- The Sacrament and Other Plays of Forbidden Love
On 19 March 2008, Belgian playwright Hugo Claus ended his life as controversially as he had lived it. Alzheimer’s disease had been eating away at his mind and, in his lucid moments, he had legally arranged to be euthanized. That he could do this testifies to the secularization and liberalization of a once fiercely Catholic Flanders, where today abortion (since 1990), euthanasia (since 2002), and gay marriage (since 2003) are legal.
Claus, who was born in 1929, grew up in a different Flanders. When, in 1953, he published his renowned surrealist poems Oostakkerse Gedichten (Poems from Oostakker, a place of Catholic pilgrimage), Flanders was only just on the brink of modernization. [End Page 123] What emerged from these poems was a portrait of his native land (the northern, Dutchspeaking part of Belgium) that was as imaginatively audacious as it was profoundly unflattering.
Flanders’s Heimatliteratur paints an idyllic picture of pious country folk with hearts of gold; in contrast, Claus’s Flanders is a more troubled place. In his internationally acclaimed novel The Sorrow of Belgium (1983), he exposed its shameful history of Nazi collaboration, and in his best-known play, Friday (1969), he depicts the Flemish countryside as a place not of romance, but of incest and hypocrisy.
By reputation, Claus was a confident charlatan, a self-professed liar, and a playboy whose many female companions included the soft-porn actress Sylvia Kristel. In reality, though, he was a disciplined worker, an artistic jack-of-all-trades who with equal ease churned out paintings, poems, novels, plays, librettos, and movies. Some of his work is embarrassingly bad (for instance, the 1985 movie The Lion of Flanders, which he scripted and directed); much of it bears the marks of the competent craftsman he certainly was, and some of it is exceptionally good. He was the only contemporary Belgian author to be named every year as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature—only to be passed over with equal consistency.
Having started out as a painter as a member of the international CoBrA group, Claus’s imagination is both pictorial and theatrical. Like Brueghel and Bosch, he emphasizes the abject body in its torturous relationship to its own desires. In this, he tends towards the grotesque, resembling the French artist Roland Topor more than his compatriots René Magritte or Paul Delvaux.
The Catholic establishment disapproved of Claus’s frank depictions of Flemish life and cultural traditions. In 1968, he was fined and condemned (though ultimately not sent) to prison for writing and producing Masscheroen, an obscene and blasphemous take on the sixteenth-century miracle play Mariken van Nieumeghen. Egged on by public scandal, he ended up writing, translating, or adapting more than sixty plays, often also directing them and designing their sets.
The Sacrament and Other Plays of Forbidden Love is the second English-language anthology of Claus’s dramatic work edited by New York–based scholar, translator, and director David Willinger, in collaboration with Luc Deneulin and Luk Truyts. Willinger teaches at CUNY and has devoted much of his career to promoting Belgian dramatic literature and theatre in the United States, with translations and theatrical productions of plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Willems, Michel de Ghelderode, Charles Van Lerberghe, Frantz Fonson, and others. This latest anthology brings together three early plays: Bride in the Morning (Een Bruid in de Morgen, 1953), Sugar (Suiker, 1958), and The Sacrament (Interieur, 1971). They are preceded by a comprehensive, seventy-seven-page introduction that situates Claus’s work in its domestic and international context. It also contains detailed analyses, with production histories and critical reception, and is followed by extensive notes with bibliographical references.
Bride in the Morning (1953) focuses on a near-incestuous brother–sister relationship in an impoverished middle-class household. When the parents plan to marry off their simpleminded son to a much older...