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papa doit manger

26 november 2018

Her English Wikipedia page will tell you that Marie NDiaye's play Papa doit manger is the only work by a living woman to appear in the repertoire of the Comédie Française. Further Googling suggests that this is not entirely accurate, but it's hard to determine: the repertoire, which amounts to a kind of official canon for the French theater, consists of thousands of plays, and there's no readily available list. Suffice to say that not many of them are by women writers of any description. In any case, the Wikipedia assertion, even if questionable, led me to read NDiaye's play, so something good came out of it. Papa doit manger is a troubling piece in the strongest traditions of late 20th- and early-21st-century drama.

"Papa's got to eat," proclaims NDiaye's title. Papa has just returned from a ten-year vanishing act, to greet two children he barely remembers, a wife inexplicably still in love with him, and the wife's mediocre schoolteacher boyfriend. Maman has earned her bread shampooing heads in other people's salons the whole decade; Papa walked out when she was on the brink of getting her own cosmetology license, forcing her to work for other folks.

Now Papa wants her back. He wants them all back – well, maybe not Zelner, the schoolteacher, but Papa has nothing against the guy. Papa has done well in the business world, even to the point of bringing expensive fruit gels from the airport gift shop at Roissy. Maman doesn't believe a word he says, and she's justified. We soon learn that Papa has never opened a business and in fact never left boring old Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. He lives now with another woman, and they have a child with special needs and no money to meet those needs. He's just showed up to touch Maman for a few thousand francs.

Papa doit manger is published without stage directions of any kind, so the reader can be surprised to find long and irregular gaps of time between its eleven scenes. The action of the play spans twenty years, and there are constant references back to the ten years before that action begins. Maman marries Zelner; Papa eventually declines to the point where he becomes a charge on his older daughter Mina, who faces a decision parallel to the one that Papa and his second partner Anna faced with regard to their own son. Papa never really reforms, but he remains charming and full of feckless energy till the end. Maman never really falls out of love with him. They are too much alike in key ways, neither one able to put together a coherent life plan, both content to live spontaneously and dependent on others.

Race is the heart of the play. Maman and her racist family are white, blonde even; Papa's skin is "aussi noire que peut l'être la peau humaine" (11) – as black as the human skin gets. Papa's whole aim in life, he admits at times, has been to seek revenge on France in the person of his white lovers, especially Maman. Zelner, in his guilty-liberal way, admits that Papa holds all the cards in this dynamic, with every right to seek vengeance. At the same time, of course, Papa is a complete grifter. His idea of resistance to racism and colonialism is just to play the cheat at every turn.

Papa's younger daughter Ami and his lover Anna eventually turn decisively against him, but Mina and Maman are torn. In NDiaye's stylized, repetitive dialogue, we get a chance to study their strange attraction to this seemingly worthless man.

Much of the latter half of the play, though, consists not of dialogue but of monologues that describe the passing action and allow certain characters – Maman's awful sisters, the now-grown Mina 20 years on – to narrate and express their judgments. The final scene, where Papa and Maman once again confront each other, is a strong one for actors, but the play presents a challenge to companies to maintain the dramatic tension through the course of long "told" scenes.

NDiaye, Marie. Papa doit manger. 2003. Paris: Minuit, 2013.