Interview with Julien Gosselin

Your new creation, Extinction, is divided into three parts. You’ve decided to replace the male narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel with an actress who is present throughout the show. Why did you decide to switch the character’s gender? 

The desire to “feminise” the character came right away as I read Thomas Bernhard’s great monologued novel, which also turned out to be his last. In the past, spectators leaving my shows have sometimes suspected me of being a nihilist, although I wouldn’t say that it’s a description that fits the work of Michel Houellebecq, whose Atomised I adapted. I like to live within paradoxes. My direction in 2021 of Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev’s The Past is proof of that. I reject classical theatre, while using academic forms. Extinction belongs to the same kind of contradiction. It’s about looking into nihilism as a school of thought, but also to approach a kind of negativity. But a resistance negativity. As an Austrian author, Thomas Bernard wrote his books with a vitalist negativity, full of life. Many young women today have adopted a stance of rejection, which they express with a lot of vitality: thus this shift from a male narrator to an actress, which seemed obvious right from the start. A woman to burn it all down, to extinguish it all, so that something can appear. 

The first part is at once an electro DJ set, but also the opportunity to establish the setting of Thomas Bernhard’s novel: a woman in Italy learns that her family died in a car crash in her country, Austria. In that first part, the words of the Austrian author are still some way away, and it opens onto a second part: a vision of Vienna before World War I, through Arthur Schnitzler’s writing… 

My shows come first from sensations, not concepts. To show in that second part “humanity at its peak,” at least in the European world, and in the 1910s, means taking a look at what was then the pinnacle of Western society, full of people who nevertheless had a sense of looming catastrophe. Arthur Schnitzler is always playing with trivial banter just as pure destruction looms. The idea is to stage, not without cruelty, the death of that world, in full costumes. To show the apocalypse. The protagonists of that time speak of literature, of psychoanalysis, of culture, of sexuality; they seduce each other, they’re charming. A show is created right before the spectators’ eyes and filmed live. This show within the show unfolds again and again, disappears all the better to come back, just like this cultured society on the verge of collapse, of which it is nevertheless aware. There is, in the early days of the 20th century, a beauty many people might regret today—you have cafés and salons, but it’s also a society in which women have no right, in an entirely colonial world. 

Your theatre, which sometimes makes use of “classical” forms of representation, is a de facto critique of theatre. You see it as a “sunken” art form. As an exploration of your vision of theatre through the end of a world, or of the world, if not both, doesn’t Extinction tell the story of a disappearing society watching another one? 

I never thought I’d become the kind of director who makes plays about his own art. But it’s what’s happening… The more I make theatre, the more it becomes like a punchbag to me! I have no desire to celebrate it as a major art form. This show proves it: making theatre is a way for me to fight something. I see its beauty, but also its “uselessness.” If theatre can be a source of inner upheaval, it can’t ever be part of the real. At the end of the show, we nevertheless work on the text of Extinction as on a material of reality. What I mean by that is that Thomas Bernhard’s writing is generally seen as finely crafted, theatrical, literary. What matters most, with this author, is to walk alongside him to reach a state of anger, which translates as a rejection of aestheticisation. I approach every show like a journey made up of accumulations of things so that in the end, we can reach for the roots of a truth. I need to play with this form of stratification as with unexpected juxtapositions, in order to create short circuits. The three stages of Extinction are so many “states of the body” before the end of the world, which is also the end of a world. They put on a show until the moment the show goes out on its own… 

Extinction shines a light on the predominance and irreducibility of the individual. How can one highlight the thought behind such a monologue, or at least part of it, when your art is first and foremost a collective art form? 

The truest part of the show is this very precise language. It’s its main element of truth. I see art less and less as an attempt to approach consolation. Hence the choice of Viennese society at the beginning of the 20th century, of the world of Arthur Schnitzler before World War I. In this case, a world of salons, of conversations, but also a world of fakery, of masks. As a director, I waste a lot of time. By which I mean that others would go straight to Thomas Bernhard’s writing. I’d never adapted authors who care about the individual. Take Michel Houellebecq, for instance. Or Don DeLillo. While there are individuals in their work, as writers they see the world through the masses. Thomas Bernhard is the opposite. He elevates the individual as the heart of the truth. In my years of apprenticeship, the individual was a sheep in a mercantile system. It was the cog in the ultraliberal machinery. Today, people fight against liberalism in the name of the individual! As someone who’s always wanted to make theatre against theatre, which is also the place of the individual, of the actor who speaks to the audience, of the character who says “my existence has value,” I’ve shown crowds, even landscapes. It was a dissolution of the individual. I made the actors “hardly visible;” they turned into masses of sound, of language. In the show Extinction, I’m working with an author who says: the individual strives to escape from the world that surrounds him. It’s a great upheaval, it calls everything into question for me. As a young spectator, I went to see great plays by French directors: at the end, the show opened up, bared itself. The entire troupe came onto the stage, sort of like the end of Tartuffe, so to speak… To show the people behind the show while destroying theatricality, it’s just banal neoclassicism. My shows are built in reaction to that. What I’m interested in, and that’s in no way original, is to see the ending of a show as a world, not as an apotheosis. Troupe, technology, images, sound: the idea is to move towards the disappearance of the landscape to reach the human alone, and through it the pure presence of literature, or to move towards the disappearance of the human and of literature to reach the pure presence of the landscape… We built this whole show towards the extinction of its own theatricality, with only the presence of a woman. But, in a more prosaic way, the organisation of our theatrical world rests on something else: great ensembles of actors, the beauty of language and literature, the image as a way to make theatre, the making of a film live, all of that brings me immense joy. 

Interview conducted by Marc Blanchet and translated to English by Gaël Schmidt-Cléach