The art of solitude

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      Whenever Hans Christian Andersen masturbated, he recorded the episode in his private papers. In an extended interview with the Georgia Straight, Quebec theatre artist Robert Lepage revealed that he can relate and that his identification with Andersen goes even deeper.

      Lepage, whose works range from the intimate to the epic and cinematic, is arguably the most sought-after theatremaker in the world today. He wasn't terribly interested when the Danish government proposed, in 2000, that he create a theatre piece about the Danish children's writer for 2005, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Speaking by phone from Brussels, where he is directing Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress for La Monnaie opera house, Lepage says, "They kept trying to bribe me into doing it. I'd read tons and tons of biographies, and Andersen is interesting, but you have to connect to one of the characters, one of the tales, or to him. And that wasn't really happening."

      This situation changed three years later, when Lepage read Jackie Wullschlager's biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, which sheds light on Andersen's unusual sex life. In an article Lepage wrote for the Guardian newspaper last year, he reports that Andersen would make coded diary entries such as: "Today I had a visit from such-and-such a person, they're so sweet. When they left, I had a double-sensuous ++." Andersen would visit Parisian whores and talk to them, then return to his hotel room for solitary release.

      In that same piece, Lepage admits that, although his own intense sex life consists of more than fantasy, he identifies with Andersen's preoccupation. "I always worried that I was a sex maniac because I thought about sex all the time," he recalls, "but actually it's part of the imaginative process. If you're a storyteller and spend your time imagining things, your sexual imagination is likely to be just as vivid."

      When the notion is put to him, Lepage agrees that an important link between masturbation and creativity is longing. "That's the pain of the great romantics," he says, "yearning and solitude." Through The Andersen Project, Lepage explores several forms of longing: sexual, social, and artistic.

      In this solo show which Lepage wrote, directed, and will perform at the Vancouver Playhouse from next Thursday (May 3) through May 27 he tells the story of Frederic, an albino Québécois musician commissioned by Paris's Opéra Garnier to write a children's one-act about the famous Danish writer. While in France, Frederic meets Arnaud, an arts bureaucrat addicted to porn booths. The bisexual Andersen appears in flashbacks. And we meet the nymph from "The Dryad", a short story Andersen wrote late in his life.

      "The Dryad" is about the clash between romanticism and modernism. The title character is a wood nymph who becomes human for one night and views the mechanical wonders of the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, and then dies. Lepage points out that Andersen himself died in 1875, a few years after writing the story. "It's as if he understood or at least his body understood that it wasn't his time anymore," Lepage observes. "There was no longer a place for somebody as romantic as he was."

      The playwright attributes Andersen's sexual timidity to the strictures of 19th-century Danish society. But Andersen suffered in more ways than one. Children also ridiculed him for being physically ungainly.

      As a child, Lepage developed alopecia and permanently lost all his hair. Asked if there is a link between this condition, Andersen's awkwardness, and Frederic's albinism, he replies: "Yeah, completely. It's a connection that doesn't explain everything, but it does connect to the theme of children, which is very important if you're going to talk about Andersen. A thing that you have to know about him is that he hated children.

      "We're in a society that's preoccupied with what happens to children child abuse and all that and that preoccupation is legitimate," Lepage continues. "It's just that we tend to forget that childhood is a dress rehearsal for all of the cruelty we use later on, when we are racist as adults or go to war."

      Lepage says that near the end of Andersen's life, a sculptor came to the writer with plans for a memorial that showed him surrounded by dozens of admiring young ones. Apparently, Andersen insisted that the sculptor eliminate the kids. Lepage has seen the statue, which is opposite Tivoli, a fairground in Copenhagen. "He's across the street from it," Lepage remembers, "sitting alone as he should be looking at the Ferris wheel and the Chinese garden."

      In Denmark, Andersen was originally ghettoized as a young people's writer, but when he travelled to France and Germany he was hailed as a great artist. Lepage understands the need to leave home to gain legitimacy. "There's something in Quebec and I feel it very personally," he says. "Whatever you've accomplished, you're not taken seriously until you're approved of by somebody in the old countries."

      Lepage has been laden with laurels, both in Canada and abroad. In 1999 he was made an officer of the Ordre National du Québec, one of the province's highest distinctions, and in 2002 the French government invited him to join the Legion of Honour. Yet it seems that his dissatisfaction, which is a form of longing, remains tenacious. "You can say that you've won prizes and you have international recognition, but what does that mean?" he asks.

      Perhaps he needs this sense of incompletion to keep his creativity alive. With his company, Ex Machina, Lepage is building a new theatre in Quebec City called the Diamond. In discussing this project, he refers to Joni Mitchell. He describes himself as a fan, and admires what she is doing late in her career. "She did what any intelligent artist would do at her age: she started to revisit her work," he says. "She became very creative. She stopped writing songs but she reconsidered her whole repertoire, rewriting it and adapting it. I think there's real wisdom and maturity in what she's done." At the Diamond, Lepage will run a rep troupe and revisit his favourite creations. Meanwhile, he is imagining a new work, The Blue Dragon, which will extend one of his masterpieces, The Dragon's Trilogy, moving its exploration of Canada's Chinatowns to Shanghai.

      Whatever its source, this artist's compulsion to create continues to serve us all.