Goddess of Carnage

Playwright Yasmina Reza on what inspired her recent international hit

There was a little incident in the life of my son,” said Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza, explaining the inspiration for her visceral hit play God of Carnage in an interview last January with The Guardian. “He was then about 13 or 14 and his friend was in a fight with another friend; they exchanged blows and my son’s friend had his tooth broken. A few days later, I met with the mother of this boy in the street. I asked her how her son was, if he was better, because I knew they’d had to do something to the tooth – they’d had to operate or something. And she said, ‘Can you imagine? The parents [of the other boy in the fight] didn’t even call me.’ It was suddenly, click! I thought, ‘This is an incredible theme.’”

Written within a three-month period in 2006, Reza deftly concocted this spitfire play, bringing the altercation from the playground into the living room. “I imagined a meeting between these two pairs of concerned parents. I defined their characters and made the worst choice of my life: to write their encounter in real time,” Reza shared in an interview last fall with Script. After wild successes in Zurich, Berlin and Paris, she worked with translator Christopher Hampton to bring Carnage to British and American audiences. In 2008, the play was a success on London’s West End and won the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. In 2009, the play hit Broadway, garnering Tony nominations for every actor in the four-person cast and earning 2009 Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction and Best Leading Actress.

Brimming with true-to-life pleasantries and awkward pauses, Carnage is at any and every moment a drama, comedy and satire. Reza’s work can be taken as a worst-case-scenario or as something starkly profound. As she imparted in an interview with The Independent one week before Carnage’s London premiere, “The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. A very profound play may seem very light. My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they’re tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it’s a new genre.”

With a wide array of parenting tactics and definitions of what it means to be civilized available, Reza taps into the battle between self-control and ferocity that occurs when people fight their deepest impulses and lose. What happens in the crackling moments when the mask slips and people give in to their immediate or primal impulses may be honest, but it certainly isn’t pretty, and that is exactly what Reza’s writing strives to represent. “What motivates me most is writing about people who are well brought up and yet, underneath that veneer, they break down. Their nerves break down. It’s when you hold yourself well until you just can’t any more, until your instinct takes over. It’s physiological.”

Reza focuses on the immediate behavior of the characters to drive the action in this tour de force play. “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,” mused Reza during her winter interview with The Guardian. The unpredictable nature of this play comes from Reza’s sharp ability to hone in on human behavior; she then uses that behavioral base to flesh out the world rather than the other way around. “The majority of my work does not start with the desire to tackle a social theme, but with a single spark – such as the incident with my son’s friend – that illuminates something bigger.” The unflinching visual and verbal spectacle that is God of Carnage shows people at their best “worst” behavior, and Reza intends every punch.