•  Bart Soethaert, Philologist – Neohellenist

The Stage Adventure of a Gaze


                                                                                                              [Translation: Elena Delliou]

From his Autobiography of a Book (1994) and up to Burial Offerings (2012), Michel Fais constantly visits undisclosed but always provocatively present areas of memory and origin, love and family life, history and everyday life. His gaze’s adventure continues in the theater; it started with theatrical adaptations of novels, and continued – especially in the last five years – with playwrighting.

Dramatic adaptations of novels

For the first performances of Autobiography of a Book (1995, Municipal Theatres of Komotini and Patra, director: Thodoris Gonis) and Married Couples (2003, Metaxourgio theatre, director: Periklis Hoursoglou), the directors relied on material from Fais’ novel of the same title and Aegypius Monachus respectively.

In 2006, at the Balcony of Amore Theatre, Thanos Anastopoulos directed a "theatrical documentary”, in which the photographer and the homeless people of the photo album The City on its Knees meet again in the "darkroom" of the stage. Greek Insomnia spurred Roula Pateraki to bring to life the affectionate correspondence between the Reader and G. M. Vizyenos (2006, Embros theatre). Drawing from Aegypius Monachus, Fais’ most radical text, Lilly Meleme directed – in the mode of a ritualistic theatre of marginal transition – an author’s inner journey of return and self-knowledge; not unlike a trout, this author moves against the current of a simple recounting of events, in an effort to reach the critical vacuum that the long night of the deportation of the Jews rendered the zero point of his life.

Recently, the Basement of the Art Theatre presented the play La Petite Mort (2014, director: Lilly Meleme), which is based on Burial Offerings – Fais’ last, so far, novel. Three elegant women – former mistresses? figures from erotic fiction? fates of the love life? reincarnations of "ideal woman"-Mother? – unfold the unfulfilled loves of a melancholic author, enlivening – in a diverse three-way pattern – experiences, confessions and observations of the past. The tomb-bed that dominates the stage is the male voice’s hideout; a voice which endures, sometimes with irritation and others condescendingly, the women’s “I know everything about you and something more” air. It is only at the end of the play, when this female triangle retreats in the deceased person’s brain and only his voice is left, when is revealed that the mourning writer has provided the archaeology of his erotic memory as "offerings" in the tomb of the Mother.

"Love is the most powerful acid»

Like his novels, Fais’ plays lack a ‘plot’, a ‘storyline’ that can be narrated or a clarified ‘theme’; no ‘story’ with a backbone, no firm ‘meaning’ to instill, or ideological ‘message’ to requite. If I only had a few words at my disposal to describe Michel Fais’ plays, I would say that it essentially is the onstage adventure of a gaze upon historical, romantic, familial, random anthropogeographies. These ‘data’ are primarily gathered through eavesdropping passers-by, through the increased – almost obsessive – observation of scenes from the private and public realm, and  through the ‘secret’ reading the city’s collective diary – always with a personal investment.

In a way, Fais’ unique narrative reality inadvertently passed in second place, when in the theatrical brochure of The Yellow Dog (2009, Ex Machina theatre, dir. Lilly Meleme), the author described his first purely theatrical work as an “text of urgent linguistic reality”, written “in response to last December’s [2008] attack with caustic acid against Konstantina Kuneva, a Bulgarian cleaning lady”.

The violence of fanatic intolerance which led to the premiere’s cancellation and the restricted number of performances is well-known in Greece. However, what remains as an aesthetic main event after this round of claims regarding the symbol “Kuneva”, is the dramatic character of Ruska Ruseva. Personally, I believe that the fact that this figure introduces herself to the spectator as an immediate relative of the undertaker (Autobiography of a Book, 1994), of aunt Clara (From the Same Glass and Other Stories, 1999), of the black vulture (Aegypius Monachus, 2001) and the Reader (Greek Insomnia, 2004), is more important than her appearance and exposure in the news. That is so, because Ruska Ruseva’s ‘political’ significance in The Yellow Dog is not – in my opinion – primarily found in the union action of this woman syndicalist, who was ‘worn’ the identity of an emblematic victim of the system; it is located in her intervention as the “face of public love” in the difficult – but necessary – dialogue between the gregarious everyday life of the joined crowd (the you) and the marginal world of the others. The ‘red cleaner’s’ humanistic concern in The Yellow Dog is summarized in the following quotation, which provided the motto of the play: “Let us assume man to be man, and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be ex­changed for love, trust for trust, etc." (K. Marx)


P.P.: Silent, disregarded, invisible, [we] clean your dirt. [...] But beware, you who are like Augeas. Beware! We. A collective nothing. Beware of the collective nothing! [...] We are the public faces of love. Yes. Are you laughing? That’s what we are. [...] Our work is love. That’s where we earn our heavy and unhealthy living. All your garbage has a place in our hearts. Immigrants, homeless, deranged, junkies, perverts, criminals. The children that would be thrown in Keadas are our children.


As a dialectical indicator between the ‘familiar’ and the ‘alien’ from metropolis’ transit 'underground' (in this case the dock of a Metro station), Ruska Ruseva asserts a world of love through the "politics" of the defenseless self. She takes in the voices of the others – her speech is a multi-voiced raving" – to challenge our conniving. She uses the power of her weak position (“a collective nothing” that cleans with “nightmares of Good”) in order to restore a framework for dialogue, and enable the communication between the "Augeas-like people"(the public morals of the Centre) and the “children of Keadas” (the excluded ones, those who inhabit the margins of society, but also our own insecurities).

Three plays of “comic despair” …

In three one-act plays of the period 2011-2012 – described by Fais himself as "comedies of despair" (After Our Last Words, Feather Nothing, Someone to Hurt Them) –, love, family, psychoanalytical, and other "triangles" obscure – to varying degrees – the boundaries between public and private, past and present, real and dreamlike, farce and dramatic. Whether they levitate at the edges of an Ibsenian triangle (Andreas/Chrissa/Mania in After Our Last Words), make their house a workshop of stage perfectionism (Athena/Hannah and Abraham/Alexander in Feather Nothing), or destine their most loyal audience – namely, their children – for successive confrontations with their childhood mess (Someone to Hurt Them), these troubled couples render the fury and mourning of their relationships, the absence of meaning in their perpetual conflict, and the pleasure of violence, a spectacle.

... and a "raving of Athens»

In The Bench of Any (2014, 104 theatre), two anonymous heroes (A./B.) and Alexia Kaltsiki’s (the director’s) disembodied voice are the protagonists of Fais’ latest theatrical triangle. The two protagonists are ordinary people; simple, with no clear identity, but with insecurities and concealed fears. Developing their crosstalk through underlying humor, they emerge as true collectors of human energy in the megalopolis’ transit society, as having a love for observation. On a bench – a favorite zone of fleeting encounters and impending separation in Fais’ writing – the ardent and the neutral observer relay the public life’s shattered present. They neither scream nor rave; they are not afflicted by its erraticness, its paroxysms or – on occasion – its unexpected tenderness.  Above all, they are captivated by a marginal contemplation that renegotiates the private and the public of (self) observing quest in the shared meeting time:


F.:          Concentrate on what you see. What do you see?

A. , B.:    Do we see what we see, or do we see who we are?

F.:          Who's talking?

A.:          I!

V.:          I!


With passing interventions, the “voice” readjusts the axis of tension that connects the two protagonists, now rendering it – with her own participation – a triangle. While the “voice” catches the attention through relevant indications, she helps the patrons of observation take the decisive step out of themselves. The "hypnosis" presumes an inconceivable but deeply humane communication with the city’s voices, and opens to more existential outlooks: Is our own subjectivity dependent on the observation of the other, and the "texts" that one carries? Is whatever is not observed (and cannot, therefore, be captured or voiced) as if it doesn’t exist? What stimulates our relationship with others? Is the gaze a form of moral energy?

With the blinding language of comic despair – or circular game of the self and the other – Fais’ plays dissect the landscape of multiple crises (historical, familial, erotic, existential, and so on), in order to create a – primarily – literary event that diagnoses and mocks the spectacular pathogenesis of the private and public life itself, as well as our intimacy with its onscreen logic. Nevertheless, in Fais’ theatrical triangles, the third term of mediation does not pretend to hold some liberating truth, neither does it make instructive comments to conceal or to resolve this (unuttered?) disorder. Desperately seeking alternative imitative ways, however, they aim for a better, humane life.