Mnouchkine’s commitment to a historically responsible theatre has taken her along a Brechtian route through a Verfremdung [defamiliarisation, critical distancing] achieved by borrowing from Asian theatre. In a seeming paradox, she explains that she can only seize the historical import of a work (i.e. its relevance for our times) by creating a distance. For Les Atrides, a cycle of four plays that adds Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, this distancing is achieved through the filter of an imaginative context inspired mainly by Kathakali dance, make-up and costumes, and the colours and fabrics of India. The Atreus cycle is part of a long series of ‘Orientalist’ projects for which the Théâtre du Soleil has adapted Asian theatre conventions to stage Western texts [Les Shakespeares, Les Atrides], or created new works that depict the colonisation of the Third World more directly [Sihanouk, L’Indiade]. Both serve a necessary function in the Soleil’s ongoing political and cultural critique, a dialogical engagement against and with the Western and specifically French theatrical tradition. Like Barrault, Brecht, Brook, or anyone else who appropriates the art of another culture, Mnouchkine risks practising cultural hegemony. Nevertheless Les Atrides stages as historical the verbal, visual and aural discourses through which the West embodies the multiple Other as a non-Western, non-masculine, ultimately non-human ‘oriental’. The historical responsibility taken on by Mnouchkine is an elucidation through theatrical means, above all that of l’écriture corporelle, or writing by the actors’ bodies, of the fateful intersection between the discourses of gender and empire in this founding myth of the West, setting forth power relations that remain in force today […]

For Mnouchkine, as for Brecht, the historically responsible theatre does not aim to reproduce a context outside itself. Neither ancient Greece nor India nor France is imitated realistically. The attempted reproduction would imply that history flows along everywhere else but on stage, unless theatre is forcibly transformed into history’s channel. Instead, theatre is both a producer and production of historical consciousness, and Greece, India, Asia, and implicitly France and Europe, are shown as floating cultural signs. In short the mise en scène is semiotic, not as a formalistic structure but as a site where historical signs are produced. It is more than a theatre aware of itself, or an epic theatre with direct speeches to the audience, ‘non-linear’ time, montage space, separation of elements, songs and dancing interrupting dialogue, etc. Above all, Les Atrides is not a staging of the tragedy as inevitable, but as a history that didn’t have to be.