BEIRUT: On Sept. 19, 1982, French writer Jean Genet visited Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. Thought to be the first European on the scene after the two-day massacre of Palestinian civilians, Genet spent four hours wandering among the dead.
The author later captured this harrowing experience in a poetic essay entitled “Quatre Heures à Chatila” (Four Hours in Shatila), first published – with a few of the more controversial passages deleted – in the “Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes” (Journal of Palestinian Studies) in early 1983.
Fifteen years ago, Genet’s text was staged as a one-woman show, adapted and directed by Stéphane Olivié Bisson. Bisson is currently directing two revivals of his play – one in French, one in Arabic – this time starring Lebanese actress Carole Abboud.
Born in France in 1910, Genet came to the Palestinian cause honestly. A vagrant who spent several years of his life surviving on an ad hoc career of thievery and prostitution, he began writing while in prison in the late 1930s. From the 1940s onward, he produced a steady stream of poetry, novels, plays and essays.
Seemingly in search of a revolutionary cause to champion, Genet went to the United States at the request of the Black Panthers in 1970, before moving to Jordan, where he met with Yasser Arafat and spent seven months (from October 1970 to April 1971) living in camps with the fedayeen (fighters).
“Four Hours in Shatila” contrasts nostalgic, perhaps idealized, recollections of life in the Jordanian camps, which Genet describes as full of hope and laughter, with shockingly graphic – at times almost clinical – descriptions of the rotting corpses, covered with flies, that filled the narrow streets and houses of Sabra and Shatila just over a decade later.
Though Genet’s poetic turn of phrase renders a bleak subject unexpectedly beautiful, “Four Hours in Shatila” is not an easy read. Watching it being performed is no less gruelling.
Abboud does a commendable job of maintaining an exhausting emotional pitch throughout what is essentially a 90-minute-long monologue. This, combined with clever lighting and staging, ensures that her performance will not be easy to forget.
A simple set, consisting of a series of black-and-white screens punctuated by multiple doorways, allows Abboud to move on and off stage frequently. This helps to delineate the jumps in Genet’s text, which abruptly abandons its unity of time (and emotional register) from one passage to the next.
In contrast to this week’s other Civil War-related performance – Maqamat’s dance show “That Part of Heaven,” in which the stage is covered in wet foam – most of the floor in “Four Hours in Shatila” is covered with a fine layer of chalky dust. This rises in pervasive clouds whenever Abboud disturbs its surface, reminiscent of the swarms of black flies that feature so prominently in Genet’s depiction.
On top of the stage lies heaps of roughly strewn bundles of clothing, many stiff with dust and covered with what appears to be blood. A combination of Hagop Der Ghougassian’s atmospheric lighting and Abboud’s descriptions of tortured corpses, delivered with a carefully maintained calm, help to transform these heaps of cloth into the forms of lifeless bodies that lie where they have fallen.
Abboud interacts with the fabric in a variety of ways, approaching gingerly, finger outstretched, as though afraid to look too closely. Roughly, then, she gathers a bundle of clothes to her body in a fit of sorrow and despair, causing billows of dust to rise into the air. She places the bloody, torn garments over her own pristine white dress, as though marking herself as one of the victims.
In the 1950s, Genet’s plays were often characterized as belonging to the school of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. “Four Hours in Shatila” certainly fits the bill, forcing the audience to confront events so painful to contemplate that they might be habitually pushed aside in the thoughts.
While Bisson’s production is more traditional than the disorienting and irrational theatrical approach Artaud envisioned, he employs several Artaudian techniques, at times replacing speech with a soundtrack of ominous, grating music, heavy breathing, screams and gunshots, the sickening buzz of flies and the eerie laughter of happy children who (given the context) are probably now dead.
A passionate outpouring of sorrow and rage, Genet’s text is relentless in its cataloguing of the atrocities committed by the massacre’s perpetrators and vehement in its denunciation of Israel, which Genet holds single-handedly responsible for facilitating the violence, irrespective of who actually carried it out.
The result is a politically charged play which is also a poetic and philosophical exploration of death. Genet explores this factually through his physical description of the dead, while reflecting on more abstract ideas such as the similarities between a body making love (l’amour) and in death (le mort).
Abboud embodies this – lying down on stage as she speaks, arms flung wide, back arched, head thrown back, a position that might equally signify a lover’s passionate abandon or the inadvertent sprawl of a corpse.
A certain amount of restiveness among the audience during the final half hour of the play suggests “Four Hours in Shatila” might be slightly overlong for some. Over three decades on, however, the play remains a compelling, stupefying performance that demands 90 minutes of silence for those killed, buried and forgotten without ceremony.
“Quatre Heures à Chatila,” directed by Stéphane Olivié Bisson and performed by Carole Abboud, continues at the Monnot Theater (in Arabic) until Jan. 27. For more information please call 01-202-422.