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  • Translating Marie NDiaye
  • Erika Rundle (bio)

The forays of novelists into the world of theatre can have mixed results. For every Beckett, Genet, and Handke there are a score of others whose efforts remain page-bound, never finding their way onto the stage. To be sure, the transition from fiction to drama is almost never graceful; it requires a thorough reorientation of the writer's imagination to accommodate the rigors and freedoms of theatre. While adjustments from one fictional landscape to another require the practiced skills of a long-distance traveler—differences in time, language, culture, and habit exert their own considerable demands on both reader and writer—moving between genres can seem like the equivalent of an interstellar voyage: dangerous, fascinating, and subject to an entirely foreign gravitational force.

Marie NDiaye, a novelist celebrated for her penetrating, precise meditations on themes of intimacy, abandonment, violence, and sorcery, has, with the publication of Hilda—her first work for the stage—transformed her many literary gifts into the talents of an equally compelling playwright. Her drama—dominated almost completely by the speech of one character, Mrs. Lemarchand—creates and maintains, on its surface at least, a singular perspective often associated with the novel, but does so in a way that exposes the violence upon which such domination is predicated. NDiaye shows us, in six starkly theatrical scenes that culminate in Mrs. Lemarchand's complete disintegration, the manner by which other, less powerful voices are silenced, and the terrifying consequences of this development for all involved. The play's title character, physically absent throughout the drama, is nevertheless a constant specter, a hovering object of desire who determines, through her very absence, the fate of those who speak of—and for—her.

Since it was published in 1999 by Editions de Minuit, Hilda has been translated and performed throughout Europe, with productions most recently in England, Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy. In France, the play received its first full production in Paris, in 2002, at Théâtre de l'Atelier, directed by Frédéric Bélier-Garcia and starring Zabou Breitman as Madame Lemarchand. It won the Grand Prix de la Critique, encouraging NDiaye to continue writing for the stage. To date, she has created four additional theatrical pieces: Providence (2001); Papa doit manger (2003); Les serpents (2004), and Rien d'humain (2004). For a relatively new [End Page 78] playwright, NDiaye holds the unusual distinction of having had a script ( Papa doit manger) admitted into the repertory of the Comédie Française. She is one of only two women to have done so in the institution's 325-year history.

NDiaye's work as a playwright, however, is just the latest chapter of a long and distinguished career that spans two decades of literary achievement. The fact that she is a now a mere 38 years old makes these accomplishments even more impressive. Her first novel, Quant au rich avenir, was published in 1985, when she was 18. By that time, she had already been writing seriously for five years. To date, NDiaye has written, in addition to her five plays, eight novels, a collection of short stories, an autobiography (of sorts), and two children's books. Her most recent full-length novel, Rosie Carpe (2000), was awarded France's prestigious Prix Fémina (created over a century ago as an alternative to the more traditional Goncourt), an honor NDiaye shares with the likes of Virginia Woolf and J.M. Coetzee. The associations are not coincidental.

Like Woolf and Coetzee, NDiaye has established her own subtle and distinctive grammar of protest, embedded in a forceful, searching body of fiction marked by sustained philosophical and ethical inquiry. All of her writing, including her dramatic work, springs from a curiosity about human limits—the surprisingly elastic boundaries between self and other, the dynamics of cruelty and indifference, the fragile bonds of family and community—and an acknowledgment of the necessity for self-preservation, whether in the form of tolerance or violence, passivity or action. In her plays, NDiaye expresses these themes solely through the force of dialogue. Stage directions and other scenic indications are always and only implicit. Her characters' style...


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