Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The God of Carnage--by Yasmina Reza

Reza, Yasmina, The God of Carnage. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton. London: Faber & Faber, 2008.
by Susana Cook

Her characters, including herself in Hammerklavier, are self-obsessed, desperately ambitious for achievement, whatever form that achievement takes. They reek of futility but lack the desperate humanity of Beckett's existential no-hopers."
-Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, January 1, 2001

Asked whether she is a moralist, she replies: "It is not for me to say, but theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society. The greatest playwrights are moralists."
-Agnes Poirier, The Independent, March 16, 2008

Originally written (and produced) in French, they are usually slender sitcoms, elegantly streaked with troubling shadows and shaped with Cartesian symmetry. They are plays that suggest reassuringly that human depths can, after all, be measured by a slide rule.
The New York Times, March 23, 2009

I agree with most critics that Reza’s play is a kind of “slender sitcom” that

“reeks of futility but lacks desperate humanity.”

I looked at the structure of The God of Carnage to see what is offered in this play that made it a huge commercial success around the world. The play has a light comedic plot sprinkled with a small amount of philosophical tirades that come in short, easy-to-swallow doses, just the right amount that a theater audience would tolerate in a mainstream theater setting. Some people go to the theater to have a good time and do a little bit of thinking. This play provides them with the necessary amount of entertainment and pretentious posturing supposedly full of philosophical depth.
The two couples at the center of action start as very polite hosts and visitors, in a very bourgeois setting, with courteous and careful dialogue. They slowly start showing darker aspects of themselves and their lives. With the help of alcohol and a few external elements, like phone calls, they start losing control of themselves and arrive at a few cathartic moments of “truth.” They reveal their “true” feelings towards each other, and their “true” nature as human beings. The harmony in their marriages is a very delicate structure that collapses as the play advances.
They start by discussing an incident between their kids—Ferdinand, (the Reille’s son) hit Bruno (the Vallon’s child) with a stick and Bruno lost two teeth. The parents are all trying to be accommodating and understanding. They also make comments about the cake, the recipe, the tulips, etc. The dialogue is cute and predictable. As dictated by the rules of this kind of formulaic theater, the tension starts building gradually towards climax. The Reilles, who have come over, are trying to leave the house most of the time, but some comment or situation keeps them inside until the end of the play.
We can see right away that these two couples are well-educated, middle-class people with good jobs and families. The four of them are parents but ultimately, how much they care or really wanted (or want to be) parents comes into question. The theme of compassion and humanity is shown through a few elements: Darfur, the corruption of lawyers and pharmaceutical companies, and the Vallon daughter’s hamster. Veronique Vallon is writing a book about Darfour, Alain Reille is a lawyer for a pharmaceutical, and Michel Vallon has abandoned a hamster in the streets. Their masks seem to melt progressively during the play, exposing their selfish true selves. Michel hates to be a father and left a hamster trembling of fear in the streets. Alain is a dishonest lawyer who doesn’t care about people suffering the terrible side effects of a medication that should be taken off the market and instead tries to cover up for the pharmaceutical company he represents. Veronique, I suppose, is the only one who shows real feelings and compassion. The final member of the quartet, Annette throws up.
At the beginning the two teams are very clear that each couple will take the side of their own son. During the play, affiliations start changing. The men start feeling male bonding and hate their own wives and kids. The women experience a very short moment of women bonding as a response to misogynist comments from the men, but for the most part they despise and ridicule each other. I am not sure if that was the author’s specific intention, but the play shows how men have an easier time in bonding and teaming up than women do.
The pseudo-philosophical lines are clumsily inserted into the text. In one scene, Alain delivers one of his long pretentious rants:
“Veronique, are we ever interested in anything but ourselves? Of course we’d all like to believe in the possibility of improvement. Of which we could be the architect and which would be in no way self-serving. Does such a thing exist? Some people drag their feet, it’s their strategy, others refuse to acknowledge the passing of time, and drive themselves demented – what difference does it make? People struggle until they are dead. Education, the miseries of the world…” (46)
And it goes on and on. I guess this is one of the juicy monologues some of Reza’s admirers adore, and that garnered her so many awards and so much success. I suppose this type of monologue makes people think about the selfishness of humans, but in my case, it just makes me cringe and miss good writing—Chekhov, Beckett, and Pinter, just to mention a few of the souls who command the language in way that Reza is probably trying to emulate.