“La Réponse des Hommes”, Théâtre de l’Odéon, Paris

Yann Messager reports from 6th arrondissement
February 2024

How does one wrap one’s head around the idea of suffering? To merely begin the exercise immediately threatens to plunge one’s fragile mental equilibrium into baffling chasms of misfortune and unjustifiable happenstance that characterize the fate of all living things on earth. The slipping-off of our beautifully ornate veils, which we have spent our entire lives tediously building, is only ever just a waft of wind away. And the myriad ways in which we try to weave our protective tapestries are no doubt the history of art and of human endeavor all the way back to our single-cell, aqueous embryonic origins.


Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.


Paris’s theatre scene this season is rife with audacious attempts at apprehending the idea of climate apocalypse from the standpoint of the nub of what our species might be. Why can we never auto-correct? Why this excruciating absurdity of living each day with the hopes of the gentle neighbour, and ending sullenly with news of the million atrocities committed constantly all around us?

What is this condition we call Man? From Vincent Macaigne’s Avant la terreur to Frédéric Sonntag’s L’Horizon des événements, brilliant artists this season find the most dramatic as well as prescient archeological terrain to answer these questions to be the Anthropocene Epoch. A biblical, cosmic storm that holds in its roaring fluxes the answer to:


What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,

what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not

me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling

you seem to say so.


Tiphaine Raffier’s La Réponse des hommes at the Théâtre de l’Odéon second Theater in Berthier no doubt rises above this season’s rivals, grabbing us by the collar and not letting go for a single second during the 3 hours and 20 minutes running time of the show, a truly impressive feat.

For these ecological twenty-first-century tales often turn sour. Their very premise is conspicuously, irresistibly attractive to the modern playwright who no doubt finds solace in writing them, a solace not available to the mere theatre-goer, a solace that lies in the god-like illusion that by predicting the worst they may boldly and nakedly confront the Fates. That having shrugged off what keeps many awake at night, they have somehow lived it, defying time itself. That like the men and women of the future, depicted at the end of the play, they may stare at us with wise and weather-beaten eyes, and in so doing eradicate climate angst from the horizon of their concerns.

In this way, such pieces can often become bottomless pits of self-indulgent nightmarish and unfiltered apprehensions. The author feels emboldened by what his ego translates into flashes of audacity for his own comfort. The temptation of making prophecies about the future often wins over ambiguity, and the fear of being deemed a mistaken prophet a century from now makes one lay out the hellish void before us in a vainglorious, shivering attempt to proclaim to an artificial past and an illusory posterity: “See! See! I knew!” The megalomania of the artist ends up superseding the exercise of predicting the path for human societies here on in. And what we are left with in the end is a frail and trembling human playwright on stage, still unsure of whether it is imminent crisis that has fed his ego to artistic leaps or the ego that has self-contentedly fed his vision of imminent crisis.


Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.


But for the most part, Raffier stays majestically clear of these dangers. That is to say, she brazenly surpasses them. For she gets something wonderfully right that few people do: Her play is about people.

The play is divided into several stories that are inter-related through certain intrigues or characters. Together they paint a sprawling and at times breathtaking picture of contemporary French society. We begin with the story of a former French humanitarian worker (played by Edith Mérieau) coming back from Syria, and being cared for in a strange, cultish maternity ward where doctors and psychologists attempt to foster the link she seems unable to forge with her new-born daughter. We sit in a courtroom where a French soldier (Teddy Chawa), no doubt coming back from one of the current West-African operations, is tried for the bullying of a fellow solider which led to his suicide. We laugh at a bourgeois French family fighting in a ridiculous manner over presents at their annual Secret Santa gift exchange.

We stand in horror before a group of pedophiles being treated at a psychiatric clinic [there is resonance with the play Downstate at the National Theatre, London] who recount self-assuredly the rationale behind their haunting acts. We watch a young bourgeois Catholic (Adrien Rouyard) stroll into a prison for his Christian association, ready to spread the gospel to a prisoner (Éric Challier who played the title role in Christophe Rauck’s production of Richard II) he has never met, only to hear the latter tell a sordid tale of an employee who murdered his sister. We listen, intrigued, to a Music Professor (Sharif Andoura, Macaigne’s Avant la terreur) harangue crowds about Renaissance art and the beauty of man, only to subsequently learn about his sexual interest in children.

These seemingly disparate tales have in common one striking and resounding hint of truth. They all point to the endless organizations of Man built up, one after the other, to solve eternally and horrifyingly problems. Through all of these characters, prancing about, desperate to prove to each other the resolve of their often aloof visions of the world, we recognize the hopelessness with which the vicissitudes of our societies are as elusive as the air we breathe. We raise courts of justice, psychiatric and medical clinics, armies and academies, yet the networks and communities we form seem plagued by the tragically strange manner with which our personal preoccupations come to occupy the entire scope of our representation of the world. Our default factory setting which we all know rules our conscience, limiting our scope of perception to the work at hand, the wall before us, the tribe. As if Marx’s Superstructure or Dahl’s Polyarchy were far too complex for our primate brains to apprehend, from a purely neuroscientific standpoint, and that in the consequent compartmentalization of human activities lies our inevitable rupture as connected beings.


Photo credit: Simon Gosselin.


“Who do we save first?” asks the humanitarian worker at the beginning of the play. Doesn’t saving one as opposed to another leave the aggregate amount of suffering constant? This French woman who has given her life to help Syrian populations suffering from war, drought, and fanatics is unable to love her own child. How much is it possible for a human being to give? Isn’t our life energy constant and what we do with it merely a shifting around exercise like Lavoisier’s rule? Isn’t the question of who to save futile? As she leaves the maternity ward, having unsuccessfully formed attachment to her daughter, she leaves behind a letter to her doctors, writing that it seems to her that the only way to truly give, to give disinterestedly, is to fully accept destruction of the self. Only then is the ego detached from charity, only then does altruism go beyond our gentle consolation before the fire with our hot chocolate and comfort foods. To truly help a human being is to accept a plunge into hell instead of them. Or so it seems to our desolate protagonist.

Along similar lines, a decades-old prisoner tells a young Bourgeois Catholic about the woman who used to come speak with him in his stead. How she would disinterestedly, on the surface, care for her paralyzed sister, feeding, dressing and washing her day after day for years. One day, the sister gets up and starts dancing. She is cured. She begins having a wild social and romantic life, while her sister stays at home. The sister eventually strangles her to death. How pleasant it is, the prisoner tells us, to believe we are helping someone. How we relish the suffering of others. How well it soothes our own suffering. How convenient it is to have people worse off than us.

Raffier demonstrates surprising self-conscience by commenting on the ego of her very artistic endeavor. In one of the last short stories, we follow a music Professor (Sharif Andoura) explaining the intricacies of a Renaissance Italian composer, very much in a Bernstein-ish way. He extolls the divine virtues of this single man who, he claims, has descended from the heavens to reveal to man his true nature, not unlike Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare argument.

Here, Andoura excels at simultaneously playing on the intellectual charisma he seamlessly evokes and the megalomaniac absurdity of what he is saying. “Can we still believe in geniuses?” His parody of the classicist intellectual seems to ask. Through him, a self-aware Raffier asks (in a world where all of us are unprecedentedly aware of the chasms of excruciating complexity, expressed daily in thousands of dialects all around us) where the figure of the individual in artistic creation remains. She thus adjusts with brilliance and in a measured manner the loftiness of her intellectual argument by going to the end of its very logical essence. Is it possible for a writer to attempt to address the question of suffering without materializing and thus tentatively eradicating their own persona?

It is Tiphaine Raffier’s heart-wrenching struggle with this question that lends a breathtaking and captivating quality to her exploration of climate destruction. We recognize ourselves in the French Bourgeois family playing their Secret Santa gift-swap. We recognize the futility with which we facetiously smile at our loved ones when really we feel a mysterious itch in our lower-left abdomen apparently telling us that we ache for the plane tickets to Lisbon in our father’s hands. We focus on trifles such as possible spending beyond the agreed upper limit of €150, buying each other Hermes scarves and Caravaggio reproductions when billions are starving. And above all, we recognize ourselves in the nurses, judges, soldiers, students running around convinced that they are making the world a better place when in fact they are running still in sands so self-centered, but sublimed by the outrageously, necessarily transcendent imagination of the human species.

Art as the mantle which makes existence bearable. Not Art with a capital “A”, but the artistic creation every being holds in whatever their spirit is composed of. The endless aesthetic solutions with which our survival instinct convinces us of the good of what we are pursuing, often to the exclusion of the similar symbolic purposes of the human beings and non-human elements surrounding us. That very much like the disparate but nonetheless connected scenes of the play, we are doomed to run around in imagined worlds of our own. The ultimate loneliness which we all fear and subconsciously feel creeping around us, the void of the darkness which surrounds the kilometers of oxygen that separate us from the eternal silence.

Raffier takes us to the question secondary school biology or physics teachers tell students they are not supposed to be asking. Why? Why the restless agitation? Why the eternally hopeful being, indeed its never-ending hope the very state keeping it alive, oblivious of positive or negative external factors? Why Camus’s Sisyphus? What of God and creation? This is the constant beckoning of the play, constantly in the background in the form of a beauteous Italian Renaissance quartet. Strange? No? For Raffier’s piece regally cements her modern incongruity in the soaring heft of Christian eternity. But the chants feel terribly out of place. Raffier thus places the Christian temple alongside the professor’s exultation of classical genius or indeed her very self. All cracking monuments before the vertiginous grandiosity of what is really being depicted on stage.

The closest Raffier allows herself to get to spiritual transcendence, and which is no doubt the weakest element of the play, is through mysterious posters which interrupt every scene as wailing alarms ring. We learn in the last scene that these are propaganda documents of one of the last ecologist movements before the climate apocalypse, as we see museum-goers from the future observing one behind a glass case. Raffier seems to have felt obliged to affirm to us the inevitability of the end of civilization and ends on the incongruently simplistic note of the post-apocalypse museum-goers killing themselves, unable to cooperate to escape the suddenly locked-down museum. All this smacks of humour, but is ultimately out of touch with the layers of subtlety that have entranced us for three hours. The rapidity with which the moving museum wall crushes museum-goers and leaves us in darkness before the applause seems to negate the mounting grandiosity one would have expected.

Or is this an additional, troubling comment on the very futility of her own play and of this very review (I could make this my last sentence and go her way!)? It really seems playwrights don’t have the faintest idea on how to end these sorts of things. But they can rest assured! For neither do we, and neither have we come expecting them to! They may safely stow away the staff and robes of the prophet and we shall all have enjoyed the three hours of quaintly speaking and exaggeratedly moving humans all the same. Leaving the theatre scratching our chin with lowered eyes, thinking, no doubt until the next morning in the case of this writer: “Really… why can’t we just help each other?”