Book Review: The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
“You see, Veronique, I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time.” – Alain
It has been an enduring quality of humanity to be always just one step away from violence and barbarity. As The Joker once said in The Dark Knight, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” It is no wonder then that even the most stoic of individuals can be reduced to a Neanderthal if the said individual’s is pushed in the right way. So long dignified character, so long patience, and welcome to the madhouse that is childishness.
That seems to be the premise of Yasmina Reza’s play, The God of Carnage. In the play, two sets of parents are, at first, trying to discuss, in a civil and formal manner, how to deal with the altercation between their two sons. Alain and Annette Reille’s son, Ferdinand, has hit Michel and Veronique Vallon’s son, Bruno, in the face with a stick that has dislodged Bruno’s two teeth, one of which needs to be operated on. At the start, there is already a hint of tension:
Veronique: So this is our statement – you’ll be doing your own, of course… ‘At 5:30 p.m. on the 3rd of November, in Aspirant Dunant Gardens, following a verbal altercation, Ferdinand Reille, eleven, armed with a stick, struck our son, Bruno Vallon, in the face. This action resulted in, apart from the swelling in the upper lip, the breaking of two incisors, including injury to the nerve in the right incisor.’
Veronique: You don’t like ‘armed’ – what shall we say, Michel, furnished, equipped, furnished with a stick, is that all right?
Alain: Furnished, yes.
Michel: ‘Furnished with a stick’.
Of course, the beginning is just your run-of-the-mill domestic tension between the parents of two boys involved in a fight. Nothing out of the ordinary, at first, but, boy, did it escalate quickly. As I flipped the page, Reza adds to the tension bit by bit. First, there is a discussion on what should the Ferdinand parents should do to the child in order to punish him and in order for Ferdinand to ask the forgiveness of Bruno. There is a clash in parenting styles as the Reilles want to be more lenient on their son and the Vallons wanting the child-friendly version of retribution. Then, of course, the Reilles and the Vallons discussed whose fault it was that led to the physical violence with the Reilles insisting that it was Bruno’s fault because he insulted Ferdinand and the Vallons saying that Ferdinand should not have resorted to Violence. This back and forth goes on for a few pages as a typical form of verbal swordplay by two sets of overprotective parents.
As the evening progresses, they involve themselves of irrational arguments as they try to one-up each other in order to show that they are more superior to their opposites. Alain is always busy with his cellphone since he’s a lawyer and he’s handling a big case at the moment while Michel is a wholesaler so there is an obvious disparity between their professions as Alain looks down on Michel. On the other hand, Annette is in “wealth management” (the wealth of her husband) while Veronique is an author who is trying to write a book on Darfur. The two couples, in the course of the play, are trying to show, subtly at first, that they are wealthier, more intelligent, and better parents than their counterparts.
However, the real part begins when both parties forget the real purpose of the meeting and degenerate from human beings into barbarians. No topic is off-limits as they discuss animal cruelty, men-vs-women, job satisfaction, medical responsibility and other topics that are not remotely related to the main reason for the meeting and the fights are all-out and free-for-all with one-on-one, two-vs-two, two-vs-one, and three-vs-one settings. To think that everything escalated in such a fast manner just because Annette puked, due to stress, on the rare books of Veronique.
What makes the play so interesting is because of the characters and their interactions. Other elements that are otherwise important in other works take a minimal role in this play that puts the prime on the characters. The simple altercation between their two sons inflates into something more than their own parenting reflex. It is in the house of the Vallons that the couples vent their frustrations with themselves, with their spouse, with their children, and with the world. Their seemingly peaceful nature collapses, with the help of alcohol, within the four walls of the house and the torrent that follows is unstoppable and unmerciful.
The God of Carnage is an easy read because the plot is straightforward and the length of the play is short (just 60+ pages). It is not really a complicated play but that does not diminish its message of the true nature of human beings. Maybe I liked it because I’m cynical and because I believe that every person has hidden barbaric tendencies but even the most optimistic of persons can’t really deny the inherent animalistic nature of his fellow human beings. Because, after all, we are animals through and through.