Introduction
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3 Introduction This is a book about theater, but I cannot resist beginning with an excerpt from a film: Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive (2004; Games of Love and Chance).1 Midway through this brilliant work, the audience is confronted with a painfully embarrassing scene. The film’s teenage protagonist Krimo, short for Abdelkrim, is standing in front of his skeptical classmates dressed in the colorfully geometric costume of Arlequin, the comic servant figure that has permeated Western theater since the Middle Ages. The scene is drawn from the eighteenth-​ century French playwright Pierre Marivaux’s Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (The Game of Love and Chance), in which the servants Arlequin and Lisette switch places with their respective masters, so that the betrothed aristocrats can, unbeknownst to each other, study each other’s personalities. Krimo’s task is thus doubly difficult, as he is to deliver a role that is itself a disguised identity. The young actor falters. His only motivation for appearing in the scene is the proximity it offers to Lydia, his lively love interest and the actress cast in the role of his onstage partner, Lisette. As Krimo scans the floor of the classroom, glances over at his audience, and mumbles Marivaux’s lines, his French language and literature teacher grows increasingly perturbed. It is clear that her calm yet pointed commentary to the young actor in an earlier scene has not registered; Krimo’s performance remains uninspired. Soon, however, this monotony is interrupted when Kechiche’s camera swings from Krimo to the teacher, just in time to catch her thunder at her student: “Have fun!” (Amuse-​toi!). As Krimo turns to her with a look of panicked heartbreak, the teacher’s monologue builds to a feverish pitch: “Try to leave yourself behind and go toward a new language [aller vers un autre langage ]!” A few moments later, she adds, “Change your language, change your way of speaking, change your way of moving, have fun!” The word plaisir permeates her tirade as she reminds her terrified student that this should be a pleasurable exercise. She concludes in the imperative: “Liberate yourself [libère-​toi], give yourself, have fun!” Krimo, unable to face either Marivaux’s lines or his amused classmates, flees the room. In his commentary on L’Esquive, Ari Blatt engages in the allegorical interpretation that Kechiche’s scene so clearly invites: “In tracing Krimo’s failed attempt to act the part,” he writes, “the film dramatizes a young man’s struggle to come to terms with a way of being that is not his own. Furthermore, it designates the theater as the site where this struggle is, quite literally, played 4 Introduction out.”2 Indeed, Krimo, Lydia, and their mixed group of friends live in a housing project in the Parisian banlieue (suburbs), where Marivaux’s language is both a source of fascination for the theatrically inclined and an irrelevant reference point for a generation of multicultural youths whose own language is rich with the slang inversions of verlan, Arabic, and the occasional English. Yet the tensions of the French classroom and Krimo’s humiliation therein serve as reminders, in Blatt’s words, of “anxieties about the current state of national identity in France” and of the relationship that immigrants and their descendants can have to the French national heritage.3 My interest in this scene, however, stems less from the question of French identity and belonging (although this is undoubtedly part of it as well) and more so from the precise role that theater plays as the site where this belonging is displayed, confirmed , or alternatively deemed absent. What is it about theater that allows this domain to function as both a representation of a certain identity and the space where that identity is openly understood to be the outcome of social rehearsal? Asking this question requires that we, like Kechiche, momentarily shift our lens away from Krimo and toward his inexorable teacher. Over the course of the teacher’s monologue, theater takes on a number of connotations. First and foremost, Krimo’s inability to lift his body and voice out of their corporeal architecture is understood as an inability to enjoy himself, to have fun. Amusement is associated with “going towards a new language,” a reference to the unfamiliarity of Marivaux’s tongue as well as the bodily language of the agile Arlequin. The physical zaniness of the servant-​ disguised-​ as-​ master requires a particularly heightened alertness on the...