Yasmina Reza: Drama queen

She is the most successful French playwright of her generation and her work is performed around the world. Lara Marlowe talks to Yasmina Reza, author of ‘Art’ and ‘Carnage’, about writing, working with James Gandolfini, and a rumoured liaison with disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn


France’s most celebrated playwright summons interviewers to the bar of the Hôtel Lutetia, which looks like a theatre set. Waiting for Yasmina Reza, I have the unsettling impression that I’m about to play the role of Rosanna, the literary critic who interviews a French novelist in Reza’s new play, How You Talk the Game.

Game is a biting send-up of journalists and literary festivals. Nathalie, the central character, is Reza’s alter ego. She doesn’t like discussing her life, feelings or philosophy, or commenting on her oeuvre. Nathalie has published a novel about a writer called Gabrielle, who has published a book titled How You Talk the Game – a variation on the sports saying that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”.

The play is a mise en abyme, where each image contains a smaller copy of itself, like a painting by an old Dutch master showing two mirrors reflecting each other ad infinitum.

“My very first books arrived at home like dazzling objects,” Nathalie says in Reza’s play. “It was sad enough not to be excited at the idea of receiving this one, but I didn’t expect this feeling of total discouragement.”

Does she feel discouraged? I ask Reza. “You’re doing exactly like Rosanna!” Reza exclaims, referring to the prying questions posed by the literary groupie in the play.

A few minutes later, I quote Nathalie: “Recognising the central place of writing in one’s life is to recognise the insufficiency of life.”

“And Rosanna asks the question that you are about to ask,” Reza predicts. We both laugh, because I’ve been caught in the reflecting mirrors; we are writer and journalist, acting out the play. In Reza’s unbroken circle, art imitates life which imitates art.

Reza’s talent for stripping the pretence from human interaction has made her the most successful French playwright of her generation, and the only contemporary French author whose theatre is performed around the world. Whether she is writing theatre or fiction, acting or directing, Reza says it all comes from the same place. She published her seventh novel, Happy the Happy, this year.

Despite the title – a quote from Borges – it is a novel of desolation, its characters the prose equivalent of the isolated figures in Edward Hopper’s paintings. Twenty-one characters, all linked in some way, recount slices of their lives. A homosexual cancer doctor reveals his secret encounters with male prostitutes. A coquettish old woman , modelled on Reza’s late mother, flirts in the waiting room of the cancer specialist. When a married journalist takes his mistress to the family home while his wife and children are away, the emotional void is devastating.

“I don’t write about things going right,” Reza admits. “The core that motivates me, which makes me want to dig, to make something of it that is not solely desolation, is a core that is eminently sad.”

Reza says she wanted to explore human relationships “not as a subject of happiness but as a subject of disaster. That is what I have always done, in all my plays. For me, the couple has always been the very subject matter of disaster . . . Love exists. Happiness exits. Love and happiness have been associated in culture since the dawn of time, but it’s an aberration. Adam and Eve were not happy.”

In Reza’s tragi-comic oeuvre, a veneer of laughter masks the underlying savagery and alienation of society. The slapstick arguments that characterise her plays “are more than passing disputes”, she notes. “They are relationships slipping out of control. The scene in the supermarket at the beginning of Happy the Happy is the beginning of an existential crisis. Morality in human relations stops where our nervosity begins. That’s what interests me: how far can one go without tipping, when someone gets on your nerves? My entire theatrical work functions this way.”

Reza’s father, an Iranian Jew born in Moscow, escaped deportation to a Nazi death camp by claiming to be a Muslim. Her mother was a Hungarian Jewess and a violinist. “My parents laughed a lot,” she says. “They laughed the way my characters do. When something was truly catastrophic at home, we laughed. That explains a great deal about my work.”

Reza is a literary powerhouse, but there is something sex kittenish about her clothes and high-heeled shoes. “Frivolity saves us!” cries the lonely wife of a depressed academic in Arthur Schopenhauer’s Sledge. “That’s a quote from one of my characters that I claim totally!” Reza says. Saves us from what? “From everything. From life, from moroseness, from grief . . . Frivolity is an absolutely fundamental, marvellous and indispensable human trait . . . That’s why I am less bored with women than men. With a woman you can talk about God and death and children and politics and lipstick in the same tone. That is the superiority of women.”

Reza speaks with affection of James Gandolfini, the actor who embodied the mobster Tony Soprano in the television series, and who died of a heart attack last month. Gandolfini played a Brooklyn wholesale dealer married to a writer in the Broadway version of her play The God of Carnage.

Reza had never allowed the French setting of her plays to be altered in translation, but for Gandolfini she made an exception. “With his Italian-American identity, his Italian-American accent, James couldn’t see himself playing a Frenchman,” she explains. The play was the third longest-running on Broadway in the last decade.

Carnage was already a success when Gandolfini told Reza there were things he wasn’t comfortable with, that he wanted to work through with her.

An occasional actor herself, Reza had never encountered such humility in the theatre. She and Gandolfini spent an afternoon in New York, laughing and rehearsing together.

Three of Reza’s last four plays were commissioned by German-speaking theatres. “Germany is probably the country which first recognised the seriousness of my work,” she says. “In France it took longer; when you make people laugh in France, you’re considered something of a lightweight.” Though Reza’s plays have won four Molière awards, none have been produced at the French national theatre, the Comédie-Française, a fact that mystifies her.

Members of the Académie française, the 40 “immortals” who have been the guardians of the French language since the 17th century, have pleaded repeatedly with Reza to join them. “I’m not interested in the least,” she says. “I don’t like belonging. I want to be free. Honours do not interest me.”

Yet like the “immortals”, Reza considers the French language to be her homeland. “I have no other,” she says. “It’s different from France. I’m not patriotic about France, but I do care about the language; that’s the nuance . . . I defend the language on my own. I don’t need to be in a group to defend it.”

Reza’s reputation is so well established that when she asked Nicolas Sarkozy, then a presidential candidate, if she could follow him on the campaign trail, he accepted immediately, saying, “even if you demolish me, you will elevate me.”

After following Sarkozy for a year, Reza published the best-selling Dawn, Evening or Night in 2007. It revealed traits that Sarkozy would have preferred to have kept secret; his swearing, compulsive snacking, fascination with expensive watches, disdain for French diplomats. Sarkozy and Reza did not see each other again for six years.

Unknown to Sarkozy, Reza had earlier asked to follow another politician’s presidential campaign, but he refused. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who subsequently became director of the IMF and resigned in disgrace after sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid, is widely reported to have been that politician.

Interspersed through Dawn, Evening or Night are allusions to “G”, to whom Reza dedicated the book. Strauss-Kahn is known to friends by his middle name, Gaston.

In the wake of the DSK scandal in 2011, Raphaelle Bacqué and Ariane Chemin of Le Monde published The Strauss-Kahns, in which they reported that DSK had a liaison with “a woman of infinite seduction, beautiful and intelligent, the writer Yasmina Reza”.

“I have never said that,” Reza answers when I ask if Strauss-Kahn was the mysterious “G”. Will she ever say? “No.” Why? “Because there is no reason to say to whom I dedicated the book. I’m sticking to my initial position.”

Sarkozy telephoned Reza after the book was published. “You spent a year with me, thinking about someone else,” he told her.