Liliane Atlan is a postwar French Jewish writer whose plays, poetry and narratives display innovative forms at the limit of written and oral literature. Her theatrical pieces combine poetic language with spectacular visual effects, dramatic rituals with musical accompaniment, and narrative prose with spoken inflections designed for radio performance. Atlan’s consciousness of Jewish identity—like that of other French intellectuals d’origine juive (of Jewish origin)—was profoundly affected by the German Occupation and the collaborationist regime of Vichy. The crucial question that has informed her artistic production, to use her own words, consists in seeking: “comment intégrer, sans en mourir, dans notre conscience, l’expérience radicale qu’a été Auschwitz” (how to integrate within our conscience, without dying in the attempt, the shattering experience of Auschwitz) (Letter, December 4, 1989). Atlan has assumed the traditional role of Jewish intellectual as preserver of memory and commemorator of catastrophe. In Les Passants (1988), an autobiographical narrative written forty years after Auschwitz, Atlan’s narrator reflects as follows: “Je ne suis pas née pour moi, je viens de le comprendre” (I have just understood the fact that I was not born for myself). Thematically, the author draws on personal memories of the Occupation, testimonials of Holocaust survivors, investigation of historical archives and her intensive study of Jewish literature. Atlan explicitly inscribes Jewish identity in the themes of her writing, while implicitly inscribing her Jewishness in formal elements that interweave, within texts written in French, the liturgical rhythms and syntactical patterns of secular and sacred Jewish texts, linguistic traces of Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish, and a lexicon rich in Jewish mystical imagery.
Atlan, née Cohen, was born in Montpellier in the south of France on January 14, 1932. Her mother was born in Marseille, France, in 1905, while her father was born in 1907 and emigrated with his parents from Salonica, Greece, at the age of seven. Elie Cohen, Liliane’s father, became a businessman and her mother, Marguerite Cohen, née Beressi, took care of their home and five daughters. Having left high school at the age of sixteen in order to earn a living, Elie Cohen taught himself law and literature and read the French poets, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry. Marguerite Cohen, an active woman with an innate sense of poetry, completed high school and, during World War II, ran the family business while her husband served in the French army. Liliane’s older sister, Rachel, was born in 1929; her younger sister Josette in 1937, Danièle in 1942, and Denise in 1944. Rachel, Josette and Denise became craftswomen and jewelers and managed a factory. Danièle took care of her husband and children and did not work outside the home. The Cohens led a comfortable, middle-class life until Liliane’s seventh year, when the family went into hiding in the Auvergne to escape French fascist and German persecution. Unable to attend school for fear of being recognized as Jews, Liliane and her older sister, Rachel, created and performed plays in the attic. These were the beginnings of Atlan’s vocation of tragic playwright, for as she has noted: “I was the scenery, the actors, the author, and everything in that world within me cried out, gesticulated, died” (Knapp, “Collective Creation,” 9). Although Liliane’s nuclear family survived the Holocaust, her maternal grandmother and uncles were deported and died in Auschwitz.
When the Occupation ended, Atlan returned to school at the Lycée des Jeunes Filles of Montpellier and later attended the Lycée des Jeunes Filles of Marseilles. Meanwhile, her father became active in Jewish relief efforts and gave shelter to refugee survivors of the concentration camps. The Cohen family adopted a young survivor who had become incommunicative, and this adopted brother eventually told his story to a receptive yet vulnerable listener, his fourteen-year old adoptive sister, Liliane. During her difficult and painful postwar adolescence, Liliane became ill with anorexia and was treated in a clinic in Switzerland. Later, she went to Paris to study at the Gilbert Bloch School of Orsay, a Jewish school founded by Robert Gamzon (1905–1961) in an attempt to assist young European Jews in recovering from the post-traumatic shock of the Holocaust. At Orsay the future poet and playwright, along with her companions, spent sleepless nights passionately studying the Torah, the Talmud and the mystical Zohar, as well as other repositories of Jewish learning and faith, including the Midrashic commentaries.
From 1952 to 1953 Liliane Cohen earned a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne, working under the direction of the prominent French scholar, Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962), whose books on poetry and water, air, earth and fire convinced her that true poetic images are associated with the four elements of nature. In 1952 she married Henri Atlan (b. 1931), a brilliant fellow student who became an internationally renowned scientist and philosopher. Their daughter Miri was born in Paris in 1953 and their son Michaël in 1956.
Atlan’s first play was based on a real incident of the Holocaust and entitled Monsieur Fugue ou le mal de terre. The play opened at the Comédie Saint Etienne in Paris in 1967 under the direction of the well-known avant-garde theater director, Roland Monod. Shortly after the Israeli-Arab Six Day War of 1967 the Atlans went with their two children to live in Israel for three years (1969–1971). There, Liliane Atlan organized an Israeli/Arab theater group that performed in Hebrew and Arabic, attempting to use theater as a way of bridging cultures. Atlan has also resided in the United States. During the tumultuous period preceding and following May 1968 she spent two years (1968–1970) living near San Francisco while teaching French to American college students. From 1973 to 1974 she held the position of writer in residence at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Towards the end of the 1960s, in the wake of May 1968 and a new wave of French feminism, Atlan experienced an emotional and intellectual crisis during which she began to question the components of her subjective identity and the fundamental values of Western society. In both her life and her art she debated her own religious beliefs and practices, re-examined her role as mother, wife and woman, questioned the efficacy of political activism, doubted the significance of book learning, and explored the hedonistic pleasures of eroticism. This self-interrogation inspired the plays Les Messies ou le mal de terre (1969) and La petite voiture de flammes et de voix (1971), two theatrical creations that manifest a postmodernist aesthetic replete with representations of shattered truths and fragmented identities. La petite voiture premiered at the Avignon Theater Festival in 1971 and received enthusiastic reviews. During this same troubled period Atlan began writing Le rêve des animaux rongeurs, a mixed-genre autobiographical narrative that was not published until 1998. Le rêve is a poetic dream work that traces both the pain and the exhilaration of her marital dissolution and her experimentation with new cultural values and affective relationships. Le rêve des animaux rongeurs, like several others of her texts not written expressly for the theater, was eventually broadcast by France Culture, the French national public radio network. It was later performed on stage, at Biarritz in 1992 and at Annecy in 1994. Another innovative medium with which Atlan experimented was a form she called “videotexts” (Atlan, “Interview,” 26). From 1977 to 1978 she organized and videotaped theatrical improvisations that were used as a method of therapy for drug addicts being treated at the Centre Médical Marmottan. These videotexts, entitled Même les oiseaux ne peuvent pas toujours planer, were subsequently broadcast by France Culture.
During the 1980s and 1990s Atlan returned to the theme of the Holocaust with the publication of Les passants (1989) and Un opéra pour Terezin (1997). Les passants, which was published in English translation as The Passersby in 1999, is the autobiographical narrative of a fourteen-year-old girl who listened to her adopted brother’s account of the concentration camps and who became anorexic during those difficult postwar years. She later dramatized the story in Je m’appelle Non, a play broadcast by France Culture in 1994 and performed on stage at the Avignon Festival in 2003. Atlan first presented scenes from her Opéra pour Terezin to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she was twice invited as a writer-in-residence. In 1989 France Culture broadcast an outdoor, all-night performance of Atlan’s Opéra from the street in Montpellier where she had lived as a child. Atlan based this mixed genre work on the ritual of the Passover Seder and accompanied the words with music. The Opéra commemorates the annihilation of the European Jewish artists who were confined to the ghetto of Terezín in Czechoslovakia (renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans), artists who played quartets virtually without instruments, performed operas while weak with hunger and regularly had to replace deported members of the chorus. The last of these artists went to their death singing Verdi’s Requiem as their own death prayer. Yet Atlan views this original and moving creation not as a commemoration but rather as “un acte, à la fois personnel et collectif, de résistance” (an act of resistance at once personal and collective). It embodies the author’s aesthetic of “la Rencontre en étoile” (the star-shaped meeting) in which theater and ritual merge so that people all over the world may simultaneously recreate the horror of the destruction of European Jews and the hope of spiritual resistance that emanates from the art that survived the camp.
Liliane Atlan has been awarded several prestigious international literary prizes: the Habimah and the Mordechai Anielewicz prizes in Israel in 1972 for Monsieur Fugue, the WIZO prize for Les Passants in 1989, the Radio S.A.C.D. prize in 1999 and the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah for the ensemble of her works in 1999. Her plays have been published in German, Hebrew, English, Japanese and Italian and have been performed repeatedly in France as well as in Austria, Canada, Holland, Israel, Poland, Switzerland, the United States and most recently in Gatineau, Québec. Atlan presently resides and works in Paris. Her two children, Miri Keren and Michaël Atlan, and her six grandchildren live in Israel.
Monsieur Fugue ou le mal de terre. Paris: 1967; Les messies, ou le mal de terre. Paris: 1969; La petite voiture de flames et de voix. Paris: 1971; Les musiciens, les émigrants. Paris: 1976; Leçons de bonheur. Paris: 1987; Un Opéra pour Terezin. Paris: 1997; Les mers rouges : un conte à plusieurs voix. Paris: 1998; Je m’appelle Non: une piece de théâtre pour personne adulte et des adolescents. Paris: 1998.
Lapsus. Paris: 1971; L’Amour élémentaire: poème, monologue. Toulouse: 1985; Bonheur, mais sur quel ton le dire. Paris: 1996; Peuples d’argile, forêts d’étoiles. Paris: 2000.
Le rêve des animaux rongeurs. Toulouse: 1985; Les passants. Paris: 1989; Quelques pages arrachées au grand livre des rêves. Paris: 1998; Les passants; suivi de, Corridor paradise concert brisé: un récit en deux temps. Paris: 1998; Petites bibles pour mauvais temps. Paris: 2001.
“Story.” Translated by Judith Morganroth Schneider. Centerpoint 3 (1978): 93–94; Mister Fugue or Earth Sick, The Messiahs, The Carriage of Flames and Voices. In Theatre Pieces: An Anthology, edited and translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz. Greenwood, FL: 1985; Mister Fugue or Earth Sick. In Plays of the Holocaust: An International Anthology, edited with an introduction by Elinor Fuchs. New York: 1987; The Passersby. New York: 1993.
Knapp, Bettina L. “Collective Creation From Paris to Jerusalem: An Interview With Liliane Atlan.” Theater (Fall–Winter 1981); “Interview With Liliane Atlan.” In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, compiled by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. New York: 1987.
Knapp, Bettina L. “Cosmic Theatre: The Little Chariot of Flames and Voices.” Modern Drama 17 (1974): 225–234; Idem. Introduction. In Theatre Pieces: An Anthology, by Liliane Atlan. Greenwood, FL: 1985; Idem. Liliane Atlan. Amsterdam: 1988; Idem. “Mal-être. L’Oeuvre scénique et poétique de Liliane Atlan.” Les Nouveaux Cahiers (Summer 1995). Schneider, Judith Morganroth. “Liliane Atlan: Jewish Difference in Postmodern French Writing.” Symposium 43 (Winter 1989–1990): 274–283; Moraly, Yehuda. “Liliane Atlan’s Un Opéra pour Terezin.” In Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, edited by Claude Schumacher. Cambridge: 1998.