- Dans la solitude des champs de coton
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We are in a dark industrial alley of a great Western city, broken by shafts of light and invaded from time to time by the sounds of traffic or Islamic melody. A jacket, tossed high through the air, lands with a crash of glass. Two men, the Dealer and the Client, appear in the gloom. They prowl around each other for an hour and a half, talking in giant speeches about what it might mean to deal with each other, to fear each other, to need each other. Suddenly they grapple with each other, and the play ends.
The encounter that Dans la solitude des champs de coton (In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, 1986) dramatizes would last two or three minutes in real life and probably have no words at all. Koltès has written it out in a verbal slow motion so extreme that we watch these men meet as if through the lens of an electron microscope: inside every desire they name is a clause about other desires; every motive they acknowledge contains a parenthesis [End Page 379] about deeper motives; every condition they set has a caveat about further conditions. The imagery is often poetic, but the structure is always logical: if, then; if, then. They only address each other using the formal and impersonal “vous.” They never interrupt or fish for words. They never tell each other to put up or shut up.
Koltès died of AIDS in 1989, leaving behind a novel and five plays, and has been fetishized more or less in the vein of Jean Genet. Like Genet, Koltès handled gay issues and was always interested in the encounter of the Caucasian-French with their Arab- and African- and other postcolonial-French counterparts. But Koltès lived in a bigger world than Genet ever did, with a political lucidity Genet lacked. Unlike Genet, Koltès never put his brain on hold in order to churn out a pornographic episode to keep the bourgeois reader interested. Arousal, in Koltès, liberates you from nothing.
Koltès is also part of the first generation of French artists to have gotten over the trauma of America’s worldwide cultural presence. He digests what he wants of America, and then moves on, which means getting back to a specifically French life. America is prominent in his titles, which have the shadow of Williams and O’Neill over them. Dans la solitude is an example. There are no cotton fields in France. But every Frenchman knows to what culture the image of a cotton field belongs, and what that image conjures up in terms of racial history and politics.
Patrice Chéreau, who both directs and stars in this production, is widely known in Europe for his smart productions of dramatic and operatic classics, as well as for his 1993 film La Reine Margot. He was an early patron of Koltès, and it is thanks to Chéreau’s involvement that Dans la solitude has made its way from the 1995 Venice Biennale to Brooklyn via a dozen European venues. The world is getting to see more of Koltès because of Chéreau’s commitment to his work. But we are also seeing less. Chéreau has diminished the play emotionally and politically by simplifying it racially. Koltès wanted the role of the Dealer, here taken by Chéreau, to be played by a black actor, as it was in its first production. By Chéreau’s own account, Koltès angrily objected to the director’s playing the role of the Dealer. [End Page 380]
Chéreau’s performance as the Dealer is remarkably exterior in style, and he clearly does...