The minimalist, strikingly immediate play now showing at the ECA Little Theater carves out a unique niche in the context of the Yale theater scene. Michel Vinaver’s 1979 “Les Travaux et les Jours” combines meditations on the business world with the details of the corporate lifestyle, but this isn’t “Office Space” — the entire play will be performed in French.
The title of the play translates into English as “The Works and the Days,” and it follows a struggling company through a crucial moment in modern economic history. The everyday existence of the Cosson Corporation, manufacturers of the world’s finest coffee grinders, conveys the magnitude of the larger realities of corporate consolidation and the onset of the technological age.
Having served as CEO of Gillette Europe before turning to the theater, Vinaver speaks from his personal experience and weaves the fine details of the corporate existence into an examination of the effect of global changes on individual lives. As the play speaks to current fears over outsourcing and job security, director Jeff Leichman GRD ’08 said these themes still retain their relevance over two decades later.
Leichman, a current graduate student in the French department, previously obtained an MFA in directing from UCLA. Combining his interest in French and theater at Yale, he staged a similar modern French work two years ago, Jean-Luc Lagarce’s 1986 play “La Photographie.” He has long admired Vinaver and was inspired to mount this current production by the unique opportunity provided by the resources of the Yale community to stage a full-length play in French.
Leichman follows a strong tradition of French Department-sponsored works dating from productions in the ’50s that featured performances by prominent professors. Before the advent of “Freedom Fries,” when speaking French was a sign of social and cultural capital, these productions would tour to local Connecticut theaters, widening the influence of the intellectual community at Yale.
Although the production of plays in foreign languages has decreased since those glory days, French masterpieces will make a resurgence with the establishment of a fund in the name of Jacques Guicharnaud, an emeritus member of the French faculty who passed away last year. The fund goes into effect next year and will support theater-related activities in French to honor the memory of Guicharnaud, who served as the director of many productions during his tenure, Leichman said.
Staging the play at an educational institution also highlights the pedagogical value of works staged in foreign language: Experiencing a theatrical text come to life creates a setting in which learning can be done in an engaging and realistic environment. Likening the work to a good work of music, Leichman said theatrical works are complex yet uniquely accessible.
“Few people can sit down with a score and appreciate the beauty of the music, and while the many venues for classical music at Yale seek to present their art in all of its richness and complexity, none require a degree in musicology in order to attend a concert,” he said.
The intimacy of the stage environment will also contribute to the eccentric and unique aspects of this production. Rather than utilizing the installed seats in the ECA Little Theater, the audience will be seated on the stage along with the set and players. This proximity will allow the experience to envelop both the audience and the cast into an ephemeral French bubble.
While a lack of French background may dissuade most Yalies from experiencing this work, the beauty of theater is that it is a multi-sensory art form. Producer Matt Gabbard ’07 said the rare nature of the opportunity to see the play performed in its original language outweighs the advantages of performing the play in English.
“Because of the relative scarcity of French-language theatre, there are individuals coming from all over Connecticut to see this show,” Gabbard said. “However, you don’t have to be a native or even a fluent speaker of French to appreciate the show.”
Hailing from Paris, Alexandra Cavoulacos ’08, who plays Yvette in this production, said she has enjoyed the chance to marry her background in French with her love of theater. She feels that the play is accessible at a visceral level to those with a love of theater even if they don’t understand every word.
“Even if the play was in English, it’s complicated to understand,” she said. “All the pieces fit in very well; it’s very rhythmic.”
A combination of intimate mechanics and cultural commentary in a foreign language, this show promises to be a sophisticated and unique theatrical experience with a rarefied appeal and specialized niche in the Yale artistic community.