Solidarity of the Shaken

Wajdi Mouawad’s theatre of war

Photography by Thibault Baron

The sun has set on the city of Grenoble. The nearby Alps, their silhouette darker than the night sky, are making their presence felt. Hundreds of theatregoers have huddled at the Hexagone Theatre for a sold-out performance of Forêts (Woodlands), a new play by Quebec playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad.

The opening scene is set in Montreal. It’s party time in the eighties, and new-wave music is blaring. Stage right, the cast is getting ready for some serious fun. One of the characters, a drama student, is horsing around, declaiming from a seventeenth-century tragedy by Jean Racine: “Is the oracle saying everything that he seems to be saying? ” His friends ask him to shut up.

As far as oracles are concerned, Mouawad isn’t the quiet type either. Just thirty-eight years old, he has already written fifteen plays and a novel, and was recently named artistic director of French theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In Forêts, a four-hour saga encompassing the twentieth century, he blows tirelessly on the embers of our funeral pyres: the Ardennes, Dachau, the engineering school at the Université de Montréal. From their ashes emerges a portentous phoenix, a commentary on hatred and reconciliation, on world wars and gender wars, on betrayal and bequeathal, a story of sex (not always good) and incest (not always bad) in the absence of the gods. Call it an epic play. If Forêts weren’t at times so humorous, it could also be called a tragedy.

Mouawad’s play, the third in a tetralogy, is a departure from the previous two, which deal with civil war in an unnamed but easily recognizable Lebanon. Littoral (Tideline) is the story of a young Montreal man who returns to his dead father’s native land. He wants to bury the old bugger but learns that there is no room for an extra body anywhere in the country, which is a massive cemetery. Incendies (Scorched) is the story of young Montreal twins who return to their dead mother’s native land. They are looking for a father they have never met. In both works, Mouawad makes a case for the stage as surrogate war-crimes tribunal or, more pointedly, as truth and reconciliation commission. Whether he is dealing with the Middle East or family secrets, with mass graves or closet skeletons, Mouawad’s avowed goal remains to repair deep trauma by breaking the silence.

Both plays are semi-autobiographical works in which the protagonists recall an attack on a bus, a harrowing tale by any standard. Unidentified gunmen douse it in gasoline and set it alight, burning alive its passengers. This powerful story, a leitmotif that also surfaces in Mouawad’s novel, Visage retrouvé, is not a figment of his imagination. The attack occurred on April 13, 1975 and is widely seen as marking the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war. Wajdi saw the attackers, Maronite Christian militias, and the victims, who were mostly Palestinian. He was a six-year-old bystander, no longer innocent.

Mouawad was born in a tiny village called Deir el Kamal ( The Monastery of the Moon ) in 1968. At the time, Lebanon, a multicultural Mediterranean country, was called “the Switzerland of the Middle East.” When civil war broke out, his family was caught up in the hostilities. By the time that war ended, in 1990, it is estimated that 100,000 had been killed and 100,000 more had been maimed. Countless others, like Mouawad’s parents, went into exile. They went first to France, in 1978, but his older brother and sister were refused working papers there, and the family moved again, this time to Canada, in 1983. The Arabic-speaking boy, who became a French-speaking adolescent, did not want to leave, but he had little choice.

I catch up with Mouawad in Grenoble, one of the sixteen cities on the European Forêts tour. ( The play is set to open at the Espace Go in Montreal in January and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in March.) He asks me to meet him at his hotel, the Mercure. When we meet, I joke that the gods may not have deserted us after all. Mouawad smiles politely at the suggestion. It’s 10 a.m., and I ask if he’s had breakfast. I know that the cast was up late last night. The performance, which Mouawad attended, ended at midnight, and everyone was still having dinner at 1 a.m. He informs me that he has been up for hours since he sleeps only three hours a night when he is writing. He seems fit, however, lithe even, perhaps because he is a walker. He has already been on an hour-long stroll this morning. Mouawad has conceived entire plays on his long treks across the Island of Montreal, hearing out the characters, capturing their voices. Walking is working.

“My body has to move for my mind to think clearly,” he explains. “It’s as if I can’t think when I’m not in motion.” We were speaking French. His accent is best described as mid-Atlantic. He sounds meditative, perhaps because he speaks so softly, sometimes hesitantly, like a hiker taking his chances on thin ice. But one should not mistake his gentleness for lack of assertiveness. Mouawad has no qualms about giving opinions about life-and-death issues. That is what oracles do, and that is why his work has often been described as mythological in substance and in tone.

Mouawad’s plays stand out against the backdrop of Québécois theatre, especially the work of Robert Lepage, the dominant force in Quebec theatre since the 1980s. That charmer’s forte has been his ability to generate evocative visuals, enchanting images that have pleased crowds all over the world. By contrast, Mouawad is a writer first, and many of his plays have already been directed by others. His work is also more jarring, more political. Citing Jan Patocka, the Czech philosopher, Mouawad believes in the “solidarity of the shaken.” He says: “That is what the theatre must show.”

I first met Mouawad in Paris in January 2001. He was on his way to Beirut, the city his father had fled, for a performance of Littoral. Sitting in a Montmartre café, he told me that he was apprehensive about returning to Lebanon with a cast of Québécois actors. How would a real Lebanese audience respond to faux Lebanese characters bent on telling them that, hey, war sucks? “Is hating human? ” he wondered. “What is left of our humanity after hatred? ” He paraphrased Antigone, arguing that burying the vanquished—not loathing them—was what separated man from beast. “Our humanity is not a foregone conclusion,” he added. “It must be preserved.” Yet Mouawad, a writer, a Christian, a vigilant observer of the human soul, has hate in his bones nonetheless. “It catches me unawares,” he confessed, “when I look in my father’s eyes and I see the suffering, the sorrow, the sadness. When I try to understand, I end up hating those who did that to him. I don’t know their names, but I can picture their faces. They are the faces of the soldier, the assassin, those who destroy, rob, and rape. That is who I see in my father’s eyes.”

A few weeks after the Beirut performance, I phoned Mouawad. He was back in Montreal. His fears had turned out to be groundless. Spectators had been receptive to the play and to the Quebec cast. A documentary about the play that was shot at the time, Beyrouth, Littoral, featured theatregoers who had been stirred by the actors’ very foreignness. “It’s appalling that a bunch of Québécois would be talking to us about our war,” said a young woman who was both shocked and delighted.

Those were times of reconciliation and hope, and preaching remembrance was all right. Last summer, after violence again engulfed Lebanon, I wondered if Mouawad’s views had changed. Had the fighting stirred up old memories and aroused new hatreds? In an op-ed piece for Le Devoir, the Montreal daily, a true-to-form Mouawad confessed that he had walked through the night in search of the right words. “I would like to become mad, not in order to flee reality, but, on the contrary, to be able to devote myself entirely to poetry,” he wrote. “I must unearth the words since I cannot resuscitate the dead.” The word hatred, however, was not one of them. Mouawad detested being coerced into choosing between hatred and madness, an unbearable alternative in his view.

Lebanon is not at the heart of Forêts, but war is. One point of departure was a nighttime walk through the cemetery of Vagnas, a village in southern France. Mouawad stumbled on the grave of one Lucien Blondel (1856–1949), a Frenchman who had lived through the Franco- Prussian conflict of 1870 and both world wars. Mouawad had not yet written a line of Forêts but he knew that one character would be named after him.

Mouawad spent four years on the play. He read the history of French- German relations going back to Charlemagne, an emperor each country claims as its own, and delved into old science textbooks. He claims that quantum physics is an inspiration for the complex storyline in Forêts , adding that his previous plays were Newtonian in nature. Submerged in history and science, having to breathe life into more than fifty parts, writing entire scenes that he eventually cut out, Mouawad admits that Forêts was “a real forest.”

It’s 4 p.m. at the Hexagone, time for a post-mortem of last night’s performance. Mouawad is centre stage, asking the cast to sit in a circle. It is made up of one Belgian, three French, and seven Quebec actors (who can switch accents effortlessly and, for most, flawlessly). Placid as ever, Mouawad believes some fine-tuning is in order. He asks Linda Laplante to pay more attention to her elocution. He would like her to sound slightly less naturalistic in order to highlight the souffle littéraire, the literary nature of the text. He finds MarieÈve Perron’s final monologue a little too subdued. “It’s a catharsis,” he tells her. “Don’t hold anything back. Open up your voice. Your other monologues are full of anger. Not this one. It’s as if you were speaking to someone on the other side of a noisy river.” This simile is apparently too weak, so Mouawad finds a metaphor. “You’re speaking to the stars.”

By any standard, the preparation for Forêts, which began in the spring of 2005, was intense and impressive. Mouawad discussed the storyline with his actors for six weeks. In the fall, when rehearsals began, he had written only three of the play’s seven acts. He directed by day and wrote by night. Theatres in France and Canada had signed up for 130 performances, some of which were already sold out, and he was on deadline. Actress Anne- Marie Olivier calculates that by opening night the cast had rehearsed for 600 hours, five times longer than the plays she usually works on.

Forêts was rehearsed not in Montreal but rather in two somewhat remote French towns, Aubusson and Saint-Nazaire. This augmented Mouawad’s feeling of total immersion. Never turning the television on, never having to worry about cooking or laundry, Mouawad did nothing but work. Was it too much? “One never creates too much,” he says. “One never loves too much. One creates or one doesn’t. One loves or one doesn’t. Does one go on love breaks? ‘Sorry, dear, I’ve loved you for eight consecutive weeks now, I have to recharge my battery.’”

In some ways, Forêts is quintessentially Québécois. Mouawad has a deep, heartfelt understanding of a society he both loves and reproves. The play recalls, for instance, that many French Canadians used to mutilate their children by pulling out their teeth. Mouawad uses this barbaric yet once widespread practice as a metaphor for the silence of the Québécois. “Who needs teeth in a country where one speaks so little? ” laments inconsolable Luce Brouillard as she gazes at the St. Lawrence River, its water carrying the tears of “a people who can no longer cry.” Her name, derived from “light” (lux in Latin) and “fog” (brouillard in French), is reminiscent of Hitler’s 1941 directive, Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), under which opponents were sent to concentration camps.

Even though he was already fourteen when he moved to Quebec, Mouawad has an ear for Québécois French, both shouted and hushed. He regrets that the Québécois use words merely as utilitarian tools. “It’s as if their purpose in life were to make as little noise as possible,” he says. And why would the St. Lawrence carry their tears? “It’s as if the entire pays were waiting for something that had already passed it by,” he ventures. It’s only an intuition, he cautions. At times even this oracle is unsure of what he seems to be saying.

At a more fundamental level, Forêts is not about Quebec at all. It is an ode to friendship, a hymn to the triumph of companionship over kinship. The play raises pointed questions about blood ties and takes aim at those obsessed by family, clan, tribe, and nation. There are echoes of Hannah Arendt when one character asks: “Why is it that those who want to save us end up sacrificing us? ”

Mouawad has a major following in French theatre circles. Le Monde has saluted him as one of the world’s most talented French-language playwrights. In 2005, he received the prestigious Molière award for francophone playwright of the year. No Québécois had ever received this prize, but Mouawad turned it down. He explained at the time that he has always refused prizes because he believes that artists should not be made to compete with each other. He has, however, accepted membership in the Ordre national des arts et des lettres, an honour bestowed by the French ministry of culture.

Paris theatregoers can choose from more than 200 plays on any given weekend, yet Mouawad stands out, probably because of his unique way of combining Lebanon, Europe, and Quebec. “It’s obvious that this is someone who has known war in the flesh,” says Muriel Maalouf, a Lebanese-born theatre critic who works for Radio France Internationale. While Mouawad’s work is steeped in European intellectual tradition, it also exhibits an undeniable Quebec influence. Maalouf sees this most clearly in Mouawad’s stage direction. He uses props, lighting, and music to create filmlike images. He likes actors to be both “psychological” and “physical.” As a director, he tells them what they should think and do. All of that, Maalouf notes, is “very North American.”

French theatre audiences generally applaud more courteously than passionately, never clapping at intermissions, seldom granting standing ovations. But at the end of the Forêts performance I attended in Grenoble, the crowd jumped to its feet, to show its appreciation but also, I suspect, to break the play’s powerful spell more hastily. They had been tricked into suspending disbelief, but they were now about to venture out into the Alpine night, which they needed, quick.

Michel Arseneault