A Theatre of a Possible Now

Guy Gutman interviews Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous is one of the most prominent and influential writers and philosophers working in Europe today. A feminist philosopher, author, and playwright, her work is diverse and rich, both poetic and political. Cixous has written over 40 books and dozens of essays and articles, and is best known to the Israeli public particularly with her book The Laugh of the Medusa.In 1980 she started collaborating with the Théâtre du Soleil, and has been serving as the ensemble’s writer and playwright ever since.

Théâtre du Soleil was founded in 1964 by Ariane Mnouchkine as a theatre laboratory and collective. Over the years, they have created some of the masterpieces of contemporary theatre. Mnouchkine’s work creates an unusual synthesis of different performative traditions, and between Eastern and Western theatre. Théâtre du Soleil is located at La Cartoucherie, a former munitions factory complex on the outskirts of paris, which over the years has turned into a real settlement, community, a place for hosting, for art and, for action.

Writers and theatre makers usually lead a very different life. Coming from writing, can you tell us how you first engaged with theatre?

Well, it’s really part of history if one can say so. I have met Ariane (Mnouchkine) in 1972 when she was performing 1789. At that time, I was part of the GIP (Le Groupe d'information sur les prisons) and we were militants of the prison conditions in France. So when I saw Ariane's work I immediately thought that she should join us, because it was obvious to me that the type of theatre she was doing was relevant. She said yes – immediately!

That's how it started. We began by performing in front of prisoners. I came up with a simple play made of four lines and a couple of her actors were supposed to perform it – but we never succeeded in completing this small play because the police came down on us immediately. Yet from that moment onwards we became close friends and I became a friend of the Théâtre du Soleil. I've written papers on their plays and with time we became very close and shared everything. I belonged to the Association for Artists in Exile – and we did huge and beautiful demonstrations with the theatre. So it was theatre and politics from the very start.

One night, while I was attending the first Shakespeare plays, Ariane approached me and simply said: “I need a writer to write a play for us.” And I naturally replied: “I can't!” it's not at all my genre! I'm doing things that are totally defit (undone, deconstructed) and it was beyond my imagination. She said – just try. And that was it. I was on the way of doing Sihanouk (L'Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge).
The theme came from Ariane – it was Asia. As you know, Ariane has very strong ties with Asia and goes there often in order to refresh her imagination. In a way, I believe her theatrical mind was born out of Asia. Yet for me it was an unknown continent – I discovered it with her.

Still, the main theme was very recurrent because what we do after all is always the same – we deal with Evil and Today. We ask: What has the world invented again that is worse than what we have already seen?
At first, I made a mistake because I started writing about a small village between Cambodia and Vietnam that totally disappeared during the war. I showed it to Ariane and she told me “but it's tiny!” It took me some time to find the scale. The Théâtre du Soleil is huge and so I had to apprentice myself while writing Sihanouk. I have written for the theatre before for five characters – but that's nothing! To hold five characters within is easy – it's nothing, really. But 50?! There are not 50 characters within me, within you. And so I would do five in a scene, introduce them and carry them one by one, then five by five. It was an enormous effort of imagination, of elaboration. When I finally finished the text, Arianne said the company must read it and approve – which felt very risky. Now, today – I know of course that they always approve.

From writing to the collaborative space and the physicality of the performers, designers and so on – what was the nature of this encounter? Did you all work on the text and the production together?

It has changed and it is still changing continuously. At first, I never tried to adjust to the time and space of the stage. My writing was huge and unlimited. It was like a large piece of cloth that is too big and you slowly adjust it on the bodies that put it on.

Compared to other types of acting, the performers in Théâtre du Soleil are very slow. If one of my plays was performed by another company it would last a lot less. It might sound like nothing but it is interesting, especially for a writer. If I write a monologue of one page it will become two pages with them.
You see, the Théâtre du Soleil is a school and all the actors are formed and trained completely by Ariane. None can come from elsewhere – they are all children of the company. So the way they articulate and analyze or perform takes time. So for the writer it means – write less text.

Do you think that this process of work actually emphasizes a tension between text and body, action and presence?

Yes, it's true but it is also due to the fact that they are trained this way, that they are looking for something. It actually comes from not learning by heart. The performers rehearse for nine months with the text in their hands, yet they don’t learn it, they don't know it, they don’t even try to understand it. They receive the words somehow, yet they are beyond them. It makes the text move all the time. Until something happens: at the very last moment – they appropriate it.

Does that influence or introduce something new to your writing outside of theatre?

I think it doesn't really. They are separate continents. Different in every way possible – which is perhaps the strongest thing I take from this separation – that there is a difference. I think it is a good thing because it's morally, consciously, unconsciously, and philosophically important not to persevere in only one type of reason of exchange. It's important to speak other languages too, to go to foreign countries which I still do, just like going from one type of writing to another. For me theatre is a foreign country.

I owe the theatre. It also helped me for instance not worry too much about the fact that literature properly speaking – which is my practice – has so little reverberation and echo. It takes a long time to reach the public and for the public to come back. The way writing echoes on the earth is something that you can't perceive. I know that I'm read all over the world but I never know in which speed it reaches its aim. It might be lightning quick or very slow. At the same time, I believe in what I do and want to achieve something – but can never really get a return. Whereas with the public in the theatre you get the return immediately, and with a large crowd. That is very important to me. It helps me accept easily the fact that I never know what happens to my writing.

Ariane Mnouchkine and Hélène Cixous. Photograph : Michèle Laurent

Théâtre du Soleil has a very particular ever-evolving relation with the notion of Public/Audience. Do you see an analogy between the relationship Writing-Reading that you explore in your books – and the theatrical relationship Performance-Audience?

Of course. What I do is probably always like that – it is always a school. Perhaps even the reason I related to theatre, to Théâtre du Soleil and to Ariane was because of my own approach to writing, literature, and reading. At the end it’s always got to do with that: with inviting the Other, sharing. It is obviously going to Hades and exploring what is underground and getting lost. So ethically it’s the same attitude.
With time, I noticed that some of my texts have become textbooks for theatre makers and artists and I was surprised. I didn't address them in particular. I was addressing US, WE, YOU but I think it's simply because I situate myself, my thoughts, my thinking, at a certain level that I think theatre should too – and that is exploring the roots of our sufferings, of our thinking, how it fashions itself out of dreams and primitive materials that look for a shape, striving to become enjoyable.

Returning to the image of your first encounter with the theatre – performing in front of prisoners. Does that motivation still guide you today?

I think it was and still is my way of not being a common theatre goer. When I first saw Ariane's work I was full of admiration. There was an extraordinary force of the Present in the work – it was performed in the Present. I asked myself what is theatre? it is IN the PRESENT. So when I lured Ariane into joining me in the demonstrations, I simply turned this concept around – demonstration is in the present, the prison is there, you are in front. NOW. That's it.

Yet compared to what we experience around us, theatre seems to always be in delay, it always seems to come late at the end.

It's interesting because actually I think that the problem with theatre is always the contrary – that it is here and now. Even if the play takes place in the beginning of the past century, all the feelings, all the passions are NOW. What the public receives is NOW. That is of course the work of the performers. The actors are not "100 years ago," they are totally humble – they can't even imagine 100 years ago – they are here. Which is why it is so difficult to create. For example, now we are working with Ariane on the next play. We seek always the theatrical distance but it is only for almost hysterical reasons, because the distance is not there regarding the passions. The passions are NOW. Now today means 2015, which means 2017 – and it has to be there! At that moment.

And what happens when the audience enter with their own NOW?

Everything changes. But you know, when I write, there is always somebody in the imaginary scene – it's the public. It's the chorus, asking me questions. The Other is always there and if I forget it – it stops working. When it doesn’t work I realize it's because I wasn't speaking to the public.
When you only seduce them and they laugh as if tickled – I hate that. I share with the public. The public is my mother. I just listen to what they are expecting or fearing and I show it to them.

In Israel somehow Theatre now plays a major role in the political debate. Do you feel theatre still has a responsibility or ability to participate in the political sphere?

It's important for the theatre to practice its social gest – first of all by opening up, and hosting all. It's hard for me to say what should be done in theatre in Israel, of course, as I know it very little. What is evident though is that there is so much urgency. I would imagine that for Palestinians it will be ultra-urgent to do theatre – because it is the place where we can say anything. Not in the way of the machine gun, rather in a way of articulating what we were unable to say, what we feel, and that is something that we can only express when we use all of our body to let it out.

For example, I realize that there are enormous problems in Israel. Many many different problems. I'm sure it's extremely complicated. Yet for me – here is what I sense is a fundamental problem: I was walking in Neve Tzedek and the promenade on the beach in Tel Aviv – and because I grew up in Algeria, I recognize the scene immediately. While walking I’ve noticed that half the people walking past one another with a gigantic wall between them. It is a wall of silence and of rejection – and yet all say: “there is no wall!” That is not true – there is ONLY the WALL. Yet all say there isn't: “the proof is that we are together in the same space and at the same time!” So what could render visible the wall which IS there? Theatre. Yet, which theatre? This of course I am incapable of saying.

That is why you have to continue, gather these moments, keep them and allow them to surface. And that is also something I learned from Ariane and the Théâtre du Soleil. Often I felt fragile, that I am not big enough, I don’t know how to continue. I realized that in theatre we can do all that is impossible to do. It is the instrument par excellence.

March, 2017