This particular controversy may be over but the questions it sparked will remain.
Last week, all across the web, editors and pundits weighed in on Theatre du Noveau Monde’s decision to involve Bernard Cantat in an upcoming production. For the few of you who still don’t know, Cantat was convicted of manslaughter for the death of actress Marie Trintingant. The media had a field day, calling Cantat a “killer” and critiquing TNM for “casting a murderer”. On Friday, artistic director Lorraine Pintal announced that Cantat would no longer be presenting Des Femmes, the new Wadji Mouawad play of which M. Cantat was to be a part.
This particular controversy may be over but the questions it sparked will remain. Last week’s outrage had less to do with theatrical ethics and more with our discomfort regarding the re-integration of violent offenders into our society. It is the nature of Cantat’s crime that disgusts us (and rightly so). Many feel his parole came far too quickly and there appears to be an unspoken implication that by hiring him, TNM is being unsympathetic to his victims - and that, by buying tickets, audiences would be doing the same. This begs many questions. Is it ever possible to separate the art from the artist? How long a time is appropriate between an artist’s crime and their return to the public eye? When their crime is as violent as M. Cantat’s, should they ever be allowed to return? And if they do return, is it justifiable to involve them in your production?
The exploitation of a non-performer is a deplorable practice, but in this case Bernard Cantat was hired to do exactly what he had been doing before he went to jail.
I won’t try to answer all of these questions today, but I do think that before we attack producers for hiring artists with questionable pasts, it is important to examine the nature of the project and the job those artists are being hired to do. Nobody involved with Des Femmes hired a murderer; they hired a musician who was once convicted of committing a crime. The distinction is important. The exploitation of a non-performer is a deplorable practice, but in this case Bernard Cantat was hired to do exactly what he had been doing before he went to jail. He was not being hired to discuss the crime or capitalize on his experience; instead, he was tapped to “compose music and perform”. It is not clear what the word “perform” would have entailed, although there have been vague hints that he would have sung as part of the Greek chorus.
This is much different from someone like Charlie Sheen, who began touring a stage show this month that was all of three seconds in the making. Mr. Sheen is not a playwright / performer and the fact that his show was so obviously cobbled together in order to capitalize on his recent meltdown shows both an ignorance of, and a lack of respect for, the art of live performance. The same cannot be said for M. Cantat, who has an established track record in his field. He was, after all, the lead singer of Noir Desir, a French rock band whose albums had a history of going platinum. If a cook went to jail, would it be exploitation to hire them to run your kitchen? True, M. Cantat has never (to my knowledge) composed music for the theatre – but with Bono, Paul Simon and Green Day all writing for the stage, it’s hardly unusual to ask M. Cantat to make the leap.
M. Cantat’s involvement with Des Femmes would have been albatross around everyone’s neck...
This was a case of poor judgement, not exploitation. No one should have anything but sympathy for the family of Marie Trintingant and we should all be debating the questionable merits of a justice system that only gives someone 8 years for (wo)manslaughter. Further, M. Cantat’s involvement with Des Femmes would have been albatross around everyone’s neck, distracting attention from the show’s artistic worth, whatever it turns out to be. The decision to involve him may have been ethically sound, but sometimes even the best ethics can never replace wisdom, sensitivity or common sense.