Koltès, Bernard-Marie 1948-1989
Koltès, Bernard-Marie 1948-1989
Born April 9, 1948, in Metz, France; died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), April 15, 1989, in Paris, France; son of a career military man. Education: Attended college in Metz, France; studied journalism at Strasbourg University, 1967.
Playwright and stage director; worked a variety of jobs while writing plays, including as a theater ticket seller, c. early 1970s.
Prix du Jeune Talent, Society of Authors (France), 1982; Edinburgh Festival prize.
Les amertumes (adaptation of Maxim Gorky's My Childhood), 1970, reprinted, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1998.
La marche (based on the Song of Songs), 1971.
Procès ivre (originally written 1971; based on Fedor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 2001.
L'héritage, first broadcast on Radio-Alsace, France, 1972, reprinted, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1998.
Récits morts, first produced at the Théâtre du Quai, 1973.
Des voix sourdes, first broadcast on Radio-Alsace, France, 1974.
Sallinger, 1977, reprinted, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1995.
La nuit juste avant les forêts (also see below), first produced at the Avignon Festival, France, 1977, translated by Timothy Jones as Night Just before the Forest, Ubu Repertory Theater (New York, NY), 1982.
Combat de nègre et de chiens; La nuit juste avant les forêts (also see below), Stock (Paris, France), 1980, translated by Timothy Johns and Mathew Ward as Night Just before the Forest: Struggle of the Dogs and the Black, Ubu Repertory Theater (New York, NY), 1982.
Combat de nègre et de chiens (also see below; translation by Matthew Ward first produced in New York, NY, at Theatre La Mama as Come Dog, Come Night, 1982; produced in New York, NY, at the Gate Theatre, as Struggle of the Black Man and the Dogs, 1988), Recherche-Action Théâtre Ouvert (Paris, France), 1979.
(With François Regnault) La famille des orties, Editions Nanterre (Nanterre, France)/Editions BENA (Paris, France), 1983.
Quai ouest (first produced in Dutch at Théâtre des Amandiers, 1986), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1985, translated by Elena H. Reeves as Don't Call Me Carlos; or, Western Docks, University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA), 1995.
Dans la solitude des champs de coton (first produced in Nanterre, France, 1986; produced in New York, NY, as In the Loneliness of the Cotton Fields, 1996), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1985.
Tabataba (also see below), 1986.
(Translator) William Shakespeare, Le conte d'hiver (translation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale; produced at Théâtre des Amandiers, 1988), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1988.
Le retour au désert (first produced at Théâtre du Rond, Point, 1988), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1988.
Roberto Zucco (also see below), 1989, first produced at Berlin Schaubühne, Berlin, Germany, 1990; translated by Martin Crimp under the same title, Methuen Drama (London, England), 1997.
Combat de nègre et de chiens; suivi de Carnets, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1989.
Roberto Zucco; suivi de Tabataba, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1990.
Prologue: et autres textes, Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1991.
Plays 1 (contains Black Battles with Dogs, Return to the Desert, and Robert Zucco), edited by David Bradby, Methuen Drama (London, England), 1997.
Lettres de Saint-Clement et d'ailleurs: les anneés d'apprentissage de Bernard-Marie Koltès, 1958-1976 (correspondence), Bibliothèques-Mediatèque de la Ville de Metz (Metz, France), 1999.
Roberto Zucco: suivi de Tabataba et Un hangar, à l'ouest (notes), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 2001.
Also translator of Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot, produced at Avignon Festival, 1982.
La fuite à cheval: très loin dans la ville (novel), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1984.
Une part de ma vie: entretiens, 1983-1989 (interviews), Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1999.
Koltès's works have been translated into Spanish, German, Hebrew, Czech, and Catalan.
Dans la solitude des champs de coton was produced for videotape, Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (Bry-sur-Marne, France), 1994; the song "Les Murs: for soprano and mezzo-soprano 1992," with music by Rob Zuidam, includes words originally written by Koltès.
The late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès possessed a writing style that, according to John Simon in New York, "has [Samuel] Beckett's mischievous minimalism, but without the humanity; [Jean] Genet's baroque lushness, but without the sensuality; [Jean] Cocteau's poetic gift, but without the strikingly on-target metaphors; [Jean] Racine's awesome rhetoric, but without the unerring purity. Yet he has also something his very own: the ability to juggle all four of these styles." While many critics of Koltès's dramas found them to be flawed, they also considered them in many ways to be accomplished and thoughtful productions for the stage. Koltès tackled many issues in his works, ranging from the problems of colonialism to alienation and unfulfilled dreams. Despite being a homosexual himself, the playwright remained closeted his whole life and never addressed the subject in his works. A number of critics, such as Theatre Journal contributor David Pelizzari, also considered the playwright significant because he belonged to "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."
Koltès was the son of a French soldier, and during his early life, his father was usually away from the family. A lot of that time was spent fighting in Algeria during the war for independence there in the 1950s. "It was a conflict which would later have a central place in Koltès's plays," according to David Bradby in the New Theatre Quarterly. The war in Algeria had a direct impact in the young man's home town of Metz, where fighting broke out between those of French and Arabic descent, sometimes with lethal results. The town was divided into French and Arab sections, and Koltès found himself attending a school that was in the Arab quarter. "The territoriality that was to be so important a part of Koltès's plays can be traced back to these early experiences," Bradby further observed. Later, while the future playwright was studying music in Strasbourg in 1968, France almost broke down into full-scale revolution, and the students hid on campus, hoping to avoid the violence.
After tensions finally eased, Koltès discovered a new love: travel. He journeyed to New York City, where he was influenced by the African-American culture there, especially its music. Leaving behind interests in journalism and classical music, Koltès instead turned to the theater while in New York. He worked odd jobs while gaining experience as a playwright. His initial efforts were adaptations of other famous writers' works, such as Fedor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which Koltès adapted as Procès ivre. After he returned to France, some of his dramas found their way onto the radio, and Koltès also directed some of his works at the Théâtre du Quai. With some mentoring from Hubert Gignoux, who was the head of the National Drama School in Strasbourg, Koltès worked to develop his own unique voice. However, the young playwright found little financial success at first. He then moved to Paris to try his hand at novel writing, producing La fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville, which was eventually published in 1984. Discussing the novel in the French Review, Nina S. Hellerstein found the mix of reality and fantasy in an urban story of violence and sex to be "uncomfortable reading … [though] it does contain certain unusual traits which signal it as a relatively original contribution to the present-day French novel."
Koltès found his first significant success as a playwright with La nuit juste avant les forêts, which was produced at the Avignon Festival in 1977 to good reviews. His subsequent travel experiences in Central America would also inspire Combat de nègre et de chiens, which was translated as Struggle of the Dogs and the Black and premiered in New York City in 1979. Set in a French colony in Africa, the play concerns a foreman who has murdered a black worker, and the murdered man's brother, who has come for the body. The foreman and his boss, the chief engineer at the site, are both in love with the same woman, but she is falling for the brother of the slain black worker. Another play that deals with colonialism is Le retour au désert ("Return to the Desert"). Set in a French town at the time of the Algerian war, the play is about the destructiveness of racism as the townsmen plan to kill Arab immigrants with a bomb. However, they ironically end up killing one of their own children.
Despite encouraging developments in his career, Koltès found that his plays were most accepted and appreciated in Germany, and he was disappointed he could not find a wider French audience. Nevertheless, several of his more mature works gained considerable critical attention, including Dans la solitude des champs de coton, which was produced in New York as In the Loneliness of the Cotton Fields. This play features two men apparently arranging an illicit deal involving drugs or sex, though it is never made clear what they are bargaining for. The play is not so much about the reason for the meeting as it is about the expressions of unfulfilled desire that each man makes in what becomes a philosophical work. David Pelizarri remarked in the Theatre Journal how "inside every desire they name is a clause about other desires; every motive they acknowledge contains a parenthesis about deeper motives; every condition they set has a caveat about further conditions." Complaining that director Patrice Chéreau had chosen two white actors for the 1996 production, when a black and a white actor appeared in earlier versions, Pelizarri asserted that the playwright had nonetheless managed to make one of the most "important contribution[s] to French dramaturgy since the grinning absurdists." Simon also praised Koltès for succeeding at one of Beckett's tricks: "how to make things both specific and so vague as to absorb anything we care to project on them, and giving us in return, if not illumination, at least catharsis."
The last work that Koltès completed before his death was Roberto Zucco. This play, inspired by the playwright's love of such American actors as James Dean and Marlon Brando, is about a serial murderer who escapes prison and goes on a rampage. The character of Zucco was based on a real-life murderer named Roberto Succo. Koltès's antihero has a very compelling personality, however, that attracts his victims to him, illuminating their deepest desires for self-destruction. "Zucco, like those 1950s antiheroes Koltès so admired, is searching for, or being driven toward, some experience, the nature of which is unknown to him, but which is undoubtedly metaphysical," commented Robert Eoin Nash-Siedlecki in American Theatre. "Koltès is creating a Roberto Zucco who fits the paradigm of the god who does not (yet) know he is a god." In a New Republic review, however, Robert Brustein felt that the "power of the play is obviously not to be found in depth of character or breadth of action. It is in its style and atmosphere, in the Artaudian cruelty and carnage it embodies, and also in the way it depicts ruthlessness and murder without psychology or moralizing. Except for this lack of commentary, Koltès mirrors our modern obsession with cold-blooded killers, those mesmerizing antiheroes who currently dominate our movies, our literature, our media, our dreams." Brustein concluded, "Roberto Zucco chronicles the spiritual life of the serial killer, and the breakdown of the social order that creates him."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Theatre, April, 1995, Robert Eoin Nash-Siedlecki, review of Roberto Zucco, p. 6.
French Review, March, 1986, Nina S. Hellerstein, review of La fuite à cheval: très loin dans la ville, p. 648.
New Republic, May 22, 1995, Robert Brustein, review of Roberto Zucco, p. 29.
New Statesman and Society, June 24, 1988, Betty Caplan, "Murder under the Sun," review of Struggle of the Black Man and the Dogs, p. 46.
New York, March 11, 1996, John Simon, "Wham Bam," review of In the Loneliness of the Cotton Fields, pp. 52-53.
New York Times, December 10, 1982, Mel Gussow, "Stage: French Offering, ‘Come Dog, Come Night,’" p. C3.
Performing Arts Journal, Volume 8, number 2, 1984, Lenora Champagne, "Ubu Repertory Theater Publications Series," review of Night Just before the Forest and Struggle of the Dogs and the Black, pp. 103-104.
Theater Journal, March, 1985, Suzanne Dieckman, reviews of Night Just before the Forest and Struggle of the Dogs and the Black, pp. 123-124; October, 1994, David Bradby, "Images of the Algerian War on the French Stage 1988-1992," includes discussion of Le retour au désert, pp. 375-384; October, 1996, David Pelizzari, review of Dans la solitude des champs de coton, pp. 379-381.
New Theater Quarterly, February, 1997, David Bradby, "Bernard-Marie Koltès: Chronology, Contexts, Connections," pp. 69-74.
Times (London, England), April 21, 1989.