Between Sarkozy and Sarcasm: Playwright Yasmina Reza on What Makes a Person Powerful

Reza, who enjoys worldwide success with her plays and plaudits for a revealing book on Nicolas Sarkozy, was in Israel recently as a guest of the French Embassy.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
Maya Sela
Maya Sela

There are probably humorous conversations in which writers talk among themselves about journalists. Maybe they rate them, mock them, amuse themselves at their expense. As God is my witness, journalists certainly conduct such conversations about interviewees. For every interview published in a newspaper there’s a “behind-the-scenes” story, and sometimes behind-the-scenes is quite an exciting place. It is also apparently a painful and conflicted place for those being interviewed.

French author and playwright Yasmina Reza wrote a play about that, entitled “How You Talk the Game” ‏(“Comment Vous Racontez la Partie”‏), in which she presents scenes from an evening of readings and a journalist’s public interview of a novelist, an interview from hell. In the play, the journalist is self-confident and probing, the famous writer is on the defensive. Last month, Reza visited Israel, as a guest of the French Embassy and the French Institute, which held a number of events in her honor.

Her works for the theater have been translated into over 35 languages and are performed on many stages, from Broadway and London’s West End to Berlin and Moscow.

In 1997 and 1998, respectively, she received a Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Award for her hit play “Art.” In 2009 she once again received those two prizes for “God of Carnage,” which had premiered in Zurich in 2006. Two years later it was staged in Paris, starring Isabel Huppert. It ran for 450 performances on Broadway, with the original cast including James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels. ‏(The play was also staged in Israel at the Beit Lessin Theater, directed by Hillel Mittelpunkt.‏) “God of Carnage” was adapted for the screen in 2011 by Reza and Roman Polanski, under the title “Carnage.” Directed by Polanski, the film starred Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, and won a Cesar ‏(France’s national film award‏) for best adapted screenplay.

“How You Talk the Game,” Reza’s most recent play, premiered at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin last October. Reza says she will be directing it later this year in Paris.

Reza is also a novelist. She has published seven books, translated into many languages. Her latest novel, “Heureux les Heureux” ‏(roughly, “Happy Are the Happy”‏), came out in France this past January.

In 2007, after nine months of accompanying Nicolas Sarkozy during his successful, first presidential election campaign, she published “Dawn Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy” ‏(“L’aube le Soir ou la Nuit”‏), which caused a sensation in France. Reza had complete access to the candidate until the moment when he won the election and entered the Elysee Palace. Rather than writing about politics, she wrote about a politician’s obsession and hunger. When asked at the time by the weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur whether Sarkozy had ever tried to seduce her, she replied “No, he wanted to seduce France. It’s almost insulting to spend close to a year with a man without him trying to seduce you.”

Israel’s Gesher Theater is currently staging Reza’s play “Life x 3” ‏(“Trois Versions de la Vie,” 2001‏), directed by Amir Wolf and translated by Dori Parnes. And in honor of her visit to Israel, the Habima National Theater presented a one-time Hebrew reading of “How You Talk the Game,” with actors Evgenia Dodina, Ayelet Robinson, Alon Ofir and Michael Koresh, under the direction of Ilan Ronen. The play was translated into Hebrew by Nir Rachkovsky.

At a reading of “Happy Are the Happy” by Reza and actress Ronit Elkabetz in the Jaffa home of the French ambassador, one of the actors in attendance told me that there’s no chance a deep and sophisticated play like “How You Talk the Game” would ever be given a regular staging in Israel. That’s a shame. It’s a brilliant, very funny play about the balance of power between an audience and an artist, and between the periphery and the center. Perhaps too complex to be a theatrical hit. Reza herself considered the Habima reading a great success.

She is famous for her dislike of being interviewed, with one consequence being that, in many of the interviews she has given to the media, she ends up being quizzed about it. Reza may not like to be interviewed, but when I met her in her Tel Aviv hotel, she was warm and open.

‘Special connection’

Reza is pretty and very slim, and looks much younger than her 52 years. Her father is Iranian and her mother Hungarian; both are Jewish. She says that she was previously in Israel over 10 years ago. “I felt a special connection while my father was alive, because he was very connected [to Israel], and my connection was through him, but I myself not so much.”

The family’s original name was Gedaliah. “They were Spanish Jews who went on a long journey, it’s a long story,” she says. “They were part of an Iranian-Jewish community and, more specifically, from Samarkand and Tashkent [in modern-day Uzbekistan]. At the end of the 19th century, they had to take a Muslim name or a local name. Reza is more or less like Michael, it’s very common. And that’s the name that stuck. I’m still Reza.

“My father was in Nice during World War II and then in Drancy [the internment camp]. He fortunately had this name and the name saved him, because he said he was Iranian and a Muslim. My mother was in Budapest until the age of 20, and then immigrated to France.”

When I ask why she so hates talking to the press, she says: “It’s a dangerous and interesting game for me. The game is not only an interview. There’s an audience and you are with a journalist, and you read some extract of your book − and I don’t like to do that at all. I have many invitations to do that − less and less, because people now know that I don’t like it. In an ideal world, I would never speak, just write. I don’t see the purpose of speaking about myself, but I had to learn that sometimes I have to do it because it’s part of the game. There’s a curiosity about the person who is writing. I have a profound sense that when I speak about the book or a play, my comments damage it. I don’t like to give any explanation.”

And if it’s not an explanation, but a conversation about art, or writing?

“It’s rarely a conversation.”

So they always ask personal questions?

“Yes, like you did. I don’t resent you for doing that. If I were a journalist, I would do that, in order to understand the influences, and things like that.”

You don’t feel the need to talk?

“Not at all. On the contrary. But we are in a world where if you don’t speak about what you’re doing, you detract from its value. Now the commentaries are almost as important as the thing itself. It’s crazy. It’s very true of contemporary art, but now it’s true about everything. You have to deliver your great intellectual messages. I don’t want to do that.”

I read somewhere that you said you don’t regard writing as an intellectual work, that it’s ‘organic.’

“Writing is a very organic thing. It’s like painting. You don’t need an explanation when somebody does a painting − well, it was like that before, now that’s not true. But classical painting did not need an explanation. It’s something very physical and very emotional − anything but intellectual.

“Of course, there are intellectual things in a book: You deal with language, you deal with phrases, words, people who are saying things and having thoughts. But you can write about someone with deep thoughts and then about another character who says the opposite. Literature is the place for all the contradictions: You can affirm something in a book, you can say something that you don’t believe. It’s total freedom. You can play with silly ideas, confused ideas, untrue ideas. It’s the mixture that is very interesting, it’s not intellectual at all.”

When you start writing, do you begin with an idea or with an image?

“With an image, never with an idea. Never. Afterward, of course, ideas come. Everything needs an idea, even this chair. To build this chair, it had to be an idea at a certain point. It’s the same with a book, but you would never say it’s very intellectual to make a chair. What I don’t like is that when you’re considered a writer, you’re supposed to have an opinion about the war, about the weather − and we aren’t people who can do that. We are not people who understand better; it’s not true, we pretend.”

When you wrote the book about Sarkozy, were you writing as a journalist or as a novelist?

“Totally as a novelist. As a journalist, in the sense that I wrote during the entire process, but what I was looking for were not journalistic things at all. My eyes were the eyes of a novelist, because I was thinking something that is not at all the thoughts of a journalist. I had journalistic gold in my little notebooks, but I didn’t use it.

“I wasn’t interested at all in politics. I was interested in a politician’s life. I could have written the book about anyone, but I was very lucky that I had a great candidate; he was fantastic running for the presidency. I was looking at him as someone who’s a symbol of a politician, and I wanted to see how politicians deal with time, with life. It’s an existential book, because politicians are very, very interesting people to observe: They don’t live in the same world that you and I live in, not at all. They don’t see the reality − high-ranking politicians, I mean. They see nothing, they’re floating. They don’t know how real life is.”

Did you understand how a man becomes a politician?

“They come from the same place as actors. Some become actors, some become politicians − it’s exactly the same category of person. With a very big narcissistic flaw.”

And they also want power.

“Yes. But power − if you want real power, you become a businessman. They [politicians] don’t have real power, but they have all the trappings of power: When they go to the theater, the seats are reserved for them; when they go to a restaurant, people call them ‘Oh, Mr. President’; they have a chauffeur, a bodyguard...”

So they want love more then they want power?

“Of course. Politicians don’t have power. Maybe a small amount of power, but money is power. I would say they’re people who ignore the present. In a way, that’s something you should envy because − and in the book I reflect a lot on this − they don’t see time passing; they don’t see death coming; they don’t feel melancholy or all the things that we feel, they don’t have time for that. They organize their life in order not to have spiritual problems, which is very interesting. And when you say that to them, they admit it.

“In the book, I say to one politician that they don’t want to see death coming. He says it’s true, and that in politics even illness doesn’t arrive. That’s true: In politics, you notice many old people in good health.”

Maybe we should go into politics as well.

“It’s not for women, I’m afraid. It’s a very unfeminist, misogynist milieu, so a woman has to prove herself twice as much, so she becomes older. I met [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, and I was surprised. Her pictures don’t make her look pretty, but when you meet her she has something very gentle in her face, and she looks as though the little girl she was is still here. I met her twice, and had a nice feeling about her.”

How did you happen to meet her?

“With Sarkozy, I met a lot of people. I even met [U.S. President Barack] Obama. I met Angela Merkel another time, a few years later, not with Sarkozy. I met her in Milan. We were invited to a Wagner performance, and she came up to me and said, ‘Hello Yasmina, we’ve met before.’ She said [that the first time we’d met], ‘I didn’t want you to come in the room, but I saw your book and I was wrong.’”

Why do you think Sarkozy agreed to the book?

“I can’t explain, it’s a mystery. He didn’t like the book and I didn’t see him again while he was president.”

You do a lot of things. You write novels, plays, you directed...

“No, I’ll stop you. I write plays and novels, and that’s it. When I work as a director it’s the same as writing. I made a movie [“Chicas,” 2010] and I never thought I was a movie director; I was a writer who made a movie. I see myself as a unit; it’s just using a different element to say things. I feel deeply that I’m a writer.”

Reza says her latest book, “Heureux les Heureux,” actually originated with an offer she received to write a television series.

“I was asked a year ago by the former head of HBO − he came from LA to France − and asked me to write a series in the same vein as Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Scenes From a Marriage.’ It was a fantastic offer, but I said ‘Thank you, I want to think about it,’ and I thought about it. I tried to do it − I saw the Bergman film again, which is a masterpiece, and thought, Well, I don’t want to make it again, and I said no.

“In the meantime, the idea continued to inspire me and I thought it had to be a book. Because it has to be not with dialogue but with reflection, thoughts, descriptions, it has to be a book. So I wrote this book, but the form of a series remained. So the book is constructed like a series, with 20 chapters − two [television] seasons. It’s about couples, but none of them married − all kinds of couples, all kinds of disasters.”

You started out as an actress. Do you miss it?

“I still do it sometimes. I love acting − if it’s not too long! But people don’t dare to ask me. They think that I’m too important, that I’ll have my own ideas − which is not the case. When you’re an actor, the nice thing is that you don’t think, you’re here just to obey.”

Did you see your “Life x 3” play being performed by Gesher?

“No. I don’t want to see productions I’m not sure about. I see only the productions I’m involved with − when I see the readings and the rehearsals. Sometimes, people that I trust tell me to go and see something [I wasn’t involved with]. It happened in Moscow that a friend told me to go and see one, and it was fantastic, but that’s rare. I protect myself.”

Was it hard for you to let Roman Polanski direct a film based on your play “God of Carnage”?

“I’ve known Roman for a long time and I’ve worked with him − I adapted Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ for him [Polanski starred in a French version of Steven Berkoff’s adaption for the stage]. He used to come and see all my plays, and when he saw ‘God of Carnage,’ he asked if I would give him the rights. And I said, ‘Yes, for you of course,’ and he asked me to write the screenplay with him. You have to trust a director. It will never be the way you would have directed it, but what you would direct isn’t interesting; it’s interesting to see what others do.”

Do you read reviews of your work?

“No. It’s painful.”

But sometimes they write good reviews.

“It’s not enough if it’s good. I read only reviews that are recommended, when people tell me I should read something because its clever. It’s self-defense.”

You’re a successful playwright and author who has received many prizes, yet you say you aren’t strong enough to deal with it?

“No no no. You’re never strong enough. Prizes are nothing, success is nothing, it never reassures you. You don’t feel strong, it’s just luck. For me it never changed the way I consider my work. Never. I was rather pretentious at the beginning: I always thought I was quite good and quite bad, and now I think exactly the same.”

Yasmina Reza. 'Prizes are nothing, success is nothing, it never reassures you. It's just luck.'Credit: AFP
Polanski's 2011 film version of 'God of Carnage.' From left Reilly, Foster, Waltz, and Winslet.Credit: AP

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