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Matei Vișniec, the Romanian knight of French theatre

photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Versiune în ROMÂNĂ

“I, for one, did not have access to professional theatre, I had access to world theatre. The circus would come to town and I would be fascinated by the fair, the clowns, by film, by countryside traditions, weddings, christenings, which for me were a kind of performance.

I believe that’s how I fell in love with theatre.”

In the heart of beautiful Bucovina, which he now calls “the centre of his world”, a teenager was discovering the charm of art as a means of spiritual salvation during the communist regime.

He would spend days on end at the cinema and library in Rădăuți and discover that the universe can be completely different from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.

The books of Sartre, Camus or Proust brought him closer to the French language and culture, but ultimately, the writings of Caragiale and Beckett were the revelations that would change the course his entire life.

“When I first read Beckett, I was astonished by the novelty of how he put the literary text on the page. That is when I realised that play writing is a different kind of literature, not in the form of poetry or prose, but rather in the form of lines. And I absolutely loved it.”

After reading plays, he started yearning to see them on stage. And since there were no theatres in Rădăuți, he got on a train and stopped where he knew he would find what he was looking for.

“When I was in high school, I ran away from home to go to the theatre in Bucharest. Every holiday after that, I would go to the theatre in Bucharest. I would go on my own and stay at one of my classmates’ grandmother.”

Today Matei Vișniec is one of the world’s leading playwrights, and his plays are performed in dozens of countries at the biggest festivals.

Last year the President of France awarded him the title of Knight of the National Order of Merit, and in 2018 the French Ministry of Culture awarded him the title of Knight of Arts and Letters.

He often says that Romania has given him roots, while France has given him wings. And his wings started growing in 1987, when he first set foot in Paris’ Gare de l’Est.  

“My dad came to Bucharest and put me on a train. I didn’t think I would manage to cross the border. I could hardly believe this dream of mine was coming true.

I only had enough money to get to Vienna by train. I was allowed to exchange 100 dollars and bought a ticket to Vienna. There, two former colleagues of mine helped me get to Paris.”

His lucky departure came after an invitation that he received from a European intellectual aid foundation, which also offered him a scholarship of 5,000 francs for a month in the French capital.

Matei Vișniec in Jardin des Plates/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

He was also lucky enough to receive his visa at a time when Romania was at risk of losing the Most Favoured Nation clause from the US, which is why the communist regime gave many intellectuals the right to leave in order to prove to the Americans that the Romanians were free.

“Once I arrived in Paris, the first place I went to was Radio Free Europe, where the leading figures of the Romanian exile were – Monica Lovinescu, Virgil Ierunca, Paul Goma. A few days later, I applied for political asylum.”

In Paris, he came across a Romanian diaspora made up solely of intellectuals. He was offered a place in a migrant dorm where he had to share a room with 8 other people, and he was a happy man.

“I had a scholarship of 5,000 francs and couldn’t keep the money at the dorm. Virgil Ierunca kept them for me at his place. We would meet once a week and he would give me 100-200 francs.

I had my morning and my evening meals provided, I also a bed, a desk, but we had to leave the hostel at 8:30 in the morning to go looking for work. We were only allowed to come back after 18:30.

I felt great there, I would go out on the Esplanade des Invalides and feel like a king. I would go straight to the library and spend the entire day reading, at lunch time I would go down and grab a sandwich for a couple of francs, and then I would head back to the library.

I had access to books, newspapers, films, music, it was fabulous. I spent all day long there.”

Matei Vișniec at the Roman vestiges in Paris/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Within a few days, another Romanian introduced him to the daughter of Eugène Ionesco, Marie-France Ionesco, and this is how he came to step inside the Ionesco household.

“When I set foot in Eugen Ionesco’s house, I felt as if I were in a temple. I kept looking at the books, the furniture, the chairs in there.”

Marie-France Ionesco gifted him with invitations to the performances of The Bald Soprano and The Chairs. That was the first time that the young Vișniec saw Ionesco’s plays.  

“I was astounded. It was a kind of bourgeois theatre, but with a text which shone through its lack of conventionality.”

He did not meet the great playwright because he was in Switzerland at the time. Instead, he went to a conference held by Emil Cioran.

“I did meet Cioran, but I did not insist on getting close to him, he was already quite old. And these people had already given me so many extraordinary things that I could not longer ask anything else from them.”

Alexandra Tănăsescu and Matei Vișniec/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

After all, Vișniec had his own way to go. He started with the plays he had already written in Romania, but which he had not dared to bring along for fear that they would be confiscated.

“I asked my dad to send the plays as letters, about 5 pages per letter. They would begin with “Dear Matei” and then continue with my own texts. I received a lot of plays this way, by mail.”

He began translating them into French and some French friends helped proofread them. Then, the first play he wrote in French ended up in the hands of some French actors, thus paving the way to small, independent theatres in Paris. Those were the first to understand, appreciate and stage his plays.

In the meantime, he also received two job offers – one from Radio Free Europe Munich and one from BBC London. And he was curious to see what British theatre was like. In 1988, he set off to the United Kingdom as a journalist, reporting on international news and what was happening in Romania under Ceușescu’s abusive regime. As he did not want to run into problems with the Securitate (Secret police), he published his texts under the pseudonym Andrei Sireteanu

“Ceaușescu had turned into a total madman and the international press was writing a lot about him.”  

Alexandra Tănăsescu și Matei Vișniec/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

He had a 4-year contract with the BBC, but left after less than a year, as he could not find his place as a playwright in England.

“My plays were more avant-garde, more fantastic, more absurd, they were different from the realist theatre that appeals to the English. I was perceived as an alien. So I thought that that was not the best country for me. Within 6 months I realised that my chances were simply not there.

England is a country that has evolved outside of the European avant-garde, it is an island in all possible ways. With an extraordinary theatre, but I felt better in Paris.”

He returned to Paris in October 1989 and started a PhD. In December of the same year, Romania’s communist regime fell, and Matei Vișniec was no longer a political refugee, but a free man.

He received an offer to return to Romania as director of the State Theatre in Constanta. However, he knew that his plays had already found their place in France.

“Something fabulous happened. In 1991, my plays started being performed at the Avignon Theatre Festival. I would have 2-3 plays, 5-6 performances there.”

For thirty years he continued to write plays in French, and poems and novels in Romanian.

Matei Vișniec, Paris/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

“The French language helped me write plays and short prose, because I wrote more shortly, more concisely, with fewer words, but many effects.”

For the past 25 years, many of his writings have seen the light of day at the Contrescarpe Café, where he spends every one of his mornings. Located in an intimate square in a central area of Paris, near his house, the typically Parisian café offers him peace and inspiration. In fact, that is also the place where he arranged for us to meet.

La Contrescarpe/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

“When I came to Paris, I would often go to the Sorbonne Library and then wander the streets. This is how I stumbled upon this square. I would buy a cup of coffe for 1.50 francs and sit here and read.

As it happened, when my daughter was born 25 years ago I moved to this neighborhood. I feel good here because I also see the ghosts of the writers who were here before.

Matei Vișniec at La Contrescarpe/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

This is where Hemingway lived, this is where he wrote his first novel. There was also a cabaret in his area that he probably went to quite often. All of the taverns that you see here were probably frequented by Hemingway.

The novel I am about to publish has been written here. It is called A Century of Fog and is about 800 pages long.

Vague Theatre was written here too. Others as well. I don’t get disturbed by the people sitting here, quite the contrary. And when I leave the café at about 12:30, I see the students who come here to grab a sandwich, which reminds me of the times when I was a student myself.”

The Contrescarpe Square/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
Alexandra Tănăsescu and Matei Vișniec standing in front of Hemingway’s house/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
Hemingway: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Hemingway’s home is just a few steps away from the café. A few buildings farther, it is followed by the place where the philosopher René Descartes lived. Vișniec then shows us the house from which the French-Romanian philosopher Benjamin Fondane was picked up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, the concentration camp where he was gassed to death.

Alexandra Tănăsescu and Matei Vișniec standing in front of Descartes’ house/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
Benjamin Fondane’s house/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

It is an entire universe fraught with history, one which Matei Visniec has left his own mark on as well. In the same neighborhood, he also shows us Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden where he has found inspiration too.

“Let me show you my rats!”

In a pen we see a few kangaroo rats, a rare species that is neither rat nor kangaroo, but looks similar to both. The unique feature of this species is that they are only animals that can survive without drinking water.  

Kangaroo Rats in Jardin des Plantes/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

“They are the most bizarre animals, yet they can provide fabulous moments of tenderness between mother and baby. Einstein used to say that if rats weighed 30 kilograms, they could rule the world. Well, look, here are the 30-kilo rats.”

This is how rats started cropping up in Matei Vișniec’s writings – “The King, The Rat and the King’s Fool”, “The Rat King”, but most of all, “The Preventive Disorder”, which examine human value in relation with rat value.

Matei Vișniec and Alexandra Tănăsescu/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Since 2016, a new theatre founded in Suceava by the local municipality bears the name of Matei Vișniec. The playwright comes to Romania on a regular basis in order to visit his family, participate in the Sibiu Theatre Festival or hold conferences.

Unfortunately, his visits to Romania do not always bring him joy. One of his sorrows is that many libraries throughout the country have been closed or rendered destitute. Even the library in Rădăuți, the one which brought him closer to culture, was recently in the midst of an unfortunate situation in which the local authorities decided to cut down on the budget allocated to this cultural institution.

“It is a shame that the Library of Rădăuți was richer and more accessible to the public during the communist regime. It was located in the city centre, now it is upstairs, so you have to go look for it, because its place on the ground floor was taken by a shop.

Libraries shouldn’t be left in the lurch, but rather reimagined, reorganised, and the librarians should be prepared for a new strategy meant to attract readers.  

In France, for example, there has been a festival called “Let’s read out lout” for 20 years now, and every year, about 20.000 people participate voluntarily. What do they do? They visit schools and other institutions and read out lout, which is a completely different experience from simply telling a child that they should read. A miracle occurs. This is just one example of how you can pull children away from their mobile phones.

Matei Vișniec at La Contrescarpe/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Libraries should also become a place to socialise. Not to mention that in France, they are no longer called bibliothèques, but rather mediathèques, because they offer films, music and other activities.

If you educate a child only through images, the mechanisms for concept-making and concept-based reflection disappear. When you read a story, you imagine whatever you want.

If 2 million children watch Snow White, a film produced by Hollywood, 2 million children will have the same picture of Snow White.

If 2 million children read Snow White, there will be 2 million different perspectives on it. That is the difference between letting oneself be indoctrinated by Hollywood as opposed to reading and letting one’s mind wander.”

France continues to be a model of a society that breathes culture as well as a country which is “generous to foreigners”, as the Romanian playwright describes it. Now, for the first time in history, the Avignon Theatre Festival has a foreign director – a Portuguese.

In Romania, not only are no foreign directors invited, but the Romanian ones sometimes remain in office for 20 years, so there is little chance of reconstruction at the moment.

Matei Vișniec at La Contrescarpe/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

“Here this happens only if a director builds his own theatre, financed with public resources, but they can stay in office for life if they are the ones to have laid the foundations.

By comparison, national theatres change their directors constantly, once every four years or with the possibility of extension for another four years. The way I see it, the great tragedy for Romanian theatre is not that a person remains in office for years on end.

The real drama is that new theatres, independent theatres funded by public money are not being created.

Small halls, with 100 seats, offer the most wonderful opportunities to launch new authors. My plays were only performed in small theatres at first. In a big hall, the investment is bigger. Until they decide to stage something, the directors ask themselves dozens of times if they will be successful or not and schedule your play in 3 years.

Whereas in small theatres there is tremendous mobility. You meet a director today, you give him a piece of writing, he likes it, and two months later he has staged it.

There should be a law to subsidise private artistic initiatives and also a sponsorship law, so that these people can get money from companies.”

Matei Vișniec in Jardin des Plantes/ photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă

Having left his home country 34 years ago, Matei Vișniec is now a French citizen but has also remained a Romanian one. Through his texts, however, he is universal.

He dreams of a EU plan that can save the millions of Romanians working abroad “in humiliating conditions” and provide them with the chance to return home and find work.

In his book “Cabaret of Words”, he speaks remarkably about the meaning of the word return.

“When I go on a journey, I take a single word with me in my suitcase: the word return.  

When I see you leave, I slip a single word into your coat pocket: the word return. (…)

When you return and tell me “I have returned”, it is not you I kiss right away. Before you, I kiss the word return.

When I am asked “But do you sometimes return to see your parents?”, I say “yes, that is the only place where the word return grows” (…)

When I die, I will give my soul in exchange for one single word: the word return.”

***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.

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