In Review: Contemporary French Plays, Edited and translated by Chris Campbell. Oberon Books, 2017. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-1-78682-072-3
Reviewed by Amelia Parenteau
Volume 7, Issue 1 (Spring 2018)
Campbell’s collection presents four plays that constitute a sliver of the breadth of contemporary French theater. As Clare Finburgh writes in her judicious introduction, “[T]oday’s [French] theatrical landscape tends to be characterized by shows that either feature virtually no text, or text that is collectively written by members of the creative team.” And yet, individual playwrights are still sought and produced by some of the leading theaters in the country, despite being too often overshadowed by the big name auteur directors who earn international renown.
The collection starts with Rémi de Vos’ 2006 Till Death (Till Death Us Do Part), a rambling farce that resembles a much peppier version of a Martin McDonagh play. Till Death is followed by Magali Mougel’s 2011 Erwin Motors (Erwin Motor, dévotion), a poetic play, rife with sexual undertones, reminiscent of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Next, we have Lancelot Hamelin’s 2007 Alta Villa (ALTA VILLA contrepoint), a “personal is political” play about the Algerian War, finally followed by Adeline Picault’s 2008 Bobin and Mikado (Bobbin et Mikado), a Jules and Jim love triangle, shot through with tragedy. With this sequence, Campbell creates a light-hearted frame to surround the more emotionally and structurally complicated middle works in the volume.
Traditionally, as Finburgh explains, “French playwriting tends to foreground form, [using] dissolute poetic fragments, [privileging] research into formal possibility.” These plays, perhaps with the exception of Alta Villa, foreground story, falling into a more Anglo tradition of playwriting and storytelling, delving into emotions rather than intellect. This collection, thereby, makes an excellent primer for exporting French plays to the international market, offering uniquely French voices in a format that is widely accessible to non-French-speaking audiences.
Finburgh avoids offering specific thematic analysis in her introduction, but if I were to hazard a few generalizations, I was struck by the focus on romantic love in this selection of contemporary French theatre, as opposed to the more socially embroiled, often family-centric plays coming out of the United States. Since identity politics are not the bread and butter of French political conversation as they are in the United States, it makes sense that the central dramatic narratives rather focus on romantic love, inasmuch as theater is a mirror to society. However, this choice does little to disabuse the romantic American notion of French culture as full of affairs and scandalous love.
Moreover, I was surprised by how patriarchal the relationships depicted between men and women are in these four plays, demonstrating extremely conventional gender roles and power imbalances for the twenty-first century. Each “romance” is a tale of possession, with male characters attempting to assert their power over the women in their lives to prove their worth, from Simon in Till Death, marrying his childhood sweetheart to avoid telling his mother the truth, to Mr. Talzberg and Mr. Volanges manipulating Cécile in Erwin Motors, to Faïza trapped in her marriage to the abusive Frank in Alta Villa, to Jim and Mikado trying to declare ownership of Bobin in Bobin and Mikado. It is no secret that French feminism and gender roles differ from those of the United States, but such an overt theme through the diverse collection of storytelling and authors surprised me.
The first play in the collection, Till Death, is a classic farce, full of French rambling and unbearably awkward white lies that build into monstrous untruths. Finburgh writes in her introduction, “Most ‘popular’ theatre can be frowned upon by the theatre establishment in France, for its commercialism and intention to entertain rather than to educate.” De Vos’ play transcends its genre by bringing a level of nuanced hysteria to the humor, rather than slapstick. The dialogue builds in blocks to each punchline, and the audience can barely breathe a sigh of relief when one disaster has been averted before another crops up. The conversation between the three characters is punctuated by soliloquies from Simon, sometimes directly to the audience, sometimes reporting on his situation to a colleague over the phone. This unparalleled access to his inner monologue makes him our daft protagonist, whose mother sees straight through his lies and still loves him anyway, and who ends up marrying the neighbor girl as a nod to classic comic structure. De Vos has a particularly wry voice, well suited to the living room farce.
Erwin Motors comes next in the volume, which layers a reprise of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel Les Liaisons dangereuses over the “current crisis of confidence in the European Union’s model of free movement of labour,” as Finburgh writes in her introduction. Campbell chooses to keep the play set in France rather than the UK, both to honor the original setting (“Erwin Motors” is not a French company name to begin with), but also to emphasize this connection to de Laclos’ text. Cécile Volanges is proud to work at the Erwin Motors factory, repeating over and over when arguing with her husband, “MY DEVOTION TO MY WORK HAS SET ME FREE.” Meanwhile, she is being sexually harassed and abused by her supervisor at the factory, Mr. Salzberg, which diminishes her productivity. The factory is run by the heartless Mrs. Merteuil, who makes such declarations as, “If he rapes one of the girls, they can feel flattered that someone’s taking an interest. I simply do not care.”
Cécile’s husband runs his own garage, and is both outraged that his wife feels a need to work outside the home and jealous of the attention she receives at the factory, while Cécile repeats her adherence to the “French dream,” a “steady job when times are hard.” If capitalism has replaced aristocracy as the new ruling power, the caprices of human desire have not changed a whit, and Mougel adeptly demonstrates that whether humans are devoting themselves to the machine of capitalism or socialism or feudalism, they are still responding to the same inherent desires. Of much repeated all-caps dialogue throughout this play (a nod to Brecht), one of the most puzzling phrases is, “I’M NOT SWINGING ON THE END OF THE UMBILICAL CORD TALKING TO MYSELF.” As best as I can understand it, Mougel seems to suggest that we all are, in fact, just that isolated and self-serving, no matter to which higher cause or organization we devote ourselves.
Third, Alta Villa continues the thread of social commentary, this time focusing on racial rather than economic imbalance between characters. Finburgh writes in her introduction, “This is no ordinary plot-based drama. Indeed, its references are often more cinematic than theatrical,” and also notes the “juxtaposition of the personal and the political.” In a slow and murky way, often narrated from the point of view of a son with an intellectual disability, we discover an underlying plot of vengeance, years after the Algerian War. The characters who are not from the insular small town feel their outsider status, no matter how many years they invest in the place—one need look no further than the Parisian banlieues to see the verity of this scenario in contemporary France.
Alta Villa’s format is inventive, offering a fun challenge for any director, with fragmentary text and many voices speaking at once, forcing the audience to divide their attention in an unusual way for theatrical drama. The stage directions describe this play as a “theatre of hesitations […] a TV left on when everyone’s left the room.” Indeed, Frank (the aforementioned brutish husband) declares, “Film’s the only way you can learn about life,” which is obviously a provocative statement when pronounced on stage. Spoken commentary could sometimes equally be written as stage directions (a somewhat trendy convention in contemporary French theatre), such as Faïza describing, “Yesterday evening at the window table, three Turks, coffee and glass of water, silence and cigarettes, ashtray filling up. One of them spits in the ashtray. Slowly, phlegm and saliva, a long strand stuck to his teeth, won’t come away / the man laughs and the others look over at him / Faïza looks over at them. Oh no, not this again, Faïza had thought there were no more secrets from her…Frank clinks his beer against one of the Turk’s coffees. Frank’s friends are back.” In Alta Villa, Hamelin blends film and theater, family and politics together in a biting drama.
Finally, Bobin and Mikado takes a lighter turn, returning to the romantic element of Till Death. Finburgh describes it as a “Bohemian love triangle [in which] psyche’s hidden obscurities and ambiguities are examined.” Picault also has her characters narrate their stage directions, opening with the character Jim setting the scene: “A bar. The three of them are in a bar from the beginning since it all starts here. Bobin reading and eating peanuts. Mikado drinking tea. Me, Jim, me, eyes riveted on Bobin.” The story follows the three characters in and out of love, trying to make sense of affairs and pregnancies and loyalty and jealousy. The only other voice in the mix is that of Lilas, Mikado’s sister, who represents the image of classic familial bliss, replete with two parents, two children, simple holidays, simple pleasures. She claims the phrase, “The two of us,” to refer to herself and her husband, refusing to let her brother use it to refer to himself and Bobin (with whom he is having a passionate affair). This is the parlance of coupledom, forming your own language, defining your own space in the world, and she resists Mikado’s unconventional romance. Both Jim and Mikado are possessive towards the elusive Bobin, and the New Wave doesn’t feel far away. Despite Jim’s suicide, the play feels light and distant, like an early Sarah Ruhl drama, filled with characters who slip through your fingers when you try to hold them too tightly.
On the whole, Campbell’s Contemporary French Plays spans the gamut of French drama, from the cinematic to the living room drama, the political to the romantic. For those familiarizing themselves with the French theatrical landscape, or those already entrenched in its offerings, this volume has something to offer. As a native American English speaker, I can’t dissect the nuances of Campbell’s British English translation, but he seems to faithfully capture the colloquial nature of the original French dialogue. Although the selection lacks a specific organizational mission, Campbell does well to capture each author’s individual voice, and faithfully render this offering of contemporary French theater.
Amelia Parenteau is a playwright, journalist, and translator. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she has worked with TCG, Ping Chong & Company, The Lark, The Civilians, Life Jacket Theatre Company, Voyage Theater Company, the French Institute Alliance Française, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. Recent productions include: America Is Hard to See (HERE, 2018), (Projection) (Dixon Place, 2017), and Liminal (New York International Fringe Festival, 2015). She is a member of the Fence, and has previously been published in The Mercurian as well as American Theatre Magazine, Asymptote Literary Magazine, Contemporary Theater Review, Culturebot, Extended Play, and HowlRound.