In the last 10 years, Wajdi Mouawad has emerged as a major force in Québécois theatre. The Lebanese-Canadian playwright has documented the first-generation immigrant experience through a series of powerful, often epic plays that have won him praise and prizes in his home province and abroad. He has received the Governor General’s Award in Canada and been dubbed a Knight in the National Order of Arts and Letters in France. He has founded companies in Montreal and Paris and is currently artistic director for French theatre at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC).
The Lebanese civil war "was a very shameful war, where fathers killed sons, where sons killed their brothers, where sons raped their mothers," Mouawad says. "They didn’t want to explain to my generation what had happened. Strangers had to tell me my own story." — Wajdi Mouawad
So why have so few English Canadians heard of him? Mouawad writes in French and, even though his plays are being translated, they’ve had few productions outside la belle province. However, that’s starting to change. Last year, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and the NAC teamed up to produce a gripping English-language version of his 2003 play Incendies – translated by Linda Gaboriau, it was retitled Scorched. It was so successful (grabbing Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore theatre award for best production) that the Tarragon has remounted it this season and is touring it across Canada. The show, directed by Richard Rose, will visit two major western Canadian theatres – Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre Centre and Edmonton’s Citadel – as well as Centaur, Montreal’s main English-language company.
Audiences confronting Mouawad’s work for the first time will likely be overwhelmed. Big, violent, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping and, at times, surprisingly funny, Scorched has the broad scope we expect from Mouawad’s coeval, Robert Lepage, but wedded to the emotional devastation of a Greek tragedy. In fact, Scorched bids to outdo Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex in its final horrifying revelation.
Mouawad is quick to acknowledge his debt. "I always have Sophocles in my head," he says during a recent phone interview from his Montreal home. For Mouawad, English is a third language, after French and Arabic, and he chooses his words carefully in explaining that the Greek tragedians – along with the work of that modern master, Kafka – are his literary idols. "They not only inspire me, they give me the oxygen so I can live [as an artist]. I would be lost if I hadn’t found them."
The classical resonance seems appropriate, since most of Scorched takes place in an unnamed land that is clearly Mouawad’s native Lebanon, the site of ancient Phoenicia and a country where horrors worthy of an antique tragedy have been perpetrated in modern times. The play follows the paths of immigrant twins Janine and Simon, who make separate journeys back to the Middle East to fulfil the dying requests of their mother. Janine must find their father, who they thought died before they were born; Simon must track down a brother they never knew they had. In their searching, the two siblings begin to uncover the unknown early life of their mother, Nawal, a refugee and resistance fighter during her country’s bloody civil war.
It’s a tale close to the 39-year-old Mouawad’s own experiences. He was born in Lebanon in 1968, but fled with his family after the civil war broke out in 1975. They went first to France, then to Canada in 1983. Like the character Nawal, Mouawad’s parents never spoke of the war to their children.
"It was a very shameful war, where fathers killed sons, where sons killed their brothers, where sons raped their mothers," Mouawad says. "They didn’t want to explain to my generation what had happened." Instead, he learned about it from reading French and U.S. historians: "Strangers had to tell me my own story."
Now Mouawad has reclaimed that story. While Scorched is fiction, it draws on real-life characters and events. Nawal, its central figure, was partly inspired by a woman Mouawad met eight years ago, who had attempted to assassinate the commander of the South Lebanon Army in the 1980s and was interned in the army’s notorious El-Khiam prison for 10 years. She spent her sentence in solitary confinement, in a cell next to the torture room, Mouawad says. "For 10 years, she heard the crying and pain of the tortured. To try not to become mad, she began to sing. She sang the songs she knew — popular songs. The other people in the jail, who heard this woman but never saw her, called her ‘The Woman Who Sings.’ She gave them hope and courage to survive."
Scorched is only the second play in a projected four-play cycle. The first instalment, Littoral (translated as Tidelines), won Mouawad the 2000 Governor General’s Award for French drama; the third, Forêts (Forests), premiered in 2006. Mouawad is preparing to write the fourth and final play, to be titled Ciel(s) (Sky(s)), next year. All four confronting tragedies of the past, whether Lebanon’s specifically or, in the case of Forêts, those of the entire 20th century, from the Holocaust to the Montreal Massacre.
It’s heavy stuff, but Mouawad’s writing also has its humorous side. One of the main characters in Scorched is a fussy Montreal notary, executor of Nawal’s will, whose malapropisms provide much-needed comic relief. Early plays like Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons’ and Willy Protagoras is Shut in the Toilets are filled with black comedy and farce. And Mouawad’s latest piece, Seuls, is a wry bagatelle that he wrote as a breather between Forests and Sky(s). In the one-man show, which he’ll perform at the NAC in October, Mouawad plays a stressed-out theatre scholar fixated on Robert Lepage.
It may be his way of dealing with inevitable Lepage comparisons. Like that multi-faceted theatre wizard, Mouawad also directs and acts; favours big, ambitious projects; works internationally; and has even branched off into film. (Mouawad directed a movie version of Littoral in 2004.) Mouawad agrees that the older man was a huge influence early in his career; he says seeing Lepage’s The Dragons’ Trilogy while he was a student at the National Theatre School in the late 1980s changed his notions of what theatre could be. However, in style and content, the two are very different artists.
Mouawad points out that the visually stunning work of Lepage is preoccupied with the quest – going out into the world – while his own text-driven plays are odysseys – journeys back home. "The plays of Robert are about Québécois trying to discover the world, in Japan, Russia, France, London," he says. "In all my plays, there is the story of someone who discovers his origins are different from what he thinks, and he tries to get back to those origins." In fact, the men represent two generations of French-Canadians. Lepage, 50, is the child of the Quiet Revolution, and has sought to define his own culture by exploring others. Mouawad represents those first-generation Canadians who are still struggling to come to terms with the countries and cultures they’ve left behind.
It’s not that Mouawad isn’t fully engaged in Canadian culture. He recently wrote a much-circulated open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, protesting the government’s cuts to federal arts funding. The missive, written with the same passion as his plays, accuses the Harper government of showing contempt for the arts.
"The voice of the artist needs to be heard more in Canada," Mouawad tells me. "We’ve begun to think that art is not important, that politics is the business of reality and the artists are dreamers. It’s important to take these opportunities to make our voices heard." To date, he’s had no response from the PM’s office. "If I had an answer, at least it would mean there is a dialogue," he says with a sigh. "Instead, there is indifference. The government doesn’t care what the artist has to say. It’s sad."
Scorched runs at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre to Sept. 28; at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre Oct. 7-Nov. 2; at Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre Centre Nov. 13-29 and at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre Jan. 10-Feb. 1, 2009. It returns to the Tarragon June 9-28, 2009.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.