September 20, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 21°C


French author Yasmina Reza has long been interested in the complications of power.
By Patricia E. Fogarty
Published: 2014-08-06

nternationally acclaimed French playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Yasmina Reza again challenges and shocks in "Happy Are the Happy." (London: Harvill Secker, 2014). Refusing conventional genres, her mould-breaking prose brilliantly bridges narrative and theater.

It opens as a supermarket skit, playing across aisles of cheese and Choco snacks. The Toscanos, Odile and Robert, begin by bickering. Odile: "Cheese to you, then!" But the market meltdown evolves into threats that soon expose long-term marital discord and detritus.

Robert is an opinion-making journalist; Odile's a public prosecutor. In a skein of sovereign relationships, their clique governs France. "Happy" leaks its characters' ugly secrets over the years while also shooting down the French power-brokering class to which they all belong.

Though it's easy to imagine these interactions on stage, the inter-connected tales also work as a novel. Each of the sections is entirely narrated by one of 18 strong voices. Reza is so good at slicing to character bone that her theatrical monologues produce sharply dramatic if not poignantly painful results.

Case in point: now 56, event-organizer Chantal Audouin has long been in thrall to her minister lover, Jacques. She understands when he breaks dates to attend to his "national calling." Unfortunately, his wife decides to tell Chantal she's but one of his three mistresses. After subsequent suicide attempts Chantal is in a mental ward.

Igor Lorrain, her ward psychiatrist, is of the cast's many womanizers. He's addicted to no-ties, just-fun sex and ensures that Chantal feels guilty, insisting she willfully misunderstood her ex for decades. Chantal: "Who says the heart grows lighter when faced with reality?" No one in this cast.

Elderly, cancer-ridden ex-departmental head Ernest Blot would be proud to say he's never shared Chantal's felicitous illusions. He applauds his grandson's refusal of a new pen. "That's the secret," says Ernest: "reduce the demand for happiness to a minimum." Wanting nothing is best.

"Happy Are the Happy" is almost invariably about people who are not.

Reza deconstructs so many marital and extra-marital relations that her tales may seem like a pitiless attack on "lovers" in general. But her real social target is far broader. Her alpha males belong to the exclusive Third Circle club. Its women are either career alphas or stay-at-home spouses to "great men." Such lives are devoted to France, and to the job of nation-building.

Private political facades must mirror establishment stability. That, at least, is the tradition. Divorce or life change is not an option. Gaming with card sharks or playing with a carousel of lovers is no more than a useful diversion. Emotionally deadened, these actors don't expect "happiness." It's absent from their personal scripts.

Jacob Hutner offers a chilling variation. Delusional and institutionalized, he's long been cleverly imitating Céline Dion songs for parents Lionel and Pascaline. Then he begins wearing scarves around his neck, "to spare my voice for the concert tours." Visiting him at the hospital, the Hutners find scarf-wearing Jacob signing Céline autographs for the public. Jacob is "happy."

Ruthless in their political purpose and indifferent to secondary damage they cause to others, this is a frightening group. Yet Reza offers a small measure of relief through a (very) few examples of humanizing sympathy.

Robert Toscano narrates two of the episodes, apparently because of his seemingly genuine affection for his children and friends. Reza also gives two monologues to the oft-mentioned but enigmatic figure of Jean Ehrenfried, once a manipulative titan in the upper echelons of campaign finances.

As he sits in a last-hope chemo waiting room, another patient complains aloud about her dead husband's "stupid" devotion to Israel. "Are you obsessed with Israel, too?" she asks him. "Naturally," Jean answers. Like many of the characters, Jean is Jewish, as is Reza. It's an interesting tease that she leaves undeveloped.

The climactic, near-final chapter unites her entire power-networking cast. These old acquaintances gather at Ernest Blot's funeral memorial, in a crematorium. Together, they listen to eulogies, and then stolidly watch as Ernest's casket rides toward the flames. They've never believed there's much to look forward to.

Consider the moment when shady, international deal-broker Darius visits Jean Ehrenfried during his hospital chemo drip. Jean speaks of duty as a value and describes his seemingly pointless but loyal visits to a friend whose memory has succumbed to Alzheimer's. To which Darius replies casually, and in outrageous and unforgettable fashion. "It's a wonderful disease."

"Happy" may not lift your spirits, but it's a riveting work by one of our finest contemporary writers. What better recommendation?

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