29 January 2021

Jean-Luc Lagarce: Juste la fin du monde (1990)


Jean-Luc Lagarce (1957-95) came from a working-class background, his parents working at the Peugeot factory in Valentigney, Doubs. He moved away from his roots to become a playwright, creating many works before his untimely death from AIDS at the age of 38. Watching a Lagarce play is not to everyone's delight, yet there are wonders to be found there. Lagarce is now recognised as a major modern playwright, being studied not only at university but (over a long period) for the Bac. His Juste la fin du monde is certainly his best known play. This Théâtre à la table interpretation is quite brilliant.

Amélie Vioux's introduction to the play at Bac level is interesting. She begins by saying that Juste la fin du monde (which of course is a strange title: we're only talking about the end of the world?) is a play like no other. Well yes, but then Bernard-Marie Koltès's plays are in some ways similar, and it's not for nothing that publishers initially found Lagarce's attempts to write plays derivative of Ionesco and Beckett, but certainly he soon developed an unmistakable style.

Vioux speaks of the play as being about a personal and familial crisis, but much more interestingly that the speech in the play is used in place of action, which is a useful tool to understand it. But to get down to basics this is a huis clos, everything taking place in one room and with just five people: the unnamed mother in the room of the property where the play is set, her sons Louis and Antoine, her daughter Suzanne, and Antoine's wife Catherine.

Louis is a writer who has not seen his relatives for twelve years; Suzanne still lives with her mother; Antoine works in a local factory; this is the first and last time Louis has seen Catherine, and indeed the final time he will see any other members of his family. Louis has come to tell them all that he (at the age of almost 34) is dying, although he doesn't manage to say this, because paradoxically words get in the way and prevent him from saying what his intentions are.

Words are intended to express things, and Vioux's little exposé about Juste la fin du monde uses such words as 'chiasmus' and 'epanorthosis' to describe Lagarce's use of language. This isn't a space to talk about rhetorical devices, but Lagarce's use of language is fascinating: the characters find it virtually impossible to communicate, they repeat themselves, usually not by using the same words, but by revising, correcting, making additions often several times. And they get frustrated by what they fail to communicate, verbally attack the person they're addressing for their own communicative impotence, they often (particularly in Antoine's case) adopt an unprovoked and strongly aggressive tone, but there's no resolution. In certain respects this resembles a Greek tragedy, conforming to unities (here of place and time), although here there's no tragic ending  onstage. Or is there? The tragedy is perhaps in the (lack of) speech, the unspoken.

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