When I point out to French playwriter Alexis Michalik during a phone interview that one of the first tasks assigned to Napoleon was to keep close tabs on opera goers and arrest them if they, for example, whistled when the new Republican anthem was played, he laughs and says that “now people in France are very free in the theater.” He adds, “In the time of Napoleon there was nothing else to watch, there was no television for example, so the theater was open for everybody and had to talk to a lot of people.”
Michalik created three plays that focus on French culture in the 19th century: The Bearer of History (2013), which focuses on the history of one French family in the years between the French Revolution and the 1980s; The Circle of Illusions (2014), which deals with the life and times of famed French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and Edmond at the Theater (2016), which focuses on Edmond Rostand, who penned the play Cyrano de Bergerac, which cemented the character in French and Western imaginations.
The playwright is of British and Polish heritage, his mother being a British English-to-French translator, and his grandfather a Polish photographer who settled in France between the two world wars. This suggests perhaps that he is able to bring a slightly “Anglo-Saxon angle into French storytelling.” As he sees it, “Molier tells very intimate stories, and there is a French tradition of telling stories that focus on a middle-class household and the family living there; Shakespeare, on the other hand, is the best example of English storytelling, a way of telling a story that focuses on themes that are larger than life.”
“I took this tradition of speaking about the incredible, which, to my mind, is very English, and placed it in the context of French culture,” he explains.
The result was The Bearer of History, written with only a month to spare before it had to be staged. The show went on to win two Molier awards, for best director and best writer (Michalik collected both), and was staged in north Africa, Lebanon, and Tahiti – all places with strong historical ties to French history and the French empire.
Quick to point out that his play did not, and does not, receive any support from the French government, Michalik adds that while his plays deal with the French empire, people do not focus on it.
“I think that the people who live in Algeria or Lebanon and speak French actually respond better to my play there then the audience in Paris,” he says. “In Paris, you sometimes go to the theater and you’re tired, or bored, or you’re there because you have to be there – and the actors feel that, of course. But if you live outside of France and someone brings you a production in French, it’s like a present and people are very happy and excited to go.”
I suggest that it’s impossible to separate the life of Robert-Houdin from French colonial rule. He was sent to north Africa to show Arabs that French magic is more powerful then Arab magic, which he did by using magnets to gimmick a box to make it impossible to lift and then inviting local strongmen to try their strength. Michalik is adamant that while this incident is depicted in the play, it is not the focus of it, as Robert-Houdin was a professional magician, not a French colonial official.
“That play is about how someone becomes an artist,” he says, “just as the next play [about Edmond Rostand] is about the importance of language.”
Michalik points out that French culture was able to fully accept and honor such distinct people as Alexandre Dumas, who had a Haitian-born black grandmother and Corsica-born Napoleon, who ruled France while speaking French with a strong accent, as it was not his mother tongue. “French culture was shaped by language,” he says. “The French empire was all over the world and this added to French culture. However, my play is not a celebration of the empire, but more about asking the question, ‘This thing was done, now, what is left of it?’ I believe the answer is language, which can be a great unifying element.”
Having visited Israel many times, Michalik notes that in most countries he tours, he feels people accept him with ease – and also see him as a walking wallet.
“In Israel it’s different,” he laughs. “I had to answer a lot of questions at the airport. Who are you? What are you doing here? It’s like you have to justify why you are even there! But once people got to know me and shared their stories, I felt that this is an amazing place in which everybody has a story and people have rich and complex cultural backgrounds, so maybe I wasn’t welcomed as a tourist but I was certainly welcomed as a person.”
When I ask if the significant growth of the French-speaking Jewish population in Israel in recent years cannot be seen as a failure of the French state to secure the safety of Jewish citizens after the Ilan Halimi murder of 2003, and mention the best selling 2015 novel Submission by Michel Houellebecq, in which one of the major characters departs from France to Israel, Michalik argues that Houellebecq is but one voice in a nation composed of 60 million people.
“I try to give hope,” he says. “That is the privilege of being a fiction writer and not, say, a reporter.”
The Bearer of History (Masa Alilot in Hebrew) will be presented in French with Hebrew captions written by Emmanuel Pinto. Brought to Israel by Live Stage Productions, the show will be performed on October 3 at 8:30 p.m. at Beit HaChail, 60 Weitzman St. in Tel Aviv.
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