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Women in French Studies SOCIAL, SEXUAL AND INTELLECTUAL REVOLT IN THE WORKS OF AVANT-GARDE DRAMATIST AGNÈS ECHÈNE Nina S. Hellerstein University of Georgia, Athens Agnès Echène is a French writer and intellectual who, over the last ten years, has produced a sizable body of work, including a number of plays, an opera libretto, and film scripts. Most of these works have not been officially published; two of her plays have been staged in experimental provincial productions. However, in spite of her lack of public exposure and recognition, Echène's work merits our attention because of her fresh and original view of French society and its problems in this last quarter of the twentieth century. Echène writes from a position of detachment, as an intellectual, a woman and a "provincial" who prefers the countryside to the literary coteries of Paris. In addition, she is acutely conscious of the problems of other marginal groups, such as foreigners, the mentally disturbed, and the poor. The theme of revolt against social and cultural injustice is the central problem in her works, as her characters struggle against the forces of despair and alienation. Echène expresses this revolt in an original and unusual dramatic form which itself defies the traditional dramatic aesthetic. In their search for fulfillment and self-realization, individuals meet a variety of obstacles created by society. The revolt in Echène's works is situated first of all on a political level, since several of her protagonists confront the state itself. This conflict appears in its purest form in her opera "Musique! O Socrate!", which retells the story of Socrates's condemnation to death in a lyrical, musical form, but in a modem setting. As in Plato's work, Socrates is condemned by the state because he has dared to challenge the accepted order and has tried to awaken his contemporaries from the comfortable sleep ofconformism: On m'accuse carje dérange 27 Women in French Studies Il y a en moi une sagesse qui incommode bien des gens et surtout les puissants.... Je suis comme le taon qui harcelle les hommes pour les inciter à veiller à leur âme! (ms. 24-25) Predictably, the authorities cannot tolerate this challenge, and Socrates is condemned to death like his historical model. However, Echène adds a new and disturbing dimension to the traditional story of political repression. Socrates's enemy is not just the political authority of the state, but the vulgar consumers of modem mass culture, who reject his non-conformism as a threat to their own mindless mediocrity. The condemnation scene becomes a television talk show, whose host speaks for his audience when he concludes: Pour faire la synthèse des appels parvenus au standard il se dégage une certaine satisfaction de ce que vous cessiez vos activités considérées par nos chers téléspectateurs comme nuisibles et débilitantes (ms. 29). Echène suggests the frightening power of mass media when she compares Socrates's appearance on this talk show to a kind of trial. Thus, by modernizing the setting of the drama, she shows the timelessness of Socrates's appeal and adds a new meaning to the traditionally tragic destiny of the nonconformist. In her play "Sévices publics," Echène examines the more mundane form of political and social tyranny created by the bureaucratic structure of the modem state. The pun on "services publics" in the title suggests the essential perversion of the bureaucracy, which is intended to serve the public but ends up benefiting mainly the superiors who abuse their power while neglecting their obligations to the public. Unlike the opera, this work is a lighthearted satire of the modern government and business environment, in which Echène uses humor and fantasy as the two principal means of denouncing the dehumanizing effects of the bureaucracy. The play's villain is "le Supérieur Hiérarchique, monsieur Esslin d'Ayssènes," a corrupt and abusive character whose language reflects his lack of humanity. His speech can best be described as bureaucratic gobbledegook: 28 Women in French Studies Je vous suggère de bien y réfléchir, mademoiselle Lamouret...


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pp. 27-33
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