And now, we return to one of Write All Nite’s favorite concepts: deliberately-ineffectual art that serves the art’s ultimate effect.
Last week, we discussed how audience-distancing confusion can operate in narrative art; hold your eye-roll as I quote myself:
“On one hand, a work’s confusion while we’re in the middle of it can distance us from the proceedings…until the end enlightens the entirety, and we realize what we were missing — perhaps intentionally so — all along, at which point the amorphous blob reshapes into something more manageable, prompting a reconsideration of everything that came before, to be assembled and reassembled as we further ponder, justifying aspects and stretches that previously fell on deaf ears, blind eyes, and perplexed brains.
Such a play can be found at St. Ann’s Warehouse right now…which I shall tackle later this week (give a man some time to think, damn).”
Well…it took me a full week. Sue me.
The enlightening moment in question arrives late in Who Killed My Father. The show is comprised of Édouard Louis recalling various adolescent episodes regarding his relationship with his partially-titular papa (the title’s patriarchy might refer to more than just his familial relations). There are instances of abuse throughout, whispers hinting at a seminal traumatic event that transpired at some point in his upbringing.
Louis indicates that he’s about to finally delve into this event…by switching from speaking in his native French to speaking in the audience’s presumably native English. To underline the importance of what he’s about to detail, he introduces this passage by explaining that he’s changing from French to English to ensure that the audience completely understands and feels what he’s about to say.
So, like, does that mean the preceding hour was supposed to feel too remote?? If so, job well done!
For the first 60 minutes, the production comes across like a glorified book reading. The text is a one-man adaptation of Louis’ first-person novel, and since Louis “plays” himself, and given his—um—questionable thespian chops, his “performance” reads like, well, like an author reading excerpts from their own writing, rarely as dynamic a viewing experience as staged theater.
As such, I was having trouble staying locked in…but when Louis transitioned into “my” English, my attention immediately perked up, never to waver again. Given Louis’ own admission that he leaves French behind to pique our interest, and given the fact that HE WROTE ANOTHER PLAY ABOUT HOW MUCH HE HATES ACTING BEFORE THE ST. ANN’S RUN EVEN BEGAN, it got me contemplating: was his performance — and the production — designed to keep the audience at a remove until now??
The entire show is about Louis trying — and mostly failing — to traverse the gap between himself and his father (the set includes his writing desk and his dad’s empty chair; he’s trying to write his way to putting his father in that chair, so they can share a space on his terms), which parallels how the audience tries — and, at least in my case, mostly fails — to traverse the gap between ourselves and Who Killed My Father.
Which intersects with one of the production’s bizarrest technical aspects: for much of its duration, we hear faint music that sounds like it’s playing just off stage, or in the next room over, or from the lobby, or maybe even right outside the theater. Meanwhile, Louis intermittently bursts into BUMPING song and dance, so loud and in-your-face (ears?) that it emphasizes the remoteness of the other music in juxtaposition.
Remoteness! Like his relationship to his father! And the audience’s relationship to the show!
The dramaturgy appears clear here: the bombastic musical numbers allow Louis to immerse himself in the fullness of his own unfettered expression, the exact sort of immersive liberation he so aches to enjoy with his father (which he’s striving to achieve through his writing, and through this show). This yearning to live in the full truth of his father’s perennially-distant “music” is represented physically and aurally through the aforementioned “offstage” music, which feels out of Louis’ reach AND out of the audience’s reach AND out of the production’s reach…similar to how Louis’ father feels out of Louis’ reach AND out of the production’s reach…similar to how the production feels out of the audience’s reach.
All of this becomes in reach when he switches to English, the precise juncture at which he finally faces his dad’s greatest sin; he can’t reach his dad until he faces his worst deed. Maybe Louis was attempting to repress this painful memory, avoiding it throughout, yet still always heading towards it. Avoiding this drama is a form of obfuscation, perhaps a source of the audience’s initial remove.
His language change-up is not purely practical. After he tells us about this central incident in English, he reverts back to French in order to position his father’s homophobia as a product of national politics. This re-contextualization allows him, at long last, to understand his father at least somewhat, and why he is the way he is; it’s the solace he’s been aggressively meandering towards since the beginning, perhaps a source of the audience’s meandering attention from the beginning. The familiar “memoir” structure of the set-up — nothing but personal reminiscences — proves insufficient, both for his reconciliation with his father AND in terms of how it holds the audience’s attention.
Is it a coincidence that Louis sees the role his country played in turning his dad into a bigot right after he switches from one nation’s primary language to another?
If language is a form of music, and if language is associated with the state, then it makes sense that he locates his father due to this linguistic change, the same change that guides the audience into locating the power of the show’s previously elusive truth. Louis was searching for the language that would connect him to his father, similar to how the audience was searching to connect to the production’s theatrical language, which remained figuratively and literally offstage, until now.
We find a way forward together, simultaneously.