Among the influences of Shakespeare evident in Yasmina Reza’s plays are the following:
Accessibility to the audience of the time
As Shakespeare never forgot the audience of his time – even though it ranged from the groundlings to royalty and the intellectual community – Reza’s work maintains an appeal the everyday life and human nature of the audience of her time. For Shakespeare, the appeal has lived on through 400 years, but only as it started by piquing the interest of his original audience at a level of universal humanity that has continued its appeal through history. Reza’s plays are not aimed at any particular audience, and therefore offer an appeal to a wide and disparate base. She has said, “There’s no point in writing theatre if it isn’t accessible, because no one will see it. The greatest playwrights such as Shakespeare or Molière – to whom, by the way, I am not comparing myself – they were also accessible.”
Common themes of maintaining acceptable conduct under a veneer of civility
Audiences often discover that the best behavior of many of the characters in Shakespeare’s comedies are thin and fragile veneers maintained for the purpose of manipulating public opinion (think of Beatrice and Benedict at the height of their civility). In Reza’s work, her characters often struggle to maintain similar veneers, and when those disguises disintegrate, the “real” character comes forth.
Artfully crafted dialogue, invention of words
The quality and artistry of Shakespeare’s dialogue set a world standard in his earliest plays. When he needed new words and phrases, he invented them or borrowed them from other languages. Today Reza’s writes in French, but her plays have been translated into a number of other languages. When translated into English, she has found that American English is superior to the formality of British English. She says, “American English is much closer to French than British English is. English is a beautiful language, but in England it’s very formal and doesn’t allow invention. American English is informal, keen to take influences, to invent words, just as I write in French.” Further, she notes, “I write from my intuition, my sense of freedom, my feeling for words and rhythm.” Shakespeare, of course, always wrote with a keen sense for words and rhythm.
A clear view into characters’ psyches
Shakespeare gave his audiences a look into the psyche of his characters, sometimes using soliloquy, but often using dialogue to reveal the driving forces within – along with the confusion that accompanies intense emotional conflicts. At the same time, he did not belabor his audiences by dwelling on childhood causes for his characters’ current psychological states. Similarly, Reza doesn’t seek to explain or deconstruct her characters’ backgrounds for the audience. She says of her characters, “I’m not interested in what they were like as children, in psychoanalysis, because writing is totally instinctive. I work like a painter. If a painter is doing a portrait of someone, he’s not interested in their childhood; he paints what he sees. There’s no explanation because it doesn’t mean anything.” Reza uses dialogue, permitting her characters to “spill” themselves to the audience through conversation with another character. As a result, the audience is able to enjoy a similar degree of dramatic irony as a Shakespearean audience.
A challenge to self-knowledge
Shakespeare’s plays are not openly didactic, but several offer his audiences opportunities to make observations about human nature that they can take home and apply to their own lives. Reza’s work often offers similar, and perhaps less subtle, challenges to self-knowledge through the characters and plots of her plays.
Clear portraits of human nature through characterization
Shakespeare was a master observer of human nature and an unchallenged artist in creating characters that bring portraits of human nature to the stage. Reza has also shown a real talent at singling out the subtleties of human nature and staging them clearly for the discovery and enjoyment of her audiences as well.
I am Brutus, and I am afraid…
“I do fear the people choose Caesar for their king.” Act 1, Scene 2
I am afraid. I am afraid for Rome, afraid for the Senate, afraid for praetors, and tribunes, and soldiers and slaves. Our way of life is in danger, a way of life once secured by a form of government based on truth and justice and equity. For centuries our leaders have emerged from within the numbers of our senators and served at our pleasure, by election. But all that is in danger, and I am afraid. I am afraid that we shall sacrifice justice to be ruled by fear, and favor, and suspicion, and bribery – and that justice will have become a commodity on a market where high bidders reign.
Ever since Caesar returned to Rome from his victories in Gaul and Britain, and crossed the Rubicon with his troops – defying Roman law – large numbers of the people have been enamored with him. However, not every Roman is as easily impressed. Many are wary. After Caesar defeated Pompey it became clear that the republic was in danger – for Caesar emerged as a dictator, and was even named “dictator for life.” But now there are some who would have him named our King, and that would mean the end of the republic and a way of life that has made men free and kept men free.
“Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe? What Rome?” Act 2, Scene 1
The last king of Rome reigned almost five hundred years ago. The Tarquin governed by fear, killed senators at whim, required tribute and bribes, and was eventually cast out by another Brutus – so that the republic could be restored. Should Caesar be named king now, how could history not repeat itself? But this time, Rome – the republic that guarantees our system of law and equity; the republic where no man is above the law – Rome is threatened with disintegration and annihilation.
“I know no personal cause to spurn at him
But for the general: He would be crowned.” Act 2, Scene 1
In the midst of all this danger, you must understand something else. Caesar is my friend. Caesar spared my life when Pompey was defeated. He could have ordered my death. Caesar went on to receive me warmly into his inner circle, appointing me governor of Gaul, and later nominating me as praetor. Caesar trusts me and believes in me. He has given me no reason to judge him or hate him, except…except that it is clear he is charmed with the thought of a crown, a crown that would destroy a nation and a way of life. The people in the streets don’t understand the dangers their cheers create. What leader of Caesar’s caliber could resist their flattery, and what leader, even one who is today a friend, will I be able to trust when his power becomes absolute and the republic is no more? Already my friend has slipped away from me – loving preeminence, sitting while his former fellow senators stand to plead for his favors, holding court daily in a senate that was once populated by equals, but now endures one man who is superior to all.
For a month now, a day has not passed when I have not received messages from fellow Romans begging me to awake and see the danger that we are facing. Clearly, not all of Rome is beguiled with the thought of a king. It is a desperate time, and Rome is begging me to defend her, to act on her behalf. I love my country. I love being a Roman. I am, and I will always be, a son of Rome. I have sworn my life to her defense, and I will honor those vows.
No man – not even a friend – can persuade me to relent or to trade my honor for anything less than the preservation that Rome deserves. What has begun, I will finish, or give my life in the effort.
A good friend and a wonderful fan of Elements died on March 30, 2014, at the age of 97. Marny Leonard possessed an indomitable spirit and a tremendously warm heart. She recorded a sonnet for our Word Made Flesh project, and represents the oldest person to send us a recording so far. Thank you, Marny, for sharing your gift of life with us. We will miss you.
Follow this link to see Marny’s sonnet.
Michael Hammond and Jessica Webb led us in an exploration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar from two very different but very complimentary directions, giving us a unique opportunity to discover new levels of truth in the text and exciting nuances in our relationships as actors on the stage. What a full and rewarding day. Many thanks to Michael and Jessica!