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Marie NDiayeBlankness and Recognition$

Andrew Asibong

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781846319464

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781846319464.001.0001

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Ghouls, Ghosts and Bloodless Abuse: NDiaye’s Undead Theatre

Ghouls, Ghosts and Bloodless Abuse: NDiaye’s Undead Theatre

(p.109) 3 Ghouls, Ghosts and Bloodless Abuse: NDiaye’s Undead Theatre
Marie NDiaye

Andrew Asibong

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

NDiaye’s theatre achieves a strange feat, regressing the spectator to a place of great fear and vulnerability, while at the same time, on the surface, appearing relatively ‘normal’. The plays concentrate the novels’ preoccupation with disavowed, unknowable and unmourned forms of violence into shorter, sharper and potentially collective experiences of horror. They convey a world that is even more terrifying than that of the prose fiction, a world in which characters have been removed even from the safety of descriptive paragraphs (there are no stage directions), and drift instead in a state of absolute unmooring, at the mercy of naked dialogues as brutal as they are de-contextualized. All semblance of parenting and protection, even if this was only ever at the level of a narrator’s more or less responsible framing, has been abandoned. The theatrical figures stand truly alone, unsheltered, without a nest of any kind. Often removed from the bounds of logical time, NDiaye’s plays unfold within the disquieting frameworks of extreme neurosis or psychotic breakdown.

Keywords:   Theatre, vulnerable spectatorship, ghosts, ghouls, mourning, abuse, violence, regression, breakdown

Violence against those who are already not quite living, that is, living in a state of suspension between life and death, leaves a mark that is no mark […] None of this takes place on the order of the event. None of this takes place.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence

NDiaye published her first play, Hilda, in 1999, fourteen years after the publication of her first novel (in 1985), and a decade before winning the Prix Goncourt for her tenth novel (in 2009). Her development as a playwright thus takes place alongside a steadily growing success as a novelist, seeming to nudge the novels into new and often more overtly politicized territory. The first major stage production in France of Hilda was in 2002 at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, where Frédéric Bélier-García staged the piece, and the well-known actress Zabou Breitman starred as Mme Lemarchand. The play went on to win the Grand Prix de la Critique. The following year, NDiaye’s third published play, Papa doit manger, made history on all kinds of fronts by entering the repertory of the Comédie-Française. It was the first play by a living woman (and only the second play by any woman) to enter the 323-year-old company’s repertory, and this was also the first time, allegedly, that a ‘black’ actor had been taken on as a member of the theatre’s troupe.1 Since Papa doit manger there have been productions of all six of NDiaye’s plays, as well as Toute Vérité, the play she co-authored with her husband Jean-Yves Cendrey, all over Europe and the United States.2 In 2012, following the success of her shocking play Les Grandes Personnes – a spectacle of depressive revenants, parental demons and child sex abusers (p.110) – NDiaye received the ultimate theatrical accolade, when she received the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du Théâtre.

Explaining how she first came to create plays, a decade and a half into her writing career, NDiaye frames the enterprise in terms of what she somewhat over-modestly makes sound like her own torpor:

il me semblait que j’écrivais un roman court dont je ne conservais que les dialogues, éliminant toute partie descriptive, par lassitude, à ce moment-là, d’une certaine pesanteur du roman pour celui qui l’écrit, d’une sorte d’engagement soucieux ou angoissant dont il est difficile de faire l’économie et que j’avais l’impression de pouvoir m’épargner, pour un temps, grâce à cette forme resserrée, à cette prose étranglée.3

But these plays are far from lazily abridged versions of the novels. And they represent something more significant too than mere stylistic purification. NDiaye’s theatre concentrates the novels’ preoccupation with disavowed, unknowable and unmourned forms of violence into shorter, sharper and potentially collective experiences of horror. It conveys a world that is – if such a thing is possible – more terrifying than that of the prose fiction, a world in which characters have been removed even from the safety of descriptive paragraphs (there are no stage directions) and drift instead in a state of absolute unmooring, at the mercy of naked dialogues as brutal as they are de-contextualized. All semblance of parenting and protection, even if this was only ever at the level of a narrator’s more or less responsible framing, has been abandoned. The theatrical figures stand truly alone, unsheltered, without a nest of any kind.

Dominique Rabaté proposes that the plays strip down all human interaction to the bare bones of specifically economic exchange, all action and dialogue revolving around questions of subtraction and recompense, bribery and blackmail:

Le théâtre […] poursuit le travail des romans, en mettant encore plus à nu cette structure terrifiante de l’âge du capitalisme avancé où nous sommes parvenus en ce début du XXIe siècle. Tout est devenu économique, tout se marchande et se régule comme de l’argent, s’échange et se troque, se dévalue ou s’estime, loin de toute sentimentalité. L’affectif est mis hors jeu, et cette éviction produit une inquiétante étrangeté de tous les rapports intersubjectifs.

(Rabaté, 2008: 47)

Economic procedures certainly tend to dominate the plots of these plays. In Hilda (1999), a wealthy, liberal housewife buys not only her working-class housekeeper’s time but also her body, her sexuality, her soul itself. (p.111) In Papa doit manger (2003), a liberal, ‘anti-racist’, pot-smoking teacher of French literature withholds financial support from his hairdresser partner, a mother of two, unless she can demonstrate an adequate grasp of the latest grammatical and syntactical constructions he has taught her. In Les Serpents (2004), an old woman offers to tell her ex-daughter-in-law all about the abuse that the latter’s young son has suffered at the hands of his father, as long as she is paid handsomely for her tales of whipping, torture and infanticide. Money and property are indeed deployed as crucial hooks in NDiaye’s theatre. But, as in the novels, they are the vehicles par excellence through which traumatized characters play out overpowering psychological urges, originating in infancy, to dominate and be dominated. Money is used, above all, as a means of attempting to regulate intolerable feelings of emptiness and inexplicable rage, feelings which are subsequently (or simultaneously) displaced onto human sacrificial objects. These human victims, often children, are then gradually eroded by more powerful characters, in the wake of money’s failure to satisfy, unto death and beyond.

For Christophe Meurée (2009), the NDiaye’s theatrical protagonists are characterized above all by their difficulty in fixing an identity. Haunted by an unshakable sense of lack, NDiaye’s stage characters develop into (in Meurée’s terms) either ‘concave’ or ‘convex’ figures, the former category vampirically sucked at by the latter, who swell and balloon with the energy, physically observable on their bodies and faces, that they have managed to extract from their now inwardly collapsed prey. NDiaye’s protagonists, suggests Meurée, are compelled to devour one another in one of two ways: either by taking the object of desire inside themselves and thus somehow feeding on its perceived sense of aliveness (incorporation), or else by transforming wholesale into the object, taking on its identity and imagined sense of self (identification). Alliances based on the conception of the other as a separate subject with whom one might interact and communicate on non-abusive terms, are not conceived of. Equally unfeasible is non-traumatic introjection, the subject’s gradual taking in of aspects of the external world, including other people, as part of her own joyful process of psychic growth and emotional development. We are left, instead, with endless pairs of greedy ghouls and the ever-disintegrating wraiths on which they gobble. It is rarely acknowledged by any of the play’s characters, of course, that it is a process of deathly, fruitless feeding that we are watching. Thus Mme Lemarchand metaphorically chews on her pseudo-slave Hilda with the unstated desire of somehow ‘becoming’ her in all her putative (p.112) proletarian authenticity, yet is made no more happy, solid or real by her actions. In Les Serpents, Mme Diss’s ogre-like son psychically feeds on his allegedly joyful son Jacky in the act of whipping and eventually killing the boy, and is, for a limited time, made resplendent by his acts of abuse. In Les Grandes Personnes (2011), a schoolteacher rapes the children in his care in a vain attempt to rectify his own unhappy childhood, to remake his own inner victim in the form of something powerful and strong.

It is important to note the infantile dimension of all the adults’ frenzied bouts of feeding. These ghouls are almost without exception depicted as the under-nourished survivors of persecuting or neglectful environments in which they have been either beaten (Mme Diss’s son), raped (Djamila), treated as a monster (Providence) or treated as their own parents’ caregiver (the Schoolteacher). Oppressive characters such as Mme Diss, Mme Lemarchand and Papa cry out for food and drink as if they have never been fed in their lives. They seem desperately to be trying to obtain something from their prey that they have been unable to obtain at an earlier time of their lives. Unsurprisingly, they create family homes that are characterized by obscene, often supernatural zones of danger, vulnerability and discomfort; themselves clearly haunted by unspeakable phantoms, they will in turn become the phantoms of their victims, entering them in a vicious circle of abuse and invasion. Most of NDiaye’s plays, not unlike those of the English playwright Sarah Kane (1971– 99), resemble spiralling, fantastical nightmares. Often removed from the bounds of logical time, they play out within the disquieting frameworks of extreme neurosis or psychotic breakdown.

Olivia J. Choplin (2009) points out that the theatre of psychic dysfunction can, of course, play a potentially therapeutic role. Referring to Breuer and Freud’s early work with so-called hysterics, Choplin recalls how the analysts initially used the Aristotelian term ‘catharsis’ in describing the women’s release of repressed affects under hypnosis. In both his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916) and his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud suggests that a spectator’s unconscious identification with the tragic characters s/he beholds on stage can allow for hidden mechanisms within his or her own psyche to be revealed. Similarly, Mannoni (1985) points to the way in which theatre may show us the pathological roles we may have been unconsciously playing out in ‘real’ life. NDiaye’s plays are rituals of frustratingly tantalizing representation, stirring up the spectator’s babyish longing in their mimicry of failed parenting. The unbearable, traumatic absence (p.113) of Hilda is felt by the spectator of that play in a way it simply is not in a play like Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1953), in which Godot’s failure to arrive is largely represented as existential crisis. It is not that existential crisis à la Godot is anodyne, so much as the fact that NDiaye’s play is weirdly infantilizing, creating the conditions, via Mme Lemarchand’s child-like passion for a woman who is permanently absent, for the spectator to work him or herself into a frenzy of need. Like hungry children, we long for Hilda to arrive on stage, not so much because she is a symbol of the ineffable, but because, explicitly framed as a maternal figure, she promises – and fails – to take care of us. In the same way, the idea of a paternal ogre lurking in the house in Les Serpents is truly terrifying, the spectator’s certain knowledge of the violence this man will do the vulnerable women and children characters who may come across him managing to tap into primitive infantile fears of masculine violence and threat. And the opening scene of Les Grandes Personnes, in which two parents come together to discuss their separate sightings of their dead daughter under the stairs of their home, resembles some kind of ghastly, ghostly primal scene.

NDiaye’s plays are unashamedly mad and maddening. They achieve a strange feat, regressing the spectator to a place of great fear and vulnerability, while at the same time, on the surface, appearing relatively ‘normal’. Their emotional strangeness can be felt, but it lurks in such a way as to render its embodiment on stage a genuine challenge. ‘Savoir si ce que j’écrivais était “jouable” n’a jamais été une question, ou alors, implicitement, accompagnée d’un “qu’importe!” qui me paraît maintenant un peu désinvolte’, NDiaye admits in the Comédie-Française programme notes for Papa doit manger, and she is correct implicitly to draw attention to the fact that what she writes runs a serious risk of not being interpreted very successfully. Many of the productions I have attended have been simply too timid, conservative – or perhaps simply insensitive – to capture the blank horror and kitsch that ought to dwell on the NDiayean stage. These are plays which, without exception, depict the psychic murder of characters who are already almost dead: this is difficult to show. The English production of Hilda at the Hampstead Theatre in 2006 opted for a kind of Wildean class satire rather than attempting to capture the truly ghostly dimension of Mme Lemarchand’s obsession. Christophe Perton’s staging of Les Grandes Personnes at the Théâtre de la Colline in 2011 was an excessively Parisian parade of tricks and transgressions, going all out for shocks (such as the exposed anus and penis of the actor playing (p.114) the Schoolteacher, as well as a flying bird), but failing to develop the monstrosity of the spectral, wraith-like children. If the Comédie-Française’s celebrated 2003 production of Papa doit manger remains one of the most successful visions of NDiaye, it is surely because of its excessive, unapologetic, slightly demented grandiosity. The blank psychoses of NDiaye’s characters must be conveyed not through a bland adherence to convention but by a chorus of voices as fantastically eccentric as NDiaye’s own.

‘Arbeit macht frei’: Hilda (1999)

NDiaye’s first play, Hilda, has been described in a variety of different ways: as a Marxist– Leninist fable about the machinations of contemporary class relations (Rabaté, 2008); as a play about specifically feminine abjection and monstrosity (Lindley, 2010); and as a series of militant reflections on the obscenity of racialized slavery.4 It is, in my view, and in much the same manner as most of NDiaye’s prose fiction, a text which certainly manages to speak of class, of ‘race’ and of gender, but which forces the spectator to reach whatever thoughts or feelings s/he may have about these topics through an extreme immersion in the staging of psychic and physical blank violence. Mme Lemarchand, the main speaker of Hilda, is a woman whose verbiage, like that of Beckett’s Winnie, pours forth in a truly unstoppable torrent, submerging not only her fellow (non-) characters (Franck, Corinne, Hilda), but, of course, the members of the audience onto whom she spews. The force of her monologues comes from their macabre marriage of excess and nullity. Mme Lemarchand’s sentences bowl her interlocutor over at precisely the same time as they void him or her of all emotionally meaningful content. Both interlocutor and the words themselves are sucked dry of whatever humanity they may have appeared to contain. Mme Lemarchand transforms whatever she attempts to interact with – be it linguistic, ideological or animal – into a hollow shell.

The play is bookended by two essentially anxious questions, both uttered (naturally) by Mme Lemarchand: ‘Que voulez-vous?’ (H, 7) and ‘Vous en souvenez-vous?’ (H, 91). Desire and memory are instantly rendered problematic for Mme Lemarchand, as she cannot be sure of the dependable functioning of either. Her project for the acquisition of a solid sense of her past and present self appears to depend upon obtaining clear and reassuring answers from her chosen substitute parents Hilda (p.115) and Franck. These worker-slaves are called upon both somehow to conjure into concrete being a sense of Mme Lemarchand’s ‘loveability’ and to repair her nebulous, forgotten past. These unfulfillable needs make Mme Lemarchand into a character who is, at one level, poignant in her melancholic vulnerability and, at another, utterly monstrous. She is in need of a new parental figure to ‘contain’ her various unprocessed feelings of abandonment, but her disavowal of that need leads her to abuse, rather than simply use, the would-be containing maternal object that is Hilda. Simultaneously despised and envied, hated and loved, the desired object Hilda is, not unlike the child victims of the primary school teacher in the later play Les Grandes Personnes (2011), stripped, perhaps raped, emptied of emotional life, incorporated (as much as is possible) by her needy abuser, and eventually tossed out, her now useless shell having gone past its sell-by date. As Mme Lemarchand succinctly puts it to Franck in the play’s final minutes: ‘Hilda n’existe plus’ (H, 91).

Mme Lemarchand needs Hilda in order to repeat – but neither to remember nor ‘work through’ – what appears to be her own extremely complex maternal trauma. Mme Lemarchand engages Hilda to be much more than a simple maid: she desires her as nothing less than a new, good, ‘living’ Mammy for both her and the gloomy Lemarchand brood, making it clear on several occasions that she herself is unfit for motherhood, being in some state of serious, possibly both suicidal and infanticidal, depression: ‘J’ai besoin d’Hilda pour affronter la longueur des jours, pour sourire à mes enfants et résister au désir de nous faire, tous, passer de l’autre côté. Comprenez-moi, Franck, essayez de vous représenter quelle vie lamentable je mène, quel ennui j’éprouve, quelle médiocre mère je suis’ (H, 70). Insisting on Hilda’s need to be ‘alive’ (‘Regardez comme elle est vive!’, H, 52), Mme Lemarchand makes explicit from the very outset that it will be Hilda’s capacity to be an alert, responsible, wide awake and present mother that is of the most fundamental importance: ‘Trop de femmes sont immorales, dépressives, insouciantes, terriblement insouciantes […] Je ne veux pas d’une femme qui néglige ou maltraite mes enfants sous l’empire d’un calmant ou d’un euphorisant’ (H, 10– 12). If Mme Lemarchand is incapable of being a happy mother to her children, of talking, playing and laughing with them ‘comme il faut le faire’ (H, 24), then at least Hilda can function as a bought-in source of novel maternal joy:

Hilda fera tout cela. Hilda parlera, jouera, rira avec mes enfants. Hilda fera tout cela à merveille. Il le faut, car j’aime mes enfants, et je ne veux autour d’eux que de la joie. Mais je ne peux pas avoir cette joie. Hilda (p.116) aura cette joie pour moi. Franck, Hilda est-elle naturellement joyeuse?

(H, 24)

Mme Lemarchand’s stated wish to offer her children an atmosphere in which at least they might be able to thrive emotionally via a supplementary caregiver is, in many ways, an admirable one. But, quite apart from the economic and physical exploitation of Hilda on which that reparative project depends, we must note also that at the same time as she declares the need for Hilda to be happy and psychically alive, Mme Lemarchand reveals an anxious ambivalence around this putative quality of maternal joy. It is this anxiety that will lead her to enact a murderous fantasy, at the end of which Hilda can only emerge from the situation as ‘dead’ a mother as is Mme Lemarchand. No sooner has Hilda started working for her than Mme Lemarchand begins to obsess over a perceived deficiency of authentic aliveness in her new employee: ‘Hilda sourit, oui, mais d’un sourire machinal où n’entre ni chaleur ni tendresse, et des lèvres seulement car son regard reste lointain’ (H, 29). A few minutes later, she has worked herself up towards a declaration of her own worst nightmare. Hilda may not, in fact, be the longed-for loving pseudo-mother she had so set her heart on: ‘Hilda n’a pas d’amour pour mes enfants’ (H, 32).

From this point onwards, Hilda’s function becomes, more than that of a modern ‘slave’, that of a powerless doll on which Mme Lemarchand can, in dialogue with her heavily ‘oedipalized’ rival Franck, project a lifetime of built-up resentment and paranoia surrounding the traumatic figure of the ‘dead’, depressed or otherwise unreachable mother. If, for Franck, Hilda has become worryingly ‘triste’ (H, 55) in the Lemarchand household, for Mme Lemarchand, Hilda is ‘très gaie’ but also ‘froide […] et taciturne […] joyeusement froide’ (H, 55). Trying to find the precise formula with which to qualify Hilda’s apparently changing emotional – and even ontological – state becomes a matter of the utmost urgency for the increasingly infantile Mme Lemarchand. ‘Hilda n’est pas morte’, she reminds Franck as he bleeds onto the stage floor. ‘N’oubliez jamais qu’Hilda n’est pas morte’ (H, 64). And yet all the while Mme Lemarchand’s words and actions work to render Hilda ghostly and unreal, as she boasts first of the maid’s spectral garden presence (‘la petite silhouette bleu et blanc’, H, 49) and later of her fantasized fairy rebirth as ‘la petite danseuse au fond de la bouteille de cognac’ (H, 50). It feels increasingly as if Mme Lemarchand’s deepest need is to render Hilda simultaneously happy and dead, to experience her as a traumatic maternal statue that is nevertheless capable of being enlivened, at least (p.117) at some level, by the power of Mme Lemarchand’s child-like love: ‘Hilda souriait, Franck. Elle se taisait et souriait, immobile. Hilda est heureuse chez nous, elle est flattée et admirée’ (H, 74).

Mme Lemarchand must kill the initially living Hilda, then, in order that she may act out the double fantasy of trying both to bring the now ‘dead’ mother back to life and hoping to gain nourishment and new life for herself and her children from that resuscitated mother. None of it works, of course. By the end of the play Mme Lemarchand is as languid and frustrated as ever – even if she now physically resembles Hilda – and her children are ‘tristes et mal à l’aise’ (H, 91). She still craves the curiosity and attention she has clearly never received, begging Franck and Corinne for their input: ‘Fréquentons-nous, Franck, soyez curieux de moi’ (H, 91). The denouement presents Hilda’s transformation into an unrecoverable ‘dead’ mother at the hands of her demented would-be daughter Mme Lemarchand as final and complete:

Elle n’est plus froide ni distante, elle n’est plus rien, elle n’est plus que soumise et apathique, et pas efficace du tout. Je ne sais que faire d’Hilda, Franck. Toute vitalité l’a quittée. […] Hilda est morte à présent, Franck, morte, morte. Il n’y a plus d’Hilda. […] Elle est comme une poupée de chiffon et sa tête tient à peine sur ses épaules, Franck, tant Hilda est devenue indifférente à tout.

(H, 88)

We spectators, helpless, immobile and, like Hilda, trapped on the margins of the stage, have witnessed the whole process taking place before our eyes – except, of course, that we have done no such thing. NDiaye has withheld the sight of Hilda from us throughout, just as the vengefully experimental ‘child’ Mme Lemarchand has withheld the sight of her new ‘mother’ Hilda from the jealous ‘father’ Franck. Hilda’s fantastical, unbearable absence is rendered total and literal by a theatrical experience that methodically repeats what Ronald Fairbairn might call a ‘tantalizing mother’ experience, turning the audience into a room full of babies, desperate for their mother to arrive, teased by vague promises that, like Godot, she will be there soon, even, in certain productions, being allowed a glimpse of her shadowy form, but never satisfied by her living, maternal presence.

One cannot help but marvel at the extent to which the figure of Hilda mirrors NDiaye herself: coveted and garlanded by well-meaning liberals, pseudo-radicals and wealthy patrons, both women are beckoned to join powerful ‘households’, purportedly on terms of the strictest equality, but always with a whiff of exoticizing condescension. Both women play (p.118) a strange public game of politeness, relative compliance and reticence with those who have summoned them to the place of favour. If Mme Lemarchand ends up wailing, ‘Pourquoi Hilda ne me parle-t-elle pas, Franck? (H, 65), André Engel, the first director of Papa doit manger, frames NDiaye’s own Hilda-esque disposition in terms that place her, for the moment, on just the right side of frustrating: ‘Elle parle peu. Quand je suis allé la voir dans sa campagne bordelaise pour parler de la pièce, elle ne me répondait le plus souvent que par “oui” ou par “non”. Elle est énigmatique, c’est ce qui la rend séduisante’ (Kaprièlian, 2003).

A Child is Being Eaten: Providence (ou le temps d’un retour) (2001)

A theatrical rewriting of NDiaye’s story for children La Diablesse et son enfant (2000), it is difficult to imagine a more adult work than Providence. It is equally difficult to know quite how to approach it, as the play is so far removed from anything resembling realism that even the adjective ‘dreamlike’ is inadequate in conveying just how bizarre are the world of Providence and the villagers who have brought her so low. An air of pre-historic myth hangs over the piece, the personal catastrophes of Providence the woman merging with a more general sense of collective trauma. There are aspects of Providence’s experience that call to mind key elements of the lives of enslaved black American women. Her separation from her child by the men who violently impregnated her is reminiscent of a key ingredient of plantation life, and the spectral quality of the baby she has lost, a baby she may herself have killed, mimics the conceit at the heart of Toni Morrison’s epic novel of enslaved maternal suffering, Beloved (1987). The play is, more than anything, though, an exploration of an entire community’s neurotic response to the abuses which it has perpetrated, a response characterized, above all, by a refusal to acknowledge that any abuse has taken place.

The figure of Providence is the simultaneously blank and blackened repository for that community’s disavowed toxicity. Like the eponymous Algerian ‘heroine’ of Alain Resnais’s Muriel ou le temps d’un retour (1963) – a key cinematic example of a female, racialized, non-appearing central figure, whose structural raison d’être seems to be to soak up her violators’ disavowed hate, shame and the fresh trauma they experience after violating her – Providence is used as a hole, both literally and metaphorically, gang-raped by the male villagers and the (p.119) very incarnation of the blank amnesia that subsequently descends upon them and their collusive womenfolk. Deemed incapable of feeling and most probably guilty of the ‘worst’ aspects of the event (the alleged feeding of her baby to pigs), she is also constructed by the village’s simultaneously racializing and sexualizing discourses as somehow less than human, with her putative strange hair (‘poil inhumain’, P, 17) and monstrous feet (‘Ce ne sont pas des pieds!’, P, 20). Hers is a body rendered at once hyper-sexual and bizarre (villagers argue among themselves about the precise shape and colour of her nipples, P, 38), like Hilda’s – or that of a real-life enslaved ‘freak like Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus – considered fit for public exhibition even as there is debate over whether that same body should have been shaved and butchered or else burned alive (P, 39).

The community’s only unity derives, it seems, from its shared interest in repressing the memory of the original act of abuse. The Schoolmistress enacts various different stages in the defensive subject’s process of covering up her knowledge of what occurred: from flat out denial of knowledge (‘Mais je ne sais rien, je ne sais rien’, P, 27), she evolves to the angry assertion of the event’s secret status (‘Qui êtes-vous, enfin, pour prétendre vouloir connaître ce dont nous nous acharnons, depuis tant d’années, à ne plus parler?’, P, 27), to a mode of tantalizing, Sphinx-like teasing: ‘Tâchez de me deviner car je ne le dirai jamais explicitement et je ne décrirai rien, puisque je n’ai pas vu’ (P, 28). Later in her non-testimony she deploys even more complex techniques of forceful blanking out, from questioning the identity of the one who may have been abused (‘il se peut que ce soit Providence […] qui ait été déchirée’, P, 28) to a truly destabilizing combination of tactics according to which she simultaneously forbids the transmission of new knowledge and performs a robotic calmness: ‘Ne répétez pas ce mot, ne le répétez pas! Je … je vous le demande très instamment. C’est un des morceaux du corps de Providence dont je dois endurer le souvenir. Ne me faites pas dire que je l’ai vu – je ne sais rien ! Je suis distante et pondérée’ (P, 29). The Schoolmistress’s nuanced game of disavowal is mirrored in various different guises across the village. But, while both the (female) Pharmacist and the (male) Solicitor condemn the release of anything resembling emotional openness regarding the story of Providence (‘C’est déjà trop de parler ainsi […] Vous êtes déjà lyrique et emporté’, P, 32), the Pharmacist nevertheless betrays an overwhelming desire to spit ‘it’ out once and for all, begging, in effect, for a chance at confession or psychotherapy:

(p.120) J’étais sur le point de le dire! Je pouvais enfin le dire et vous m’avez brisée! Pouvoir le dire, pouvoir le dire! Aidez-moi! Oh, oui, le dire enfin! Je n’en peux plus!


Si, parlons, parlons, jusqu’à ce que je puisse enfin cracher ce nom qui me barre la gorge.

(P, 36– 9)

With the Pharmacist’s remarkable plea for an entry into speech, NDiaye’s theatre sets an extremely significant process in motion. It starts to open up the recognition, via a ‘blocked’ character in extreme distress because of her ‘blockage’, of the need for language to translate the years of blankness into words. We will have to wait until Bella’s obscene babblings in Rien d’humain (2004) and Nadia’s long-delayed pronunciation of her granddaughter’s name ‘Souhar’ in Mon cœur à l’étroit (2007) for the next stages of this painful movement towards linguistic representation.

Meanwhile, Providence offers little in the way of resolution vis-à-vis the central ‘blanked out’ trauma. Providence herself is a deeply frustrating character, repeating that she wants justice for herself and her child, but ultimately chased and destroyed by the same people who attacked her in the first place. Unable, like Rosie Carpe, to remember much of what has happened to her, and forever crying out, again like Rosie, for the father of her child to come forward from the crowd of potential inseminators, Providence lingers recklessly in the still dangerous site of her trauma (as will Nancy in the later play Les Serpents), endlessly repeating the dissociated fragments of the past, but unable to reconstitute them into a workable narrative. Most maddeningly of all, she refuses the help of the investigator, a man who seems to have her best interests at heart or, at least, who seems committed to helping her get the whole story of her own disintegration. The Insurance Salesman, in his role as go-between, interferes with Providence and the Investigator’s potential alliance: on the one hand he mockingly represents the latter to the former as both terrifying scientist (‘Il veut, Providence, te fendre de bas en haut […] il veut t’éventrer […] il t’ouvrira doucement et il … regardera’, P, 60) and ghoulish hack (‘il voulait un personnage […] il dit que c’est de la littérature de pacotille’ P, 62– 6), on the other he teases her with the notion that this curious man could truly love her, seeing in her dreadful narrative of suffering a veritable saint’s life: Vie de Providence (P, 61).

Vacillating wildly, unable to trust the Investigator’s motives, Providence at first flirts with the idea of selling him her trauma, before giving up altogether on the interaction/transaction, declaring (p.121) that she feels nothing of the Investigator’s love, good intentions or rewards: ‘Dis-lui que je ne sens rien de ce qu’il s’était engagé à me fournir en quantité. Son amour, je ne le sens pas. Je suis glacée. Rien ne m’enveloppe. Il ne m’a pas rétribuée. J’ai froid et je raisonne. Oh, assureur, je suis en colère car on essaye de me tromper et de me voler’ (P, 68). Conducting herself now like an author-prostitute, only capable of reaching into her traumatic past on condition that the unveiling of the trauma reward her with unspecifiable remuneration, Providence gives up the possibility of ‘working through’ whatever it is that has happened to her. NDiaye seems here to be presenting a key insight into the problem of the artist’s use of her own past in the selling of her work. For she reveals the process as one which perhaps inevitably compromises whatever potentially therapeutic value the original delving into ‘real’ pain may have provided: the operation is rendered thoroughly commercial. A mercantile ‘false self’ takes over from an authentically curious one, pride and self-aggrandizement become the order of the day, and the ‘star’ subject herself loses all capacity to judge her present situation – and ongoing trauma – with wisdom, exposing herself to fresh sources of harm in the present.5

While the newly surrounded Providence fades away with a proud, bathetic ‘prayer’ (‘Ne faites jamais, jamais de moi une femme ridicule, s’il vous plaît’, P, 70) that seems to parody a more famous ‘last request’ of Frantz Fanon,6 NDiaye leaves us with an increasingly familiar figure: that of the undeveloped ‘alternative self’ of the self-annihilating heroine, represented elsewhere in the œuvre by the likes of Hilda’s sister Corinne and Nadia’s old friend Corinna Daoui. The Barmaid has already made an appearance, of course, and has regaled her audience with tales of her mad mother, missing father and poor treatment by her family. Unlike Providence, however, the Barmaid is able to discuss the question of mental health in a direct manner (P, 55), and appears to take extremely seriously the challenge of self-analysis. Making a point – unlike the majority of NDiaye’s hyper-defensive protagonists – of the desirability of constructing a clear and accessible narrative and of actually seeing herself, she revels in the prospect of lucidity, self-acceptance and the steady flow of her tears and menstrual blood:

Le sang que je perds en un an ferait vivre un être complet, mais je ne l’exploite pas.


Voilà ma vie. On peut me photographier. Cependant je ne suis pas la poupée du premier venu. Mais je donne, prenez mon histoire, tout ce que (p.122) je suis, prenez, prenez, que je me voie enfin! Il me faut bien le regard de quelqu’un d’autre. Mes yeux à moi, tournés sur moi, sont voilés, brouillés de larmes nerveuses.

(P, 55– 7)

The Barmaid is an intoxicating character, and leaves the audience wanting more of her sanguine, sanguinary puissance. There seems so little of it, in NDiaye’s bloodless universe, to go around.

My Heart Belongs to Daddy: Papa doit manger (2003)

Papa doit manger is not only a highly significant event in the history of French theatre for all the reasons that are well known (and discussed in the introduction to this chapter). It is also, in my view, NDiaye’s most genuinely accomplished play, managing to draw together a multiplicity of powerfully contrasting aesthetic and generic strands – family melodrama, dime-store romance, absurd revenge thriller, hairdressing-witchcraft comedy, pseudo-multicultural parody and critique – with such remarkable deftness that the spectator emerges from the experience quite convinced that s/he has never seen anything of the kind in her life, except, perhaps, in dreams. We are no longer in the terrain of what has hitherto been understood as French theatre, no matter how avant-garde. With Papa doit manger NDiaye flexes her muscles in such a way as to make her uniqueness as a culturally and emotionally complex persona truly felt: there can be no mistaking this as the work of Ionesco, Cixous or Kane, no more than Rosie Carpe (the equivalent moment of absolute authority in the domain of the prose fiction) could have come from the pen of Kafka, Woolf or Duras. The only NDiaye play to contain such an abundance of tears, it is concomitantly the theatrical work the most laden with unfettered feeling, feeling which is uncomfortably adrift in the familiar sea of dried-up blankness. Those characters who eventually express genuine emotion in the play find that what they emit is contraband and shocking to the characters around them, the characters on whose approval they desperately depend. Overflowing with the twin ‘child-elements’ of love and need, both the child Mina and the adult Anna find that these intolerable aspects can be neither felt nor appreciated by the steely others on whom they attempt to expend them. Ending with the enigmatic phrase ‘un amour inexplicable’ (PDM, 95), the play explores the soul-deadening consequences for a family which cannot bear to use, touch or understand actual love, a family which uses the (p.123) concept of ‘family love’ as a tool for trade, exchange and, above all, the avoidance of responsibility.

It is perhaps a symptom of the blinding whiteness of the cultural desert into which high-profile representations of ‘black people’ are so often born that the African-ness of Papa (NDiaye’s second explicitly non-white character, following on the heels of Rosie Carpe’s altogether more sympathetic hero Lagrand) has been so unhelpfully emphasized. So often it is the case when discussing NDiaye and her work that subtle evocations of racialized difference tend to get pathologically occluded from a critical discourse keen to establish the writing as unequivocally ‘universal’, while the explicitly non-white representations towards which she has gradually drifted are fetishistically lingered on, exoticized and ‘celebrated’, rather than either accepted as ‘normal’ or else critiqued with politicized insight.7 The figure of Papa is a classic example of a NDiayean creation who has been enthusiastically ‘blacked up’ by a French cultural context eager to demonstrate an understanding of ‘difference’ at every level. Thus Nelly Kaprièlian’s review of the 2003 Comédie-Française production reminds us (and it is a bizarre and important point) that ‘André Engel a dû engager un acteur noir (Bakary Sangaré) pour jouer Papa, le “Français” n’ayant jusque-là pas songé à la faire’, but goes on herself somewhat to over-racialize the character when she describes him as ‘cet Othello de pacotille’. Similarly, the director André Engel shows an important awareness of the fact of Papa’s blackness (which is, after all, of such pathological importance to so many – though not all – of the other characters), but seems to get carried away with his racially aware ‘consciousness’ in musings such as the following: ‘Cet homme, ce Noir, cet Africain, incorrigible, irréformable, est abandonné par sa femme et renié par sa fille […] Devons-nous y voir une allégorie du rapport […] avec ce qu’ils appelaient autrefois ‘le jeune continent africain?’8

Reducing Papa to an allegorical figure of Third World suffering unhelpfully obscures the fact that he is an especially complex addition to the NDiayean panoply of emotionally ‘blank’ parental abusers. Papa is a remarkably false and brittle protagonist. His fatherly ‘affection’ always studied, short-lived and accompanied by bribe-intended gifts and sweeties, he displays the most spectacular capacity for flippant cruelty, particularly with regard to his two daughters, about whom he talks as if they were non-human, non-living vessels of limitless disappointment:

Cette fille-là ouvre la bouche mais on n’entend rien. Elle parle et parle dans la langue des carpes, les grosses carpes de rivière à la chair grise, au goût de vase. N’êtes-vous pas un peu trop grosses et lourdes, mes (p.124) filles? Deux belles chattes gracieuses et pas trop nourries: c’était mon espoir, non, ma certitude.

(PDM, 25– 6)

Relentlessly mythomaniacal, at times psychopathic, he speaks of himself in the manner of a broken mechanical toy (‘C’est Papa! C’est moi!’, PDM, 61), and almost exclusively in the dissociated third person. Like Mme Lemarchand, he constantly demands the food of other people’s curiosity: ‘Je veux de l’obséquiosité et de la fascination’ (PDM, 27), while his desires regarding his three children are, in the case of the two elder girls, simultaneously incestuous and anorexia-inducing (‘Il faut que ces deux filles maigrissent […] Je veux être séduit’, PDM, 27), and, in the case of the unnamed baby boy (‘Bébé’), borderline infanticidal, the child functioning, like Steve or Titi from the second novel cycle, as the split-off repository of his own racialized, disavowed, ‘toxic shame’.9 Unable to love any of his children in a responsibly parental capacity, Papa instead longs for his eldest daughter, even as a small child, to guide and parent him:

  • Il faut que tu m’aides.
  • Je suis fatigué. Je ne sais plus comment sortir […]
  • Enfant, comment faire?
  • Comment puis-je faire? Aide-moi […]
  • Mais, maintenant, que dois-je faire?
  • Enfant, comment puis-je faire? […]
  • Aide-moi, mon enfant.

(PDM, 61– 3)

Papa, notes his adult daughter Mina gloomily, still caring for him years later, is worse than mad (PDM, 88).

Papa is, in fact, a bewildering composite of all NDiaye’s differently spectral characters across the prose fiction and the theatre, an amazing kind of vaguely 1970s-inspired ‘super-blank’. Like Diane Carpe, he is uncannily youthful in appearance (‘Je me suis littéralement transfiguré’, PDM, 23), and has fantastically ‘washed-out’ eyes (if hers are ‘presque blancs’, RC, 227, his are, paradoxically, so black that they are ‘délavés’, PDM, 11); like Herman’s wife Rose, he vanishes from one day to the next from his family’s life; like Fanny, he is wilfully ‘blanked out’ by those, such as Zelner, who refuse to see him (‘Ce que vous êtes n’existe pas’, PDM, 27); like the Devil of Kalane, he is never truly present, for, as a lucid Anna observes to Zelner: ‘Quand il n’est pas là, devant moi, il me semble qu’il n’est rien – ou c’est le contraire parfois et sa présence est décevante. Il n’est jamais ce qu’on a pense qu’il était, ce qui fait, voyez-vous, qu’il n’est jamais véritablement là’ (PDM, 69). If (p.125) a misrepresented Papa is oversimplified and ‘blacked up’ in the vast majority of journalistic and critical material dealing with the play, then, the pathological nuances of Maman’s character are perhaps even more disturbingly passed over in favour of an emphasis on her whiteness and apparently romantic tendencies. Once again, it is the character’s alarming manifestations of (a different kind of) dangerous blankness that are generally ignored. Maman is, however, the most terrifying of all NDiaye’s characters by virtue of the manner in which she renders the violence of her own acts so utterly invisible. Like La Sorcière’s Lucie, but far more manipulative, Maman believes in the reality of her own personally and socially responsible goodness. The way in which she talks about the asylum-seeking musicians (vaguely reminiscent of Providence’s ‘pig-musicians’) whom she hosts in her living-room is not dissimilar to the hollow formulations of the self-professed radical Mme Lemarchand: ‘Ce sont des êtres charmants, de charmants étrangers qu’on tourmente chez eux’ (PDM, 49). Lines such as this ought to alert us to the fact that Maman is far from immune to the charge of falseness and fetishization, that we must be on our guard against accepting her as simply the dizzy victim of Papa’s machinations. Maman speaks as though she had walked straight out of one of the television soap operas to which Fanny’s mother, grandmother and Tante Colette are so addicted. The trite phrase ‘mon dieu’ (often used by NDiaye to signal an emotional and discursive impasse) slips off her lips ad nauseam (PDM, 29– 31), while her rhetoric of endless, passive suffering (‘Ce que j’ai souffert par lui m’a liée à lui pour toujours […] Personne ne m’a aidée, alors / Ma solitude était absolue’, PDM, 55) has a distinctly masochistic ring to it. Her immediate response to Papa’s return (‘Mon mari est revenu / Je le regarde et je l’aime! / Comme c’est humiliant’, PDM, 34) paints her as a latter-day Phèdre, and inscribes her within a deeply self-indulgent narrative in which she emerges as the helpless plaything of her own otherworldly, transgressive desires.

The play’s ludic evocation of Racine’s Phèdre returns in the Aunts’ récit of Papa’s bloody knife-attack by Maman, which oddly resembles Théramène’s account of Hippolyte’s destruction by the sea-monster. Perhaps more importantly, though, the Aunts’ récit underlines the fact that Maman is a schizoid, unknowable being, having plotted this violent revenge against Papa from the start, apparently indifferent to the fact that her small daughters will have to bear the weight of witnessing the horror for the rest of their lives:

(p.126) Leur fille armée d’un couteau et se jetant sur son mari, devant les gamines, et le sang partout, et tout le monde hurlant sauf lui – le nègre, parait-il, n’a pas eu un cri – alors elle, comprenant qu’elle n’en viendrait pas à bout et se sauvant avec […] les deux filles paralysées de terreur, le laissant là, lui, le laissant se remettre comme il pouvait pour aller faire recoudre sa figure en morceaux, sa damnée figure de nègre content de lui.

(PDM, 75– 6)

The fact of Maman’s brutal knife-attack on Papa is something that strangely seems simply not to register on the intra-diegetic reality of this play, however. It is as if, once it has been reported by the ghoulish Aunts, it can be put into a drawer, and not allowed to impinge upon the accepted official narrative of Maman as Papa’s victim. Even when the adult daughter Mina reports Maman’s sadistic practice of fingering the aged Papa’s badly healed scars (PDM, 82– 3; we remember Nadia, desperate to plunge her fingers into her husband Ange’s tempting wound), Maman manages to remain an essentially benevolent stereotype, as nobody seems capable of formulating a negative judgment against her, of actually suggesting that she may be as monstrous as Papa himself.

NDiaye gives indication upon indication that Maman is deranged (her bewildering scene with the Voice can surely be interpreted as a moment of post-breakdown psychosis), and yet the hard core of the character, as brilliantly played by Clotilde de Bayser in the 2003 Comédie-Française production, and as reinforced by Maman’s grieving, slightly patronizing, respectable old lady turn in the final scene (‘Allons-y, allons-y. Nous verrons plus tard. Quant à moi … Je suis dans le deuil’, PDM, 95) remains, against all the odds, one of long-suffering reasonableness. The disastrous effect on Mina and Ami of their parents’ incessantly narcissistic behaviour becomes the play’s only real way of communicating just how cannibalistic these self-absorbed, would-be ‘star-crossed’ parents really are. While Ami, who barely ever speaks, is spoken of by her adult sister Mina as having ‘descendue très bas […] cinglée d’une manière dont on ne peut rien faire, qui ne lui appartient pas’ (PDM, 86), Mina herself shifts from uncannily mature pre-pubescent child-woman, ‘une petite mère active, un peu soucieuse’ (PDM, 24), concerned only for her own poor mother’s well-being (‘Maman doit se serrer sur les coussins, et son dos s’abîme, et ses jambes ne se reposent pas comme elles le devraient après tout ce temps passé debout’, PDM, 22), to haggard, depressive wife and mother, envious of her now elderly mother’s strange ability to shine despite everything: ‘Seule, Maman rayonne. Son allure et son visage paraissent plus jeunes que mon allure, mon visage’ (PDM, 81). (p.127) Described by that simultaneously cheerful and long-suffering mother when they are small as ‘chères petites mortes’ (PDM, 12), when they are grown women Mina and Ami appear to fulfil the maternal prophecy of total zombification.

I conclude my discussion of Papa doit manger by noting that its questions of ‘race’ and ‘racial difference’, so superficially revelled in by journalists, are far from irrelevant in discussions of this play: they merely need to be joined up to broader issues of psychopathology in order to be rendered at all worthy of politically engaged consideration. Through her depiction of the Aunts, in particular, NDiaye manages to convey a sense of the complete racialization of familial ‘blank psychosis’. All the characters’ internal sense of emptiness has somehow ended up getting refracted through a collective fantasy about Papa’s ‘blackness’. The already white Aunts’ comical desire for reinforced whiteness in the form of blonde hair dye is part and parcel of their (also gendered) self-hatred. Disavowing their feelings of sexual worthlessness, the Aunts use the language of ‘race’ to whip each other up into an eroticized frenzy of hatred and envy.10 The dialogue they have during their ‘witch’s spell’ scene (PDM, 72– 4), in which they reminisce about Papa’s and Maman’s terrible but exciting wedding, is replete with images of their own uncontainable fluids: sweat, vomit, tears, and unnameable vaginal secretions. Ultimately, though, all their language of white contempt and arousal spins around the predictably ‘blanked out’ (non-) image of Papa’s black penis, or rather, their fantasy of sex between Papa and their white niece (‘toute mignonne, toute menue, et blondinette’, PDM, 72):

Nous étions désespérés de ne pouvoir que l’imaginer, et il était insupportable de l’imaginer. Nous aurions voulu voir et ne jamais voir, savoir et ne rien savoir du tout et qu’il n’y ait rien à savoir.


Cette même pensée que nous avions tous t’avait rompue, anéantie. Tu en crevais de ne pas savoir.

(PDM, 74)

These lines contain perhaps NDiaye’s most perfect synthesis of simultaneously racialized and sexualized blankness, and reinforce André Green’s (1983) compelling hypothesis that behind every ‘dead’ mother complex – and who could be a more cheerily ‘dead’ mother than Maman? – lurks an unresolved ‘primal scene’. The cultural spectre of ‘black’ Papa and ‘white’ Maman’s terrible coitus props up the blank and withdrawn pathologies of every character before us, their banal (p.128) sexual act, as Fanon (1952) suggested long ago, the structuring fantasy for an already neurotic society made sicker still by the phenomenon of racialized hallucination.

The Intense Humming of Evil: Les Serpents (2004)

Les Serpents is one of NDiaye’s more complex and repulsive plays. Eschewing the black comedy of Hilda, the melodrama of Papa doit manger, the stark simplicity of Rien d’humain (2004) and the redemptive final peace of Les Grandes Personnes (2011), it stages a dreamlike situation that appears to take place at the gates of Hell itself, or rather, NDiaye’s secular version of Hell: an abusive family home in which a child has actually died at the hands of his demented caregivers. Like a strangely inverted version of Samuel Beckett’s Fin de partie, here the apocalypse is to be found inside the house rather than outside it, and the despotic old ‘Hamm’ figure is a woman, exercising her cruel authority over not one but two ‘Clov’ figures, both of them female. The sun beats down on the three female protagonists, Mme Diss and her two daughters-in-law, one ex, one current, in much the relentless manner as it does on the narrator and her possessed Auschwitzian child in Y penser sans cesse (2011). The fields of wheat glow with the same sickly yellow that hovered over Rosie Carpe’s unprocessed but certainly demonic childhood. Even the family surname – ‘Diss’ – calls to mind one of the names of Hades, lord of the classical underworld.11 The family home outside which the three women lurk carries the stench of a death-chamber, its inmates (various children, both living and dead) tied up and powerless, or else floating, spectral and un-mourned, its commandant an ogre-like bully (respectively son, ex-husband and husband of the three women) seemingly committed to performing acts of mental and physical cruelty. In many plot- and character-related respects, the play resembles the cannibalistic final section of NDiaye’s later novel Mon cœur à l’étroit, with the cold and calculating mother-in law Mme Diss shifting into the later work’s narrator Nadia, the two wives Nancy and France becoming the novel’s Yasmine and Wilma, and the play’s invisible son-ogre acquiring greater definition and humanity in the novel as the bisexual despot Ralph.

Almost absurdly robotic and one-dimensional, the three protagonists sometimes strike the spectator as characters out of a particularly strange arcade-game, only allowed to enter or leave the house a certain number (p.129) of times, and always in danger of being ‘zapped’ as they do so. Nancy emerges as the game’s plucky have-a-go hero, her ultimate mission becoming ever more clear: to enter the haunted house, to wake up and untie the frozen children, and bring them out into the open before their monster-father eats them.12 Mme Diss frames the challenge in the following terms, insisting more on the minor, truly ‘game-like’ actions that her ex-daughter-in-law avatar must perform: ‘Va faire là-dedans ce que tu as à y faire! […] Préviens mon fils, rapporte de l’eau, un chèque pour la maman, habille-toi, tamponne-toi, fais sortir ces enfants, qu’on voie leur figure, et tout sera bien à l’endroit’ (SE, 49). For bonus points, perhaps at a higher level of the game (a level which, alas, she fails to reach), Nancy might also want to visit her dead child’s grave and so at last to make peace with herself. The murdered child Jacky remains an un-symbolized and ghostly infant presence, of course: like Bébé (in both La Femme changée en bûche and Papa doit manger), like Hilda’s abandoned children, like Providence’s mysterious newborn, eaten, perhaps, by pigs. The boy’s spirit simply swirls around the family home, amongst the living (but threatened) children, as ungraspable and threatening as the various shifting and squirming black things that will fly out of Nadia’s womb, or roll around the village’s playgrounds in Autoportrait en vert (2005). And all the while the 14 July festivities continue, their jolly firework displays functioning as a vacuous community celebration as unstoppable as it is uncaring, as oblivious to the corpse of the snake-bitten little Jacky as the cheery fans of the new Astérix film in Rosie Carpe are to the nearly dead body of little Titi, lying in the sun amongst the rats. As Mme Diss’s second daughter-inlaw France explains, the public joy of a nation is an implacable and non-negotiable event:

Mais je peux bien, avant comme après, vivre dans l’attente du 14 juillet, puisque cela finit toujours soit par arriver soit par revenir. Il suffit d’en être certaine. C’est un désir perpétuel et toujours comblé, aussi ne croyez pas que je retombe, non, la vigueur de cet élan ne cessera qu’à ma mort, la joie qu’existe chaque année, un 14 juillet et un feu d’artifice, inéluctablement.

Pas de déception, pas de chute possible.

(SE, 10– 11)

NDiaye explores the horrible psychological logic of abusive care-giving in a number of earlier and later works, but in this play the figure of the snake is used as a particularly powerful metaphor for the narcissistic parent’s incorporation of his or her child. Parents ‘eat’ their offspring (p.130) whole, leaving no trace, and in this sacrificial act of eradication they are able to delay or quieten the symptoms of their own traumatic childhoods. Mme Diss – like Nadia, and like the aged Papa who ‘doit manger’ – arrives at her adult son’s house because she needs money and she needs sustenance in whatever form he can offer. She is not interested in love in the conventional sense of the term (although she is willing, like Papa, to fake it in exchange for money), and the idea that she is actually the parent of her son rather than the other way around appears to be unthinkable: ‘Vous devez me compter comme l’un des enfants,’ she tells her second daughter-in-law, France. ‘Vous devez vous occuper de moi. Vous devez prendre toute la responsabilité de ma personne. Moi, je peux plus’ (SE, 73). A woman of seemingly inexistent emotional insight or capacity for self-reflection, she cannot countenance the possibility of her own culpability and, above all, refuses to accept the potential validity of her son’s avoidance of her: ‘Pourquoi m’évite-t-il, dis-moi? […] Pourquoi donc?’ (SE, 10). Demanding nothing but unwavering acknowledgment and respect from her adult offspring (‘qu’il vienne me reconnaître’, SE, 42), Mme Diss is perhaps the most flint-hearted female character in all NDiaye’s theatre, taking pride, like Papa, in her preternatural lack of sentiment (‘Je reste nette et froide, Nancy […] Je reste exacte, rigoureuse et froide’, SE, 52– 3), and an approving collaborator in her grandson’s physical abuse by her son: ‘Je ne le battais pas mais je ne trouvais pas déshonorant qu’il fût battu’ (SE, 33). The soliloquy of maternal rage and self-justification in which she indulges in the final scene is the exact opposite of the healing ‘maternal reverie’ spoken of by Wilfred Bion (1962) in his discussion of ‘alpha function’, the caregiver’s capacity to convert the infant’s fear and panic into tolerable feelings:

Pourquoi ce garçon, toi, haïssait-il sa propre mère?

C’est que tu étais mauvais de naissance. Bon. Pourquoi me sentiraisje blâmable d’avoir un mauvais fils? Je ne me sens pas blâmable d’avoir un mauvais fils, j’en suis attristée et gênée devant le monde, voilà tout.

Alors je me prépare mon petit lapin en gibelotte et je veillerai que tu n’y touches pas. Cela t’apprendra. Désormais je festinerai toute seule et toi, pour manger, tu feras comment?

Tu te débrouilleras.

(SE, 85)

Ultimately, Mme Diss emerges, like nearly all the overtly terrifying parent figures of the NDiayean œuvre (Tante Colette, La Sorcière’s Isabelle, Mme Lemarchand) as not only fundamentally melancholic (‘je suis terriblement déprimée’, SE, 87) but also in a state of blank psychic (p.131) oblivion: ‘Je me souviens du père de mon fils? Pas du tout’ (SE, 89). It is impossible to say whether or not her son suffers from the same feelings of nullity as his mother, since his character remains permanently offstage, but the way in which much of his abuse of his own son Jacky is described by Mme Diss would suggest that it too is rooted in the trans-generational pattern of ego-feeding through the practice of child sacrifice. Once he has killed his son, the grandmother flippantly tells us, he himself flourishes: ‘La jeunesse et la satisfaction l’illuminaient de l’intérieur, tendaient et polissaient sa peau, embrasaient ses yeux. Je lui ai dit, en lui tapotant la joue: tu t’es nourri de Jacky, tu t’es engraissé de lui’ (SE, 56). Jacky’s own pain, on his way to death, meanwhile, is, like that of both Providence (‘Si tu souffres c’est que tu n’es pas Providence’, P, 26) and Papa (‘les nègres ont la peau plus dure’, PDM, 71), strenuously disavowed by his abusers. The child is constructed by both father and grandmother as somehow beyond suffering. Like the villagers in Providence and the Aunts in Papa doit manger, they manage to project an image of their victim as a super-being, so inherently strong-willed, unfeeling, self-sufficient and internally powerful that he will, improbably, be able to withstand whatever violence they mete out to him: ‘Mais, pour le garçon, c’était égal. Il ne sentait plus rien, à l’abri de lui-même, protégé par sa délicatesse. Le père, pour se monter, devait faire chaque jour davantage et, le comprenant, voyant l’infériorité, il en voulait à ce fils passionnément, fanatiquement’ (SE, 32). It is the abusing father’s envy of his small son Jacky, then, that appears to lie at the root of the abuse, envy of the child’s very sense of self, a sense of self lacking in the father and which he must accordingly swallow up in order to protect his own weak or non-existent ego. Refusing to let his own mother swallow or spectralize him, Mme Diss’s son survives the rigours of maternal assault only by creating his own smaller victims, by actively choosing the role of ogre-father rather than ghost-child. He provides a fascinating example of a character who, rather than waste away or die at the hands of his abusive parent, enters into a simultaneously rivalrous and collaborative partnership with her. Mother and her adult child thus attain an eventual closeness of sorts by coming together to destroy a third person, Jacky, a supernatural scapegoat whom together they may render perennially tiny and endlessly punishable.

Les Serpents is – like all NDiaye’s work after Rosie Carpe – concerned with one key question: how does one break out of the cycle of abuse? Is one forever condemned to the status either of deathly infant or monstrous parent? A potential third way may lie in an awakening to (p.132) the reality of the situation one finds oneself in, and that awakening is offered to Nancy in the play’s final third. Having forced herself to listen to Mme Diss’s account of what happened to her own child Jacky at the hands of her former husband, Nancy realizes that she can no longer maintain the pretence of non-responsibility. While she has hitherto clung to a stance of hopeful delusion (‘Oui, il l’embrassait. S’il te plaît’, SE, 30) and self-justification (‘Je n’avais pas de voiture et pas d’argent […] Comment j’aurais pu venir?’, SE, 35), she will eventually come, via sudden, terrible regret, to a place of acceptance and resolution: ‘Jamais plus je n’aurai peur de ma vie […] C’est que je n’en peux plus d’être ce que je suis’ (SE, 42, 58). This is a remarkable moment in NDiaye’s œuvre, for it marks that rare event in the writer’s work: a character finally recognizing that they have been complicit in their child’s suffering and actually deciding to aspire to a new form of morality. Nancy will spend the rest of the play with only one goal in mind: to re-enter the house of hell in order to leave it, once and for all. This is nothing less than a shamanic enterprise, a return to a site of traumatic horror, which may facilitate a work of mourning and growth. If Nancy is made aware of anything in listening to Mme Diss’s sickening, prostituted testimony to Jacky’s suffering, it is the importance of locating both the phantom and the crypt she has been hitherto striving to ignore, and in so doing enacting an act of counter-normative reparation, in contrast to the empty 14 July celebrations taking place against a backdrop of silent horror:

C’est aujourd’hui feu d’artifice et c’est aussi l’anniversaire de la mort du garçon, alors je viens pour que nous allions, le père et moi, sur la tombe (c’est une tombe?) pour qu’ensemble nous nous inclinions bien bas au-dessus de la petite âme du garçon, et que nous nous excusions puisqu’on ne peut plus lui demander pardon et qu’il nous l’accorde.

Ensuite je m’en irai et je ne reviendrai plus.

(SE, 39– 40)

If this were a later work by NDiaye, there might be a chance that Nancy would be allowed to triumph in her act of courage, that something resembling cathartic peace might be reached on a stage that has hitherto conveyed nothing but ugliness and cruelty. As it is, the mission is doomed to failure. Glamorous career woman Nancy may have shown herself prepared to swap identities with her lowly (and vaguely racialized) replacement France, going back inside the foul old house so that a fantastically reborn France may finally leave it, but the exchange is, ultimately, hollow and gratuitous. No real alliance, (p.133) emotional or political, has been formed between the two wives, and they change places in a spirit of avoidance and non-communication.13 France’s emergence from domesticated zombification (‘Comme j’ai dormi longtemps!’, SE, 68) metamorphoses simply into frivolous vanity (‘Je suis chic, j’ai de la classe, j’en impose. Je joue!’, SE, 71) and a perverted relationship with Mme Diss, a variation on the bizarre mother-and-second-daughter-in-law intimacies of Nadia and her unlikely gynaecologist Wilma in Mon cœur à l’étroit. Meanwhile, Nancy, once inside the house, swiftly crumbles, completely overwhelmed by sudden fear and a ghastly resignation to her fate: ‘Cette maison est fétide, je suis la dernière à être mangée’ (SE, 84). The play is, in the final analysis, a somewhat sadistic exercise in the staging of failed atonement and failed revolution. Even if Nancy makes the journey towards a ‘prise de conscience’ following Mme Diss’s recollections, the precipitating ‘memories’ were already soiled and damaged by their commercialization by the rapacious old woman. Access to the traumas of the past has been blocked for Nancy by an all-pervasive culture of transaction, a culture in which she has participated fully.14 It is small wonder that her attempt to act ‘authentically’ on the basis of this kind of exchange is susceptible to failure. Rather than offering us a blueprint for new forms of love and loyalty, then, the final scene functions as a nasty reinforcement of absolute coldness and horror: France and Mme Diss argue and rave outside the house, seven years later, lost in a delirious dialogue of forgetting, of sex, of starting again. As for Mme Diss’s remark apropos the children left inside the house all those years ago, it could be equally applied to the children of all NDiayean theatre: they have not grown at all (SE, 92).

L’An V de la révolution ndiayïenne: Rien d’humain (2004)

Commissioned by the Comédie de Valence for a season on ghosts (Bouteillet, 2009), Rien d’humain is a short and extremely elliptical play, in comparison to which many of NDiaye’s other theatrical works appear rich in detail, almost baroque. It is also, in comparison to the other plays, refreshingly revolutionary in tone, containing, in the figures of Djamila and her spectral infant, a force that threatens to dismantle white, bourgeois, patriarchal and fundamentally abusive established power structures in an explosive manner that is scarcely evoked by comparable violated mother/ghost child dyads such as Rosie and Titi, (p.134) Nancy and Jacky, or Providence and her baby. The colonized parent and her phantom child in this play resemble figures from some of Michael Haneke’s most accomplished cinema of the 2000s: like the exploited and semi-adopted French-Algerian character Majid and his adult son in the film Caché (2005), like the sinister brood of village children in The White Ribbon (2009), Djamila and the invisible infant create a powerful enough energy to cause their disingenuous oppressors to come face to face with the traumatic damage they have helped to bring about. From the play’s outset Djamila has managed to turn on its head the knot of power and property that has cemented the capacity of a character like Mme Lemarchand for limitless material and psychic abuse.

The Arabic-named Djamila15 is the first of NDiaye’s theatrical victim-figures to strike back fully against those who have invaded her mind and body and expected her to keep quiet about the experience. Unlike Hilda, Providence or even Papa (whose body is slashed and penetrated without this ever being properly acknowledged within the discourse of the white characters, including his knife-wielding wife, for whom he is the ‘real’ villain), Djamila responds to her patronizing colonization with radical, illegal and unapologetic counter-violence, seeming to take inspiration from Hilda’s sister Corinne’s baleful warning to Mme Lemarchand at the end of Hilda: ‘Mais si vous saviez à quel point elle vous déteste. Vous l’écarteriez de vous au plus vite si vous le saviez. Elle rêve de vous voir crever, vous et vos enfants’ (H, 79). Djamila is the Corinne who is prepared to put her hate-filled reflection into practice, the Hilda who, emerging from neurasthenic blankness, suddenly finds sufficient energy to open her mouth and to begin to act in a disobedient, anarchic and self-liberating fashion. The process of transformation through which Djamila passes signals a real rupture in the inevitability of the NDiayean métèque figure’s self-erasure through grateful integration. Djamila has no truck with servile gratitude, a concept she contemptuously and ironically exposes as yet another means for the colonizer to maintain his or her authority over the lowly being s/he claims to have ‘improved’:

Tirons Djamila de son taudis, forçons-la à considérer son passé avec dégoût, sa famille avec horreur, et que notre immense charité l’étouffe de préceptes et de principes […] [L]a voilà transfigurée! Djamila ! La voilà, toute à nous, toute neuve et nettoyée et polie, par l’action de nos bienfaits […] Souris, sois des nôtres.

Ma gratitude doit être considérable.

(RH, 24)

(p.135) Putting her resolution to break with her ‘friend’ Bella, as well as Bella’s abusive father and brothers, in the starkest and most final terms possible, Djamila notes: ‘Son père m’a tout donné. Le temps du père est fini et le temps de la fille Bella est fini. Le temps est fini de ces gens-là’ (RH, 40).16

Through Djamila’s uncompromising statements and monologues NDiaye fabricates a new paradigm of ‘blankness’, a stance of utter detachment that has become chillingly depersonalized for reasons of politicized necessity. Djamila declares the notion of friendship with Bella null and void (‘on n’est pas l’amie d’une fille infiniment plus riche que soi’, RH, 21) not because she is necessarily incapable of emotional intimacy but because she is attempting to expose the hypocrisies, capitalist and otherwise, of pseudo-intimacy. She assaults the practices and discourses of ‘liberals’ and ‘do-gooders’ (‘Bon Dieu, crois-tu que je puisse laisser impuni autant de philanthropie?’, RH, 26) not because she is necessarily diabolical, but in a bitter determination to reveal the capacity of those ‘liberals’ and ‘do-gooder’ for collaboration with rape, theft and torture. In a monologue that appears grounded in both Fanon’s principles of violent decolonization and Genet’s ethic of proud criminality, Djamila leaves no room for doubt regarding the direction of her newly autonomous, self-awarded puissance:

Elle veut, maintenant, pour me dominer, prétendre me donner l’appartement. Mais elle ne me donne rien – tu entends? […] C’est moi qui prends et qui possède. Je suis là-bas chez moi car je l’ai décrété. On ne me donne plus rien. On ne m’assujettit plus à la grandeur d’âme. Je suis une pierre. Je ne suis coupable de rien. Je ne suis pas gentille et je ne suis pas cruelle, et qu’on ne me juge pas, car je suis une pierre.

(RH, 42)

We have remained close and yet travelled very far from the ‘stone-being’ of the narrator of La Femme changée en bûche (1989), who may have derived a certain comfort and insight from her brief transformation into a pebble, but whose various metamorphoses seemed to take place largely outside of her control, according to the peripeteia of her fluctuating circumstances and moods, and quite removed from a politicized or revolutionary context. Djamila’s is a prise de conscience that interprets the spectral elements of Fanon’s violence literally. She conjures up a truly postcolonial baby, ‘cette présence hostile et polaire’ (RH, 34), the fruit, perhaps, of rape by Bella’s father, but equally possibly – or at one and the same time – a self-generated fantastical entity, like Isabelle Adjani’s octopus-like offspring in Andrzej Zulawski’s remarkable film (p.136) Possession (1981), capable of resisting and repulsing new oppressors by any means necessary. ‘Vous m’avez fait former des fantômes, qu’il faudra que je réalise’, the Marquis de Sade is said to have written to his wife from prison in 1783 (Boulé, 1999: 134). Djamila acts out that ghostly, whispered promise for her horrified mistress Bella, giving it a militant dimension that is truly startling.

This play also occupies a radical function at a linguistic level within NDiaye’s corpus. Bella’s vomiting up of violent words and phrases is an uncontrolled representation of traumatic assaults suffered in the past by Djamila and witnessed, then repressed, by Bella. NDiayean theatrical language is at last allowing itself to convey badly buried experience rather than consigning it to the repository of blankness. Like the unstoppable bodily fluids and various black shapes of the later prose fiction, Bella’s linguistic eruptions, these italicized ‘mots qui roulent de ma bouche […] des bestioles un peu répugnantes dont la bave tache le devant de mes vêtements, l’intérieur de mon âme’ (RH, 17) signal the necessary breaking down of psychic defences that can no longer prevent emotional truth from emerging. The spillages are violent, involuntary and obscene:

Mais je suis chez moi et ma confiance renaît et je voudrais que la conclusion le plaisir avec eux abominable de notre accommodement ait lieu sans brutalité.


Et je souhaite que mes enfants laquelle sera prise connaisse ta fille prise et prise et prise. Empêche les crapauds de sauter hors de ma bouche!


Comme tu étais naïve, inexpérimentée pas belle mais sans danger baisée.


Et sous ton petit crâne tout rempli d’idées superstitieuses, de croyances imbécile sous ton petit corps petit industrieux sous ce corps, qui pouvait bien s’étendre mou abandonné qui?

Je ravale mes mots, mon amie.

(RH, 28– 30)

But however nasty or uncomfortable they are for their vehicle Bella, these emissions signal a key psychic and aesthetic breakthrough in the world of NDiaye. For they mark the moment when language can at last be made to contain the toxic shame of the past. Could it be that the era of using human repositories – here, Djamila – for the intolerable, split-off affect of the abusers, is drawing to a close?

(p.137) Turning the Screw: Les Grandes Personnes (2011)

An interval of seven years separates Les Grandes Personnes from the cluster of plays we have looked at so far. During this period, NDiaye not only became a far better known figure of the French literary world, thanks to the publication of the Goncourt-winning Trois femmes puissantes in 2009, but also left France to settle in Berlin, apparently for the long term. Leaving her long-standing publisher Minuit in 2004, she signed with the more mainstream Gallimard, who published Mon cœur à l’étroit and most of the texts following it. She also co-scripted the filmmaker Claire Denis’s 2009 film White Material.17 There is a significant hiatus in the theatrical project, then, as NDiaye’s fame develops as a novelist and highly spectacularized ‘personality’. It seems to me not entirely coincidental that during this period of wider diffusion NDiaye’s prose work acquires a rather more palatable humanism, a tendency towards situations of unlikely redemption that were entirely eschewed in the earlier work. Her eventual return to theatre to some extent duplicates the Gallimard novels’ capacity for not always convincing niceness. As with the later prose, Les Grandes Personnes suffers slightly in an incongruous drift towards ‘uplift’.

NDiaye revisits many old themes in this play, but handles them in ways that feel, at times, superficial, crowd-pleasing, even ‘liberal’. The long-established theme of class movement – and the difficulty of maintaining friendship once one of the partners has ‘betrayed’ his or her social origins – is observed here in the uneasy relations between the two middle-aged couples, although the situation contains none of the horror, poignancy or wit of En famille, say, or the short story ‘La Mort de Claude François’ (2004). As for the valiant figure of Madame B., in her NDiaye once again explores the possibility of a brave (or foolhardy) outsider who must confront the corruption of an abusive institutional power system. But the representation, unlike that of Rosie Carpe’s all too human Lagrand, or Rien d’humain’s complex, bitter Djamila, is heavy-handed. Madame B. is the text-book ‘good foreigner’, capable of radical forgiveness while at the same time in possession of a sound moral base that allows her to have a clear and unwavering sense of herself as authentic and real. Like the long-suffering and equally heroic Khady Demba of Trois femmes puissantes, Madame B. serves no function other than to illustrate a seemingly non-European ethic that refuses to be ground down by corrupt circumstance, but whom, as (p.138) was the case with Khady Demba, NDiaye’s text will sweep away like so much exotic detritus.

The central mystery on which the play’s psychological drama hinges is the monstrous sadness/madness embodied by the three adult children: the Schoolteacher (Georges and Isabelle’s son), the Son (Éva and Rudi’s adopted son) and the Daughter (Éva and Rudi’s apparently biological daughter, secretly fathered by Georges). Why does the Schoolteacher rape the small children in his care? Why does the Son carry fantastical Voices in his chest? And how has the Daughter come to be a spectral revenant rather than a living human being? Aspects of the play appear to indict unintentional parental failure as the source of insurmountable childhood trauma that has persisted into depressed and deranged adulthood. Éva and Rudi are revealed from the outset as weak but well-meaning characters, desperately hoping that the reality of their daughter’s ghost will disappear if they keep quiet about it long enough. As Éva puts it in the play’s opening lines: ‘Tant que je n’en parlais pas, ce n’était qu’un songe un peu déplaisant’ (LGP, 11). But their intentions are good, the mother insists, and she and her husband have done nothing but love their two children. Perplexed at the Voices’ demonic desire to see the parents dead, a hand-wringing Éva is martyr-like and plaintive:

  • Nous n’avons lésé personne.
  • Nous sommes innocents.
  • Nous vous aimions tant, tous les deux.
  • S’il faut maintenant punir la mort, le dévouement, la volonté de faire au mieux, et encore l’amour, les flots d’amour, s’il faut punir le moral et l’abnégation, alors ils sont dans le vrai, ces deux cadavres qui te harcèlent, et nous méritons de mourir, nous le méritons.

(LGP, 42– 3)

The play thus presents a world in which fundamentally benevolent parents must suddenly contend with children apparently so damaged by childhood that they either bear or have actually turned into ghosts and ghouls. This is trauma with no clear instigator, and these are, in NDiaye’s world, relatively new kinds of parents, guilty of neither abuse nor flagrant neglect. It is true that Isabelle lets slip a character that seems, at times, insanely – hilariously – devoid of empathy. Her bizarre confession to her best friends Éva and Georges that she envies them the drama of being haunted by a ghost-daughter (LGP, 12) reveals early on that she is a woman whose emotional capacities are limited. When she declares to Éva and Georges’s son that, for her, ‘un enfant (p.139) ingrat mérite la mort’ (LGP, 71), the audience is left in doubt of her flashes of madness.

Éva and Rudi may be a little nervy and evasive, but they seem to have acted with the best will in the world: how can we accuse them of being at the root of their daughter’s addictions and subsequent death, or their son’s possession? Isabelle and Georges may be eccentric to the point of perversity – they quiz their son the Schoolteacher over dinner about his semen’s precise degree of whiteness – but at least they appear to love and cherish him. Even if Georges and Éva were duplicitous in their concealment of the Daughter’s actual parentage, and even if Rudi and Georges were over-optimistic in their hope that the Son’s faraway origins could be simply forgotten, and even if Isabelle is a little bit blank and crazy, is it fair to conclude that all this is at the root of such demented progeny? Surely, we ask ourselves, these four well-meaning ‘grandes personnes’ cannot be held to account for the fact of their terrifying offspring – their cadaverous visages, their demonic voices, their multiple sex-attacks on vulnerable children? It is difficult to know in which direction NDiaye wishes to push her audience. It feels as if, in this short play, she is brainstorming ideas about parenting in a wild and multi-directional manner, seeking, on the one hand, to situate evil within the stock melodramatic trope of familial ‘secrets and lies’, on the other, to suggest that all childhood experience is potentially traumatizing, on a third – in keeping with the suggestion that NDiaye is made up of at least two people! – to hint, here and there, at the omnipresent possibility of inappropriately sexualized parent– child interaction and, on a fourth, that much of the blame can be laid at the door of the parents’ racialized insensitivity. There is nothing wrong with such a wealth of theories, of course – why should the malaise not come from all of these things and more? – but rather that so few of the ideas are properly developed, with the result that they all begin to feel a little throwaway.

The Daughter’s monologue at the end of Scene VIII deserves some close analysis, however. It appears to posit a theory of emotional damage that seeks not to blame any specific act on the part of the parents, but rather a nebulous, non-locatable climate of ‘wrongness’:

Je ne sais pas l’exprimer.

Malgré la joie, malgré l’amour, malgré l’abondance, l’excès de tout…Il y avait quelque chose de déplacé, de malvenu, quelque chose qui n’aurait jamais dû être et qui vivait, qui était là, dans ma personne.

Une faute avait été commise et s’épanouissait et ce n’était pas bien.

(p.140) Il fallait que quelqu’un soit puni, et il m’a semblé que ce devait être moi.

Je me suis bien punie, tu sais.

Mais, au moins, est-ce que je ne vous ai pas protégés?

(LGP, 60)

This is a deeply powerful and unsettling set of lines which, after so many plays by NDiaye that point to past acts of clear parental failure as instrumental in the child’s disintegration, feels like a new, almost revisionist way of looking at things. It is almost as if NDiaye, like Freud, when, a century earlier, he retracted his ‘seduction theory’ in favour of an insistence on infantile ‘fantasy’, has thought better of being so quick to lay everything at the door of poor old father and mother.18 The ‘faute’ thus becomes generalized, everywhere and nowhere at the same time: it lurks in disavowed adultery, in misguided cross-cultural adoption, in foolish words, in too much love. The problems that arise for the children must be put down to the rough-and-tumble of family life in a reality of fallible individuals. A perhaps less facile way of interpreting the vastness of the ‘faute’ could, of course, be to see in it a statement of radical anti-familial sentiment, implying, as it does, that the parent– child dynamic, or even the fact of generation itself, is fundamentally abusive. This would situate the play rather closer to the ideas of a thinker such as Alice Miller, whose general position (1987 and 1998) can be summed up in the idea that parents, by hook or by crook, get rid of their pain, whatever form this pain may take, by consciously or unconsciously attempting to pass it on to their children. The Daughter appears to echo that position when she tells the Son (LGP, 56) that if she has had to seek refuge, in ghost form, under the staircase, it is only because, never having herself become a mother, she has no poor child’s heart in which to take up comfortable residence. Yet another way of interpreting the Daughter’s words is via reference to Abraham and Torok (1986) and their theory of internalized ‘crypts’ of familial trauma, trickling down the generations in such a way that a child can find herself inhabited by the ‘phantom’ of her drowned great-uncle, say, without any parental abuse actually having taken place.

It is the Daughter who provides almost all the play’s moments of emotional and intellectual insight, by virtue both of what she actually says and the terrible, indigestible spectrality of her stage presence. When she suggests that even if she was loved by her parents she was also filled intolerably to the brim, overstuffed with feelings and desires she could not possibly assimilate, she creates a crucial image of the child as helpless receptacle (‘une vaste poche remplie’, LGP, 77), her submission (p.141) to overwhelming tides of parental ‘love’ as potentially damaging as little Karim’s invasion by the Schoolteacher’s ‘sexe en plastique’ (LGP, 49), the latter image seeming less gratuitous as it obscenely conveys a wider truth.19 We are better-equipped to see how the Schoolteacher too has been used as an inappropriate container for his parents’ fears, dreams and desires: as Isabelle blithely puts it, ‘Nos vilaines pensées s’épanchent vers lui sans l’infecter, et nous nous purifions […] Ce qui nous hante, son vaste cœur peut l’absorber’ (LGP, 62).20 Finally, the Daughter’s interactions with her adoptive brother, the Son, facilitate perhaps the most staggering instance of meaningfully intelligent communication in all NDiaye’s work thus far. The way the spectral woman interacts with the supernatural beings which inhabit her living brother represents a truly radical representation of psychic exchange. Aspects of the human self that are ordinarily denied, repressed and blankly buried – the daughter’s ghostliness, the son’s barking internal objects – are given dramatic expression on the NDiayean stage, allowed to interact with one another in a demonstration of quite madly intelligent beauty. We have travelled a long way from Mme Lemarchand and her annihilating procedures of psychic and physical murder in Hilda. In Les Grandes Personnes, NDiaye has, for all the play’s faults, begun to rehearse an almost shamanic depiction of therapeutic listening, one subject ‘tuning in’ to another, so as better to hear the substance of what ordinarily cannot and will not be comprehended. NDiaye’s magical use of the theatre has begun to turn blankness into something impossibly alive.


(1) This second claim is not quite true: in 1972, the mixed-race French actor Georges Aminel played Oedipus in a production by Jean-Paul Roussillon. The casting decision was heavily criticized by contemporary critics, and Aminel (p.219) was replaced by a white actor, before resigning from the Comédie-Française (Chalaye, 2007). Shortly before retiring from the theatre altogether, in 1979, he told Le Figaro’s Marion Thébaud: ‘Je suis trop blanc, trop noir, le cheveu trop crépu ou pas assez. Bref, des amis qui me veulent du bien me demandent pourquoi je ne joue pas Othello mais jamais pourquoi je n’interprète pas Macbeth’ (quoted by Chalaye, 2007). Aminel’s problem is not so different, as we have seen, from some of the cultural quandaries raised by Marie NDiaye’s own career.

(2) Hilda remains by far the most performed of all the plays, having, at the time of writing, been produced almost thirty times in France, and also several times across Europe and the United States. The second most frequently produced of NDiaye’s plays seems to be Rien d’humain (six French productions and one in the US), while Papa doit manger, interestingly, seems to be one of the least popular (it is worth noting, perhaps, that it is the only one of the plays to demand the presence of ‘black’ and ‘mixed-race’ actors).

(3) Quoted in the Comédie-Française programme for Papa doit manger, January 2003.

(4) Guila Clara Kessous gave papers in London and Oxford in April 2007 entitled ‘Hilda de Marie Ndiaye ou l’esclavage moderne au théâtre’, drawing on her 2005 US production of the play, in which the central power dynamic was interpreted as a black– white one.

(5) It is possible that NDiaye is here commenting on the contemporary vogue for ‘tell-all’ autobiographies and perhaps even the particularly French love for ‘transgressive’ authors of ‘autofiction’ (e.g. Hervé Guibert, Christine Angot). It is always difficult to gauge NDiaye’s position vis-à-vis the relationship between her life and her writing. Usually insisting on an absolute separation between the two (see interview in Asibong and Jordan, 2009), on occasions (see interview with Paula Jacques on the CD in Rabaté, 2008) she admits to clear connections between her fiction and her life.

(6) ‘O mon corps, fais de moi toujours un homme qui interroge!’ is the final sentence of Peau noire masques blancs (Fanon, 1952).

(7) A number of scholarly articles are, however, beginning to explore the ‘race question’ with nuance and lucidity: see in particular Sheringham (2007), Ducournau (2009), Behar (2013) and Burnautzki (2013a).

(8) This is taken from the programme of the 2003 Comédie-Française production.

(9) For further discussion of the concept of ‘toxic shame’, see Woodhead (2009: 195– 7).

(10) Something similar happens among the frustrated female characters of Lorca’s 1936 play Casa de Bernarda Alba via their discussion of the male (and ultimately murdered) fantasy-receptacle that is Pepe el Romano.

(11) Classical (and neo-classical) references abound in this play, as they do throughout NDiaye’s work. The evil mother-son duo of Agrippina and (p.220) Nero is evoked by the relationship between Mme Diss and the ogre. Anchises and Aeneas spring to mind during Mme Diss’s voyage ‘on the back’ of her daughter-in-law France. And Racine’s version of Iphigénie seems to hover somewhere in the shadows, his substitute sacrificial victim Ériphile dimly perceptible via the replacement of France by Nancy.

(12) Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau contains at its heart a similar haunted house/child-rescuing challenge, also played out as a kind of game, and also involving two interchangeable young women. It might be argued that the child-rescuing fantasy hovers over the whole of NDiaye’s textual world, the narratives themselves functioning as attempts to imagine/enact successful rescues such as the one Lagrand exceptionally manages with Titi.

(13) A similarly ‘blank’ identity swap takes place between the narrator and the unhappy Chinese wife in NDiaye’s short story ‘Un voyage’ (1997).

(14) The sale and spectacularization of representations of trauma and suffering are, as in Providence, a key preoccupation of this play, and open up potential dialogue with a number of contemporary ethical-aesthetic questions, from Holocaust and plantation cinema to the life and death of photographer Kevin Carter, who committed suicide after taking a Pulitzer prize-winning picture of a starving Sudanese child.

(15) Djamila means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic, just as Bella does in Italian, and so the two NDiayean friends are, once again, a pair of pseudo-twins.

(16) It is perhaps worth noting that the play was published in the year when NDiaye would finally leave behind the Lindon dynasty represented by Les Éditions de Minuit, her pseudo-paternal saviour Jerôme Lindon having died in 2001 and his daughter Irène having taken the business over, leaving the sons Vincent and Mathieu to pursue their careers of actor and writer respectively. Mathieu Lindon devotes a chapter of his book Je vous écris (Lindon, 2004) to an analysis of NDiaye’s work.

(17) For a discussion of White Material in the context of Claire Denis’s filmmaking, see Asibong (2011). It would clearly be pertinent also to consider the script within the context of NDiaye’s writing, but space does not allow for such an exploration here.

(18) For an excellently robust critique of this key turning point in the history of psychoanalysis, see Masson (1997).

(19) For further exploration of the child’s psychic vulnerability to unassimilable adult objects, see Laplanche (1999) on ‘implantation’ and ‘intromission’.

(20) I am reminded of Michel Chion’s (2001) unexpected citation of Françoise Dolto, who memorably describes Baby as Mother’s ‘premier psychothérapeute’ (quoted by Chion in the epigraph to his book on the filmmaker David Lynch).