French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller is the type to make anyone believe in innate artistic gifts. For all his literary talents, Zeller did not grow up attending theatre, or even reading much: "There wasn’t a lot of culture in the house, not a lot of books, but it was present in another way,” he said. Growing up in Brittany, his father was an engineer who often worked in Germany; his mother like to read Tarot cards. She was the one who “taught me about narration, about stories, about invention. She was pretty theatrical.”
In spite of these unremarkable beginnings, the prolific 36-year-old has known no shortage of successes since then. In fact, his story reads like a biography of a consummate artist-genius: his star has steadily risen from the moment he dropped out of the prestigious Sciences Po at 20 in order to focus on his writing. Eventually returning to school and becoming the youngest literature professor at Sciences Po at age 23, in the span of three years he wrote three novels, all published by the acclaimed publishing house Flammarion. His third novel, La Fascination du pire (The Fascination of Evil) was nominated for the Prix Goncourt, the highest literary honor for French authors, and won the Prix Interallié in 2004.
Zeller has since distanced himself from his early, albeit acclaimed work, saying he no longer recognizes himself in those novels, nor in the fame-seeking golden-boy image he appeared to stumble into, through tabloids as well as his star-studded social circle (his now-wife, Martine Delterme, is an actress, sculptor, and ex-model; he was a witness at Carla Bruni and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's wedding). "That's the paradox,” Zeller says, looking back. “I sought success, but at the same time, I felt like I wanted to disappear completely."
So it’s no wonder that Zeller took immediately to the medium of theatre: he is far more at home behind the scenes, in the wings. But his playwriting career began only by accident, when he was asked to write an opera libretto. He had never really been interested in theatre before, having accepted the job because of his love for music. But this first experience affected him deeply: “Finally I found a way to live. I discovered how to be joyful through theatre.” He had grown accustomed to the solitary lifestyle of a novelist, but found the collaborative conditions of the theatre inspiring: “The fact of not being alone starts at the very beginning of the writing, because you always think about actors’ faces. It’s a way to see something bigger than yourself.”
His first play, L'Autre, was produced in Paris in 2004, and since then he has come out with a play almost every year. But it was The Father that put him on the map internationally. The Father has been a sensation from its first production in Paris, where it received the 2014 Molière Award for Best Play, France's highest theatrical honor. It then traveled to London, where The Guardian named it the best play of the year. Its Broadway production was a 2016 Tony Awards nominee for Best Play, and Frank Langella received the Best Leading Actor Tony for his role as André. Langella says of Zeller’s work: “He’s able to achieve a powerhouse of feeling in fewer words than almost any other writer I’ve noticed.”
The Father appears in English translation by Christopher Hampton, most famous for his translation and film version of Dangerous Liaisons, who also translates Yasmina Reza, another French Broadway sensation (“Art”, God of Carnage). Hampton was "blown away" when he saw The Father in Paris, and his involvement as translator leaves even Zeller a little star-struck: “I was very happy when he decided to do it, because I knew it was the beginning of something for me — it’s not the beginning for him. I feel very lucky about that.”
Though academically gifted—Zeller cites both Harold Pinter and theatre of the absurd among his inspirations for The Father—this reserved playwright's creative process is decidedly intuitive: “I do not try to say something when I write,” he says, “I discover at the end what I was trying to say. What I seek to do [in The Father] is to instill an element of doubt. I try to construct little labyrinths in which the audience member tries to find where they are. You hunt down the truth, but as soon as you think you’re able to grab hold of it, it takes on another form and it slips through your fingers.” But for all that, the play is remarkably comic; he subtitles it a “tragic farce”, after all. “We are playing. The actors are playing. The audience can’t ignore the fact that we are, like children, in the act of make believe. That’s what, for me, the word ‘playful’ means. The whole beauty of theatre exists in the ‘comme si’, the ‘as though’, the make believe.”