Plot, Characters, and Themes in 'God of Carnage' by Yasmina Reza

A Look at the Plot, Characters, and Themes

'God of Carnage' Performance in London
Robbie Jack - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

Conflict and human nature when presented with it, are the predominant themes of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage. Well-written and a display of fascinating character development, this play gives the audience an opportunity to witness the verbal battles of two families and their complex personalities.

An Introduction to God of Carnage

"God of Carnage" is written by Yasmina Reza, an award-winning playwright. 

  • Reza's other notable plays include Art and Life x 3
  • Author Christopher Hampton translated her play from French into English. 
  • In 2011, it was made into a film titled Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski.

The plot of God of Carnage begins with an 11-year-old boy (Ferdinand) who strikes another boy (Bruno) with a stick, thereby knocking out two front teeth. The parents of each boy meet. What begins as a civil discussion ultimately devolves into a yelling match.

Overall, the story is well-written and it is an interesting play that many people will enjoy. Some of the highlights for this reviewer include:

  • Realistic dialogue
  • Believable characters
  • Insightful satire
  • Subtle / vague ending

Theater of Bickering

Most people aren't fans of ugly, angry, pointless arguments -- at least not in real life. But, not surprisingly, these types of arguments are a theater staple, and with good reason. Obviously, the stationary nature of the stage means that most playwrights will generate a physically sedentary conflict that can be sustained in a single setting. Pointless bickering is perfect for such an occasion.

Also, a tense argument reveals multiple layers of a character: emotional buttons are pressed and boundaries are assaulted.

For an audience member, there is a dark voyeuristic pleasure in watching the verbal battle which unfolds during Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. We get to watch the characters' unravel their dark sides, despite their diplomatic intentions. We get to behold adults who act like rude, petulant children. However, if we watch closely, we might see a bit of ourselves.

The Setting

The entire play takes place at the home of the Houllie family. Originally set in modern Paris, subsequent productions of God of Carnage set the play in other urban locations such as London and New York.

The Characters

Although we spend a short time with these four characters (the play runs about 90 minutes with no breaks or scene changes), playwright Yasmina Reza creates each with a sprinkling of commendable traits and questionable moral codes.

  • Veronique Houllie (Veronica in American productions)
  • Michel Houllie (Michael in American productions)
  • Annette Reille
  • Alain Reille (Alan in American productions)

Veronique Houllie

At first, she seems like the most benevolent of the bunch. Instead of resorting to litigation regarding her son Bruno's injury, she believes that they can all come to an agreement about how Ferdinand should make amends for his attack. Of the four principles, Veronique exhibits the strongest desire for harmony. She is even writing a book about the atrocities of Darfur.

Her flaws lie in her overly judgmental nature. She wants to instill a sense of shame in Ferdinand's parents (Alain and Annette Reille) hoping they will, in turn, instill a deep sense of regret in their son. About forty minutes into their encounter, Veronique decides that Alain and Annette are terrible parents and miserable people in general, yet throughout the play, she still attempts to maintain her crumbling facade of civility.

Michel Houllie

At first, Michel seems eager to create peace between the two boys and perhaps even bond with the Reilles. He offers them food and drink. He is quick to agree with the Reilles, even making light of the violence, commenting on how he was a leader of his own gang during his childhood (as was Alain).

As the conversation progresses, Michel reveals his uncouth nature. He makes racial slurs about the Sudanese people whom his wife is writing about. He denounces child-raising as a wasteful, grueling experience.

His most controversial action (which takes place before the play) has to do with his daughter's pet hamster. Because of his fear of rodents, Michel released the hamster in the streets of Paris, even though the poor creature was terrified and clearly wanted to be kept at home. The rest of the adults are disturbed by his actions, and the play concludes with a phone call from his young daughter, crying over the loss of her pet.

Annette Reille

Ferdinand's mother is constantly on the brink of a panic attack. In fact, she vomits twice during the course of the play (which must have been unpleasant for the actors each night).

Like Veronique, she wants resolution and believes at first that communication can ameliorate the situation between the two boys. Unfortunately, the pressures of motherhood and household have eroded her self-confidence.

Annette feels abandoned by her husband who is eternally preoccupied with work. Alain is glued to his cell phone throughout the play until Annette finally loses control and drops the phone into a vase of tulips.

Annette is the most physically destructive of the four characters. In additional to ruining her husband's new phone, she intentionally smashes the vase at the end of the play. (And her vomit incident spoils some of Veronique's books and magazines, but that was accidental.)

Also, unlike her husband, she defends her child's violent actions by pointing out that Ferdinand was verbally provoked and out-numbered by the "gang" of boys.

Alain Reille

Alain might be the most stereotypical character of the group in that he is modeled after other slimy lawyers from countless other stories. He is the most openly rude because he frequently interrupts their meeting by talking on his cell phone. His law firm represents a pharmaceutical company that is about to be sued because one of their new products causes dizziness and other negative symptoms.

He claims that his son is a savage and doesn't see any point in trying to change him. He seems the most sexist of the two men, often implying that women have a host of limitations.

On the other hand, Alain is in some ways the most honest of the characters. When Veronique and Annette claim that people must show compassion toward their fellow man, Alain becomes philosophical, wondering if anyone can truly care for others, implying that individuals will always act out of self-interest.

Men vs. Women

While much of the play's conflict is between the Houllies and the Reilles, a battle of the sexes is also interwoven throughout the storyline. Sometimes a female character makes a disparaging claim about her husband and the second female will chime in with her own critical anecdote. Likewise, the husbands will make snide comments about their family life, creating a bond (albeit a fragile one) between the males.

Ultimately, each of the characters turns on the other so that by the play's end everyone seems emotionally isolated.