- Ariane Mnouchkine In Tibet
The Théâtre du Soleil’s four-month run to packed houses of Et soudain, des nuits d’éveil (And Suddenly, Nights of Awakening) is a tribute to the Tibetans who, in exile abroad or in internal exile under Chinese occupation, stand for the cause of resistance against annihilation. Annihilation threatens, in the case of Tibet, because it is neither a state nor a nation, although its diasporic people are obliged to construct a sense of both, principally through religious-spiritual practice and cultural self-definition. This convergence of identity politics with institutional politics—and the struggle, against China, by Tibet-in-exile for statehood is a matter of institutions—is precisely what holds Ariane Mnouchkine’s attention as she homes in on the dilemmas of what constitutes political action in extremis today and of how theatre, not only her theatre, but the theatre in general, may still play a part in shaping consciousness, without which directed, purposeful, and concerted action would be impossible. In this interrogation lies the full significance of the term éveil in the production’s title.
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The opening of the show more or less coincided with the release of two films backed by Hollywood, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which is a biography of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists throughout the world and head of the oppositional Tibetan parliament in Dharamsala in northern India. There is nothing sinister about the coincidence, no sign of collusion between Mnouchkine and the pajama liberalism or the brash commercialism that she has consistently rejected, wherever they may appear. It simply comes at a time of concentrated involvement—trendy or not—by artists and writers of all kinds in the cause of Tibet (including Richard Gere’s 1995 photography exhibition in Cahors in the southwest of France) and at a time, as well, of wider public awareness of the situation spearheaded, in recent years, by the Dalai Lama himself. (China [End Page 72] invaded Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama went into exile in1959.) Apart from these forces of circumstance, Mnouchkine’s interest in Tibet stems from her first journey to Nepal in 1963, where she met numerous errant Tibetans and also nurtured her passion for far-eastern countries, for their struggles through imperialism, war, and genocide and for their “art of the actor” (Mnouchkine’s words), all of which gave The Terrible But Incomplete History of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia in 1985 and The Indiad in 1987.
More important still, however, for Mnouchkine’s focus on Tibet is her commitment to issues that, if ostensibly located outside Europe, urgently concern it—France, in particular. Such is the case of La Ville parjure (The Foresworn City) in 1994 and its relation to the contaminated blood scandal, or of Tartuffe in 1995 which exposed fanaticism and terrorism closer to home in the gestures and costumes of Islam. Above all, it is her everyday political activism that, albeit continually shaping her work with her company, comes fully into play in And Suddenly : her ceaseless battles for the French government’s intervention in the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia (which, at the time of Tartuffe, entailed her hunger strike with other directors and actors), her help to refugees from the massacres of Algerian fundamentalism, and to the shelterless and abused of the streets of Paris, and, especially, the Théâtre du Soleil’s experiences with the sans papiers—the Undocumented—in 1996 when some 300 immigrants, whose papers were not in order, were to be expelled from France. Most of these immigrants were from Mali, provoking from Mnouchkine the retort that “We had colonies and there is a price to pay for this heritage.” 1 They took refuge consecutively in two different churches, and were evicted by the local priest from one and attacked by the police who broke...