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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


HAMLETMACHINE: Entangled with the Icon that it Intends to Deface.
by Susana Cook

With Hamletmachine, Heiner Muller adds his signature to the classic drama of Hamlet, establishing himself as a champion avant-garde playwright in the Western world. Hamletmachine is considered by many to be the anti-Hamlet, a magnificent exponent of post-Shakespearean counter-drama, even postdramatic, anti-play, post-text and/or post-actor genre. If the intention of the author was to break away from any or all those traditions, then his efforts don’t seem to succeed in escaping or destroying the categories that they intend to subvert. Every line of the play makes us sink deeper into the roots of this particular drama and into cultural icons that link us, as the audience/reader, to the specific culture and narrative that we are supposed to break away from.
Heiner Muller has been associated with Antonin Artaud in his efforts to create a theater that would shake and subvert the status quo. Muller likes to think of himself as a “poet maudit.” Artaud is a sweeping force, a demolishing power, which no experimental avant-garde artist can escape. His ideas and writings about “bourgeois” theater in general and Shakespearean theater in particular opened a path that left a strong mark in the work of every artist who would like to see him/herself as transgressive or innovative. Artaud’s impulses were wild, undomesticated, honest, raw and real. They were coming from the genuine anger and frustration of a human being and artist who had already been rejected by mainstream society. Artaud’s position of constant segregation and suffering gave him the freedom of the one who has nothing to lose. He was an outsider. He was definitely not part of the status quo. His statements didn’t carry any possible or secret compromise with the normative theater forms of his time. Unlike Muller, Artaud was not an established artist with a reputation he had to maintain. During his lifetime Artaud suffered psychosis, poverty, incarceration, rejection, and drug addiction. His demolishing creative force has no intention to save any remains: he proposes a theater that will take us away completely from the status quo and from the stagnation produced by bourgeois theater. “Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and for this decay,” wrote Artaud (1988: 254). He would probably not have been interested in playing with a Shakespearean text, either through adaptation or retelling. Some post-modern artists, though, chose to play with classic plays, and that is seen as an act of subversion and deconstruction (Lehman 2006)—even though the “destruction” of the status quo of the classic forms leaves us sometimes with a renewed version of the old text.
Hamletmachine is the Anti-Hamlet, ergo it cannot exist without Hamlet. If we would give the script of Hamletmachine to a reader who was not familiar with Shakespeare or the references and allusions in the text, then Hamletmachine would probably lose its meaning and importance. It has a meaning that cannot be decoded without knowledge of the previous meaning.
“I’m not Hamlet. I don’t take part anymore. My words have nothing to tell me anymore,” says Hamlet in Hamletmachine (Muller 1984: 56). He has nothing to tell us anymore; still, he is there and talking to us one more time. Hamlet is the machine that we can’t escape from or he is part of the machine that he can’t escape himself. He denies his own existence, while coming back to life. Just as we recycle parts of our culture, to trash them again. We break them into pieces, even if we don’t talk about them. They have nothing else to tell us, but they are still talking to us. The play could be read as a bold and even “disrespectful” act of appropriation. It incorporates elements that are very foreign to the original. Still, in this broken narrative, where the characters try to escape the original story, Hamlet still exists: “My drama doesn’t happen anymore” says Hamlet, as his drama keeps happening (Muller 1984: 56).
Heiner Muller boldly deconstructs Shakespeare’s story, altering the narrative, the timeline, the style, the characters, and even Hamlet’s gender identity, while keeping intact the names of the characters. As long as we hear the original names in the tragedy we are still witnessing the drama of Hamlet. The names resonate in us, recreating the strong images of the drama. We need those images to travel through Muller’s play. Hamletmachine cannot exist without Hamlet. The play assumes an informed reader who will enjoy the traveling away from the original. A common point of departure is necessary.
Hamletmachine could be read as a poetic experiment, but the cultural references thrown in by the author in the text resonate in our mind, bringing us to common places, making us inclined to find in these allusions some kind of added meaning or intention on the part of the author: Doctor Zhivago, Electra, Marx, Lenin and Mao. In a very un-orderly manner some of these names appear related to the Russian Revolution.
“Something is rotten in Denmark,” Hamlet states in the original play by Shakespeare. “SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THIS AGE OF HOPE” (53), says Muller’s Hamlet in Hamletmachine. These lines were written in English in Muller’s original text in German. I imagine that for a spectator listening to the script in German, the sudden switch to English suggests an allusion to Western capitalism and imperialism. This moment also creates a certain complicity with the (East German) audience, by pointing to the Other, which was, at that moment of Hamletmachine’s writing, Western Europe and the United States.
Muller makes Hamlet the victim of thoughts, and thoughts the enemy of images. Muller believes that theater is a laboratory for the social imagination. Nostalgic for a theater of images, he tries to bring forth a visual spectacle: “thoughts suck the blood out of images,” (56) says Hamlet in Muller’s play. Muller is more interested in a visual and poetic display of images onstage than in a theater focusing on text. Still, he is an author, and his plays are analyzed and read with full attention to every word of the text, with a devotion similar to Shakespeare’s studies. In a way Muller’s efforts to kill the script leaves him with a new script. His efforts seem to be like killing the queen but not the idea of the queen.
The play deals with the idea of consecutive lives, questioning the reasons for the drama to come back to life and in what form. Hamlet seems to be commenting on his own return: “A MOTHER’S WOMB IS NOT A ONE-WAY STREET” (54). This idea, of returning to the womb to be born again, makes this Hamlet a new creation of the same mother (with a different father). In that way Hamlet(machine) is almost the same Hamlet, in a new life. In this new life, Muller’s Hamlet wants to come back in a different form. “I want to be a woman,” says Hamlet as he dresses in Ophelia’s clothes.
The post-modern narrative of Hamletmachine—with its characteristic traits of collage, pastiche, bricolage, irony, and intertextuality—seems to break away from the canonical aspects of Hamlet. Yet the power structures of the classic plays remain intact in this new version. Ultimately, I contend that Muller’s play does not shatter canonical boundaries because too many elements of the original remain intact; even though the characters may rebellious and defiant, they are still part of social structures like royalty and the upper class.
Hamletmachine marked a breakthrough in Muller’s career but it is also seen as a breakthrough in written drama. If we wanted to frame this art piece to make it stand on its own, we would have to cut the tentacles that connect it and entangle it with the canonical icon that is trying to deface.
Hamletmachine is the Anti-Hamlet, the counter-Shakespeare. What new form is Muller creating with Hamletmachine? As Hans-Thies Lehman observes: “Provocation alone does not make a form; even provocative, negating art has to create something new under its own steam. Through this alone, and not through the negation of classical norms, can it obtain its own identity” (2006: 28). Postdramatic Theater.
Hamletmachine reflects the paradox of contemporary theater. Muller printed his own initials (on Shakespeare’s play). He wrote Hamletmachine, his own creation (based on Hamlet). He is offering us a recycled piece of culture (that stands on its own). In a culture obsessed with classics, Muller’s retake of a classic becomes a classic. How far can you travel away from Hamlet and still recognize it as Hamlet? Can you make Hamlet more crazy, a woman wanna-be, a non-Hamlet (“I am not Hamlet”), and still have it be Hamlet?
At the end of Hamletmachine, Ophelia, speaking as Electra “in the heart of darkness” (58) seems to reject this new birth and every birth. Looking at it “Under the sun of torture. In the name of the victims” (58) She finds it useless and renounces to give birth to it : “I eject all the sperm I have received…I bury it in my womb.”

Whether that is the intention of the author or not, the play seems to show us that there’s no escape, only new perspectives.


Artaud, Antonin, and Susan Sontag. Selected Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1988.

Kalb, Jonathan. The Theater of Heiner Muller. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.

Lehman, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theater. Trans. Karen Jurs-Munby. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Müller, Heiner, and Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage. 1st ed. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Antigone. annotation by Susana Cook
Sophocles. Antigone: The Oedipus Cycle. Translated from the Greek by Dudley Fitts & Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1967.

Antigone is a play about obedience to the law, the paradoxical relationship between the laws of men and the laws of God. Creon, King of Thebes proclaims that “Polyneices is to have no burial” (197). Antigone, sister of Polyneiches, Eteocles and Ismene, daughter of Oedipus, decides to challenge the King’s orders and give a burial to her brother Polyneiches, following God’s orders instead. When Creon finds out that Antigone buried her brother against his wishes, he asks her, “had you heard my proclamation touching this matter?” Antigone replies: “It was not God’s proclamation [.]”
The play also deals with religion, fear of God and punishment. The maximum punishment that Creon can threaten to impose on whomever disobeys his orders is death. Antigone reminds the King that God’s laws’ are stronger than the laws of the human king, that her action carries honor instead of shame because giving a decent burial to her brother is in line with God’s wishes: “there is no guilt in reverence for the dead” (210). She shows no fear in disobeying the king’s orders, reminding him that we are mortal anyway, because of God’s law and not his, and that disregarding the laws of God concerning the honor due to the dead can be far more dangerous than disobeying the King, because God is the supreme power. The paradox of obedience is very clear in the postures of Antigone and Ismene. Antigone represents obedience to God, Ismene to the King. Creon himself is disobeying God’s laws with his actions. The Chorus warns him about the dangers of his hubris: “Fortunate is the man who has never tasted God’s vengeance” (215). The idea of religion and obedience to the Gods is pushed by Antigone to the extreme. “I shall be a criminal--but a religious one” (164), she proclaims dramatically.
The genesis of the tragedy is Creon’s proclamation about Polyneices’ dead body left unburied, and not Antigone’s disobedience. Creon’s proclamation violates God’s laws, and the people of the town feel disturbed by it. Antigone’s actions are honorable but illegal at the same time. She trusts that the people of the town would applaud her actions if they weren’t all afraid of Creon. “All these men would praise me/ Were their lips not frozen shut with fear of you” (210).
Ismene sees her sister becoming nobler with her actions, so she changes her position and decides to be “guilty” in the eyes of the King so she can be forgiven in the eyes of God.
As the play advances, Creon keeps losing authority. The first one to challenge him is Antigone, then his own son Haimon, then Ismene. Creon gets frustrated and angry because he is not getting the obedience that he feels he deserves as a king, and so his actions keep escalating, but ironically, he becomes weaker as he becomes more and more of a tyrant. Creon orders
to bury Antigone alive in a cave. Antigone, goes to her living tomb, and Tiresias warns Creon that the Gods will be on Antigone’s side.
In the end, the laws of God prove to be stronger. Creon, carrying the dead body of Haimon, is seen by Choragos: “Here is the king himself. Bearing his own damnation in his arms” (242). Soon after Creon finds out that his wife, the Queen, committed suicide out of grief, he realizes that his tragedy is the result of his own arrogant actions. He offended God and he is being punished for it. “I have been rash and foolish. I have killed my son and my wife” (244), he suddenly realizes. Creon feels the power of God falling on him for disobeying his laws and cries out, “Oh God, I am sick with fear” (244). He becomes at the end a sad, humble man who felt intensely the consequences of trying to supersede God’s wishes, but finally succumbs, lamenting that “fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust” (245).