In my life, theater has often been associated with school. However, it is by studying it and seeing various types of plays that I came to appreciate this art. Nobody likes every music, and nobody likes every theater piece. And if you are one of the few who doesn’t like theater because you haven’t seen or read any enticing work, I hope you will find below some inspiration to explore this antique art.

My encounter with American theater has been very surprising from an audience point of view. Back in France, people stay as quiet during the play as for a classical concert, and they applaud at the end. They only request an encore if the play was great and stand up only if it was exceptional. In the US, I have noticed that the audience just stands up, no matter what, loudly cheering on the artists on stage whether it is a theater play, a classical concert, or a dance show. I can’t help but laugh at the fact that even during the applause, French people are already criticizing and giving their opinion while American audiences are supportive of the work no matter what.

Since French is my native language, I suppose I am more receptive to plays written in French. The language’s intonations and its guttural sounds have a strong role in the appreciation of tones, enhancing the emotional aspect of texts. I remember reading theatrical pieces and sometimes feeling like I was unable to appreciate them. Just like Flaubert who was reading all his texts out loud to check their sonority, I started to read aloud the theater plays and the words suddenly came to life. If you ever feel stuck on a French work, please read it out loud and challenge your own pronunciation. Theater is truly the art of articulating every syllable to make it sound beautiful.

In honor of this art, let me introduce you to the three pieces that changed my appreciation of theater.

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Phèdre by Jean Racine, directed by Patrice Chéreau

How does one talk about French dramaturgy without mentioning Racine? A playwright of the 17th century along with Molière and Corneille, he is one of the three authors to have perfected the classical tragedy inspired by texts and Ancient Greek mythology.

Phèdre by Jean Racine is a real classic of ancient Greek tragedy. However, Patrice Chéreau’s mise en scène brought theater to a new level for me. The sense of tragedy embraced its whole meaning. The tears, the despair and the sweat are raw, and serve the greater purpose of reaching catharsis. Moreover, at the Odeon theater, the 360° auditorium places you at the same level as the actors, giving you intimacy, a closeness to their emotions that you can’t find everywhere. As Phèdre cries, screams, and pleads, you simply sit there, taking it all in, deeply feeling the despair of this woman as if it was your own.

  Here is a quote for you to appreciate the full tragedy of Racine’s text (and work on your conjugation)

« Ariane, ma sœur, de quel amour blessée // Ariane, my sister, with what wounded by what love
Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée ! » // You died at the edges where you were left!
Phèdre (I, 3, v.254-255)
To see the impressive directing of Patrice Chéreau and the amazing Dominique Blanc in the role of Phèdre herself, here is an excerpt available on the INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) website.


Incendies by Wajdi Mouawad

This one might be my personal favorite. I first read the text and then saw it live. The intensity of this play just left me speechless and slightly confused about my own emotions, but in a good way. However, it is not something for the faint of heart.

Incendies is part of the trilogy Le Sang des promesses written by Wajdi Mouawad. It was inspired by the life of Lebanese activist Souha Bechara and his own experience as a war refugee from Lebanon. The play takes its roots in Greek mythology with the myth of Oedipus. It also talks about contemporary issues like the search for self and identity, along with war, deportation and the traumas that surround it. Its depth and multiple layers of subjects are what make it so interesting.

As you can imagine from the themes, this work is emotionally heavy but beautifully written. I am sharing here a simple citation for you to enjoy which is said at the end of the piece. It is from the brother to his sister, who accepts his destiny after having learned the unspeakable truth about their origin through their mother’s story. After many pains and hardships, he finally accepts the lack of information from his mother, understanding that some pain cannot be expressed.

« Jeanne, fais-moi encore écouter son silence. » // Jeanne, let me hear one more time her silence (their mother’s)
Tchaïka by Natacha Belova and Tita Iacobello, with a text partly by Anton Tchekhov

This beautiful play introduced me to the world of puppet theater, with which I fell in love. My colleague from the Brussels’ opera house was creating her own puppets and was the one who introduced me to puppet theater. She had notably done a workshop with the puppet maker Natacha Belova.

For your information, Belgium is known for its craftsmanship in puppet making, notably in Liège. Dating back from the 1860s, Tchantchès is a famous character in folklore.

      Tchaïka is full of the melancholy and sensibility that is found in classic Russian literature. The interaction between the puppeteer and the puppet is simply beautiful and poetic. The interpretation by Tita Iacobello is also sublime. If you ever have the chance to see a play featuring puppets from Natacha Belova, I hope you will go. Her creations are very realistic, although with rough edges enhanced by the lighting. This combination really brings the puppets to life. Here is a link to an excerpt from the play.

        ******

I hope that you, too, will find francophone theater plays that move you.

If you are curious or already a lover of French theater, come check out the next session of the French Library Theater Club on May 22 which is accessible to members [become a member here!]. In our Theater Club, you will be able to share and experience French theater, sometimes even meeting and talking with the creators behind the plays.

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