depictions of each of his books.
In 2019, The End of Eddy played BAM in a production from Untitled Projects/Unicorn Theatre, UK, that staged Louis’ memoir about growing up in rural, homophobic France as a declamatory, children’s theatre presentation. Simultaneously, History of Violence played St. Ann’s in a production directed by Ostermeier and starring Laurenz Laufenberg, an actor with an uncanny resemblance to Louis himself. Ostermeir’s production, like its source material, was harrowing and graphic, translating Louis’ account of his rape seven years earlier into a powerful piece of theatre.
In Who Killed My Father, Ostermeier collaborates directly with Louis, who has not only adapted his book for the stage, but plays the only character: himself. In his book, Louis frames the writing as a piece of theatre for two men, a father and son across a chasm, but only the son speaks. In Ostermeier’s staging, the silent father is represented by a hulking armchair that sits, immobile and impassive, facing upstage. Louis speaks into microphones that allow him to reduce his voice to a quiet, almost-whisper. The effect is both intimate, drawing us close and making it personal, and that of an ASMR audiobook, which is to say: not very theatrical.
Even with the beautiful video design (by Sébastien Dupouey and Marie Sanchez) that depicts winding rural highways and what appear to be actual photos from Louis’ childhood, the first hour of the ninety-minute piece is basically a reading of Louis’ work. Don’t misunderstand–it’s a great book. Louis writes that he was inspired by the films of Terrence Malick and the soft voiceover of Malick’s work, particularly his masterpiece The Tree of Life, are evident in the fragmentary way Louis recounts growing up with his father, an inscrutable man’s-man who did not understand his gay son.
The first two thirds of the stage version of Who Killed My Father revolve around an incident when Louis was nine and he performed a lip sync version of Aqua’s hit “Barbie Girl” at a dinner party for his father’s friends. He gave it his all, but his father refused to watch, embarrassed that his son would do something like that. Louis enacts his “Barbie Girl” performance in the play, before he has explained its significance. His performance is loose, free, and sexy. When he leaves the mic behind, he becomes a surprisingly physical actor. His long, thin limbs grow twice as long; his blue eyes sparkle. The play functions, and suffers, in this dichotomy. When he is at the mic talking about the difficulty he had in reaching his father, he is still and reserved. But when he steps away, he is expressive and vibrant. The play spends too much time in the former; when Louis is restrained and quiet, there’s nothing dramatic about the delivery or presentation. The actual performance of “Barbie Girl” becomes a feat of theatre, though: a boy relives a moment where he felt most himself, but was rejected by his parent. As the song plays, Louis is both himself as twenty-nine and himself two decades earlier. He reembodies and reframes the past trauma.
As much as the play feels like an audiobook, in the last half hour, it truly comes alive. Louis recounts a story where, in order to enact revenge against his mother for calling him an embarrassment and a faggot, he reveals a secret she asked him to keep. His father and his brother get into an altercation and his brother beats his father against the floor. Louis performs this part in English and, even though it is all still narrated and not physicalized, Louis tears into the text, his face conveying his mother’s disgust and his brother’s anger. It’s ironic that, when Louis is speaking his own language, his performance is stifled, yet when he speaks in English, his performance is textured and electric.
Louis reveals his thesis, and the answer to the book and play’s title, in the last sliver of time before the lights come up. Louis spends both works explaining who his father is, what he stands for, what he believes in (or doesn’t), and how that is at odds with Louis’ own perspectives. But in the end, his father is injured in his factory and unable to return to work. Louis then recounts the various ways the French government has failed his father: rescinding coverage for his medications, portraying those on government assistance as lazy and “stealing money from French society”, refusing unemployment and disability benefits to “incentivize” a return to work, and extending the work week to force those who perform grueling, manual labor (as his father was required to do after his injury) to work longer hours or be terminated.
In Ostermeier’s staging, Louis dresses in a cape, eye mask, and party hat and strings up pictures of the people who have allowed these attacks against his father: Xavier Bertrand, Jacques Chirac, François Hollande, Myriam El Khomri, Emmanuel Macron, and Nicolas Sarkozy. “Why do we never name these names in a biography?”, he asks. He throws a handful of party poppers at each of these photos, setting off an explosion representative of his anger and the anger of all of the lives these politicians so easily destroy. The title is revealed not as a question, but as the heading of a list: Who Killed My Father. Here, Ostermeier and Louis unite in their political fury and use their art to highlight the injustices perpetrated by that cohort. The lull of the play’s first hour was merely a very long wick and they finally light a match.