premiere 18 Sep 2015
1900, Java. Otto van Oudijck governs his province with vigour. He sees himself as the representative of a superior European culture. He lives for his work. For the colony, which he wants to bring to a higher level. He is oblivious to the fact that his wife is having affairs with other men. But when Van Oudijck dismisses a local regent for misconduct, mysterious things start to happen in his house and around him.
The hidden force (De stille kracht) is a visionary novel that places western culture opposite eastern culture as being irreconcilable. The powerful Dutch colonizer is unable to deal with the hidden force that is present in the background and is slowly causing damage. The Western man dominates and controls, but turns out to be unable to get to the core of the East and conquer the culture of the Indies. What is left is a powerless western man in the Indonesian forest.
The hidden force is not only one of the great masterpieces of Dutch literature, it is a world-class book with which Couperus proves he can effortlessly stand next to great contemporaries such as Emile Zola and Marcel Proust.
Ivo van Hove about The hidden force
‘Couperus is the most global author from our literature. He addresses themes that far transcend the Dutch border, they regard the whole world. In a completely freed, non-moralizing way, he writes about searching and restless people that straddle two centuries. People who say farewell to old certainties and learn to deal with a new world full of questions and without answers. He is not afraid to also show the dark sides that are concealed behind the façade of civilization: explicit sexuality, adultery, paedophilia, incest and hysteria.
The hidden force takes place in the Dutch Indies, but tells a story that is universal. The focal point is the tense relationship between two cultures that irreconcilably stand opposite each other. The hidden force is generally regarded as a poetic and mental power. It is, but it is especially a power that is destructive. I feel attracted to the ‘existential unrest’ – like Bas Heijne aptly called it – in the work of Couperus. I want to bring him to the stage as a contemporary, as someone who strikes the nerves of our 21st century in his work.’
Bas Heijne on Louis Couperus
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) may be the greatest Dutch novelist in history, but during his lifetime, he was always an outsider. He grew up in an environment of Dutch colonial governors and spent five years of his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, an experience that played a decisive role in his life as a writer. When he was 24 years old, he wrote a naturalistic novel about the precarious life of a woman, Eline Vere (1889), related to Ibsen’s Nora and Fontane’s Effi Briest, which instantly turned him into a celebrated author.
But literary fame hardly satisfied him. Couperus remained a restless writer throughout his life. Not only did he pursue almost every literary genre known to man – poetry, short stories, fairy tales, novels, serials, epigrams, travel stories, reviews and stage adaptations – after the turn of the century, he was also travelling constantly. He produced novels and stories at a surprisingly fast pace and created a completely new world each and every time, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes historical or symbolic. He wrote The hidden force (1900), one of his masterpieces, in only a few months, during a visit to his sister and her husband, who was a commissioner in Pasuruan on East Java. As a backdrop to his dramatic story about the demise of commissioner Van Oudijck, he quite literally used his own direct environment, the small community of Dutchmen in a far corner of the colony, but in the novel, that stuffy world acquires a deep, existential resonance that is present throughout his work: how can a person keep afloat in a world where everything is temporary, where there can be no permanent grip in the form of religion, philosophy, ideology, a world in which he who escapes the pettiness of his own little social world is not automatically destined for a more rich and useful life, but perhaps for the despair of complete nothingness.
Although he was known among his audience for his reputation as a flamboyant, always easy-going, slightly feminine dandy, he struggled in his large oeuvre with what he called “the question mark” or, in his last big historical novel about Alexander the Great, Iskander (1920), “the answerless why”.
The three locations that played such a crucial role in his life – the Dutch East Indies, The Hague and Italy – are so much more than just coincidental literary locations in his works. Each one of them develops into the symbol of a state of mind, an attitude towards the world.
The East Indies of his youth symbolize an overwhelming nature in which the fearful person becomes a stranger to himself. As a small boy, little Louis often had to walk to the Indian bathroom in the dark, which was far away from the house during colonial times. The fearful experience of the naked little boy that quickly washes himself, surrounded by the jet black darkness of an incomprehensible universe, resonates in his work – especially in the scene from The hidden force where the chronically adulterous commissioner’s wife Leonie van Oudijck is spat upon by invisible mouths while she is taking a bath.
In the works of Couperus, The Hague symbolizes the social world that puts people in chains. Behind the elegant facade of bourgeois civilization, there are emotions that are very human indeed: ambition, competition, jealousy, repressed desire and creeping insanity. In his series of novels The books of small souls (1901-03), a highlight in his oeuvre, he describes how a prestigious family from The Hague falls apart; the old, nineteenth-century certainties do not suffice anymore. With an astounding psychological insight and much empathy, Couperus describes how his characters, each in their own way, start looking for a new meaning in their lives, new relationships with each other. The divorced Constance van de Welcke, one of the main characters, is a formidable anti-Bovary; when she loses her illusions about social standing and romance, she has to start looking for something that can make her life useful again.
In a novel he wrote a few years later, set in The Hague, Old people and the things that pass (1906), he uses a jealous murder from the youth of people who are now very old as an inducement to write about the mystery of passion. The lives of seemingly placid people in The Hague are marked by volcanic passions. Couperus saw sex and human passion as one of the important driving forces of man. Even today, it is surprising how candidly he dared to write about it, without prudery or moralism.
Like for so many authors during the nineteenth and twentieth century, Italy was the land of natural life to him; he saw it as his real homeland. In the many journalistic serials he wrote about his life in the South during the first decade of the twentieth century, he recreated himself as a wanderer, who experienced an intimate and ideal friendship with a young Italian businessman named Orlando. Couperus was married to his cousin, who helped him with his work and kept him company on his trips, but his work is full of undisguised homosexual emotions, especially in his novels that are set in Antiquity, like the madly decadent The mountain of light (1905) and The comedians (1917). Although the character of Orlando in the serials is deeply embedded in real facts and circumstances, it is probably about a great, but fictional love.
His journalistic work brought Couperus a large audience. When he was forced to return to the Netherlands in 1915 due to the war, he discovered that he was a celebrated author. At the end of his life, he made a long, arduous journey to the Dutch East Indies, China and Japan as a special correspondent for a weekly magazine. He died not long after his return, on 16 July 1923.