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Jean-Luc Lagarce: his literary career
When Jean-Luc Lagarce passed away (he died of AIDS) on September 30th 1995 he was well-known as a director, but not as an author. Of course, several of his plays had been successfully produced, but others had never been staged or were misunderstood. His fame has steadily grown since his death and today Jean-Luc Lagarce is considered a classic contemporary author, just like Bernard-Marie Koltès (who also died of AIDS shortly before Lagarce) whose notoriety had developed earlier thanks to the aura of Patrice Chéreau, who produced his plays. Lagarce, on the other hand, staged his own work.
If Lagarce did not achieve fame during his lifetime as a key author, perhaps it is because the theatrical language of his plays was too unconventional and innovative. Today he is one of the favourite playwrights of drama classes, an author who is worshipped by amateur theatre groups and increasingly appreciated by top directors, all generations combined. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. It has also inspired conferences, university theses and a multitude of publications. In 2008, one of his plays will be produced for the first time at the Salle Richelieu, the principal stage of the Comédie Française in Paris.
Jean-Luc Lagarce was born on February 14th 1957 –he would therefore be 50 in 2007 –in the Montbéliard region in the east of France. He grew up in Valentigney, a small town and home of Peugeot automobiles and cycles where his parents worked on the assembly line. He had a protestant upbringing. In high school, his French teacher introduced his class to theatre. Lagarce, only 13 years old at the time, wrote his first play (now lost) for school. At 18, having earned his baccalaureate, he left home to live in Besançon, the largest city in the region, where he studied philosophy at the university and theatre at the local conservatory. Rapidly, with other students from the conservatory, he founded an amateur drama company, called Le théâtre de la Roulotte in honour of Jean Vilar. At the same time, Jean-Luc started work on a thesis entitled Theatre and power in the West. A few years later he gave up his university studies (and a work he was writing on the Marquis de Sade) to devote himself completely to the theatre. His company turned professional. Le théâtre de la Roulotte was based in Besançon but did not have a locale of its own, except for an office. Rehearsals were organised wherever possible and the company was temporarily housed in local theatres during its performances. From then on Jean-Luc Lagarce would lead a double life as an author and director.
Le théâtre de la Roulotte would progressively receive local and regional funding and then government grants. As a playwright, Lagarce received support from the Théâtre Ouvert, a publicly funded organisation based in Paris which aims to help contemporary playwrights. He received several grants from the Ministry of Culture and several theatres commissioned plays.
Theatre and power in the West started with an examination of Greek theatre, then the Classic era (17th century), followed by Chekov and ended with some of the leading names in theatre in the 1950’s: Ionesco, Genet and Beckett. How to follow them? Lagarce had asked himself this question. He started by following in the footsteps of Ionesco, writing several plays influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd (Erreur de construction, Carthage, encore) and openly claiming this heritage with references to The Bald Soprano, a play that Lagarce would successfully direct many years later. In The Servants he makes several references to The Maids by Jean Genet. As for Beckett, Lagarce rapidly staged three of his short plays after directing several montages based on ancient Greek texts: Clytemnestra and then Elles disent…, a play inspired by the Odyssey, the story of the return of Ulysses to his homeland, a theme that would later become a leitmotiv of several of Lagarce’s major plays.
Madame Knipper’s Journey to Eastern Prussia, his first play staged in Paris, refers to the work of Chekov. It is a play where Lagarce develops his universe and defines his style. The action takes place on “a bare theatre stage” where wandering characters meet by accident: they are fleeing a war somewhere in Europe. War is never present on the stage in Lagarce’s plays, but it lurks in the wings. The same structure can be found in A vague memory of the year of the plague where a group of characters flees a plague in London. During their wanderings, the characters talk about their pasts. Nothing really “happens” in Lagarce’s plays. The action is limited. Everything is in the language, words, what is said and unsaid.
Knipper is an actress. The world of theatre, touring and life in the wings is at the centre of several plays such as Music-hall (an artist, accompanied by his two “boys” reminisces about his days on the road), Hollywood (inspired by American cinema and literature –starting with F Scott Fitzgerald, the play mixes real and literary figures), Us, the heroes (which refers to Franz Kafka’s Diaries and evokes the life of a theatre company on the road in central Europe on the eve of war). Jean-Luc Lagarce wrote this last play for the actors that played in his successful staging of Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid. And it was an old etiquette book that inspired Lagarce to write Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World for an actress.
Histoire d’amour (repérages), De Saxe, un roman and Histoire d’amour (derniers chapitres) form an informal intimate trilogy, a story of two men and a woman that unfolds over time. This trio can also be found in Last stirrings of remorse before forgetting: one of the men in married, the woman as well, they have children, the other man has stayed in the house where all three once lived, they meet again, accompanied by their spouses and the daughter of one of the couples, to sell the house. They end up leaving, having failed to reach a decision. From an intimate portrait we move to a broader picture of a certain social class.
Several plays such as Back to the citadel, L’Exercice de la raison (not staged until 2007) and The Pretenders paint a satirical picture of powerful institutions in the context of a nomination. A new governor is named, a new director. The heart of the play is here, in the moment of swearing in, in the shift from old to new. Largarce’s humour and sarcasm work well. But humour is present in all of his work, even in the last plays that are darker since they are about a child who returns home to die. The return of the son can be hypothetical, a dream –like in I was in the house, waiting for the rain where five women wait for their brother’s return, of a son who left a long time ago –or real –like in It’s only the end of the world, which takes place within a family. In Distant Land this family circle is linked to another, the one that the hero has chosen: lovers, friends. Jean-Luc Lagarce wrote this final play two weeks before he passed away. When it was published, several months after his death, it initially produced an emotional shock, followed shortly after by a sense of wonder.