- Bernard Marie KoltèsA Personal Alphabet
An A–Z, a lexicon, a way of reading, an anthology, a mode of untangling, a collection of thoughts, an alphabet. Twenty-six letters, twenty-six thoughts, twenty-six ideas on why Koltès matters (at least to me), and how I think through the process of reading and translating his plays. Mediated by productions seen in French, English, Spanish, Catalan, and German, his works now lie for me in an in-between space: a twilight zone between the literary and the performative. If I refer to the English titles here it is not because the French has been erased but simply because the conflation that exists in my head between the different languages (both linguistic and performative) in which I have engaged with the works is perhaps most clearly rendered in the language in which this alphabet is written. This personal alphabet is also a dialogue with the late David Bradby and David Fancy, the two Koltès translators I have worked with most closely as editor and co-translator, and it engages with and draws extensively on these prior shared encounters with Koltès through the spaces/places of translation and analysis.
Actors embody the poetic worlds of Koltès; a point of access and entry when watching the plays reimagined for the stage. Koltès’s dramaturgy offers no easy hinges for actors; psychological identification with a role is pretty much impossible in many cases. The rhythmical formulations and linguistic dexterity of the language seem to eschew the patina of colloquial speech, but his is a dialogue wrought from the idiom of vernacular French refracted through musical structures: the fugue of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, the arias of Black Battles with Dogs, the blues solo of Night Just Before the Forests, the sonata of Sallinger. As Isaach de Bankolé, Patrice Chéreau, María Casares, Daniel Petrow, Isma’il ibn Conner, Julieta Serrano, and so many other performers have shown, actors sing the poetry of Koltès. Poetry is also written through the performer’s body, a form of dance if you like that indicates why rap offers such a powerful vocabulary for enacting the work. Patrice Chéreau used Massive Attack’s Karmacoma to underscore key moments of his 1992 staging of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields with the actors embodying the pulse of the music during the duration of the song. In my head Solitude always pulsates to the rhythms of Karmacoma. Indeed, performing these plays is never about weighing the words or showing them but rather, as Koltès recommended in suggestions on the staging of [End Page 26] Quay West, about speaking them “like a child who recites a lesson with a desperate desire to pee, who goes very fast, shifting from one leg to the other and when it is finished, rushes out to do it.”1
The priorities and prejudices of the bourgeoisie are acted out in the landscapes Koltès creates. But rather than offer the petty intrigues and squabbles of boulevard theatre’s seizième arrondissement, he scratches at the less visible corners of French consciousness, refracting the bourgeois psyche through alternative configurations: the geographical northeastern outpost of Alsace-Lorraine, the colonialist territories of West Africa, the immigrant underclasses eeking out a living in the urban metropolis of the nation.
Koltès first saw the exiled Spanish actress María Casares in 1968, performing the title role in Jorge Lavelli’s formalist Medea. The production awoke him both to the dissenting possibilities of theatre and to a performance style that veered away from the discourses of naturalism towards an aesthetic that fused melodic incantation and the exquisite artifice of Japanese theatre. After seeing Medea, he initiated a correspondence with Casares that was to lead to numerous collaborations. The first of these was a radio play, The Inheritance, broadcast in 1972. Koltès was to refer to Casares as his great love of theatre and in one of the final interviews before his death acknowledged that he always thought of her when writing his plays because it had been her Medea...