Édouard Louis is prepared to move us off our seats. The 29-year-old French author of piercing autobiographies—The End of Eddy (2014), History of Violence (2016)—makes his American acting debut in the stage adaptation of his 2018 book, Who Killed My Father, later this month at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Louis calls his work “confrontational literature,” and because a book is easy to close and put aside, this literary provocateur is fascinated by the immediacy of theater as well as by its physical reality.

“I am interested in confronting the reader with what they already know but wish they did not,” Louis says over Zoom from his Paris apartment. “[The] stage is an interesting space, a beautiful suspension of freedom, because people are present, seated in front of me, so they cannot really escape from the content.”

Louis was only 22 when The End of Eddy, his debut book, was published. In direct and unadorned prose, it wove together brutal details about the poverty, bullying, and isolation of his childhood in a dilapidated factory town in northern France. His story stirred France’s literary circles and, soon after, the globe’s. Two years later, Louis’s History of Violence pushed even further into trauma, taking on the sexual violence he suffered as a young gay man, and revisiting the rape and robbery he faced on Christmas Night in 2012, in Paris.

Thomas Ostermeier’s adaptation of Louis’s History of Violence, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in New York.

Louis’s writing places him in a lineage of French literary voices that tightly weave sexuality with class struggle, names that include the Marquis de Sade, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, and Louis’s own mentor, Didier Eribon.

In 2018, to critical acclaim, the German theater director Thomas Ostermeier adapted History of Violence into a play for Schaubühne Berlin. St. Ann’s Warehouse hosted its U.S. premiere the next year, concurrent with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Unicorn Theatre staging of the British director Stewart Laing’s adaptation of End of Eddy. So when he called Louis up for a third collaboration, there was no hesitation.

Louis’s heart skipped a beat, however, when Ostermeier suggested that Louis should also perform the new play, which is done in a first-person narration. Ostermeier’s words of encouragement—“Bowie would have done it”—clinched it. The play, which focuses on the physical and psychological decline of Louis’s father after decades of street sweeping and governmental neglect, premiered in Paris in September 2020, with Louis in the spotlight.

“Delivering the one-person play of my own story in my own language challenges the cliché image of a French author,” Louis says. Required to sing and dance to his own words onstage, he feared he would not be taken seriously as a writer. But Ostermeier’s actor-centric and “reassuring approach” helped Louis embrace “the ethics of doing risky things”—à la Bowie.

Louis in Who Killed My Father.

Then the coronavirus hit, and the play was shelved until this spring, which happened to coincide with a contentious French election. When Louis and I spoke, it was just three days after Emmanuel Macron’s victory against the extreme right’s Marine Le Pen. Louis, an outspoken socialist, is agnostic toward the election result: “We were torn between voting for the far right and the cause of the far right,” he says. (He ultimately went for Macron.)

Louis’s literary project is to hold society accountable for political transgressions against the body—whether it’s his ailing dad living without social security, or a rape that goes unpunished. (Louis’s attacker was found not guilty by a French court in December 2020.) “We’ve always been told the personal is political,” he says. “But this play shows that the political is personal, too.” Who Killed My Father parallels government cuts in social benefits and medical aid with the collapse of his father’s body, and this echoes in the play. “A decision from Chirac or Sarkozy was intimately experienced by my father as much as the first time he had sex or had a child.”

While writing Who Killed My Father, Louis was translating Anne Carson’s modern tragedies Antigonick and Norma Jeane Baker of Troy into French, which helped him to see the tragedy in a man’s body “destroyed” at age 50. “I thought a contemporary tragedy could talk about a protagonist’s suffering,” he recalls, “not from the gods’ curses but from the politicians’ actions.” —Osman Can Yerebakan

Who Killed My Father runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse from May 18 to June 5, in French with English supertitles

Osman Can Yerebakan is a New York–based writer and curator