Patrice Pavis, private archive

My meeting with Patrice Pavis takes place on Friday, October 13, 2023, at the Mandapa Center in Paris. Like researchers around the world, I know him as the author of theater dictionaries, but I also know that he has been writing plays and novels for some time. We talk about these two chapters of his life.

Do you remember any particular edition of an encyclopedia or dictionary from your home that you opened as a child?

Yes, it’s an anecdote I like to tell. My grandmother had only one book in her home, it was Le Petit Larousse Illustré, so I always watched her with curiosity as she looked for definitions and immersed herself in the images. This is my first memory and maybe it influenced my whole life, who knows.

When you were writing your Dictionary of the Theatre in the second half of the 1970s, you took the opportunity to visit libraries in Germany and the United States. What observations do you have from those trips?

It was just a matter of having a good library, because at that time – and this is probably more or less the same today – French universities had very poor libraries. So, whenever I could go to Germany, I gathered materials and made photocopies, and the same in the United States. I was surprised that one can get so much from books. That is also a discovery. I felt sorry that people had to go to work so far away to get to a good library. It might have changed a little bit, because people don’t read books anymore, they just look on the internet for things that are important. But at that time it was very important to get first hand information. That’s what I did. I remember copying many articles, because I could read them in German and English. It was very useful for me to see how other countries thought about theatre, what terms they were using.

Did anything surprise you?

I don’t think so. I really like Germany, because in fact I studied German, I was a Germanist. So I felt very well in this country, also because of the language, I wanted to practice speaking. Moreover, my sister lives in Germany, I have many friends there, many of my articles have been published there, so I have a close connection with this country. The case with the United States is slightly different. I didn’t go there that often. I admire famous universities and their famous libraries, such as Harvard or Yale, where I spent some time which was very rewarding.

Paris, 2023: Kamila Łapicka and Patrice Pavis the during the interview.

Can you tell me something about writing your doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Anne Ubersfeld? Was she a demanding professor?

In fact, we used to have the system of two doctorates. The first doctorate, la thèse de troisième cycle we called it, and this I did not do with Anne Ubersfeld, I did not know her at that time. I did it under the supervision of Germanist professor René Girard at the University of Lyon II in 1975. The following year I came to Paris and was employed as an assistant at the Theater Institute of the University of Paris III. I got the position somehow by chance, because I was not well known and there were two candidates supported by two camps who could not choose between the two. So they chose the third one and that was me.

It seems that this may be my only chance to find a position at university.

Yes, you will see, these things happen this way. That’s about my beginning in Paris. Somehow I was not planning to go back to France. I was living in Canada at that time and I was very happy there. We had bought a house, we had even built a house. So it was a difficult decision to come back to Paris. But I knew that the cultural life, the cultural treasures, would be worth it. That’s what I did.

Did you have contact with Anne Ubersfeld during your work in France?

Yes, during the writing of my second doctorate called thèse d’État, she was my supervisor. She was much older than I was at that time, but somehow we had the same interests, we wanted to do something related to theory, semiotics, semiology. Therefore, I was very happy to work on this dissertation.

What issue did you devote your PhD to?

Analysis of the staging of Marivaux’s plays by great contemporary directors.

In an interview about your dictionaries, you said that the idea of ​​publishing such a book came from the fact that you noticed the lack of publications devoted exclusively to vocabulary and theater analysis. What do you think the origin of this idea was today? A practical need for working with students, a desire for independence in research, or perhaps ambition?

At the beginning I didn’t really know I was going to write a dictionary. But I had to stand in front of a room full of students and start teaching, and then I felt that I was very uneasy with vocabulary and terms. So I thought: I would better do that for myself, I think it would be useful for the students. We were almost at the same level.

Well, I wouldn’t be so sure.

No, it was something quite natural, because you want to have some terms to talk about performance, you want to be technically precise. If you are starting to learn something new, you have to think about it, but you also need to start outlining everything from the very beginning. It is useful to do it very gradually, methodically. I think it works that way. If you are able to understand very difficult terms and explain them to others, you know that these terms are probably important and you know this is the right method. Little by little you build up the vocabulary, ideas, and it becomes easier to work. In my first years of teaching I was not much older than my students, so we had good contact. It was also a specific type of students, maybe not so much a generational thing. Today it would probably be more difficult.

Nitra, 2016: V4@THEATRE CRITICS RESIDENCY at International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra.
My first meeting with Patrice Pavis who was the residency workshop mentor.

Do you like teaching?

I used to like teaching. I wouldn’t really say I enjoyed teaching very much. I always get a little nervous when I speak in front of audiences. This is an inconvenience for me that has not lost its importance over the years.

Really? It would be very difficult to notice.

Maybe, but I know what I had to suffer. There are many reasons to worry: for example, you did not prepare well enough and do not have enough material, you will forget something important, or the audience won’t listen.

Okay, let’s close the topic of worries. The idea of ​​the dictionary was to express oneself in an accessible way. What advantages did this solution have?

In that way you can expect that people are going to understand, you don’t have to say everything at once, you don’t have to start with the most difficult things, but you have to go gradually. Maybe this is a pedagogical tool, maybe I was a good teacher in that sense, but I think it was quite natural for me to do that.

In a recent interview you said: „The vocabulary used by directors is not necessarily accurate, precise or useful. It is often an intuitive, metaphorical and poetic way of understanding and explaining oneself”. Therefore, is the person who creates definitions, in a sense, a translator from an artistic language into theoretical language?

I think it is different, because the director is not supposed to be scientific or logical.

But you are.

Yes, maybe because I am not a director, I have to use tools and make things clear. The director, however, addresses his statements to his actors.

But you need to understand this code, right?

Maybe, but I was not really trying to listen to the directors during rehearsals. I never really watched rehearsals.

Why not?

I don’t know, maybe because I wasn’t invited or I thought it was a little intrusive to be there. I knew that in the work of theater artists it was important to express oneself through metaphors, images and parallels. They don’t pretend to be very correct, very exact. It’s a different world. It is not the same world as the world of theoreticians. I look at the finished product, I look at the performance. I don’t want to know how they did it, I don’t need to know the secrets. I just want to be able to enjoy and understand what they are offering.

This is interesting, because for me participating in rehearsals is an important part of my job. Knowing what goes on behind the scenes allows you to see the performance, or the finished product, as you said, from a completely different perspective.

Maybe because you are not teaching, you don’t have to use precise terms. You have to be understood and you have to get good contact with the artists. In some way you have to be able to use them, make them talk, which is not always easy. It’s another approach. It’s not my approach. I’m not saying it’s bad, just different.

When you left university, you started writing not so much about the theater, but for the theater. When you write a play, a novel or a poem, do you plan everything carefully and stick to the rules that you know perfectly, or do you let your imagination run wild?

I must say that the idea of creating literary works is quite recent. I wrote a novel, Poème toi-même, three years ago and I’ve been writing plays for about fifteen years. I don’t know why I’ve been waiting so long. I guess I was too busy as a professor. And maybe I was a little scared.

Of what?

It wasn’t something that I learned. I thought that I had no idea how to write a play. Maybe I can analyze a play, but writing one is another thing. So, I don’t know exactly why I have started to write plays, but I think it had to do with the fact that I was already leaving academia. I deserve to have a break. Finally I can make some jokes. Nobody is going to kill me, I’m not going to lose my job, because I’m writing a play. You could say it’s something a little selfish and personal.

You haven’t told me yet whether you are a spontaneous writer or you follow the rules?

I guess I could use some of the rules on how to write a play, although I don’t think you can write a book on how to write a play.

There are such books.

Yes, there are many, most of them American.

What do you feel watching your plays on the stage?

Sometimes I feel it is well done. Next week I’m going to Romania and I am going to see one of my plays in Hungarian, so I’m not going to understand it at all.

Maybe it’s the best way to accept the result.

Yes, that’s right. But I’m actually very happy about it. I also did workshops in various places during which we used scenes from my plays, so from this point of view it was useful. I did workshops abroad, not really in France.

For any particular reason?

Maybe I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously as a playwright, knowing that I was a boring theoretician. There are not too many people in France who are professors or teachers and also playwrights. It’s almost impossible.

Just like in Poland.

There must be a reason.

But in Spanish-speaking countries it is completely natural.

That’s true and that’s the way it should be.

Can you tell me what the play you will see in Hungarian is about?

It’s titled Vania and Her. The action takes place between a man and a woman, so everyone will understand.

It’s some kind of variation on Chekhov’s play?

No, it’s actually a completely different play, although I was inspired by two Chekhov’s characters. As you may remember, Vania says: It was ten years ago that I met her first […]. She was seventeen and I thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and propose to her? So I imagined these two people meeting each other every year. In the meantime Elena gets married. She is also bored, like Vania, and does not want to listen to his declarations of love. Despite this, she meets with him every year and they spend a week together.

Somewhere special?

Yes, in a kind of chalet, like a Russian dacha, somewhere in the country.

Your plays and novels are surprising to me. Your characters are quite far from how someone might imagine your personality as a perfect scholar.

They are not directly autobiographical. But obviously, when you write about these things, you have got to say something about yourself, whether you want it or not.

What do you say about yourself?

I don’t say anything directly, I’m just observing people and what love is, how it evolves with the years. I don’t have any fixed ideas about love, about life, or married life.

Jon Fosse said that to be a writer, you have to save something of the child inside you. If you lose the childlike element, you will never write a poem again. Do you think the same?

Yes, I think this is more or less true. Not only in theater, but in every type of artistic activity, you use elements from your past, from your memory. You remember how you judged certain situations, what feelings you had, what people surrounded you. Obviously, many of these things come from childhood. But we can also say that every person’s life is closely connected with their childhood and with the memories from that time, good or bad. Freud already said it, only much better.

Paris, 2022. Patrice Pavis as supervisor of my French Government Scholarship on theatrical autofiction.

Finally, let’s talk about the Polish version of The Dictionary of the Theatre. Polish translator, Sławomir Świonek…

I knew Sławomir very well, did you know that?

Yes, I did. So, Świontek believes that The Dictionary bears the mark of an author who does not hide his methodological or aesthetic preferences, and sometimes exposes individual views. He derives this approach from the French tradition, from the Great French Encyclopedia, in which the authors of entries presented their own research and views on a given topic. What do you think about this opinion?

I think that was indeed the case. But there is a big difference between my first Dictionary, which has four editions and the last one called The Dictionary of Contemporary Theatre and Performance, which is much more personal. The entries are much more unscientific. There are all kinds of terms and concepts that exist today that I wanted to describe and sometimes criticize. In this type of publication, which covers a very large field, you have to make choices, you have to be more personally involved in a sense, you have to draw on your ideas and take your point of view into account. I remember sometimes feeling like I was writing an essay rather than a definition.

Świontek also says that the Polish version is Polonized…

Yes, he told me about it. But how Polonized is it?

I think it’s quite Polonized.

I guess I’d rather not know about it.

Well, I think it’s a bit too late, but I will tell you gently what this Polonization is: the bibliography includes Polish scholarly literature, quotations from foreign-language publications have been translated into Polish, and examples from the history of Polish drama and theater have been added to the entries.

Oh, I think that’s noble and nice. He told me about it.

In my opinion these are quite profound interventions, but the translator emphasizes that he consulted you and they were introduced with your consent. What did these consultations look like?

We met quite a few times in France. He came to my place with his wife for a week or so. Later I saw him when I visited Poland. Not only did we have contact, but we became friends, so I trusted what he was doing. I was also very happy that he was the one who took on the translation. Therefore, he had some freedom to adapt entries to Polish reality and add examples. I thought it was good.

You admit that you like the materiality of things, e.g. paper books for taking notes on the margins, and the directness of the message in the theater, i.e. a live performance. I’m curious if you use solutions that include intermediation, for example, do you have ebooks?

No, I don’t have ebooks. I always write with a pencil. I don’t take notes in very precious books, but the books I use intensively at a given moment are full of marks and notes.

Is online theater still theater for you?

Yes, if it’s really live and hasn’t been edited before. If it has that element of authenticity, I accept it. Obviously I have seen a lot of recordings, they are very useful if you want to be precise. You are cheating somehow, because it is said that theater is unique and happens only once. That’s all nonsense. If you have the opportunity to receive a recording of the performance you are writing about, it makes things much easier and you can formulate your thoughts with greater confidence. As a professor I have been using recordings, I think it is a good solution.

What is your way to watch a performance?

If I know I just have to watch it and I don’t have to talk about it or write about it, then I enjoy the performance. If not, then I watch it in a less natural way, I try to remember various moments.

Do you take notes during the performance?

I can’t, because it’s so dark.

Thank you very much.