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