Parisian Notes

Peter Behrman de Sinéty



Literary introductions rarely go as drier intelligence would have it. Joyce when introduced to Proust: “My eyes. My eyes.” Proust to Joyce: “My stomach. My stomach.” Words to stitch a legend. When I introduced Vanasay Khamphommala to a poet teaching as visiting professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure—where Khamphommala himself studied four years as an élève normalien—the conversation soon turned to zombies. Khamphommala said it’d be nothing to be dead as long as you could still copulate. The visiting poet objected on principle that zombies care for nothing except eating brains. And so an afternoon turned to evening.

Readers should take note of Vanasay Khamphommala for his verse play Orphée Aphone, perhaps the best recent work by a young French playwright. Staged at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in 2012, Orphée Aphone joins flawless classical French verse with filthy jokes, 70s French pop-star glamour, and a depth of character and musical grace to make hair stand on end. Anyone who appreciates the porter scene in Macbeth or Hamlet in Ophelia’s lap as much as the rest of those plays will take to Orphée Aphone. French theatre so rarely knows how to do this—make you laugh then chop your knees off—that we can already be grateful for Khamphommala’s work, which includes a second play, Faust, premiered later in 2012, and several remarkable translations from English (including a version of Howard Barker’s Und currently being performed by the French soprano Natalie Dessay under Khamphommala’s assistant direction in Tours and soon at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris).

Trained as an opera singer—he made his stage debut at twelve at the Rennes opera house—Khamphommala knows how to build ornate musical forms in verse and then blow them up. The effect is something like that of watching a Racine couplet be pieced apart and reassembled as a perfectly tuned meat grinder. Characters undergo similar stress, as, for instance, an Orpheus who can no longer sing tries to dance his plea or strangely transforms into Eurydice. It all holds because Khamphommala has an unfailing ear, and because his plays are perfectly composed in pitch and measure, before they, even as they, tear themselves apart.

This brief note is to mark the appearance of a singular play and playwright. In time, one hopes Orphée Aphone will be up again in Paris, and translated and staged in the States.

PETER BEHRMAN DE SINÉTY grew up in Maine and teaches as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris.