The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.
Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.
I guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”
Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.
The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)
In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…
I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.
Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:
Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:
Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.
I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:
To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:
I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)
That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?
I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?
A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.
I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.
Le Cid by Corneille (1637) I found an online translation by A.S. Kline here.
Le Cid by Corneille is one of the most famous play of the French theatre. It’s as famous as a play by Shakespeare and it is written in alexandrines which are to French classic theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. Lots of famous quotes and expressions come from this play. So, it’s not surprising that it’s part of school syllabuses. When I was fourteen, I studied Le Cid in school. It is a truly painful memory of students reading aloud and stumbling alexandrine after alexandrine and butchering the text with great gusto. I’m sure some of you have the same kind of memories about Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth.
Well, we were in Paris this weekend and wanted to go to the theatre and Le Cid happened to be played at the Ranelagh theatre. It is directed by Jean-Philippe Daguerre. I bought tickets wanting to make new memories of this play and give my children the opportunity to watch Corneille before they had to read him for class. I was also curious to see my response to it now.
Le Cid is set in Castille at the court of the king Don Fernand. Chimène and Rodrigue are in love and when the play opens, Chimène has just heard that both of their fathers approve of the match. Alas, Don Gomès, Chimène’s father is not too happy to hear that Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s father, was promoted as governor of the Prince of Castille. Don Gomès considers that he should have been chosen by the king. He’s jealous of Don Diègue and picks up a fight with him. Unfortunately, Don Diègue is too old to go into a duel and his arm fails him. Time for the first cult lines:
|Ô rage! Ô désespoir! Ô vieillesse ennemie!
N’ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infamie?
|O anger! O despair! O age my enemy!
Have I lived simply to know this infamy!
Humiliated, Don Diègue asks Rodrigue to wash away the insult and fight Don Gomès for him. Duty calls. Rodrigue is now between a rock and a hard place: either he fights for his father’s honour and loses Chimène or he betrays his father and keeps Chimène. But that’s the other cult thing about the play: the proverbial choix cornélien (literally Cornelian choice/dilemna.) or bluntly described “Whatever the decision you make, it’s going to suck big time.”
Rodrigue decides to follow the voice of reason, ie duty and challenges Don Gomès to a duel. The odds aren’t in favour of Rodrigue since Don Gomès is an experienced soldier. Don Gomès is sure to win this duel and he’s cocky enough to say the second cult line of this post:
|A vaincre sans péril on triomphe sans gloire||There is no honour for me in victory:
The lack of risk will deny me glory.
(Please note that for once, the French is more compact than the English.)
Rodrigue wins the duel and now he has killed his father-in-law-to-be. Chimène is not very happy with it and it’s her turn to face a choix cornélien. To seek revenge for her father or to let go and choose her lover, that is the question. Again, duty calls. She goes for revenge and since she’s a female, she turns to the king for that.
Now king Don Fernand has just lost a valuable soldier in Don Gomès and he’s not willing to lose another one by punishing Rodrigue. He tries to go around the honour code, probes in Chimène’s heart and pushes her buttons to make her drop her revenge schemes. But she’s too far gone on the duty road to turn around. So she follows through and the king is forced to consider her request.
However, Rodrigue is saved by the bell. The Moors are approaching and Rodrigue is sent to lead the army to the battle. He comes back after a glorious victory and his retelling the battle takes us to the next cult line of this post:
|Nous partîmes cinq cents, mais par un prompt renfort,
Nous nous vîmes trois mille en arrivant au port.
|We were five hundred, but with swift support
Grew to three thousand as we reached the port,
Given the splendid outcome of Rodrigue’s war expedition, the king tries again to deflate Chimène’s revenge wish. While she moans in private and fears for her lover’s life, duty is still her strongest drive. She keeps on demanding revenge and comes with a new idea. The king shall find a volunteer to fight Rodrigue in her place and she will marry the winner. Don Sanche, who’s secretly in love with her makes himself known and becomes her champion. Rodrigue wins the duel and proves to be the better man and doesn’t kill Don Sanche.
Now that both Chimène and Rodrigue have done their duty toward their families, they can have their happy ending. After all, this is a tragi-comedy, not a tragedy.
So, what’s the verdict? We all loved the play, even my wary husband. It was lively with fantastic sword battles on stage, live music and comical moments. After a scene or two, we got used to the alexandrines. The director bet on the comedy side of the play. The king has a lisp and looks slightly ridiculous. Don Gomès comes out as an arrogant hothead whose misplaced pride creates a succession of fights. I believe that this version is faithful to the spirit of the text and the atmosphere of the 17th century theatres. It was wonderful and I’m happy that my children’s first encounter with Corneille’s work happened that way. My response to the form of the play was very different from the one I had at fourteen.
However, my response to the substance of the play is surprisingly consistent with my earlier experience. Blind obedience to duty seems to bring more corpses than solutions or happiness. Or, more precisely, the honour code by which Rodrigue and Chimène abide leads to death and desolation. It reminds me of Gandhi’s saying An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. As my twelve-year old son pointed out When does it stop? Lucky Chimène, Rodrigue is wise enough to stop the destructive merry-go-round they hopped on and put an end to fights and untimely deaths. I didn’t like Chimène then, I still don’t like her now. I don’t find her obstinacy to play by the rules admirable. The king gives her several outs. She never takes them and to me that’s just plain stupidity. I don’t understand her choices and actions. I found her high maintenance then, and I still find her complicated now. As my daughter bluntly puts it “This Chimène chick, she doesn’t know what she wants”. She wants an out but doesn’t dare to take it. She invents the last challenge but when she thinks Don Sanche killed Rodrigue, she says she won’t marry Don Sanche. Fickle should be her middle name. Anyway. My opinion of Chimène is not that important. She left the French language with an expression avoir les yeux de Chimène (to have Chimène’s eyes) and it’s used to designate a woman in love or something one looks at fondly or is interested in.
The most important part of the evening is that I’m reconciled with Corneille and my children don’t dread plays in alexandrines so much anymore. That’s good because my daughter has to read The Misanthropist by Molière for next week.
Business is Business by Octave Mirbeau (1903) French title: Les affaires sont les affaires
We’re in a chateau in the suburb of Paris, probably in the West, in a property that now belongs to Isidore Lechat. It’s called Vauperdu and was allegedly built under Louis XIV. Isidore Lechat is a businessman and a parvenu. He has a knack for business, doesn’t shy away from playing dirty to achieve his goals. He’s formidable and vulgar, intelligent but whimsical. He has that business acumen that some people have; they’re able to get what will work, will be trendy, will make him money. His net worth is 50 million of francs.
The play opens in the gardens of the chateau. Madame Lechat is sitting outside with her daughter Germaine. It’s 6pm, they’re waiting for Isidore to come back from his business day in Paris. Madame Lechat is anxious because her husband always brings home unexpected guests. She wonders if she’ll have enough to serve a proper diner. From Germaine’s replies and comments, the spectator quickly understands that she despises her father’s money and especially the way he earnt it.
Isidore is a ruthless businessman, earning money is his goal, even if it means bulldozing people. He’s unstoppable when he wants something. He despises culture and intellectuals. He’s friends with politicians. He bought a newspaper. And now he wants to go into politics and be elected as a député. (MP) Does that ring a bell? He’s been to prison, went bankrupt and recovered. He seems to fall back on his feet each time and to have seven lives, like a cat. Perhaps that’s why he’s named Lechat (The Cat). He’s restless and greedy. He wants more every day.
Of course, it’s hard to see Isidore Lechat and not think about Donald Trump, Berlusconi or Bernard Tapie if you’re French. He’s also a theatre soul mate of Zola’s Aristide Saccard, the main character of La Curée.
The play revolves around Isidore and he’s taught a lesson about the cost of his business choices on his family. He’s proud of his son Xavier, who lives the happy life of a rich heir, mingling with people at the Jockey Club. (This is a very elitist club in Paris. In Proust, Swann is a member of this club) Isidore is new money who’d like to slip into old money’s shoes. But it’s not so easy. He wants to destroy the aristocracy and yet copies their customs. One of his aristocratic neighbors makes fun of him and tells him money is not enough, there’s a spirit to it, that he should invent new customs instead of mimicking the aristocrats. He doesn’t know what to do with Germaine who recoils from him; he’d love to marry her to an aristocrat but it’s not in the cards.
Madame Lechat comes from the same background. She knows all his flaws but supports him. She doesn’t have a conscience either and doesn’t share her daughter’s reservations about the means used to get this rich. When she complains that she never knows whether she needs to organize a diner, Germaine points out that she’d better consider that she’ll have guests and be ready every night. Madame Lechat argues that Isidore might come back alone and then, what about the food? When Germaine replies that she can always give the food away to the poor, Madame Lechat is offended. You don’t feed the poor with chicken. This exchange is representative of the Lechat couple. They’re both greedy and have absolutely no compassion for the poor. They’d rather chase them away. They reminded me of these bourgeois in the 16th arrondissement of Paris (the richest one) who are currently signing petitions against the foundation of a shelter for homeless people in their neighborhood. Their shocking lack of humanity was all over the papers. What a shame. They should be grateful for their circumstances and give back to the less fortunate.
There are fascinating exchanges about money, about getting rich and live with all this money. Mirbeau depicts a despicable character in Isidore but remains fair on two levels, his genuine love for his children and the fact that his wealth attracts all kinds of crooks who attempt to take advantage of him. Madame Lechat says she feels that she doesn’t belong in this mansion. She doesn’t feel at home but on holiday, in a property that belongs to someone else.
There’s a lot to chew over in this play. It’s disgruntling to know who Isidore looks like. He’s one of these businessmen who flirt with illegality to get ahead but have such charisma that people like them anyway. He’s one of these politicians who get reelected time and again even if their character is doubtful or if they had trouble with the law. Yes, Mirbeau drew a very believable tale and nailed a type of character that still exists today.
The play was directed by Claudia Stavisky who did an amazing job. The actors were excellent and physically matched their characters. Madame Lechat was played by Marie Bunel, a classic blonde beauty. François Marthouret was a fantastic Isidore Lechat with his moustache and his loquacity. The clothes of the actors displayed their social status. The smarmy business men in their suits with their hair slicked back on their head. The aristocrats with classic clothes that scream old money and old values. Isidore’s outfit that tells “I’m expensive” but lacks class. The décor was well chosen, with high French doors to picture an old building and allowed scenes indoors and outdoors.
This was my first Mirbeau; now I’m curious about his Journal d’une femme de chambre. (Journal of a Chambermaid)
PS: I think the cover of the play is not good. Indeed, the man on the picture is Count Robert de Montesquiou, who was the inspiration for Charlus is In Search of Lost Time. This man was a dandy, elegant, cultivated and gay. Nothing to do with Isidore Lechat.
Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)
Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.
Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…
This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.
I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.
Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.
Denis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.
As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.
This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.
I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.
Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.
As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.
Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay. (1984) Original French title : Albertine en cinq temps
My new season at the theatre has started, so you’ll hear about plays again. The first one was Albertine en cinq temps by the Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay. The play dates back to 1984. Albertine is 70, she’s moving in a new home, probably a nursing home. It’s her first night in her new room and she remembers her life. Up to that point, you think it’s already been done. The originality of Tremblay’s play comes from the form. Five actresses are on stage, each picturing Albertine at one moment of her life. Madeleine, Albertine’s now-deceased sister is there too. The six of them will interact and slowly unravel Albertine’s life to the spectator. We learn that her husband died during the war, that her daughter Thérèse strayed from the common path and that her son Marcel is mentally disabled.
Albertine at 30 is in the country for a week away from her family. She was sent there after a drama with Thérèse.
Albertine at 40 is depressed and overwhelmed by her daily life with her children. She’s in a constant fight with Thérèse and Marcel requires a lot of attention. She’s become difficult to live with and believes her family doesn’t respect her or listen to her.
Albertine at 50 is freed. She has decided to cut her children out of her life. She has asked Thérèse not to contact her anymore and she put Marcel in an institution. She works as a waitress, earns her own money and feels free and liberated.
Albertine at 60 is at her lowest, addicted to pills to dull the pain.
Albertine at 70 has been to rehab and is now clean. She’s alone with her memories and tries to reconcile her past selves into her present one.
Through the fragmented Albertines, we eventually have a global picture of Albertine’s life and her misfortunes. It’s extremely well done. The different Albertines talk to each other, questioning their choices, underlining the consequences of a decision made by one Albertine to the life of the next Albertine.
We see the portrait of a bruised and battered widow who had to deal with two difficult children, without the support of a husband, with the constant putting down of her mother, with the love of a sister who had a perfect life.
Tremblay shows us the fate of a woman who was born at a time when being a wife and a mother was almost the only career path. Thirty-year-old Albertine asks Madeleine if she never felt trapped because there wasn’t many options. She felt prisoner of her fate as a woman. She doesn’t know how to interact with Thérèse. She wasn’t meant to be a mother and society thought that women were only on earth to be wives and mothers. She feels like a failure because she can’t be the good mother she should be. She is judged because it should be natural, so something must be wrong with her. And in the end, she is knocked-out by guilt.
Guilt to have put into the wold two “abnormal” children. Albertine at 40 shouts that people should remember they were two to make these children, that her husband died at war and became perfect in the process and that now everybody believes that it’s her fault if her children aren’t normal.
Guilt to fail them as a mother. She loves them but lacks motherly qualities. She has trouble to communicate with them, to show her love. But how can she when her own mother yells at her and belittles her? Tough love is the only one she knows. Is it her fault if Thérèse is now a drug addict and a floozy?
Guilt to have chosen her freedom and her sanity and to have abandoned them. People judged her for that and she had to live with her decision. Her relationship with Thérèse was going nowhere and was toxic for both of them. Sometimes cutting ties is the only solution. Marcel retrieved further into himself and cut communication too.
Albertine in Five Times is poignant play about the destiny of a woman who was caged in her time. She had no other choice than being a mother, she needed help but didn’t get any because she should have known what to do as if being a mother was a built-in skill coming with ovaries.
It is a play about memory and the different Albertines interacting is a clever way to picture our sometimes crowded heads. Although it’s common to talk about a trip down memory lane, memories aren’t linear. They bounce on one another, one leading to another, leaping from one period of our life to another. The simultaneous presence of the five Albertines on stage pictures it perfectly. It is difficult not to think about Proust with a character like Albertine. The opening of the play is Albertine settling in a new room and thinking about the past. It remined me of Proust in his room in Balbec. Proust is also a master in playing with memories. I can’t imagine there’s no reference to Proust with a main character named Albertine who has a son named Marcel. I wonder where Thérèse comes from, though.
I saw a version directed by Lorraine Pintal, with Lise Castonguay, Éva Daigle, Martine Francke, Monique Miller, Madeleine Péloquin, Marie Tifo.
The direction is flawless from the décor, the costumes, the movements on stage to the choice of actresses. The Albertines are dressed in the same colours and fashion with only the style of clothes adapting to her age. The only totally different clothing is Albertine at 50 when she revolted and left to be a waitress. The décor is full of vertical lines, showing bars to symbolise the prison of Albertine’s condition as a woman. Using different stairs allowed Lorraine Pintal to put each Albertine in her own place (room, café, house in the country) but didn’t cut the actresses from moving from and to each other and interacting lively.
The actresses were from Québec and had a local accent. The first minutes were difficult but I got used to it. The differences between French and Québec French are real and rather puzzling and entertaining. For example, we have both imported the word job from the English, to say travail. In French, job is masculine, like travail. We say un job. In this play, they say une job. In French we use the word rocking chair, which is fair, after all in English, you say a chaise loundge, a name that obviously comes from the French chaise longue. In French Quebec, rocking chair has been translated and became une chaise berçante. There were lots of details like this and it enforces the sense of place. It was impossible to forget you were in Montreal.
If anyone reading this has the opportunity to see this play, rush for it. Everything about it is excellent, the text, the actors, the direction, it has it all.
Comment vous racontez la partie (written and directed) by Yasmina Reza. Not available in English. (yet)
It’s been a while since my last billet about theatre. I’ve seen a play version of Novecento by Alessandro Barrico with André Dussolier and it was marvelous. I’m still not convinced that Barrico is such an extraordinary writer as critics let us think but Dussolier on stage is a delight. The play holds together more by the obvious pleasure Dussolier experiences on stage than by the depth of the text. The fact that he was acompagnied by a jazz pianist didn’t hurt either. I’ve also seen Les aiguilles et l’opium (Needles and Opium) by Robert Lepage, a play that features a brokenhearted man from Quebec, staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. It also displays Cocteau’s impressions about New York at the same time. I’ve rarely seen such a creative and poetic stage direction. Everything was perfect from the music, the lights, the decors bringing us from Paris in 1949 to Paris in 1989. If you ever have a chance to see these plays, go for it.
That brings me to the last one I’ve seen, Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. (How You Tell the Story.) I want to write about this one because it deals with literature, readers, journalists and authors.
Nathalie Oppenheim is a famous writer who won the Germaine Beaumont prize. Her last novel, Le pays des lassitudes (The country of wearinesses) has just been released. She accepted an invitation to participate to the literary Saturdays of the small provincial town of Vilan-en-Volène. She is welcomed by Roland, the manager of the médiathèque (multimedia library) and the meeting will take place at the community centre. Nathalie will be interviewed by Rosanna Ertel-Keval, a famous literary journalist who grew up in Vilan-en-Volène. As always in such circumstances, the mayor of the town attends the meeting and the inevitable subsequent cocktail party.
This is a funny and serious play because the characters are subtly drawn. Nathalie is comparable to many writers you see in salons, signing books and loathing it. Not that they don’t want to meet their public or that they don’t respect them. It’s just that it’s out of their comfort zone. Rosanna is the perfect polished Parisian literary journalist. The actress, Christèle Tual, played the smooth interviewer at perfection. She tries to ask deep and articulate questions while casually name-dropping to remind Nathalie that she’s friendly with major great authors. She speaks with that unctuous tone that literary journalists use on France Inter when they talk with writers. Roland is the perfect literary nerd you meet in mediathèques everywhere. He’s extremely literate, totally overwhelmed with meeting a dream writer and also well anchored in the community, creating bridges between books and people in his town.
Everything in the setting and in the characters rings true. The name of the small town sounds like a country town in Normandy. Germaine Beaumont was a writer and member of the jury of the Prix Femina. Nathalie’s book The country of wearinesses, sounds like a French contemporary novel. (Right in the never-forget-you’re-going-to-die category). Roland and the major look like and sound like characters you meet in small towns. The major is so proud of his community centre; he fought for it for three years to get it financed. Yasmina Reza could make fun of provincial life. She does – we laugh a lot, thanks to the text and an amazing direction – but we laugh with benevolence. In a sense, it is also a tribute to all the Rolands in France who do ground work to bring literature to people.
The serious part of the play is about the relationship of a writer with their books. Nathalie is not comfortable with reading out loud passages of her novel or discussing it. The more Rosanna tries to pull out commentaries about such or such paragraph, the more she dodges the questions and tries to derail her and talk about something else. Nathalie’s idea is that her book should stand by itself, that even if she put something of herself in it, the public shouldn’t imagine that she’s the character of the book. She doesn’t want to overanalyze her work. She’s caught between the need to promote her novel and her deep belief that she shouldn’t be discussing her book. She doesn’t want to desiccate her feelings or what she meant by this or that sentence. She refuses to compare the men of her novel to the men of her life, to assume that her character’s vision of men is hers.
Nathalie doesn’t want to overshadow her work. She’s private, she doesn’t want that her interview about her novel becomes a public shrink session about her issues under the (false) pretense of analyzing the hidden meaning of her work. Rosanna finishes her interview with a reference to Philip Roth. For me it’s not a coincidence. Exit Ghost deals with that question: what becomes of a literary work when its author is not there anymore to rectify wrong interpretations or to correct inaccurate biographies? What happens if the writer’s life appears more interesting than his work? What happens to a literary work if a scandal hits its author’s life?
Rosanna is only doing her job, in appearance. The problem lays in the particularity of being a literary journalist. The material you’re interviewing people about is not their political program for their next campaign or their strategy to develop their company or simply talking about their field of expertise. Literary journalists interview authors about works that come from their imagination. It’s their brain’s child. This is why some of Rosanna’s questions are nosy even if she doesn’t mean to pry. I felt sorry for the poor Nathalie squirming on her chair, trying to pick non-committal answers while not giving away too much. Otherwise, it fuels Rosanna’s questioning as she’s like a dog with a bone once she’s onto something.
The actors were on chairs on the stage, facing us, as if we were the public of Vilan-en-Volène. We were watching the play and participating to the show as the extras playing the attendance. We are also participating in this masquerade, in general, by reading interviews of authors and listening or watching literary shows. What’s our responsibility in this circus?
It’s a brilliant play that helps us readers live for a while in a writer’s shoes. It combines fun and serious and that’s for me the seal of a fantastic playwright.