A strange coincidence this week: Édouard Louis, the 27-year-old toast of French social realism, has two plays onstage in New York. Louis is an author and public intellectual, known for speaking forcefully about the rise of the far right in France (he has written about his father’s voting for Marine Le Pen) and the intersection of racist, economic, and homophobic oppression. At a mini-festival, his early works are on view: History of Violence in Dumbo at St. Ann’s Warehouse and The End of Eddy at BAM. Both are dramatizations of Louis’s autobiographical novels; both have been translated and adapted for the stage by European theater companies. To see them is to see the man in binocular vision, not just because we learn about his youth (Eddy) and a terrifying experience in his young adulthood (Violence) but because we also see how his lucid introspection works in two languages, even two theatricalities.
History of Violence (not to be confused with the similarly named Cronenberg film), in German, is elegant and frightening, as interested in seduction as in assault. The superstar Berlin director Thomas Ostermeier has brought productions to New York before (Richard III, An Enemy of the People, Returning to Reims). Violence is meticulously made, a beautifully performed showpiece for the experimental-theater methods — video, dance interludes, physical risk — that characterize his plush avant-gardism. The production’s beauty sets off Louis’s real-life story in the same way that a gallery’s white wall sets off a photograph: It both cools and heightens its emotions. We are aware that Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg) is telling us about a young man, Reda (Renato Schuch), raping and nearly murdering him in his own apartment, but Ostermeier delays our shock by wooing us with details. Horrifying moments happen in close-up, projected in black-and-white video on the back wall. Even the crime itself is underscored by a jazz drummer (Thomas Witte), who turns agitation and fear into hypnotic syncopations.
Working closely with Louis, Ostermeier and his cast have developed a complex storytelling structure in which Édouard refers obliquely to his attack for almost all of the two-hour running time, while also describing its radiating traumas: He believes he’ll never be able to see happy people again, or walk down a street without fear. Primarily he’s baffled by the way describing the episode further damages him. He tries to tell his sister (Alina Stiegler), then eavesdrops in horror as she retells the story to her loutish husband. He keenly regrets telling a policeman (Christoph Gawenda), who pounces on the fact that Reda is North African. These tellings (to us, to his sister, to the authorities) only expand his pain. His sister keeps interrupting him, questioning his account, criticizing him for the way he’s torn himself out of his old community. Édouard, strangely concerned about his rapist, frets that he’s simply created more racist policing. Sometimes the four actors dress as crime-scene investigators in full-body clean-room suits, dusting the room for prints; sometimes they dance.
Confusion, even inversion, is the point. Ostermeier shows us the attack, but he does so late, long after we’ve heard Édouard explain it. As much or more time is spent on their encounter before it turns hellish, Laufenberg and Schuch beaming at each other, shy and transported with lust. They’re lovely together. Laufenberg’s eyes go soft, and he speaks about the way light once fell through the window on Reda’s handsome face. The trappings of forensic science trick us into thinking that there’s some sort of answer to uncover, but Édouard’s knotted strands of attraction, fear, confusion, and guilt never actually untangle. There’s a larger sociological knot too, one familiar from Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims, which dramatized Didier Eribon’s musings on the ways that gayness can occasionally propel a boy out of one class and into another. Édouard thinks some of the same thoughts, unsure about his own position in the structure. But where Eribon’s thinking was organized and rigorous, Louis’s is still reeling from the blast. A bomb has gone off in his life, and for one moment he has looked through everyone and himself, like people in a nuclear explosion who can see, in the glare, the bones inside their own hands.
By comparison, the English-language adaptation of The End of Eddy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is much less absorbing. For one thing, Stewart Laing’s production (from the U.K.’s Unicorn Theatre) looks like children’s entertainment, with two cheerful actors (Oseloka Obi and James Russell-Morley), both in stripey shirts, walking us through the story. “Theater is a public space,” they say earnestly, while reassuring us that they’ve left some parts of the book out. They really hope we read it.
With the help of four flat-screens, these two actors play all the parts in Eddy, written when Louis was still extracting himself from a childhood as Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt — a tiny village 30 miles from Amiens and light-years from a queer community. A collapsing factory economy seems to have stunned his parents; his schoolmates were repulsed by his effeminacy; bullies tortured him for years; his sexual experiences with other boys were discovered and then, Eddy says, widely known. In looking back at his gruesome life in Hallencourt, Louis has diagnosed the underlying pathology: toxic masculinity, with comorbidities of poverty and its attendant humiliations.
The four television screens show close-ups of each actor — playing Mother, playing Bully 2, playing Eddy — and big title cards that say “Violence” and “Shame.” If it weren’t for the adolescent sexual experiments in the Barn (title card: The Barn), this would be appropriate as a school presentation. Hell, since Louis is writing about things that happened to him when he was little, perhaps that’s just where this piece belongs. Why be squeamish about young people? Surely puritanism and self-delusion are comorbidities as well? I saw The End of Eddy before History of Violence, which I admit was quite useful — it felt like research for the show to come. But it’s interesting that Ostermeier sees a Louis piece as an occasion to confuse and entangle us, while Laing sees it as a chance to diagnose and educate. I don’t need to tell you which one feels more like real life.
History of Violence is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through December 1.
The End of Eddy is at BAM’s Fisher theater through November 21.