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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Eric Assous
© DR
A face to face talk | An interview with Eric Assous, by Sabine Bossan


Sabine Bossan You have two plays currently running in Paris: Les hommes prťfŤrent mentir at the Saint-Georges and LíIllusion conjugale, which has just moved from the Thť‚tre de líOEuvre to theTristan-Bernard. Itís not often that a playwright has two plays on at the same time in Paris. Are they helping each other out, or are they in competition?

Eric Assous First of all I should explain that itís just serendipity because one of them was written six years ago. I finished it back then, tried in vain to get it staged all these years, and only found a taker this season.

SB What do you attribute that to?

EA I think it was Marcel Achard who said that writing the play is 5% of the work and the other 95% consists in finding a theater and a cast to stage it.

SB Thatís been the case for a long time, but itís still true.

EA The version thatís being performed now has naturally been reworked several times over the past six years, especially during rehearsals, because I like to keep working on the text one last time during rehearsals; even so, I did write it a long time ago, and it was hard to get staged. It could be because I was perceived as someone who only wrote comedies, which this wasnít.
It turns out that because of scheduling these two plays are running at the same time; but if that play had been staged six years ago, then Les hommes prťfŤrent mentir, which I wrote last year, would be the only one running.

SB Do you enjoy going to rehearsals?

EA Yes, tremendously, because thatís where you see the confrontation between the written material and real human beings, and thatís where you realize whatís not working - things that worked on paper but not on stage. I like the idea that a text is never etched in stone and that you can even rework it up to the last minute, like with film. I write screenplays, and they often call during a film shoot to say thereís a scene that needs to be added or one that doesnít work, or a particular actor was unavailable and a different character has to be substituted. Iím quite used to reworking things in emergency situations like that.

SB Are you also involved in the staging process?

EA I sometimes make minor comments about staging. Jean-Luc Moreau and I really trust each other, so thereís no problem talking things over. I sometimes make a comment, and he does the same when he thinks a passage is too long or too short, or that some areas need a bit of developing. We really collaborate, including during rehearsals.

SB Youíve been writing since about 1982 - for cafť thť‚tre, radio, television, film and stage. How did you first get interested in writing?

EA Writing always surfaces during adolescence, and withdrawn teenagers especially like to write. Iíve been writing since the age of 14.

SB Always in the form of dialogues?

EA Yes, moods, poems, stories. I drew too. I studied art at the Beaux-Arts school.

SB Did you ever make comics?

EA I did a short one that was kind of autobiographical. It had a 13-year-old character who was reflecting on the world and how things around him were perceived.

SB How old were you then?

EA I was 16 or 17. It was kind of like Charlie Brown, a character I really liked because he made me laugh. In fact I think I really got interested in writing when they told me my text was better than my drawings.

SB Charming!

EA Yes, but it was a form of encouragement.

SB What about writing a novel - have you tried that? It seems to be the only genre missing from your palette.

EA I should say first of all that Iím a huge film buff - or was, since Iíve unfortunately lost a good deal of that with age. I used to go and see all the films. I loved the movies, and I knew them all.

SB American films? French films?

EA Everything - even Japanese films. I was really a tremendous film buff. Of course I see a lot less films nowadays, but I used to loved going. And naturally the first thing I wrote was a screenplay. I think I wrote my first one at around 13 or 14. I might add, in case anyoneís wondering, that of course I never sold it.

SB Maybe you should go back and work on it?

EA I found some things Iíd written when I was really really young and frankly I think that...

SB That itís time to turn the page?

EA Right. There was nothing fluent, no apparent gift, just a lot of pretentious, formulaic writing. Best forgotten.

SB How do you go from one genre to another? Or do you work on several projects at the same time?

EA Yes, I like working on several projects simultaneously; when you get stuck on one, then you move on to the other and they feed each other. I can write a play and a screenplay at the same time, one in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, and it doesnít bother me.

SB That way the writing is always ongoing.

EA I write an enormous amount. Five hours a day. Iím not intimidated by the act of writing. Itís something that comes very easily and naturally to me.

SB Is there one genre that you like best?

EA No, I feel most comfortable writing comedies and thrillers. But Iím open to everything. Except maybe history, because Iím not educated enough about it. Science fiction doesnít really interest me either, so Iíve never tried that. Otherwise I like to try my hand at all genres.

SB Which one are you asked to work in most often?

EA People usually know me as a comedy writer, basically because my first film that got any recognition was Les Randonneurs, so after that I was labeled as a comedy writer and kept writing comedies.

SB What about for theater?

EA The same goes for the theater. One of my first stage successes was Les acteurs sont fatiguťs, a pure comedy that was a big hit.

SB I`ve just finished reading it again, and it hasnít aged in the least. The characters are all well drawn, and it has a lot to say, especially about the theater world.

EA You can convey a lot through comedy. All playwrights have something to say, and itís not just a mechanical exercise. They are commentaries on what weíre seeing and experiencing. You can convey all that in a comedy precisely because youíre amusing and entertaining people. I think you can be entertaining and also say things about the world at the same time.

SB Something else Iíve noticed - and I think it contributes to your writing and success - is that in spite of your barbs and worldview, thereís an underlying kindness and sense of observation, and nothing aggressive in it. You take situations quite far, but it`s never in bad taste. So the audience can really let go and identify with one or other of the characters. Thereís something very open and generous about it.

EA Thereís no bitterness. I like to scoff at my contemporaries, including myself by the way. And at the same time there is a feeling of kindness. I just think: this is the way we are, so we might as well accept it and laugh about it.
Thatís kind of the way I look at characters.
I generally donít like model characters, or heroes, probably because Iím not one myself.
You can have moments of heroism that coexist with moments of great mediocrity. Thatís what makes us human beings - that juxtaposition of extremes. And thatís what I try to express in my stories.

SB Is your way of working or finding inspiration different when itís a commission?

EA I have no problem with imagination. Iíve always got ideas and lots to say. Iíll never get out everything I have to say. I have lots of ideas for situations and beginnings of stories.
I donít need to draw on novels for inspiration in writing screenplays or plays. I read newspapers of course, like everybody. I donít know, I just absorb things that have an unconscious effect on me, then it comes out in my writing.

SB The other day you were talking about the play with Roland Giraud.

EA I think certain actors are very stimulating - like someone who comes to see you and says heíd like you to write something for him. In the case of Roland Giraud, I had two or three ideas for starting points that might suit what he could do - because he stimulates me and I find him funny, talented and interesting. After that it all came pretty easily. I work quite fast.
So I responded quickly when he said heíd like to be in a play with his wife, MaÔke Jansen. I talked with them, we discussed different topics, I told them what was going through my mind, and at some point they said that sounds like an interesting starting point.

SB Correct me if Iím wrong, but you donít seem like the kind of writer whoís terrified of the blank page. That said, you did mention suffering.

EA Sometimes there is suffering. Itís true, I donít feel intimidated by the blank page, but sometimes you do get stuck, and getting stuck causes suffering. You write thirty fantastic pages, and the next ten are already not quite as good, then you run out of gas, and thatís when you start suffering. At that point you have two choices: you either start from scratch and try to determine where you made a mistake in the way things were put together, or you stop altogether and move on to a different story because it turns out to have been a flawed good idea.
Thatís what I meant by suffering that can occur in writing. There have been times when Iíve believed in a story or idea and then realized that it only worked for the first 45 pages before it was dead in the water.

SB Do you have anything sitting around currently that has never been produced?

EA Yes, a few pieces. Some I havenít given up on. And others - well, I figure if itís not working then they just werenít any good.

SB So you gave them to people to read.

EA Yes. Sometimes itís about connecting with the right actor. Iíve got a play at the moment that I think is quite good, but the character is pretty horrible and there are few actors who will agree to play such a mediocre part.

SB I get the sense from your plays that you keep a healthy distance from the world you work in, that you donít take your profession too seriously and feel there are more important things in life than writing successful plays. What is your view of success for that matter?

EA I take my profession very seriously and itís very important to me. Itís my life. But I feel - in all sincerity and with no false modesty - that you canít compare the work of a playwright, however talented, and that of a doctor who saves lives. I canít accept the idea of people having more admiration for someone who comes up with three clever lines than one who saves a human life. Iím happy to talk shop, because learning the mechanics can be helpful for someone who wants to write. But I think some professions are more useful than others. Honestly, if I compare myself to a doctor, thereís no contest.

SB In addition to Paris, your plays have been performed pretty much all over the world. Do you enjoy following the life of your plays? What do you think of the foreign productions? Do you adapt the plays for the different countries where they are performed? To what do you attribute this success abroad?

EA Well I donít really have a pat answer for that. To what do I attribute their success? Thatís very hard. I donít even know why a play works in France, much less abroad. But I do enjoy trying to solve the mystery. I mean Iíve been to performances of my plays in foreign countries where I could see that the audience was reacting in an almost identical way to audiences in France.

SB Even though you couldnít speak the language...

EA But I could guess, because I know my plays nearly by heart, so I knew where they were in the text. But it remains an unsolved mystery. Iím delighted that my plays are being performed abroad and getting a good response. It makes me think that maybe when Iím talking about people it isnít just French people but human beings in general.

SB Definitely.

EA Thereís some kind of identification going on at any rate. I suppose thatís what it is, but Iím not really sure. I donít have the answer.

SB What about the actors? Sometimes they look alike whether the play is being performed in France or in a foreign country.

EA In any event, when you write a character and the dialogue related to that character, youíre outlining it. And whether that outline is expressed in French, German or Romanian, I think it remains the same, and the same external characteristics tend to emerge in the actors. I think thatís where this comes from.

SB Do you draw your characters when youíre creating them?

EA I never start from an abstract character. Itís always someone I know in real life, or someone whoís like me, a product of what I am, or an actor who can evoke various situations. Like with Roland Giraud, when I wondered: ďWhat situation would you want to see Roland Giraud in?Ē

SB But you donít actually draw sketches of them - Iím asking because you studied at the Beaux-Arts.

EA I usually know my characters quite well when I write a story. I actually know a lot more than comes out in the writing. I know their age, their profession, how much they earn per month, if theyíre divorced, if theyíre aggressive or kind. I have mental index cards for them; theyíre never written down, but itís all very clear in my mind. In fact, the characters help you with the writing. In a given situation youíre thinking: he could only say this, or he could only do that.
I think knowing your characters well before having them react to situations makes them more coherent.

SB Youíre generally rather tough on men in your plays. Is it self-criticism, or just keen observation of the world around you?

EA Iíve been told that Iím not very nice to men and also that Iím a misogynist. I like the shortcomings that are the most prevalent among men and women. You laugh more at peopleís failings than at their qualities. Thatís what brings the characters alive.
The men in my plays tend to be on the weak and spineless side, whereas the women are rather ill-tempered and slightly hysterical.

SB In Les acteurs sont fatiguťs you wrote that ďsex is just a detail in the life of a coupleĒ and I really think thatís the main theme inspiring you in your plays. For some characters itís an important detail, for some it isnít, and for others it depends.

EA Couples are often the focus in whatever I write. How they last is a mystery Iíve never been able to solve. That opens the door to an endless range of situations. Then thereís my own experience being in a couple. I was married for twenty years and Iím in a couple again. Most people live in couples. So I feel like Iím speaking pretty much about everybody from this comedic viewpoint.
Couples are a recurring theme in my work. I think a hundred years from now people will still be writing comedies about couples.
I try to create something that works with the couples theme and the reality of today, and something thatís in sync with the zeitgeist. Couples have different kinds of relationships from one generation to another.
And I try to remain aware of those changes.

SB Youíve never written about internet dating, have you?

EA Yes I have, in a film called IrŤne. There were two characters who met through their computers.
Itís a very interesting social phenomenon. The character in the story I wrote pretends heís gone to Japan, when in fact heís in Paris but can only have ďintercourseĒ through the computer. Then the female character realizes heís not in Japan, but has just pinned up a wall hanging with Japanese designs and is pretending to be in a different time zone. Naturally there was a lot of comic material in there.

SB Are there any professional dreams that youíd like to have come true? Getting your work staged in a particular theater, in a certain country, or having it performed by a certain actor?

EA No, I donít have any particular actor in mind. There are lots of actors that I love, and if it happened Iíd be really happy.
My greatest source of pride was when Alain Delon agreed to act in one of my plays. Alain Delon is an actor whom I have admired since the age of 14 or 15. So it was a bit disconcerting and kind of surrealistic. I was stunned by a star like him saying ďI want to act in your play.Ē As for other actors, there are many whom I find very talented, and Iíd be delighted for them to be in one of my plays. But I have no secret dreams about it.

SB No dreams of having your work performed on Broadway?

EA No. I might have responded differently ten years ago, but given the way things are nowadays, Iíve grown more fatalistic. Iíd be delighted if my work was performed by good actors, or great ones. But Iím not pursuing those dreams.

SB What profession would you like to have practised if you hadnít been a playwright?

EA Maybe drawing because I had somewhat of a gift for it, and I studied at the Beaux-Arts. I have a certain facility for expressing myself in writing.
I learned a great deal working as a copywriter for an advertizing agency. It taught me to say a lot in a few sentences.

SB You really discovered your facility for writing through films.

EA OYes. Especially the ability to synthesize. Writing is often about synthesizing a thought, and clarifying an idea or situation.
I think thatís really the underlying definition of writing. And I think I had a facility for it.

SB And enjoyment?

EA Facility and enjoyment too, of course. And also a need to express myself.
I wasnít very talkative. In fact, I didnít talk at all.
I wasnít too sure of myself at the time either. I had a tendency to stutter, which obviously doesnít help. And that forces you to put down on paper the things you have trouble expressing verbally.

SB Do you often meet other playwrights and actors? Do you go to the theater a lot?

EA I go to the theater occasionally. I read a lot of work by other contemporary playwrights. Iím very curious to see how other people write. Iím more curious about reading the plays than seeing them.

SB Do people ask for your opinion, or for a helping hand?

EA They ask for my opinion, but Iím not always the best counselor because I always respond as a playwright and wonder how I myself would do it.
I donít think that reading and writing are quite the same job.
A writer is someone who acts, and a reader is someone who judges and has an overall view.

SB Have you ever reworked a play with another playwright?

EA No. Screenplays yes, but not stage plays.

SB Is it fun working with someone else?

EA It depends on who it is. It all depends on how you get along, on the marriage.

SB Thank you so much. I hope I havenít bothered you too much?

EA No, not at all. I was just referring the other day to the fact that I believe in a certain scale of values. Iím delighted when people go to the theater, have a great evening and feel really happy. But you canít compare that to a doctor who saves peopleís lives. We need doctors more than we need playwrights. There are lots of people who live quite well without going to the theater or the movies. What I do is only superfluous.

Eric Assous interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
1st February 2010
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