Nawal falls silent: in the five years before her death, she doesn’t speak a single word. At the reading of her will, her children, the twins Jeanne and Simon, receive two sealed letters. One is addressed to an older brother they’d known nothing about; the other is for their father, who they’d been told was dead. The twins’ search for their family takes them to Nawal’s homeland in the Middle East, a place devasted by the communal tragedy of war. Here, they discover who their mother really was, unveiling the secret she’d carried around with her for years, and how inextricably the family is enmeshed in a past marked by civil war.
The plot of Incendies is nonlinear, its structure cinematic. Running parallel to the story featuring Jeanne and Simon, a second narrative unfolds, revealing fragments of Nawal’s life. The two narratives are superimposed: past and present are intertwined, interlocking like a mosaic.
“I wanted the play to express a scream, to exorcise fears. I wanted to talk about what our parents couldn’t. I wanted it to be hard-hitting,” wrote Mouawad, who is all too familiar with war and displacement.
Scorched hit hard and continues to hit. The family saga, set against the backdrop of the civil war in Lebanon, makes for almost unbearable watching even as it moves its audience. With an impact comparable to that of Greek tragedies, the play explores what war does to a family, showing to what extent it shapes individual identity, making it no longer one’s own. The play, written in 2003 by Wajdi Mouawad, was adapted for the screen by Denis Villeneuve in 2010: the film, Incendies, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.