In a way, as a gay boy, I was born a performer,” the celebrated young French writer Édouard Louis tells me late last week when I meet up with him after a performance of his one-man show Who Killed My Father at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo. It’s a stage adaptation of his 2018 autofictional novel of the same name, in which Louis, lithe and pale in a Pokémon T-shirt and dark-blue jeans, melancholically recites passages, mostly in French, about his troubled relationship with his homophobic working-class father, capitalism, dead-end masculinity, and the neoliberal French elite. To keep it lively and emphasize his own gay intellectual path out of the working class, he occasionally breaks out into lip-synced song-and-dance to numbers he would perform as a kid — much to the horror of his father— including “Barbie Girl” and “My Heart Will Go On.”
It’s poetic, heady stuff, but Louis is not a natural stage performer: As this magazine’s theater critic, Helen Shaw, put it in her review, “He is not an actor, so he has few tools to either access or imitate his emotion in performance.” But since Louis is that most French of things, a public intellectual (the Times once referred to his philosopher-heavy friend group as “a kind of glamorous 21st-century update of the Paris engagée of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus”), he likes to get his message out cross-platform. “Sometimes I don’t even want to label myself as a novelist. I think it has such a cheesy aspect to it — old-fashioned,” he tells me. “I love the idea of being … an experimental fighter.”
So now he’s onstage, where, with his big, unblinking eyes, he exudes a certain eager, boyish charm recognizable by any gay who spent their childhood seeking and rarely finding familial or social affirmation — and suspecting that your very existence embarrassed your family. “I was born this gay boy in the north of France, in a very masculine, very homophobic context. A classic story. I had no friends. People didn’t want to play with me. Blah, blah, blah,” Louis tells me, sitting on a lumpy couch in his dressing room. He begins and punctuates most sentences with a soft little “oui,” though he still speaks with self-righteous moral indignation.
When I ask how he thinks the piece — with its J’Accuse …! vibe — will be received by the kind of expensively bespectacled cosmopolitan New Yorkers who attend experimental theater in Dumbo, he tells me he wants to do here what he thinks he does back home, which is to shake up the brownstone bourgeois: “I, of course, had the impression that most Americans don’t care about class at all. They don’t talk about class. They don’t talk about poverty. It’s always on a very superficial level.”
But some of his polemic gets lost in translation. Notably, Louis begins his monologue with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism: “the exposure of certain populations to premature death.” Which seems like a curious conflation, given that his family, while poor and exploited in various ways, is also white — a fact that made his own path up the social ladder undoubtedly far easier. (Side note: Louis’s father, while not in very good health, is very much alive.) “To make people uncomfortable is the goal of what I do,” he tells me, sure in his theorizing. Another moment that might give viewers pause is when he declares, “Hatred of homosexuality = poverty,” which is supposed to explain, in part, his father’s predicament — being good at school is for sissies, so he dropped out — but doesn’t quite explain the many impoverished queer people and wealthy homophobes.
Later this summer, Louis will release his next book, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, which will focus on his mother. After that: another book about his father. In Who Killed My Father, Louis seems to wonder whether this constant airing out of the family’s dirty laundry is unfair to those who can’t tell their side of the story (“The son speaks, and only the son, and this does violence to them both”), but in person, he tells me he’s not so concerned. “In talking about my father, I’m saying things that he would never say. He’s so ashamed of being poor that if you ask him to talk about his life, he’d say, Ah, it’s okay … I think sometimes the border between taking someone’s speech and giving someone speech is an illusion.” A sentiment that probably explains why Louis has sometimes been compared to J.D. Vance, another provincial meritocrat who wrote a book that many in this St. Ann’s audience tonight likely read, thinking it would explain the bewildering white fury behind the rise of Trump. But Louis, who once wrote an op-ed for the New York Times headlined “Why My Father Voted for Le Pen,” is, unlike Vance, a stridently literary socialist and prefers to see himself as a member of what he calls an “autobiographical avant-garde,” alongside Claudia Rankine, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Ocean Vuong. Vance, of course, is running for the Senate, backed by Peter Thiel.
Louis tells me he considers autobiography the “absolute opposite of being narcissistic,” and the proof, for him, is in the number of audience members who approach him after the show to talk about their own daddy issues. “It makes people talk about themselves,” he says. “When you do autobiography, you talk about a life you did not choose, a path you did not choose, a father you did not choose, a context you did not choose, a name you did not choose.” (Louis was born Eddy Bellegueule.)
But what about the consequential homewrecking? “I always considered that there was a bigger struggle than being kind with my mother and my father,” he tells me without hesitating. “I always thought that the fight for social class or the fight against racism or homophobia was more important.” He’s following a higher calling, a leftist’s hero’s journey — which is possibly why his one-man show ends with him in a mask and cape, a literal social-justice superhero who throws firecrackers at photographs of various French politicians. (For the record, he was not a comic book kid.)
“My eternal frustration is: Why don’t people go demonstrate after the play?” Louis asks me, which, for a second, I interpret as a joke. It’s not. “My frustration is when people go out of my show, and they are not radical left-wing people.” Mostly, of course, they probably just went out for a late dinner.
Now, back to us silly Americans. “I hope it’s not shocking for an American audience,” Louis says, “but for me, the difference between left and right is not a difference of opinion. It’s a difference of cleverness. The more left you are, the more clever you are. The more right you are, the more stupid you are. It’s not an opinion.”
For the first time, the “experimental fighter” wavers in his cause: “This powerlessness of art sometimes makes me frustrated.”
Who Killed My Father is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 5.