Schmitt happens

American audiences deserve to know the playwright who is the toast of Europe

click to enlarge GENTLE SOUL: Omar Sharif in Monsieur Ibrahim, the film version of an Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt dramatic monologue. - Sony Picture Classics
Sony Picture Classics
GENTLE SOUL: Omar Sharif in Monsieur Ibrahim, the film version of an Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt dramatic monologue.

A few weeks ago, when Banyan Theatre in Sarasota opened Enigma Variations, theatergoers on Florida's west coast had their first taste of the drama of France's most successful playwright, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. With his plays performed in more than 40 countries, Schmitt is the toast of Europe, a dramatist who's also a successful novelist and filmmaker.

The impact he's made in his home country is remarkable: When readers of the French magazine Lire were asked what books had changed their lives, the only text by a living author to make the final cut was Schmitt's play-turned-novella Oscar and the Lady in Pink; other winners included the Bible and The Three Musketeers. What's so startling about this is that Schmitt, unlike so many renowned French authors, is accessible, occasionally sentimental and unashamedly fascinated by God and religion. But maybe Schmitt's rise was inevitable: After Ionesco and Beckett, the Theater of Absence had no more wastelands to conquer. In any case, Americans should be aware that Schmitt is out there and have some sense of what he's done — so far.

Schmitt's most celebrated play, and the one that still stuns with its audacity, is The Visitor, first performed in Paris in 1993. The setting is Vienna, 1938, and we're in the apartment of Sigmund Freud, whom the Nazis are about to expel from Austria. Freud is sick with throat cancer and is looked after by his daughter Anna; but Anna offends a Gestapo officer and is taken away to be interrogated. It's then, when Freud's alone, that "The Stranger" appears. This elegantly dressed gentleman lets Freud and us know that He in fact is God, having assumed human form in order to talk with the famous psychoanalyst.

The heart of the play, then, is Freud the atheist's conversation with God Himself and God's gentle tolerance of Freud's skepticism. Freud's not about to be converted anyway: He complains to The Stranger that he's upset with God — if God exists — for breaking the promise of life with death, of health with illness, of peace with war. And God counters that the source of most human pain is human pride, magnified in the freedom that God has granted to His creatures. By daring to believe itself master of the world, the Stranger says, humanity has turned itself into "a madman in a padded cell playing an endless game of chess between his conscious and his subconscious. After you, and after those who will come after you, man will be in solitary confinement with no hope of release." When God finally leaves Freud alone, he says, "Until this evening, you thought that life was an absurdity. Henceforth, you will know that it is in fact a mystery."

A mystery, not an absurdity: One could hardly imagine a more literal rejection of the absurdists and existentialists who once ruled French drama. And in fact there's nothing the least bit Sartre-like in Oscar and the Lady in Pink, the almost unbearably poignant play performed in Prague and Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Montreal. Oscar is composed as a series of letters from a 10-year-old leukemia patient to a God that he's not sure exists.

Mamie-Rose, the Lady in Pink, visits Oscar every day and suggests he write the letters. ("Each time that you believe in him, he'll exist a little bit more. If you persist, he'll exist completely. And then he can do you some good.") And it's Mamie-Rose who tells the dying little boy to imagine that he ages 10 years with each succeeding day. So Oscar is able, in a sense, to grow old ("Today I went from 70 to 80, and it made me think a lot") and even manages a brief love affair with a hospitalized girl, an escape to Mamie-Rose's house and a reconciliation with his distraught parents. The whole play is schmaltzy beyond words, but if you can get to the end of it without shedding a tear, you're made of granite. And who doesn't need to remember that life "wasn't a gift at all, just a loan"?

If The Visitor and Oscar made Schmitt famous in Europe, it's Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran that, through the film with Omar Sharif, has extended his reputation across the Atlantic. The original Monsieur Ibrahim is a dramatic monologue (and has been published in the U.S. by Other Press, along with Oscar); this time the speaker is the 11-year-old Jewish boy "Momo" whose depressive father has never recovered from the Holocaust. Momo starts a relationship with the Muslim grocer Monsieur Ibrahim and soon adopts him as a substitute parent, one who understands his need to have sex with prostitutes, teaches him a little about Sufism and finally travels with the boy to "the sea of my birth."

Through the whole monologue there's not a hint of Jewish-Muslim enmity, and Monsieur Ibrahim's brand of Islam is so tolerant and loving that it could bring down Fox News. Is it all wishful thinking? Yes or no, there's something refreshing and important about Monsieur Ibrahim. Not all our thinkers, it seems, have bought into the Clash of Civilizations.

And then there's Enigma Variations, a two-hander that's not nearly as powerful as the other three plays but has pleased audiences in Paris and London (and Sarasota) nonetheless. This time the protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a recluse and misanthrope who lives on an island near the North Pole. To his hideaway comes a journalist who thinks that he's discovered a love affair between the artist and a certain Helen Metternach.

The play depends for its effectiveness on several surprises and hairpin turns, so I won't say more than that it's beautifully written and fundamentally trivial. At its best, it's redolent of Jean Anouilh or perhaps Giraudoux — which means that Schmitt, even when he's not touching on great matters, can really write. And the man's still young — he was born in 1960. What might he do next?

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. In France he's a household name.

He deserves to be better known in the States. Including this one.

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