Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812
Yasmina Reza was born in Paris on May 1, 1959, to Jewish parents. Her mother was the daughter of a Hungarian violinist from Budapest, and her father hailed from a family of Sephardic Jews from Russia. He was born in 1918, in the middle of the Russian Revolution, when the family (whose original name had been Gedaliah) fled first to Persia, where they changed their surname to Reza and pretended to have become Muslims when, in fact, they observed Judaism at home. Their next move was to Paris when Reza’s father was five. He became an engineer who ended up in the shirt business. Partly because of these genealogical roots, Reza writes plays and fiction that are informed by nostalgia, rupture, and a sense of loss, even though her wealthy family vacationed in Switzerland.
Both parents had musical taste and aptitude. Her father was an impassioned amateur pianist—just as Yasmina is—and her mother played the violin. Yasmina mentions music in several of her writings, and for her, music is heaven. As she explains, it touches us profoundly and speaks to us in a way that words cannot. She points to Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas and Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites as possessing an absolute integrity and brave expressiveness. What she particularly likes about music is its pauses and silences, for she finds in their mysteries possibilities of dramatic human truth. When she gave up sociology after earning a license in it, she acquired a diploma in theater studies at Nanterre after failing her drama school entrance examinations. She performed in classics by Molière and Marivaux and in new French plays. She revealed her acting talent in a Sacha Guitry play (Le Veilleur de nuit) in 1985. Indeed, her passion for music and her experience as an actress have helped her find a way of deploying silence most effectively in her plays. Words, for her, become parentheses of silences.
Reza turned to playwriting so that she could continue to explore human character and truth after her acting career had reached a peak. “I see the problems for actresses of my age,” she remarked in an interview. “After you are thirty, you are finished, while as a writer I am considered very young.” Moreover, she likes stories that have a plot and are lively and sensual. Her acting background helped her discover how things could be left unsaid or half-said and yet felt on stage by the performer’s sheer skill. She continued to act but writing pulled her like a strong magnet. Acting was not intellectual enough for her, and she did not want to be a slave to any director. Her father was so filled with pride when her first play was produced in 1987 that he accosted the former prime minister, Raymond Barre, outside the Brasserie Lipp to tell him the good news. When her father died, Reza felt she had lost not only a friend and accomplice but also someone who had “the folly and humor of a Jew of his time, that ability to laugh at the world and weep three minutes later.”
Her playwriting showed talent from the outset, though no single piece brought her as much acclaim as did Art, which grew out of an autobiographical incident. Her friend Serge Goldszal, a dermatologist, had spent 200,000 francs on the purchase of a plain white canvas. When he showed it to her, she burst out laughing and then felt greatly embarrassed. However, Goldszal joined in her laughter, which was a relief to her. She pondered the significance of this incident: If he had not laughed with her in complicity, their friendship might have been seriously harmed. This is how the idea of Art came to her, and she made the issue of male friendship the main theme, using the painting as a comic and dramatic hook. Micheline Connery, wife of actor Sean, wanted to buy the film rights for her husband, but Reza turned her down because she felt that a writer had no power or influence over film. So Micheline Connery agreed to an English stage version, with her husband serving as producer. Noted playwright Christopher Hampton did the translation, and the English production was headed by Albert Finney and Tom Courtney. Reza became a major figure in international theater when Art went on to become a commercial and critical hit everywhere it played. However, all of her plays attract famous actors: Michael Gambon, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Alan Alda, and Victor Garber are but some of the performers who have acted in English-language versions of her plays.
A very private person who does not divulge much about her personal life, Reza is married to filmmaker Didier Montiny, and they have two children, a daughter, Alta, and a son, Nathan. Reza has maintained her acting career on stage, on television, and in film while she continues to write.
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