Interview with Marion Aubert, Author

August 21, 2014 | By Nicole Birmann

Marion Aubert's play, DEBACLES, was presented at the Lark Play Development Center on June 3, 2014, as part of HOTINK at the Lark, an international play reading series. Following the premiere, a representative of the French Cultural Services sat down with Marion to talk about her experiences as a French author here in the Unites States.


French Cultural Services (FCS): Marion, your play is about the French Resistance during the Second World War. What were your motivations to write about this subject matter, and why did you decide to treat it in the style of comédie noire, which is more of an American sense of humor, that we associate with directors like Tarentino or Stanley Kubrick and authors like Vonnegut?

Marion Aubert (MA): I spoke about my motivations to write DEBACLES in a short presentation to Kimberly Jannarone and Erik Butler, the two American translators of my texts. I’m glad to show you the text below.

Debacle (definitions).
1.  The breaking of ice in a river or frozen harbor.
2.  Fig. and fam. Regrettable change that carries off individual fortune, governmental prosperity, opinions, or social mores, as the ice of a river breaks up and is carried away.  “The French debacle of 1940.”
3.  Med. Colic, diarrhea.
We were in the salon of the Hôtel de Ville at Saint-Etienne.  The stage director Benoît Lambert said to me: “One day, I’ll do a play on the Resistance.  I read a huge book on vacation.  Cordier’s Diary.
Summer came.  I went to see my grandfather. The women—my grandmother, my mother, my daughter—stayed upstairs.  For the first time in my life, I went down to my grandfather’s cellar.  Trembling, he asked me, “What do you want to know, Marion?”  He handed me some old papers.  Comical speeches to deliver at a wedding feast.  Songs by Maurice Chevalier.  The program for a recreational morning the day following the Liberation (my grandfather acted in the sketch, Barnabé at the Dentist, playing the part of Barnabé.  He also recited the poem, “Song of the Partisans.”).  A tract on Nazi atrocities.  A book written by a friend: “Maquis M.”
“You who read this book will find in its chapters the moments of agony and joy that we experienced during the mute and tenacious struggle against the Kraut to free our country; you will revisit a few hours spent among men who had no aim but one: to serve.  You who read this book will find a new world you did not know of before.  The following pages have only one goal: to show the magnificent spirit of Resistance in a group of country- and city-people in one corner of France, a surge of our nation’s soul when faced with the brutalities of the invader.”
That's the prologue.  Then, my grandfather got worked up.  He showed me his submachine gun—when my grandfather got married, my grandmother made him swear to throw it in the pond.  My grandfather complied.  But last year, there was a drought.  And everything came to the surface.—He gestured.  The sound: “Bdrrrrrrr.”
Like that.
“Bdrrrrrrr.”
At me.
“Bdrrrrrrr.”
He started to cry.  He told me about a friend who was stomped to death before his eyes.  Kicked with boots in the face.  He asked me: “What do you want me to say?”
He cried.  He looked at the picture of his dead daughter.  He said bad things about my mother.  Good things about his dog.  I decided to get some fresh air.  Upstairs, the women were chatting.  “So soon?” my grandmother asked.  “That was fast!”  She said: “Take a seat!”  I took a seat.  She told me—for the thousandth time—about the exodus of 1940, crossing the town on a bicycle while bombs rained down, the nice German doctor, the illegitimate son of godmother Adèle, who had her head shaved (the shame of the family).  Then, she enthused about my daughter’s gracefulness.  When Benoît called me a few days before the workshop, he said: “I have an idea!  We’ll work on Tartuffe!
I didn’t say anything.  I hid the tract on Nazi atrocities in the back of my library (I don’t want my children to find it right away).  I put the pictures of the mass grave of my grandfather’s friends shot by a firing squad into an envelope.  I wrote: “grandpa 1944 resistance.”  I put it away.
When I arrived at the workshop on Monday, November 5, there were photocopies of Tartuffe lying on the table.  I acted as if nothing was wrong.  I took out my grandfather’s comic speeches.  Then, we all went to the Musée de la Résistance in Saint-Etienne.  Together, we watched The Sorrow and the Pity (by Marcel Ophuls).  A documentary on Daniel Cordier (Jean Moulin’s secretary during the Resistance).  I read Alias Caracalla.  Reread the Diary of Anne Frank.   War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras.  Cried again.  Fabien Spillmann, in charge of research at La Comédie de Saint-Etienne (he is a specialist on collaborators during the WW2), came and delivered a lecture.  I asked my father about my great-great-grandfather’s Pétainist past —there was a full portrait of the Marshal in grandpa’s house.  My father said: “I asked grandma about that just before she died.  She cleared grandpa.  Grandpa supported Pétain like everybody else.  Two percent of the French population were in the Resistance during the war.”
Then, I watched the students working.
I really wanted to write a play on the Resistance for them.
It’s a very nice group of students. They’re the same age as my grandfather’s friends who were shot in the picture.
I watched Benoît at work.
I really wanted to write a play for Benoît (that is, on the Resistance, because it was basically his idea in the salon of the Hôtel de Ville last May).  I wrote the play very fast—in three weeks—in a state of feverish excitement.  I often wrote the play between 5:45 and 8:30 in the morning.  When night leaves Saint-Etienne.  Several times, I watched the sun rise after spending all night with the play.  I wrote the final scene the day the first snowflakes fell.  At first, I called the play Simon and the Resistance.  Then, The Lamed.  Then, The Debacle.  Then Debacles.  I wanted to write an epic of the French Resistance.  I wrote a tragic-comical serial about defeat (and love).  The characters in the piece are full of pathos.  Steeped in desires. Humiliated.  Humiliating.  Defeating.  Grandiose.  Sad and funny at the same time.
Alive.
Infinitely alive.
It is in no way in homage to my grandfather.

Saint-Etienne, 30 November 2012.
7 o’clock AM.
Room in the l’Hôtel de Ville.

MA: I'm not sure if I decided to treat the piece like a "comédie noire." To me it's more what I would call a tragi-comédie ; it is quite a natural style of writing for me. I write about subjects that are tragic, violent and unbearable but in a way that evokes laughter, because, laughter gives us the strength to carry on and face even the most overwhelming and soul-crushing situations. For me, laughter sets free the darkness within us when tragedy threatens to suffocate and hold us down; it allows us to come back to the world and makes it easier to regain a hold on our lives. Laughter serves as an emergency exit. I have this memory as a child of a moment when I felt trapped and engulfed in sadness, and then, just like that, something made me laugh, and I was snapped back into reality and brought back to life. It's like this that laughter allows us to bear our sadness, and whether good or bad, to do what we can to start over.


FCS: How did you find the American translation of your humor? Were there any difficulties along the way?

MA: I was thrilled with the translation! I had the chance to meet with the translators, who have the exact same sense of humor as me (I don’t know if my sense of humor is specifically French, but sometimes there is chemistry and the connection happens; it is like new horizons opening in front of me). Of course sometimes it was impossible to get the exact nuance or meaning of the language itself. For example the slang phrase «suce ma botte» (literal meaning, suck my boot) was born from the acoustics and spelling of the phrase «suce ma bite» (which I'm sure you can all imagine that it derives from...suck my....) Indeed it's impossible to express some subtle context and meaning, so yes, sometimes phrases or words like that got lost in translation. When one translates, it’s a bit like re-writing.


FCS: Were you worried about the reception of this play by the generation of people who actually lived during this time? How was the piece received in France, was the reaction there different from in America?

MA: I didn't specifically write for that generation, more so for my own, and certainly those to come. I wrote it based on that generation, not against it. In France so far, the piece has only been presented as a work in progress at the school of La Comédie de Saint-Etienne, where the audience was comprised of young students and parents;  no one was of that age at all (meaning 80 or more). So, it's really impossible to speak for them... I'm sure my grandfather wouldn't, or really couldn't understand this play. He still seems stuck -- and who can blame him – in his pain. We ourselves would probably be too if we'd lived through such horrors. I think, and I hope, that this play doesn't judge this generation, nor accuse them, only that it raises questions: "What would we have done?" "Which side would we have been on or chosen," "Do heroes really exist?" The reception wasn't necessarily different in France, not so different that I could tell really. But of course, without doubt, the French have more of a connection to the historical references (everyone here knows the story of the women whose head were shaved in public for having sex with enemy officers, and other stories like it) but the play that has only been presented a few times while still in rehearsals evoked more or less the same reaction.


FCS: Your piece, ORGUEIL, POURSUITE ET DECAPITATION (Pride, Pursuit and Decapitation), described as a "hysterical and family comedy," was also presented as a staged reading in San Francisco during the festival Des Voix organized by Playwrights Foundation in 2012, and then again at Lark Play Development Center in 2013. Was the audience in San Francisco different from that of New York?

MA: Oh! I definitely wouldn't say I'm an expert on the audience in either San Francisco or New York! I'd say the audiences at both the Playwrights Foundation and Lark Play were actually pretty similar. We'd really have to do a specific study, but in my opinion, any spectator who comes to listen to a reading of an unknown piece by a foreign author have to have, more or less, the same sense of curiosity. I was, both times, delighted by the benevolence of these extremely open, warm and welcoming audiences.


FCS: Lark Play Development Center has selected your pieces two years in a row. Could you tell me a bit about your last experience working with Lark? How do you envision your future projects with the American organization that you have already worked with?

MA: The work with Lark was deeply passionate. Not only because it fosters dialogues with other authors, but also because it's such a luxury to be able to work on the translation of a piece with a company of actors and a director. Being part of the translation process could be weird.  It's like writing the same piece over again but with different ears, to hear your language in another language. It tests the boundaries of language -- what works, what doesn't. I would love if this work continued, and I plan to stay in contact with Lark and the Playwrights Foundation. The ideal situation however, would naturally be to see my plays, and those of my contemporaries -- there is a vibrant community in France --, produced in theaters. It seems to go without saying, but in France it's a bit complicated. It's also a political choice to support contemporary authors, to circulate their works and aesthetics, and to be patient as they spread. It's a long and drawn-out job, but one that's worth the end result. I have definitely felt, in coming back to the U.S., the benefits of my first trip here. It was like building an episode of my work with the translators, the writers, the actors, the directors I met, and the audience.


FCS: What motivated you to start writing for theater? You also write for the younger population. Could you talk a little about your approach? 

MA: As soon as I learned how to write words, I began to write stories. It started with copying all the words of the dictionary starting with the single letter “A” (I wanted to give my father a handwritten pocket copy of the dictionary); then I wrote letters like a compulsive habit (I should mention that I moved from place to place many times) and later, I wrote texts that I dedicated to friends.

Friendship and love played a great role in my writing. It was a way for me to make friends and then to keep them; always using writing as a way to break the ice with others, to attract them. There are letters that I wrote but never sent, or works that are still in boxes. It has always been someone else who gave me the desire, or the vital need to write. And thus, at the age of 15, theater entered into my life for a sentimental reason. I decided to become an actress and I entered the Conservatory of Montpellier (where I have lived for the last 20 years). It was there that I met the young women (the director Marion Guerrero and the actress Capucine Ducastelle) with whom I would create my company. (www.tirepaslanappe.com) Thus, writing for theater imposed itself on me, I wrote my first play at 19 and I haven't stopped since.
It's true that I also write for the young audience, albeit more rarely. My first works were born out of commissions, which without doubt, came from those who found a type of childlike curiosity in my work (violence, cruelty, an inclination to disobedience...). I don't really have a particular method to this kind of work, I more or less simply try to find a new approach each time. I'm actually just now in the middle of new creation which is completely experimental. For many years I've been promising a play to my 7 year-old son. The goal was naturally to take advantage of his presence, to ask questions at meals, and to learn a little about his childhood.
As a result, to avoid missing precious moment in time with my son, I started to work with 200 children in 5 cities and 8 schools located in different regions from France.
For this project, I write to the children; then, they answer me; we also organize workshops. Based on the material collected -- we calculated 200 grams of documents per children, which means 40 kilograms altogether, it’s a lot! -- I’m writing a play called La Classe Vive. In addition, to make the experience more exciting, I am planning to connect cities and schools to one another, creating a circuit, a network for the correspondences. The children would keep on writing to me, but they would also write to each other. By creating this connection, I hope, if not to encourage some vocational pursuits, at least to give them the love of connecting with one another through writing, which personally gave me some of the most beautiful experiences in my life.
I should note that I regret not to have initiated this project with a school in the United States. It would have been beautiful to start a writing correspondence between students from a school in New York and a school in Montbéliard. I don’t have any doubt about the relevance of such correspondences between children of different countries in the world.


Interview by Nicole Birman Bloom, Performing Arts Program Officer at the French Cultural Services. Translation and proofreading by Sarah Reed, Nicole Birmann Bloom, Henry Lee, and Sophie Thunberg.

The presentation of DEBACLES at HotInk Festival at Lark Play Development Center was made possible thanks to a grant from the French – American Fund for Contemporary Theater, A Program of FACE in partnership with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.

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