© Arno Declair
© Arno Declair 

Class Traitors
Didier Eribon and Thomas Ostermeier's »Returning to Reims«

by Joseph Pearson

19 September 2017

»I had been convicted twice, socially speaking: one conviction was based on class, the other on sexuality«, writes French philosopher Didier Eribon (*1953), biographer of Michel Foucault and Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. The central theme explored in his autobiographical essay, »Returning to Reims« (»Retour à Reims«, 2009), is a young man’s alienation from the French provinces, after refashioning himself in the Parisian metropolis. It is not simply a »small town boy« story, but one which narrates the fate of the left as a viable political movement for working people.

Eribon’s memoire revisits his impoverished upbringing in a »garden city« on the periphery of Reims in the 50s and 60s, and his subsequent break from his family. The central question is why, for so long, did Eribon narrate his rebellion through the lens of his sexuality (as a gay man fleeing the intolerant periphery) rather than through class (as a »class traitor« escaping his working-class roots)? »Why, when I have paid so much attention to the role played by feelings of shame in the processes of subjection and subjectivation, have I written so little about forms of shame having to do with class?« His answer is about shame. He endeavored to integrate himself into a rarefied intellectual Parisian milieu where he was ashamed of working class »ways of speaking and being« and racism.

I’ve spent a morning in rehearsals with director Thomas Ostermeier and his cast. We later meet in his office, looking over the elegant stretch of Kurfürstendamm, and I wonder why the themes of this book speak specifically to him – so much so that he decided to direct a production based on the essay.

Ostermeier replies, »My first and immediate reaction was to say: at least I am not alone. Because my background – although in many ways different – is comparable to Eribon’s, and I know very well the feeling of shame of where you are from. I am familiar with patriarchal families, traditional family structures, with violence. And my parents always told us – we are three brothers – that we will not be going to high school, and that we will instead leave school at fourteen, get a proper job, and bring some money home. That was the plan«.

»But things did not go as planned«, I suggest.

»No, we had to fight hard to go to high school in order to go to university later. Also, my father was a soldier. It was hard because all three of us refused to go to the army. There was plenty of conflict at home, as in Eribon’s family. I didn’t have to face the issues of homosexuality; I was not confronted with homophobia (even though I know the surroundings were homophobic in our very provincial reality). But this story – of somebody trying to get out of the provinces, trying to arrive in a bigger city and make a career in the intellectual climate there, always being ashamed of his background and not talking about it, constantly trying to adapt to a milieu that was not mine – I understood. Eribon calls it being a »class traitor«, and that is my story as well«.

He continues, »I also share with Didier a radical leftist past, and I’m also obsessed with, and passionate about, the question: what is the responsibility of the left for what went wrong politically in the last 30-40 years in Western societies? How should we tell the history of the social democratic left, of the Labour party in Britain, the Parti Socialiste in France?«

Eribon speaks in his book of the failure of the traditional left for working people. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, in particular, the left accommodated itself with neoliberalism, and did not remain connected to its roots. Eribon opines, »However paradoxical it might seem to some people, I am convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on – now even by those who had once been their representatives and defenders«.

Who are those representatives? Intellectuals on the left in the metropolitan world are often unintelligible to the very people they are meant to represent, and they inhabit worlds which have no relation to the industrial and post-industrial landscapes of provincial France. Right-wing parties such as the Front National (or, Trump’s brand of Republicanism, May’s Brexit-Toryism, for that matter) often speak more plainly and convincingly, using a rhetoric of racism and scapegoating.

For an American perspective, I spoke to Michael Lucey, Eribon’s English translator, and a Professor at Berkeley, who positions the arguments of »Returning to Reims« in the context of US politics: »The pressing social question in the US seems crucially about how to enact a progressive politics that is both a struggle against economic domination and a struggle against racism and other related forms of prejudice (e.g. against other people of color). Eribon’s book is interesting in this regard in its attempt to account for the rise of the Front National and the wedge the FN works to insert between anti-racist struggles and struggles against economic domination. In that, it could be said that Eribon’s book reveals the presence in France of a phenomenon that has marked all of US history, and that it underlines the futility of trying to understand economic domination in isolation from other forms of social violence«.

Regarding the future of European politics, Eribon and Ostermeier touch on a related central problem: will the victims of neoliberalism (who have, nonetheless, a different history from those in the United States) throw their vote behind the forces of intolerance and nationalism, and paradoxically for policies that are less likely to benefit them (such as Brexit)? How must the left redesign itself to reach a disillusioned public? It’s an important question on the premiere night of this production, when the Germans vote in their elections, and the right-wing and intolerant Alternative for Germany party vies to double their voter-share.

Earlier, I find myself walking through a series of doors behind the Schaubühne studio. There is an intimate practice space at the back, where Ostermeier and the cast sit for a run-through. In one week is the premiere. Actor Nina Hoss positions herself behind a microphone.

Ostermeier recounts, »First, there was the wish to do the book, but after that came the question of how to do it. I did not want to make a dramatic adaptation of the story of Eribon, and I don’t see how this would work: him sitting at the kitchen table and talking about Foucault with his mother?«

Instead, Ostermeier crafted a scenario: the characters are in the final stages of production of a documentary film based on Eribon’s book. When they are not working, the characters discuss the book’s themes. Nina Hoss provides the voice-over for the film’s narration.

I risk sounding sycophantic when I say that observing Hoss act close-up is revelatory. There are two – seemingly opposing – impulses working through her acting: her gestures are extremely precise, but she is so relaxed and natural that the audience hardly notices. I am reminded of concert pianists who have so mastered the underlying structure that they can proceed on a level of interpretation that appears effortlessly charismatic.

Ostermeier’s piece also has an easy, comfortable, texture: it is chatty, slow, a conversation into which you are invited to fall back. Ostermeier keeps the entire rehearsal room in a deep hush, as he sits on a swivel chair and listens – at this late stage of the process – making micro-adjustments that result in macro-changes to the atmosphere of certain scenes. If the character playing the director of the Eribon film uses a microphone to communicate with Nina Hoss, it creates a sense of distance or professionalism. If the production assistant argues with the director in a lowered voice, it conveys much more hostility than an open fight. It’s as if Ostermeier, like a sound engineer, is sitting behind a mixing-table, carefully turning the dials.

In more than one sense, Ostermeier’s »Returning to Reims« is a descendant of his most recent production at the Schaubühne, »Professor Bernhardi«, and represents Ostermeier’s continued fascination with people at work. But while »Bernhardi« looked at how anti-Semitism can run rife in the workplace of a clinic, »Returning to Reims« discusses the world of rehearsals and artistic production – a world closer to the Schaubühne. There is self-consciousness here, as Ostermeier reflects on his transposition of the book to the stage. But the production becomes »meta meta« when I get confused watching a rehearsal about people pretending to rehearse. At one point, I stopped being able to tell the difference between the actors’ scripted commentaries and when they went off-script. Are they reciting their lines or talking among themselves? Without the script before me, I cannot tell. The acting is remarkably naturalistic.

The Schaubühne piece also draws on the actors’ lives, with Nina Hoss wedding the text to German politics by reflecting on her own father, Willi Hoss, who was a Communist trade unionist and Bundestag member of the German Greens. Her childhood memories with her father, visiting locations in rural Latin America, open up Eribon’s narrative by making comparisons to global poverty; these encounters in the »developing« world balance the picture of poverty in post-war Reims.

The show also contributes a beautifully produced and convincing documentary film about Eribon.
»It was important, what is going to be seen on the screen«, says Ostermeier, »I was sure there would be a lot of archival material. But then I started to think we could ask Didier to participate as well, and he agreed. Surprisingly, Didier’s mother also agreed immediately to be part of it. Many of the places we visited were very emotional for Didier. It became not only an artistic project but a human one as well. It was very emotional to experience these places with him«.

The film is worth watching in its own right. The images are full of refraction, such as from windows in factory spaces. These reflections suggest memory, a sense of contemplation, of nostalgia, pain, and return. I see Didier Eribon reflected in the window of a train, sitting stationary, as a landscape of rural France rushes past, as he is hurtled towards Reims, towards the past. The addition of the archival footage adds yet an additional layer of documentary evidence to the, at times, anecdotal narrative of Eribon’s book.

The production first premiered in English at the Manchester International Festival, opening on 5 July 2017, and has now been reworked in German. Ostermeier tells me, »I was surprised when started to rehearse the German adaptation. I expected it would be more difficult to transform it. We made changes in the end, to the story of Nina, we went deeper into the politics, as Germans are aware of the history of the Green Party and the GDR. Perhaps Germans share that passion for a journey into the recent past of the country, from another perspective. In Britain, if you talk about Rudi Dutschke, Heinrich Böll, Wolf Biermann, only a few very well-informed people will know about these figures... I think our audience in Berlin, a lot of them, know exactly what this evening is speaking about«.

This brings us again to the timing of the German premiere: election night, 24 September 2017. Most likely we have a clear winner, but we also have a situation where it is possible that the AfD will have made unprecedented in-roads, establishing their position in the political arena. What can we learn from Didier Eribon?

In France, the transformation from the Communist Party to the Front National is not straightforward: there is plenty of regional and generational variation, and older people are still the least likely group to vote for the FN. But one should nonetheless ask why the AfD is likely to be very successful in a former Communist region, Eastern Germany? (Although not exclusively, one need only look at Mannheim). What it is about the populist right’s language that appeals to the disaffected; is the AfD the »final recourse« for working people (of a former country?) to define a collective national identity; and how has the left failed these voters? What can theatre do about it? Or is it too a talking-shop of the metropolitan elite, situated far from working people’s concerns?

Thomas Ostermeier, for his part, tells me that he plans to the take his production eventually to France, and even perhaps to its provincial towns, the front lines of these political developments. I wonder how this story might play, too, in rural Sachsen-Anhalt, or for that matter Charlottesville. The »Return to Reims« is not, in the end, only a personal journey, but a political one, as we confront the phenomenon of power shifting from self-regarding capitals to the anxieties and anger resounding from the so-called »periphery«.

All translations of Didier Eribon’s French text in English are quoted from Michael Lucey’s elegant translation, »Returning to Reims« (Semiotext(e), 2013).

Returning to Reims

based on the novel »Retour à Reims« by Didier Eribon
German translation by Tobias Haberkorn
In a version of the Schaubühne
Direction: Thomas Ostermeier

Premiered on 24 September 2017