Wajdi Mouawad, Just the Playwright for Our Dystopian World

15 September, 2020
Actor, playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Actor, play­wright and direc­tor Waj­di Mouawad at the Kennedy Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

 

 

Melissa Chemam

 

“Waj­di Mouawad was the first play­wright to bring war again to the stage in Cana­da,” Cana­di­an cul­tur­al jour­nal­ist Philippe Cou­ture tells me. “By get­ting his deep inspi­ra­tion from the clas­sic Greek tragedies, Mouawad has man­aged to cre­ate an ongo­ing dia­logue between the past and the present, and the East and the West,” he goes on.

Born in Lebanon, exiled first in France then in Fran­coph­o­ne Québec, Waj­di Mouawad has since become one of the most per­sua­sive Lebanese voic­es in the lit­er­ary world. The actor, play­wright and direc­tor is known for his impec­ca­ble, pro­found and mul­ti­lay­ered writ­ing, and his pas­sion for both lan­guage and mythol­o­gy. While Mouawad’s plays have been per­formed in Ottawa and his work has tran­si­tioned to the cin­e­ma in Denis Vil­leneu­ve’s 2010 fea­ture Incendies, he remains far less known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world. Yet few have incar­nat­ed Lebanon as deeply as he has, bring­ing to the fore a con­stant dia­logue between Mid­dle East­ern and West­ern cul­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly in his first play, Willy Pro­tago­ras Locked Up in the Toi­lets, his Birds of a Kind (Tous des oiseaux) and prob­a­bly his most famous play, Incendies (2003), known as Scrotched in English. 

There may be up to nine mil­lion Lebanese liv­ing out­side Lebanon, against four mil­lion with­in the coun­try, due to an exo­dus that began with the 1860s con­flict in Ottoman Syr­ia, fol­lowed by many oth­er waves of migra­tion. For decades, Lebanese cul­ture has been embod­ied large­ly by Lebanese artists liv­ing abroad, bring­ing an inter­na­tion­al dimen­sion to their cul­tur­al expression.

Waj­di start­ed writ­ing and per­form­ing the­atre in school in Mon­tréal and was soon encour­aged by his teach­ers to so study dra­ma; he obtained his degree from the Nation­al The­atre School of Cana­da in 1991. Since April 2016, he has been the direc­tor of the Théâtre Nation­al de la Colline in Paris, but his career was first defined by his Lebanese roots and his Cana­di­an experience.

He is known for cre­at­ing his plays on stage with all his actors and team mem­bers, includ­ing the cos­tume design­ers. Those close to him say Waj­di Mouawad is a fierce writer—a fight­er who spends hours after rehearsals trans­form­ing these moments of spon­tane­ity into a poet­ic and visu­al language.

Known in the French-speak­ing the­atre world for his polit­i­cal­ly engaged works, his plays always dis­cuss social issues linked to East and West rela­tions, war, fam­i­ly trau­ma, iden­ti­ty and youth­ful aspi­ra­tions. For one of his first con­fer­ences on stage at La Colline, in Sep­tem­ber 2016, which I had the plea­sure to review, he wel­comed Salman Rushdie and asked three school pupils to ask him some questions.

“His texts man­age to evoke Lebanon while address­ing uni­ver­sal issues,” Cou­ture adds. “They have offered a new gaze on the expe­ri­ence of con­flict and youth­ful aspi­ra­tions, and always leave room for the view­ers’ inter­pre­ta­tion. The first time I saw Willy Pro­tago­ras, I thought he was refer­ring to the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict for instance, but Mouawad said he was of course inspired by is own mem­o­ries of the Lebanese civ­il war; he often admit­ted being haunt­ed by the noise of the bomb­ing. Yet, even in a coun­try like Cana­da, that has been through pacif­ic times most­ly, his plays res­onate. They inter­ro­gate iden­ti­ty as much as her­itage and lega­cy, in terms of cul­tures but also free­dom. His main ques­tion is: Do I have to per­pet­u­ate the lega­cy my par­ents set for me?” 

Born in Beit El Qamar, a vil­lage near Beirut, in 1968, Waj­di Mouawad indeed spent his child­hood in Lebanon and expe­ri­enced the first years of the civ­il war (1975–1990) there until his par­ents left in 1978, first flee­ing to a Parisian sub­urb, then, unable to stay in France, mov­ing to Mon­tréal in 1983.

Not that the pain of hav­ing been uproot­ed has escaped Mouawad’s pen­e­trat­ing vision. “Exile saves you even as it shat­ters you,” he told a Wash­ing­ton Post jour­nal­ist in 2015 while per­form­ing in his solo show Seuls (Alone) at the Kennedy Cen­ter. But he said that exile saved him from the Lebanese civ­il war’s cycle of hatred. “Because when you become an exile,” he said, “you become ‘The Oth­er.’ You become the per­son that you detest, that you don’t under­stand, that is a stranger.”

In a way, Waj­di Mouawad’s work now embod­ies an expe­ri­ence of the Arab world, seen through the prism of West­ern experience—which a lot of oth­er Mid­dle East­ern peo­ple might be able to relate, but cer­tain­ly also West­ern read­ers and spec­ta­tors. He’s man­aged to suc­ceed in this alchem­i­cal process thanks to his open­ness to for­mal exper­i­men­ta­tion, includ­ing dance, images and music. His pro­duc­tions are often tur­bu­lent, fea­tur­ing an emo­tion­al storm of char­ac­ters and sto­ry­telling in every play.

“His cre­ations could­n’t be fur­ther from French min­i­mal­ism” notes Parisian the­atre crit­ic Christophe Can­doni. “He brought to La Colline his own melt­ing pot of cul­tures, born out of his own itin­er­an­cy. His exu­ber­ance and deeply artis­tic ges­tures are con­stant­ly chal­leng­ing us with poet­ry and his fas­ci­na­tion for the youth and their desire to thrive. He offered us a form of exot­ic uni­ver­sal­ism, yet in the French lan­guage. He’s unique.”

Waj­di Mouawad has shak­en West­ern the­atre out of its rigid rules, bring­ing a dream-infused approach, odes to child­hood’s ener­gy and a sense of adven­ture, root­ed in his Lebanese cul­ture and fas­ci­na­tion for great Greek tragedies.

He also has a tal­ent when it comes to merg­ing the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal, great­ness with the mun­dane, the emo­tion­al and the ana­lyt­i­cal oppo­site cul­tures and dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, with an ener­gy that res­onates through­out the three coun­tries he oper­ates in.  One exam­ple is obvi­ous­ly the char­ac­ter of Jeanne in Incendies, a math­e­mati­cian forced to go to her moth­er’s native Lebanon to uncov­er fam­i­ly secrets, who resolves math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts to deal with her emo­tion­al wounds.

On his play Fauves, which he thinks is per­haps a high point in Mouawad’s work, Cou­ture wrote: “Fam­i­lies are wound­ed by the secrets of the past; Jews and Arabs suf­fered the throes of war and formed improb­a­ble and mov­ing friend­ships in Mon­tre­al in the 1970s; chap­ters flow with tears, incest, rapes, mur­ders and sui­cides. But, as often with Mouawad, this trag­ic swelling and an intrigue with inter­wo­ven sto­ries is met with notes of hope, this time in the fig­ure of an astro­naut break­ing the fil­ial bad spell and in the image of a new world, opened to mankind on Mars.”

To the actor Marie-Josée Bastien, who worked with Mouawad many times, he is one rare writer who “always tries to shat­ter forms, to change per­spec­tive, repo­si­tion him­self and to pur­sue new research.”

In France, where anti-Arab prej­u­dice if not out­ward racism is often under­ly­ing, Waj­di Mouawad has been utter­ly acclaimed in the most avant-garde cir­cles, such as Le Fes­ti­val d’Av­i­gnon and Le Théâtre de la Colline. Thanks to his very inter­na­tion­al jour­ney and force­ful tal­ent, he has been able to cre­ate a dia­logue between Arab and French cul­tures like no other. 

“The only legit­i­ma­cy I can have,” Waj­di Mouawad once wrote, “is that of empa­thy at the risk of mov­ing towards the oth­er, towards the one I could call ‘the enemy.’ ”

Fas­ci­nat­ed by the most trag­ic moments in human life, Mouawad pro­duced the most mar­vel­lous “Diary of Con­fine­ment” dur­ing the lock­down in Paris last spring and recent­ly wrote the most mov­ing cry­ing call for Beirut, after the trag­ic explo­sion of August 4th. No doubt his voice will still be there to retell Lebanon’s rebirth.

 

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Melissa Chemam is a cultural journalist, lecturer, and the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone. A TMR contributing editor, she writes a monthly music column in which she explores Arab music and the greater Middle East, and how they influence music production around the world. She tweets @melissachemam.