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by Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin


Translated Monday 14 October 2013, by Isabelle Métral

Actor, stage-director, and film-maker Patrice Chéreau made his final bow on October 7th. In this chronicle, Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin evokes the memorable evening on which he attended Chéreau’s second production of Dans la solitude des champs de coton (In the solitude of cotton-fields), a dramatic dialogue written by his (then recently deceased) friend Bernard-Marie Koltès. This homage is one of the many homages that have followed the death of this great artist, whose rich career l’Humanité has accompanied step by step in its cultural pages.


It was in the depths of winter, in 1995. The note-booker-to-be had just landed in Roissy, suitcase in hand, mind absent, with a curious impression that he had not left New York behind. The day before, a friend and I had braved the freezing cold (minus 15°C) and walked up and down 44th Street, until we’d summoned enough courage to push the entrance door to the Actors’ Studio, our tri-colored reporter’s cards in hand, shivering with the cold and our emotions. Sure enough, at that time, we were assiduous visitors to the inner sanctuaries of the main theatres around Paris, shuttling to and fro as we did from the Théâtre de Chaillot to the Comédie française, from the Théâtre National Populaire to the Amandiers: our passion (cherished as a collective form of initiation) consisted in seizing the least gestures of an Antoine Vitez, a Roger Planchon, a Gérard Desarthe or Dominique Blanc (and so many others), in missing none of the new theatrical productions, even if it meant damping the dying fires of our academic culture, spending hours asserting against the group our personal right to discuss this and that between us. Slaves as we were to the kind of obstinacy that binds one to texts and their living performances, each new play directed by Chéreau was feted before the première, the dates for the nights noted down weeks beforehand in our calendars: nothing whatsoever, not even half-a-day’s flight in sight, would have made us miss one performance.

So it was that on one winter night your passionate chronicler found himself at the Manufacture des œillets in Ivry -sur-Seine, in for one of the memorable theatrical shocks in his life – shock being a weak word for that occasion.


Chéreau was once more putting on stage Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play Dans la solitude des champs de coton (In the Solitude of Cotton-fields), which he had already put on stage in 1987, with Laurent Malet and Isaac de Bankolé. A way of paying homage to the author, now gone, for whom he had a deep passion. Patrice Chéreau was playing the dealer for the second time: for the revival of the first production in 1989, shortly before Koltès’ death, the stage-director had replaced Isaac de Bankolé who was away on a shoot. Koltès had expressed concern, for he considered that the dealer’s part (the dealer being one of the two characters in the play, the other being the client) must be played by a black actor, so as to manifest the two protagonists’ original hostility. Koltès was adamant: Chéreau’s white skin could cloud what was at stake in their confrontation.

And yet… In 1995, in his new production, Chéreau’s most unusual presence on stage was an event in itself and his prodigious talent as an actor was the best homage that could be paid to Koltès’ writing - so intensely condensed, so exacting. Chéreau the dealer declared to his potential prey: “If you walk abroad at this time of night and in this place, it must be that you desire something that you have not, and that I can supply; (…) I have all that is needed to satisfy the desire that walks past me, and it is a weight I must pass on to someone else, anyone, whether man or animal, who walks past.”

The client was Pascal Greggory, all aglow with an inner fire and absolute frailty. Greggory-the-Client said: “You are not here in order to satisfy any desires. For I had desires, they fell away, all around us, and were trampled; (…) even the easy ones you cannot satisfy. You are poor, and you are here not because you chose to, but you are driven by poverty, necessity, and ignorance.” In the midst of the darkness, of a nameless and future-less no man’s land, far away from all other human beings, a dealer and his client stood before us – face to face as if by magic. The fears were plainly visible, they spilled over. The desires transpired, merged. The dealer wanted the client to spit it out, the client spat his refusal at him. Attraction to, and repulsion from a world on the brink of darkness where nothing can be measured or reckoned, except the raw truth of beings on the brink of the last abyss in their ultimate struggle for dignity. The dealer as poetic metaphor? The client as metaphor for reality?


Of that performance, celebrated ever since as a master-production, much - even today - remains to be said and understood. Of Koltès himself, thanks to Chéreau; of Chéreau, through Koltès. Follow my advice: seek out Stéphane Metge’s documentary, entitled Patrice Chéreau, a workshop at the Manufacture des œillets (1998): find it at all costs. And you’ll see an extraordinary event, the rehearsals on stage between Chéreau and Greggory, and how theatre comes into its own, only to surpass itself. Creation, with Chéreau, always followed from such a simple principle: “The only thing that matters is to tell a story, because it can contain the world, it can contain us, ourselves, the problems we come up against, the way we are in the world.” And he added: “I build my personal museum out of all the goods I have stolen: I am a receiver.”

Strange how death always takes you back to memories of life.

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