Theatre of Nerves

"Laughter is always a problem and is very dangerous," says Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza, who is often surprised when English-speaking audiences laugh through her plays. Her translator, renowned British dramatist Christopher Hampton, doesn't believe "it compromises the seriousness of the play in the least to have the audience laughing." Reza explains, "The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre."

Reza's approach to theatre — she occasionally directs and acts in her own work — is deeply influenced by her training at the International Theater Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which concentrated on physical and spatial awareness. As Reza says, "I think, write, and direct with my body." The highly flawed nature of her characters has its roots in her relationship with her father, a Russian Jew of Iranian nationality. Recalling him, she says he "didn't know how to be a father. Yet his brutality wasn't malicious. He was violent but loving. And I understood from our relations that human beings can't be reduced. Without that revelation, I couldn't have become a writer."

As her relationship with her father suggests, Reza has pulled some of her best ideas from real life. The idea for God of Carnage, for example, came to her in the street, while walking her son home from school. "I was talking to the mother of one of his classmates," she recalls. "Her son had suffered a broken tooth following a fight on the playground, and she said to me, 'Do you realize: the parents haven't even called to apologize!' I immediately thought that there was an interesting theme here."

The idea of four parents in a room after a playground fight is exactly the kind of scenario Reza finds appealing. She specializes in situations in which the veneer of social niceties is slowly stripped away, exposing an underbelly of raw impulse. As one critic puts it, Reza "dissects the bourgeoisie with the playfulness and insouciance of a child discovering life by dismembering insects." Reza herself explains, "My work is visceral and subjective. I'm interested in the banal, unguarded moments and the hairline fractures in a character that let the light through." Collectively, she calls her eight plays "theatre of nerves."

These moments of bared human emotion balance on the knife-edge between deadly serious and deadly funny. The Independent columnist Agnes Poirier finds that critics have variously called Reza's humor "incisive, cruel, bitter, furious, narcissistic, compact, vicious, and stinging." She herself calls it a "typically Jewish distancing device that laughs at catastrophe." While French audiences meet Reza's wit with dry chuckles (especially when Reza is directing), English-speaking audiences find her plays uproarious, even farcical. After the West End premiere of Reza's highly successful play Art left the audience in stitches, she turned to Hampton, bemused, and asked, "What have you done?"

— Rebecca Bradshaw

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