Powerful Women in the Arts Blog: Ariane Mnouchkine

Ariane Mnouchkine

Artform: Theatre

by Mary Moynihan

Ariane Mnouchkine (1939-) is a French director and writer and one of the founders of the stage ensemble Théâtre du Soleil based in Paris, France. Ariane is regularly ranked as one of the world’s most influential directors and is the first female winner of the International Ibsen Award.

She was born on 3 March 1939 in Boulogne-sur-Seine, France. She studied at Oxford University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. After travelling extensively in Asia she return to Paris and on May 29, 1964, Théâtre du Soleil (Theatre of the Sun) was founded by 10 students under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine. The company was conceived in the form of a worker’s cooperative where ‘the rights and duties of each are the same’. Led by Ariane Mnouchkine, the Sun must become ‘the most beautiful theater in the world’, a place of utopia that it identifies with the ‘not yet realized’. [1]

Mnouchkine and a number of friends had originally set up an organisation called the Theatre Association of Paris Students (ATEP) in 1959 and this is where the founding members of Théâtre du Soleil met. The company members ‘decided that we would be very happy and that we would be doing the most beautiful theatre in the world. We were ignorant, but we had a great quality: we knew we knew nothing. It is pretentious to say it now, but I am convinced, we knew that everything remained to learn, that a colossal work awaited us, and it was intoxicating’ [2].The company was founded on the basis that all major decisions are made collectively by the members and all members receive an equal salary and ‘while all members respect the autocracy of the director they all agree that collaboration and shared labour is essential’. [3]

The first production in 1964 was Les Petits Bourgeois by Maxim Gorki in an adaptation by Arthur Adamov and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. However, the company went on to conceive and create a range of productions on a collaborative basis. When a theme for a new production has been decided upon, the company develop it through readings, and work on images, extensive improvisation and physical theatre work.

Mnouchkine and her theatre company first received international recognition when they staged a production in a Milanese sports arena in 1970 entitled 1789, The Revolution Must Stop When Complete Happinessi is Achieved. The production provided a Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution and utilised a variety of popular theatre styles and Brechtian performance techniques. While most of the company’s earlier productions were clearly Marxist in their orientation, later productions have continued to explore power structures and their influence on ethical and emotional conflicts.

In 1970 the company moved into an abandoned property called Cartoucherie, which is situated in Vincennes in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Here, they continued to create shows through their process of ‘collective creation’ including The Revolutionary City is of this World (1972) and The Golden Age, First Draft (1975). The company returned to text-based work with productions including an adapation of Klaus Mann’s novel Méphisto (1979), adapted and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Mnouchkine went on to direct a number of Shakespeare plays Richard II (1981), La Nuit des Rois (Twelfth Night, 1982) and Henri IV, première partie (Henry IV, Part I, 1984). ‘These productions displayed the grandeur of an oriental-influenced aesthetic, drawing inspiration from both kabuki and kathakali and demanding a mastery of the body dictated by Shakespeare’s texts. The cycle drew 253,000 spectators.’ [4]

Rehearsals can often last for up to six months and Mnouchkine encourages company members and audiences to look on the stage as a sacred space. A full list of the company’s productions directed by Ariane Mnouchkine can be found on Théâtre du Soleil’s website – www.theatre-du-soleil.fr/fr/ – including plays by the Ancient Greek tragedians Euripides and Aeschylus as well as work by the contemporary French feminist writer and playwright Helene Cixous. Recent productions include Macbeth by William Shakespeare in 2014 and A Chamber in India created by Ariane Mnouchkine, along with Helene Cixous in 2017 and Kanata – Episode 1 – The Controversy, created in collaboration with Robert Lepage’s production company Ex Machina in 2018.

For information on A Room in India performed at the Park Avenue Armory in New York’s Upper East Side in December 2017, and an interview Ariane Mnouchkine please go to:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/all-the-worlds-a-stage-ariane-mnouchkine-and-theatre-du-soleils-a-room-in-india

For information on the production of Kanata – Episode 1 – The Controversy please go to https://www.theatre-du-soleil.fr/fr/notre-theatre/les-spectacles/kanata-episode-i-la-controverse-2018-2164. Also see the Smashing Times blog titled Kanata.

The following biography of Ariane Mnouchkine is taken from the International Ibsen Award website https://www.internationalibsenaward.com/winners/.

‘The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom – these are the pillars of society.’ Henrik Ibsen

Ariane Mnouchkine is a director. She has directed plays by the Ancient Greek tragedians and Shakespeare, by Molière and Arnold Wesker. Yet the term ‘director’ is inadequate to describe what she does. Ever since her productions together with fellow students at the Sorbonne in the early sixties, she has maintained that theatre is a collaborative and socialist art that must involve all participants – on stage, backstage and in the audience itself.

Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil is the embodiment of this ideal. She founded it in 1964, and it was not long before the troupe of young actors made history. After putting on Wesker’s La Cuisine (The Kitchen) (1967) and the collective improvisation Les Clowns (1969), the company moved to its present location at the Cartoucherie. The opening production was the revolutionary epic 1789, which illustrated the wide range of Mnouchkine’s vision and was seen by almost 300,000 people.

Mnouchkine’s theatre realised many of the dreams of the radical 1960s generation: her work combined social criticism with artistic revolution. 1789 not only deals with an event that has profoundly influenced the French people’s idea of their historical significance, it also involves the audience as a creative force in a way that set a new standard for European theatre. While some of the audience sat on bleachers, others mixed freely with the actors throughout the theatre space and moved about between the platforms where the different episodes took place. Everything is shown from several different angles – social criticism, history, mummery, a ritual celebration of the theatre’s age-old ability to break with everyday patterns and, through its collective force, generate new knowledge.

During this early phase of the Théâtre du Soleil’s existence, Mnouchkine’s approach was more actively political than it later became, but all her work is based on solidarity with the oppressed. She is suspicious of all forms of propaganda and simplistic representations of reality. The next phase in her search for ‘total theatre’ was represented by the three Shakespeare plays Richard II, La Nuit des Rois (Twelfth Night) and Henry IV, Part 1 (1981–1984). Here she made brilliant use of Asiatic theatre traditions such as Noh, Kabuki and Balinese dance. The power struggle in Richard II is portrayed in sweeping choreographic movements, saga-like costumes and evocative masks against a backdrop of floating drapes in magically changing colours.

Together with the French writer Hélène Cixous, who has written a number of texts for Théâtre du Soleil productions, Mnouchkine has continued to build bridges between cultures and create syntheses between western and Asiatic theatre traditions. Her themes include the historical, as in L’Indiade (1987), which deals with India’s liberation from colonialism, and contemporary disasters, as in Le Dernier Caravansérail (2006), which in a series of kaleidoscopic tableaus portrays the myriads of people in flight from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and other war zones in Central Asia. Ready to fight but at the same time open-minded, Mnouchkine has always taken an active part in political debate. An example of her forceful defence of human rights and liberty is the workshop she held in Afghanistan in 2007. And yet she never subordinates theatre to politics.

[1] https://www.theatre-du-soleil.fr/fr/notre-theatre/histoire-et-sources/le-theatre-du-soleil-169

[2] https://www.theatre-du-soleil.fr/fr/a-lire/influences-4196

[3] https://resource.acu.edu.au/siryan/Academy/theatres/mnouchkine,%20ariane.htm

[4] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mnouchkine-ariane