Friday, July 08, 2011

Vile Bodies, Or A Strenuous Attempt To Be Chic

Last week, my parents and Joshua and I attended a performance of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God Of Carnage” at The Guthrie Theater. The translation was by Christopher Hampton.

Of one-and-a-quarter-hour duration, “God Of Carnage”, a comedy, depicts two sets of parents meeting to address an altercation between their respective eleven-year-old sons, one of whom has broken the other’s tooth. The intent of the meeting is for the parents to find a civilized resolution to the squabbling of the sons.

During the meeting, things begin in promising fashion, but quickly descend into chaos; the parents are shown to be as childish as their sons. One couple takes on the other. One sex takes on the other. One social class takes on the other. No one emerges from the meeting unscathed—or with any credit.

Reza’s theme, I believe, is the thin veneer of civility that characterizes much of Western life (Reza’s play is set in Paris, but British productions have set the play in London and American productions have set the play in Brooklyn). If Reza possessed a deeper theme, I missed it.

The play is funny, and has many good lines. How much of this must be credited to Reza and how much of this must be credited to Hampton I do not know: Hampton, a fine playwright in his own right, is a brilliant translator.

The play is also unpleasant, even nasty. The men are depicted as near-barbarous (one is a self-important lawyer welded to his cell phone, the other a self-made merchant with class issues) and the women are depicted as pretentious nitwits and airheads (one has aspirations as an author addressing genocide in Africa, the other is in “wealth management”). Both sexes are portrayed as vile. I do not believe that Reza likes people.

“God Of Carnage” has been deplored in some quarters, lauded in others. The play acquired numerous prizes in Paris, London and New York.

I found it difficult to take the play seriously. It poked fun at the dogmas of our age, easy enough to do, but it also suggested that human beings are very close to animals, not my experience for the last thirty years. More than anything, I think that Reza’s plays (she is also author of the controversial “Art”) may be seen as strenuous attempts to be “chic”, the characteristic most beloved by the French. Alas, chic has very little to do with art, and art has very little to do with chic, lessons Reza has yet to learn.

American productions have made a grave mistake in moving the action from Paris to Brooklyn. The characters remain very French, with no distinctly American characteristics on display. This allows American audiences easily to distance themselves from the play, which I do not believe was the playwright’s intent. However, Reza may have encouraged, even insisted, that the play’s locale be switched to the country in which the play is performed in order that the play not be seen as criticism of “the craven and contemptible French”.

The Guthrie production was nothing special, but the actors underplayed rather than overplayed the material, for which I was grateful. (I have been told that the Broadway production, a hit with audiences, was horribly overplayed).

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