‘A living carpet with much doubt throughout and yet, with the help of “the others”, a self-sought pattern with several colours and a few lines’

On Marianne Van Kerkhoven's writings about theatre

Sarma Sep 2015English

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Contextual note
This essay was commissioned by Sarma to frame the Anthology Marianne Van Kerkhoven, which was launched in September 2015. Translation from Dutch by Dan Frett.

Marianne Van Kerkhoven (1946-2013) was generous with writing but sparing with the bundling of her texts. Only once did she bundle a number of her essays, under the title Van het kijken en van het schrijven. Teksten over theater (2002) [Of Watching and Writing: Texts about Theatre], but, according to her afterword to the anthology, this was done more to meet the demands of others than out of a perceived need on her part. All this means that now, after her death, we are faced with a collection of hundreds of texts from her hand, in dispersed publications and with a diverse status: in addition to her plays and her novel, there are the countless essays, reviews, dramaturgical reflections, more academic articles, lectures, interviews, letters, portraits of artists, introductions to performances, etcetera. The digital anthology available at www.sarma.be presents a broad selection of this material and has already become an indispensable tool in obtaining initial insight into her work.

Marianne Van Kerkhoven spans a period of four and a half decades with her writings about theatre. In 1968 she wrote her master’s thesis on chamber theatre, the first major post-war theatre innovation in Flanders that, at that time – the late 1960s – had fully run its course. That rebellious year was, in her own words, crucial to her awakening: ‘I graduated and entered the world, as they say, in 1968.’(1) This continuous re-entering the world would become the fundamental dynamic of her commitment to the theatre. A few years later, in 1970, as founder of – and writer, actor and dramaturge with – Het Trojaanse Paard, she was one of the founders of political theatre, the main impetus of Flemish theatre in the 1970s. As editor of Etcetera and as dramaturge with Kaaitheater, she was deeply involved in the innovation that took place in the performing arts from the early 1980s. Until her death in 2013, she followed, commented on and contributed to the major movements in Flemish theatre – even though some developments were outside her field of vision (2) – with a particular focus on the growing interdisciplinarity, on artistic primacy in the organisational structures, on responsible cultural policy, and on the continuous dialectic between theatre and society. Not unimportant and worth further research is her commitment to a European dramaturgy, which she developed especially in the context of the international journal Theaterschrift.


‘occasional texts’

Marianne Van Kerkhoven was both a central and a lone voice in Flemish theatre, clearly tied to a particular artistic practice and in a way also independent. When she spoke, in her own thoughtful but always clear and reasoned manner, it was always more than just herself who was speaking. She often managed to articulate that which was already intuitively present in the theatre community, but had not yet been expressed: an attitude and a quality that she claimed were typical of the dramaturge. But her intuitions and articulations went much further and deeper than the theatre alone. In an interview with Bart Meuleman, she described her attitude simply and comprehensively: ‘Looking around me with curiosity and passion, not only at theatre, but also at the world in which it seeks to find its place, and reflecting on this.’(3) We will no longer hear her voice. We can only go in search of traces of it in the numerous texts that are now before us.

A proper chronology of her publications, including the many reviews, interviews and occasional texts, is essential to understanding the personal, artistic and social events that marked, challenged and drove her writing. In the afterword to her anthology Of Watching and Writing she wondered aloud whether indeed every text is not an ‘occasional text’, always marked by the mandatory inscription of a date. ‘There is no exemption from history’, she quotes John Berger elsewhere.(4) This historical consciousness is for her one of the lasting achievements of Marxist thought.

We perhaps do Marianne Van Kerkhoven the most justice by reading her corpus from that historical perspective. What is the exact place it occupies in the configuration called ‘contemporary Flemish theatre’? What are its points of departure, developments, ruptures and continuities? What are the major themes and their internal shifts? What are the main theoretical and artistic references? Where are the blind spots? How and to what degree have the publications and readings of Van Kerkhoven contributed to the theatre discourse (and theatre policy) in Flanders over the past decades? What further reflection on the future of (Flemish) theatre do her texts prompt? These are just some of the many questions to be answered. In what follows, I wish to do no more than point out a number of key elements and tensions that hold this corpus together.

Good essays themselves usually indicate how they should be read. The following paragraph from a lecture at the Springdance Festival in 1988 on the autonomy of dance and the blurring of the boundaries between disciplines, contains in a nutshell her essayistic method: ‘Thus a lot of work, certainly to finish it in half an hour, all the more because virtually no well-defined theoretical framework exists with which we could start to attack these problems. All of this means that I sit before you here with more questions than answers: that with respect to this material, I wish primarily to offer a series of quotes, events, and concerns, and to make a brief attempt to systematise this information.’(5) It is worthwhile to look at these seemingly rather banal formulations at the beginning of her lecture more closely, and give them the full weight of their importance.


‘no well-defined theoretical framework’

The lack of a theoretical framework for analysing modern theatre at the end of the twentieth century is a frequently expressed complaint in the essays of Marianne Van Kerkhoven, though it is precisely this lack that makes her essayistic practice truly possible, as we will see below. In the same lecture she points out that in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively materialist culture theory and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis provided a foothold for analysing the performing arts, but at the end of the 1980s, the situation had changed fundamentally: ‘Today we feel a bit lost concerning the scientific analysis of the theatrical language: we read a bit of Barthes and Foucault, of Baudrillard or Sontag, about whom we cannot even say – here again a blurring of discipline appears to be the order of the day – whether we are dealing with philosophers, sociologists or poets.’(6) For Van Kerkhoven, the fact that at the end of the 1980s materialist cultural theory and psychoanalysis are no longer able to provide a foothold has to do with a semiotic sprawl on the stage: ‘The multiplicity of forms that emerged from this blurring of boundaries (as a result of interdisciplinarity, ej) also provides a multiplicity of signs, meanings and interpretations, and we are lacking a theoretical system of an aesthetic-philosophical nature to grasp it all.’(7) For her, this proliferation of signs is explicitly linked to the complexity of society as a whole. Looking back, she describes the period of political theatre in the 1970s as follows: ‘If we define idealism as “acting on the basis of an unshakable belief in the possibility of a better life”, then we were bearers of a fervent idealism and great optimism. (…) The achievements of the Enlightenment were not yet being questioned at that time. We believed in the power of reason, in the power of the word. We were convinced that the true nature of life in society was being hidden from view by an ideological veil. We wanted to do what we could to remove that veil from in front of others and ourselves, so that another perception of the world could clear the way for another activity.’(8) The optimistic world-view of political theatre is supported by belief in the Enlightenment, in progress, in reason, in the power of the word and in the ability to unmask false consciousness.

This world-view does not stand up to the changes in Western society that take place from the end of the 1970s. And therefore the contents and forms of political theatre also fall short. The complexity that Van Kerkhoven discusses in her texts after 1980 is for her due to the development of a society that no longer allows itself to be analysed using the Marxist concepts of class struggle, and substructure and superstructure; due to the evolution of technology and science that does not necessarily mean progress; due to the proliferation of image and media that undermines analysis and argumentation; due to the individualisation, sentimentalisation and commercialisation of culture that marginalise artistic practice; due to the dominance of market thinking and unbridled capitalism that reduces public life to an economic exchange; due to the rightward shift of society that creates a politics of distrust and fear; due to the globalisation and diversity that brings about a crisis in national identity; etcetera. She explicitly refers in her texts to the important national and international events: the fall of the Wall, the crushing of the student revolt in Tiananmen Square, the Yugoslav wars, the Gulf War, Black Sunday and the breakthrough of the far-right Vlaams Blok in Belgium, the genocide in Rwanda, the Kosovo crisis, 9/11, etcetera. Van Kerkhoven sees all of this as a set of shocks that shakes up the ‘old’ interpretive framework – that of optimism and idealism – like the revolt of 1968 once shook the foundations of post-war bourgeois culture. These shocks force one to look for a new vocabulary to describe reality: ‘The most significant turning points seems to me to be those at which social upheavals occur of such a magnitude, that the individual sign system is shocked into realising how unsuitable it is.’(9)


‘a series of quotes, events, concerns’

One of the main reasons for her subsequent ambiguous attitude towards her engagement in political theatre must be sought in this realisation of growing complexity. She deliberately includes no articles from the 1970s in her anthology Of Watching and Writing. In 1976 she was co-founder of the Political Theatre Working Group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, which studied developments and shifts in political theatre in Flanders. She gives four reasons why she refuses to anthologise the texts she wrote in this context: they are ‘poorly written’, they are ‘annoying to read’, they need a ‘comprehensive framework narrative’ to be understood and, ‘the most important reason is probably that today, based on the ongoing debate now taking place concerning the social tasks of theatre, I now see the past in a different way and feel a need to infinitely nuance each formulated thought.’(10) Here the question in the first place does not concern whether Marianne Van Kerkhoven is right in her assessment of her ‘older’ texts, but rather the inner logic of her thought. There is indeed much to say for these texts not being poorly written or boring, not needing more context than other texts and certainly not lacking in nuance. On the contrary, they are texts that, armed with materialist literary theory (Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Werner Mittenzwei) delve deeply into the matter. In these studies, Van Kerkhoven is not yet using the fragmentary style that will characterise her texts from the mid-1980s, and her references do not yet fan out in so many directions. These ‘older’ texts could indeed be a great discovery for a younger generation of directors and dramaturges. Her articles concerning the place of emotionality in political theatre and the possibilities of improvisation are important witnesses to the crisis of political theatre in the second half of the 1970s, and its attempts to renew itself.(11) And her analysis of the production Maria Magdalena (1981) by Jan Decorte is a key text on the shift taking place at that moment in Flemish theatre: ‘Perhaps the only way for a theatre that still wishes to function in the spirit of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach is to again raise problems, again raise contradictions, i.e. to go beyond merely observing. Because despite a still unfought historical battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie, the world is evolving every day, there are analyses to be made every day.’(12)

By deliberately filtering these texts from her anthology, Van Kerkhoven (un)intentionally introduces a caesura in her thinking and writing. Yet the political theatre of the 1970s remains an important reference for her. In a text from 1990, at a time when Marxist ideology threatened to be written off by history, Van Kerkhoven explicated her enduring Marxist heritage: the primacy of practice; production conditions determine the product; the whole is more than its constituent parts; art as the transformation of matter rather than making ideas visible; alienation that must be struggled against; social injustice that needs to be constantly combated; and finally, the utopian power of the desire for a better world. She concluded her list: ‘We can only hope that the radical changes in Eastern Europe will lead to a rediscovery of historical conscience in the West, a conscience which has been a bit lost since 1968.’(13)

Despite the apparent continuity, there is a rift between Van Kerkhoven’s writing from the 1970s and that from the 1980s, with respect to both content and form. In her texts from the 1980s, she uses the fragment and the collage as a response to the growing complexity of reality: ‘But realities are slow and indescribably detailed’, quoting Rilke in the motto that precedes her anthology. Rilke uses the plural: not reality, but realities! And they are ‘indescribably detailed’. Against this ‘force majeure’, Marianne Van Kerkhoven developed humility as a method. She made a strong intellectual strategy of her ‘modesty’. Many of her texts have in their title or subtitle words like: notes, thoughts, marginalia, comments, diary entries, … The frequent use of numbers instead of subheadings to structure her texts point to a form of thinking and writing that is less hierarchical and argumentative, and more juxtaposing and associative. Yet that does not prevent her from positing clear views and positions.

The fragmented form gives her the ability to use quotes in a more autonomous way. Unlike her texts from the 1970s where citations mainly serve as stepping stones in the argumentation developed in the text, later the quotes take on greater independence. They begin to function as the ‘voices of others’.(14) It is no coincidence that the interviews with artists – ‘the others’ par excellence – begin to occupy an increasingly important place in her writing. The materialist discourse of the 1970s is broken open in a polyphonic style of writing. Her references are very heterogeneous: she quotes from novels and poems, from philosophical, psychological, sociological, historical, scientific and art historical texts. The impact of her texts is often the direct result of the acute sensitivity with which she chooses the quotes. I will give just one example. Her text on dramaturgy ‘Looking without pencil in the hand’ (1994) opens with a quote by Susan Sontag – ‘(…) distance is often linked with the most intense state of feeling, in which the coolness or impersonality with which something is treated measures the insatiable interest that thing has for us’ – and ends with a quote by Paul Valéry – ‘There is an immense difference between looking at something without pencil in the hand and looking at something while drawing it’ – : two rich and dialectical ideas.(15)

With these quotes, she approaches the theatre and its challenges from different perspectives at the same time. In so doing, she cultivates a kind of ‘amateur’ attitude: ‘I am neither a philosopher nor an artist. A dramaturge is always a wavering being that, depending on the artistic process in which s/he intervenes, always has to keep filling him-/herself with other materials.’(16) The formulation ‘s/he’ gives me the opportunity to mention an aspect of Marianne Van Kerkhoven’s thinking that has not yet been discussed, but deserves greater attention: while not a very explicit theme, her feminism is a constant undercurrent present in her writing. Her dramaturgical work with choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and her novel Anna, met de omkeerbare naam (1990)[Anna, with the reversible name] are certainly milestones, but the following statement about actress Ann Nelissen, formerly with Het Trojaanse Paard, is also telling: ‘She is still politically engaged in her productions, i.e. with the issue of women, among others in De vaginamonologen (2002) [The Vagina Monologues]. I have great respect for that.’(17)


a brief attempt to systematise’

Van Kerkhoven begins to write in a dramaturgical mode in the 1980s. Modern dramaturgy does not require a theoretical framework and a systematic (e.g. philological) approach, but rather different points of view, constantly changing perspectives, flexible and temporary interpretations, confrontational quotes from literature, philosophy and science, inspiring films, documentaries, photographs, videos, visual art, … But despite the awareness of the complexity and a preference for fragment and montage, the texts of Van Kerkhoven continue to require theory and especially a bridge between theory and practice: ‘Everyone has in their lives a few things that fascinate them, that won’t let them loose. For me, one of these things has always been the refusal to accept that there is a rift between theory and practice. Perhaps that is the underlying reason why I became a dramaturge. A dramaturge is a bridge-builder, is constantly involved in linking together theory and practice, art and science, emotion and reason.’(18) She considers ‘the achievement of their unity in every form of human action (…) one of the most important historical tasks of the present time.’(19) She more than once advocates for an intense dialogue between art and science. She refers here to the work of Oliver Sacks, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers. She develops a holistic vision: ‘We are looking for a unity between art and science, we are looking again for an analogy to “a great whole”, but perhaps in so doing we need to turn the world upside down. Perhaps the search today should not be for the great overarching whole, but for a whole that – like a hologram – exists in each particle. Because structures contain emotion, mathematical functions have a soul, and physics is also poetry. Everything is in everything: art = science = the world = life. One big tautology.’(20)

Yet it remains somewhat unclear what exactly Marianne Van Kerkhoven means by ‘theory’. Sometimes she uses the term ‘science’, other times ‘philosophy’. Perhaps by these terms she in the first place means ‘reflection’ in whatever form. It is notable for example that she hardly refers in her texts to the new theatre-scientific vocabulary developed by Hans-Thies Lehmann in his book Postdramatisches Theater (1999). She is concerned about a different kind of vocabulary, a different kind of theory: ‘I see my stubborn belief that in human dealings theory and practice are in fact inseparably linked confirmed every day when I observe the way artists work: the theory is there, it’s in the work, it is born in the working process.’(21) Hence she places more and more emphasis on ‘experience’: experience as a fusion of intelligence and intuition, experience as incarnated theory.

She seems to go a step further in one of her last writings: ‘Following the collapse of ideologies, we need, I think, people who above all develop practices together. This requires a much more direct responsibility – agreeing with new manifestos is not enough. I sense a hunger among artists to learn more about how people in all areas of society organise their work, how they produce, explore and develop things that may contribute to the “reconstruction”. By the same token, artists want to open up their practices to share them with others.’(22) This is a much broader discussion than that between theory and practice or between different disciplines. This is a societal conversation that transcends the limits of art. Perhaps a distant echo is heard here of the collective work of political theatre with which Marianne Van Kerkhoven’s commitment to the theatre had started?


‘a lot of work’

Van Kerkhoven described the task she was facing thus: as a lot of work. She tried, like few others, to time and again articulate the mission of the theatre in rapidly changing times. Like few others, she understood and expressed the seriousness of this task. She certainly possessed a certain pathos. She dared speak of hope and despair (23), of small and great dramaturgy (24), of theatre located in the city and the city located in the world, and the walls of skin between them.(25) Her sense of history and her diverse references repeatedly led her back to the now-moment of theatre. The writing of history was not her thing. History for the sake of history was of no interest to her. Her starting point was always the present. Even her more academic texts from the 1970s bear this out. What is happening now? What are the challenges now? What works now? Which forms and content do we need now? The starting point is always a roundupof the present.

Perhaps I should put this even more pointedly? Perhaps she in the first place is not concerned with the now, but with that which is to come? Many of her texts are not a description of theatre as it existed, but an appeal to a future theatre, a théâtre-à-venir to use a Derridean formulation: a theatre to come, or better yet: a theatre that arrives, that continues to arrive. This appeal contains a utopian moment and an ethical impulse. In the end, the power of art in general is for Marianne Van Kerkhoven a transcending of the plain everyday: ‘It remains essential to be clear that in addition to surviving, there is also a “life”.’(26) In her lecture ‘De weg is deel van de bestemming’ (1994) [The path is part of the destination], she expresses this thought as follows: ‘And finally also this. Actually it’s quite simple. Actually, again and again it all can be reduced to the one cry that Wittgenstein penned in his secret war diaries. 7 October 1914: “How must I live in order to persist at every moment?”’(27) Perhaps Van Kerkhoven gives an answer to this question fifteen years later in the coda of her lecture ‘The ongoing moment’ (2009). She does this with the help of two others. The choice of these two other voices again makes clear how seriously she takes her thinking. The first quote is from the Italian chemist, writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi: ‘The noun “freedom” notoriously has many meanings, but perhaps the most accessible form of freedom, the most subjectively enjoyed and the most useful to human society consists of being good at your job and therefore taking pleasure in doing it.’ The second quote is from Simone Weil, the French philosopher and political activist: ‘True liberty is not defined by a relationship between desire and its satisfaction, but by a relationship between thought and action.’(28) Neither of these quotes is about art, but about freedom – the prerequisite for both individual and collective ‘existence’ – that is obtained in a dialectical combination of thinking and doing. Perhaps for Marianne Van Kerkhoven it has always been about the merging of this vita activa with vita contemplativa: thoughts that lead to actions that in turn stimulate new thinking. In order to persist at every moment.



(1) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The ongoing moment. Reflections on image and society’ (2009), http://sarma.be/docs/2837.

(2) One example of this is her abiding distrust of the ‘large theatre houses’ that according to her stood for ‘alienation’ and ‘institutionalisation’. This distrust certainly had a basis in the 1970s and 1980s, but from the mid-1990s, profound artistic and organisational developments occurred in these large houses that led to diverse manifestations such as the KVS under Jan Goossens and Toneelhuis under Guy Cassiers.

(3) Meuleman, Bart, ‘Interview met Marianne Van Kerkhoven’, in: De Witte Raaf, vol. 21 no. 124, Nov-Dec 2007, p. 22.

(4) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The ongoing moment’, ibid.

(5) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, Leuven, 2002, p. 23.

(6) Ibid. p. 24.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The ongoing moment’, ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, p. 261.

(11) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Improvisatie en emotionaliteit in het politieke theater’ (1979), in Dina Hellemans, Ronald Geerts and idem (red.), Op de voet gevolgd. 20 jaar Vlaams theater in internationaal perspectief, Brussels, 1990, pp. 153-162.

(12) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘De beide emmers in de put waarvan er altijd maar een vol kan zijn. De Maria Magdalena-enscenering van Jan Decorte: van dualisme naar dialektiek’ (1982), in ibid., pp. 209-218.

(13) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The Weight of Time’, Ballet International, vol. 14 no. 1, January 1990, p. 64

(14) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, p. 263.

(15) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Looking without pencil in the hand’, Theaterschrift, no. 5-6, January 1994, pp. 140, 146

(16) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The ongoing moment’, ibid.

(17) Meuleman, Bart, ibid., p. 22.

(18) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin’, State of the Union, Theater festival 1994

(19) Ibid.

(20) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Het bescheiden denken. Tien kanttekeningen bij de relatie tussen kunst en wetenschap’ (1993), in idem, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, p. 123.

(21) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin’, ibid.

(22) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘When is there a path? An introduction’, in idem and Anoek Nuyens (red.), Listen to the Bloody Machine. Creating Kris Verdonck’s END, Utrecht/Amsterdam 2012, p. 32-33.

(23) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Van de hoop en de wanhoop’ (1992), in idem, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, pp. 101-104.

(24) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Van de kleine en de grote dramaturgie’ (1999), in ibid., pp. 197-203.

(25) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin’, ibid.

(26) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘Van oude mensen, de dingen die voorbijgaan. Aantekeningen bij het oud worden in de kunst’ (1999), in idem, Van het kijken en van het schrijven, p. 195.

(27) Ibid. p. 133.

(28) Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘The ongoing moment’, ibid.