A premiere in memory of the world-famous philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: why do the French, but not the Lithuanians, know that he comes from Kaunas?
The 20th century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is well-known in Europe, as well as the fact that he comes from Kaunas. This exceptional personality died in Paris, France, 90 years after his birth in Kaunas. In 2022, it will become the bridge linking the two European Capitals of Culture: Kaunas and Esch-sur-Alzette. The play Visage/Veidas was born to honour his memory and philosophy. The first performance in French took place at the Escher Theatre in April and the Lithuanian version is expected at the National Kaunas Drama Theatre on the 11th of November.
The project is realised by French artist couple Vincent Adelus and Isabelle Adelus & Suran. They have successfully involved video artist Milosh Luczynski (France), musician and composer Rafal Mazur (Poland), and Lithuanian and French actors and philosophers. By the way, Viktoras Bachmetjevas, a philosopher who represents Lithuania and studies the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, was the performer in the Luxembourg premiere of this production. About the future production we talk to producer, author and playwright Vincent Adelus.
Vincent Adelus and Isabelle Adelus & Suran
Putting philosophy on stage
A philosophical play is a bit more common than the transfer of philosophical categories or the thoughts of a philosopher to the theatre stage – Visage/Veidas is a work that is constructed from the thoughts and texts of Emmanuel Levinas. Vincent Adelus managed to find a transcription of radio interviews with the author from the 1980s. “French was not his mother tongue, he learned it by reading Proust and Mallarmé, and his texts do have a rather strange, unusual sound. It is a somewhat new language, a philosophical dimension, he is very conceptual in his writing and his spoken language is easier for communication”, said Adelus. Emmanuel Levinas is recognised as one of the five most important philosophers of the 20th century. Born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Kaunas, he later came to France to study and became a French citizen. His best-known works include Time and the Other, On God Coming to Thought, From Existence to the Existent, Totality and Infinity, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, Difficult Freedom, Ethics and Infinity. A couple of them are available in Lithuanian.
The performance was born to pay tribute to the work of the French-Lithuanian philosopher. Adelus, together with her long-time co-creator Isabelle Adelus & Suran, has had the experience of reading philosophical texts since 1989 when they were involved in the project Des Chaises, un Texte (Some Chairs, a Text), which is based on staged readings of drama, poetry scripts and philosophical texts. His interest in this genre was sparked by reading the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Mille Plateaux. However, the playwright admitted that at first, he did not know how to convey this author: “Unlike Deleuze, who takes his cues from, say, pop culture, Levinas stays in the realm of ideas. He has written many works in an unusual language, his philosophy is a philosophy of concepts. As a playwright, I needed to have a deep understanding of the author, which is why I met the philosopher Bernard Fischer and Father Robert Scholtus, a priest of the Church of Saint Maximin in Metz, who knew Levinas well and invited him to several conferences. On the Lithuanian side, I met the philosopher Viktoras Bachmetjevas, who told me an inspiring story that became a key – the story of Bobby the dog,” said Adelus.
Philosopher Viktoras Bachmetjevas
The story of Bobby
Emmanuel Levinas served in the French army during World War II as a translator from Russian to German. He was captured at the very beginning of the war and spent four years in a labour camp in East Germany. His French uniform saved his life, but his family in Kaunas – his parents and two brothers – were murdered. Fortunately, his wife Raisa and their little daughter survived, thanks to the help of Levinas’ friend Maurice Blanchot, who helped them to hide during the war. All these years Levinas did not stop writing. In those pages he testifies that the Jewish prisoners in the camp were not treated as human beings, but as “being without language”;. In the eyes of the guards and those around them, they were just… a “gang of apes”, not belonging to humanity. One day, a stray dog wandered into the camp and took up residence there. They named it Bobby. It was the dog who did not question their humanity, whether a prisoner or a guard, Heinrich or Emmanuel – to him “there was no doubt, we were human beings”. Vincent Adelus reflects: “This historical situation reminded him of the Odyssey in Ithaca and the Egyptian deities with animal heads on the banks of the Nile. It is a beautiful passage, starting from a quite concrete experience and very close to Levinas’ philosophy, which reflects on the relationship with the Other. What he calls the concept of the Visage can be explained as follows: when I look at a face, even before I see the physical individual, I first see a human being. And as soon as a man or a woman, a face, appears before me, I am responsible for it. That is what makes me give a coin to a homeless person in a subway station, that is what makes me let the other person through the door first, and that is what makes me help the other. The fact that the other exists in the face of my responsibility makes me fully human. This whole philosophy is about responsibility and humanity. From his tragic experience, Levinas draws the idea of openness and responsibility towards the other. This is something that touches me. When I heard the story of the dog Bobby, I said to myself that we could find identical examples in Levinas’ work that we could transfer to the theatre stage. The problem is that this is only a small part of Levinas’ work; everything else is rather abstract and conceptual, so I had to look further,” says the author of the idea for the play.
Interdisciplinary philosophical performance
In Kaunas, four actors use fragments of texts, images, sounds and interviews to bring Levinas’ ideas into our everyday life. In Luxembourg, the essay was performed by three performers – two actors Jean-Louis Coulloc’h and Sylvie Jobert and the philosopher Viktoras Bachmetjevas. “He is a very lively, inflammatory personality and a great teacher. I remember we were chatting on the Zoom app and I suggested Viktor take part in the project and he answered that ‘I’m a rather quick decision maker, but this time: Yes!’” Only after that did he have doubts, but Isabelle and I didn’t doubt his ability on stage, his charisma. I think that trying himself in a different role outside Lithuania might have been a little easier for him. Interestingly, the text for Victor was written in English, but on the day of the premiere, he spoke it in French. He worked very hard and contributed a lot to the play. Now Viktoras works with the actors of the National Kaunas Drama Theatre as a philosophical adviser,” recalls Adelus.
In Kaunas, V. Adelus is working on the premiere of I. Adelus & Suran with actors Marius Karolis Gotbergas, Motiejus Ivanauskas, Povilas Jatkevičius and Artūras Sužiedėlis, who complement each other perfectly. The performance consists of several parts based on five main Levinas’ concepts, such as Insomnia/There Is, Face, Responsibility, Eros / Caress, Transcendancy. The structure of the performance consists of sequences of concepts and their applications, in which the actors spread Levinas’ words. The author of the idea says that the aim was not to reveal everything, but only to clarify a few concepts and make them open to the audience. Sound and visual solutions, in this case, live video projections, play an important role in the performance. This performance is interdisciplinary. “We imagined that all plots should be visual. We asked video artist Milos Luczynski to create images for each sequence. The set consists of a huge 6 x 12 metre mirror that completely covers the frames of the stage; it emphasises the idea of Visage, the reflection and what I see when I look at the Other. The carpet is inspired by the floor of the Kaunas Central Post Office, a modernist building from the 1930s for which the architect used a traditional weaving pattern. And finally, as far as the music is concerned, the first idea was to have traditional Lithuanian songs coming from under the stage like ‘the voice of Levinas’ roots’. Later on, we decided to invite a Polish improvisation musician Rafal Mazur. In fact, the costumes, designed by Isabelle and all made of Lithuanian linen fabric, also show a bit of ‘Lithuanity’. There are very few stage devices in Visage/Veidas, but they are all very effective,” – says Adelus.
Philosophy of values in Nouveau
According to the creator, we always imagine philosophy as abstract and complex, but this performance aims to show the opposite. “I think that philosophical language is like an independent language; we are French or Lithuanians, and we take the language of philosophy as a kind of “foreign language”. In a foreign language, you are always somewhere between 0 and 100 % degrees of understanding. It is not necessary to understand and know everything, you can take the part that is important to yourself. I think that from this performance as well: you can take philosophy as a language for itself, understanding always something, but rarely all of it. For me as an ordinary citizen, philosophy helps to think about my values, my life, my actions, and it can be used every day. So, it is quite concrete. Remembering the example of Responsibility. I am not indifferent to an elderly lady who has fallen on the street. Why? What makes me worry about her? Levinas’ philosophical views on Responsibility are very strong and useful. We all have our own philosophy, our own values, even if we don’t make it clear, even if we don’t know it,” the artist said.
Levinas wrote many of his works after experiencing the tragic reality of the war when the public questioned how such a wave of evil and inhumanity had swept across Europe, why the Shoah had happened, why it had not been stopped abruptly, and even how can we live after that? As we were rehearsing, a bloody war is being waged in Ukraine, and thousands of civilians, children and adults, are dying. The democratic world seems powerless to stop it in one fell swoop, and the question for many is “What can I do?”. The philosophy of Levinas, who lived through such horror, is not one of anger or revenge. Its main question is, what makes me feel human? This humanity is the most important thing, even when atrocities happen. His philosophy is opening to the Other. Levinas was a serene and joyful man, he loved life, he loved humanity. He gives all those who experienced tragedy in their lives the tools to restore hope and joy”, Adelus believes.
Premiere on the 11th, 12th, and 13th of November 2022 on the Big Stage at the National Kaunas Drama Theatre.
The premiere is a part of the Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 programme.
Actors Motiejus Ivanauskas, Marius Gotbergas, Povilas Jaktevičius, Artūras Sužiedėlis
Donatas Stankevičius photos