What could David Bowie possibly have to do with my research on French theatre, French language and intercultural communication, you might well ask? As a long-standing fan, it is not an exaggeration to say that Bowie has greatly influenced the way I look at the world and respond to it. He has inspired a determined, multifarious and playful approach to the process of finding a voice, contemplating fantasy worlds, investigating modes of performance and wrestling with the concept of identity. Bowie’s exploration of feelings of estrangement and his embodiment of alien creatures from the outer cosmos speak to all of us who, for many different reasons, may experience feelings of difference and dislocation.
As a child of immigrants and as someone who grew up and lived in many different countries with different cultures, at times I have felt this particularly strongly. For me, as a student who has adopted new languages and modes of expression and who has then, in my research, sought to analyse what it means to feel and be seen as ‘other’ in different contexts and codes, Bowie's strangeness has been a powerful artistic emblem. He has underlined how difference can be a haunting experience but also one of exuberance and liberation. Despite his anguish, he also points to the possibility of belonging, for Ziggy reassuringly cries out in the song Rock and Roll Suicide:‘Oh no love you're not alone…
Oh no love you're not alone…
no matter who or what you've been,
no matter when or where you've seen…
I'll help you with the pain….
In this short contribution to the discussion of this great pop-star, I will describe how my introduction to Bowie planted the seeds for my later interests and academic obsessions and how the dictatorial character of the king he portrayed reappeared to me when I studied Racine. In conclusion, rather than simply reiterate how Bowie led me on a labyrinthine journey to study the richness of French culture, I will point out how French culture was also an essential part of the performer’s artistic journey.
Many people, when they think of David Bowie, picture him as incarnations of his most memorable personae: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. Much of my academic work, my PhD thesis and subsequent first book focus on disguise in the theatre, particularly mendacious characters and the multiple masks and identity changes they don within the ever-so illusory world of the stage. You can see, therefore, why an artist such as Bowie so appeals. However, the most powerful image of him for me will always be the one I encountered first, namely the fantastical goblin king in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth.
I was only five years old at the time but was mesmerised by Bowie’s electrifying presence on screen. As leader of the goblins, he was in no way a lumpen, gnarled creature like his puppet minions, but appeared as an enchanting shape-shifting owl-turned-magician, all glitter, crystal balls, menacing challenges and teasing smiles. I do believe that Bowie’s incarnation (along with the director Henson’s zany creative genius) marked the start of my life-long love for the visual arts, stage-craft and storytelling. It fuelled an interest in narratives which explore duty, obsession and desire.
Hence my decision, later on at university, to specialise in drama, and more specifically French drama of the seventeenth-century, where these different elements abound.
It was at university that I studied the playwright Racine and later as a post-doc taught many seminars on what was to become my favourite of his tragedies, namely Andromaque. And in the cruel and desperate character of Pyrrhus, I was reminded of Jareth. Perhaps a rather peculiar and genre-crossing connection, but this parallel, in my mind, gave an added appreciation to the power dynamics in the play and fuelled my imagination in a way that helped me engage better with the play. And I believe connections we make across everything we watch and see can helpfully inform our reading and appreciation of different texts.
In Labyrinth, Jareth kidnaps the protagonist’s baby brother and torments Sarah whilst she travels through his labyrinth in order to bring the baby back. Despite his viciousness, it is hard not to feel sorry for the love-struck and desperate king who pines for his defiant prisoner, Sarah. With restless pacing, he spells out his grandiose and tyrannical need for her gratitude since he sees himself slave to her whims:
Everything! Everything that you wanted, I have done! You asked that the child be taken - I took him. You cowered before me - I was frightening. I have reordered time, I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous?
In Andromaque, King Pyrrhus, son of the mighty Greek warrior Achilles, has taken prisoner Andromaque, widow queen of sacked Troy, and her young son Astyanax. Burning with desire for Andromaque, Pyrrhus is nonetheless met with her disdain. She views him as nothing more than the barbarous enemy who destroyed her family and home. To control and blackmail her, he threatens to hand over Astyanax to the Greeks but reassures her that if she loves him in return, he will offer total protection. Like Jareth, he casts her as the ungrateful, cruel one:
What! Hasn’t your anger run its course? Can you hate forever and keep on punishing?
- Author's translation from Andromaque, I. 4 (311-12)
Like the tormentor king, he begs for her love and promises her everything:
Tell me merely that I can hope and I will give you back your son and be a father to him, […] Fuelled by a kind look from you, I can take everything on.
- Author's translation from Andromaque, I. 4 (311-12)
He even claims he can turn back time:
Your Troy can still rise from its ash.
- Author's translation from Andromaque, I. 4 ( 329-30)
Bowie’s French influences
It could be said that Bowie himself manipulated time and space in his playful and bizarre adoption of roles and different styles. And what of his relationship with French art and literature? You can see that he was inspired by so many different artistic sources and energetically borrowed and adapted them to his purpose. He used the name of the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet for his single The Jean Genie but influences run deeper than mere name-dropping. Bowie studied avant garde theatre and mime under Lindsay Kemp, who trained under the famous French actor and mime Marcel Marceau. For his album Scary Monsters, he adopted the image of the sad French clown Pierrot. Bowie was also a huge fan of Jacques Brel, translating his songs into English, for example with his version of Amsterdam and cover of Brel’s La Mort.
Being a true rock legend is undoubtedly a more glamorous and rebellious career than that of an academic. However, both pursuits require creativity and the channelling of different ideas and sources. So, I will turn to my desk to write, just like Bowie sighs and sings
I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
- Sound And Vision