“Returning to Reims”: An Essay by Didier Eribon on Stage in New York

The Schaubühne theater company headed up by German director Thomas Ostermeier is presenting Returning to Reims at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn until February 25. The show was created by actress Nina Hoss (Homeland) in reaction to Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential elections, and is inspired by an eponymous essay by French sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon published in 2009.

Following his father’s death, Didier Eribon decided to reach out to his estranged family and the working-class world of Northern France — a world he had fled for 30 years, in part due to his homosexuality. While analyzing the social shame felt because of his roots, the professor realized the formerly proud Communist working class has fallen into the clutches of the far right.

France-Amérique: Your essay Returning to Reims was published in 2009. Ten years on, it has inspired a play. Why is this text still so relevant?

Didier Eribon: I didn’t write Returning to Reims as book rooted in any particular current context. I wanted to play out the story of my family and the social environment — the poor, working class of Northern France — in which I was born and spent my childhood and adolescence. It represented a personal contribution to social science and critical theory, as well as an attempt to understand our present. Using my family as an example, I analyze how the electoral voice of the French working classes shifted from the left to the far right during the mid-1980s. With the rise of far-right parties in France, Germany, and Austria, and with Brexit in the U.K., Return to Reims has been caught up in European current affairs. My book has taken on a more political meaning over the years.

You discuss the rise of far-right political parties in Europe. And yet, after showing in Berlin and Manchester, the play Returning to Reims is now being performed in New York. Do you think American audiences will be able to relate to your story and the staging by Thomas Ostermeier?

My book offers analyses that can be applied to many countries. I wanted to reposition the issue of social classes in the center of political perception and intellectual debate. This stance resonated greatly with audiences in France and beyond. I discuss problems such as the economic, social, and cultural breakdown of white working classes, the fact they feel “abandoned” by neoliberal politics, and their revolt against the “system” and the “establishment.” In a word, I discuss everything that could make them turn to nationalist, racist populism. This is as relevant in France and Europe as it is in the United States. In four of the Rust Belt states — a region where unemployment and instability are rife – voters stayed home or chose Trump because they no longer felt represented by the Democrat candidate.

Your essay takes the form of a documentary on stage, with Nina Hoss providing the off-stage narrative. What do you think of this adaptation?

Returning to Reims is a show that Thomas Ostermeier created with Nina Hoss, rather than an adaptation of my book per se. I thought the final result was splendid, and I agree with the newspapers that reviewed Nina Hoss as “magnetic.” The warm welcome and positive feedback from audiences when it was created in Manchester last July, and at the German premiere in Berlin last September, both prove what a success it is.

Returning to Reims
From February 4 through 25
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

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