To every age its own Camille. This one is as romantic as ever, and is full of malaise de vie (the French must have such a phrase; if not, they should). At the end of this version, the bereaved husband whom Armand meets in the cemetery at the grave of Marguerite, and to whom he tells the sad story of his life, comments, “We are the sum of our circumstances, and of our past,” a fatalism not exactly new to the subject. At the same time, it’s clear that it is an inhumane society, a loveless society whose motto is the motto of Armand’s father — “Land, and blood — what else is there of continuity in the chaos of life?” That view proves the stronger and wins out over Armand’s naive true love for Marguerite and her desire to live — “Make me live, Armand, make me live!” But, alas, there is that ominous cough, which we hear for the first time in Act I (just as in Dumas’s original play, which he made from his own original novel, and given an unending new life as the libretto for La Traviata). It is the sure symbol of fated mischance. Gems is true not only to the spirit of the original but to the accidentals as well. Why doesn’t this twentieth-century Marguerite die of cancer, or emphysema? Even the fatefulness is period. And yet, and yet . . . At the very end, Gaston de Maurieux, the bereaved husband, is given a card by the madame — sorry, the arranger of galas, etc., Clémence; and she says, “You need a little pleasure. Come and see me.” And as the lights go down she holds the card at arm’s length and reflects, and considers . . . And so we know that the inevitability is really the interior one: that human beings will be human beings. This is no veiled argument for social reform, nor a plea for early recognition and treatment of tuberculosis. Marguerite dies because that’s the way it is. “Life is a bitch, and then you die.” Thus the legend on a black coffee mug for sale in a department store in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thus the argument of the play.
The performances, generally very, very fine, particularly Frances Barber as Marguerite, who has a slightly hoarse voice and more than slightly coarse manner that is right for the part and, one suspects, obligatory for late twentieth-century sentimental characters dumped on by fate. Armand is her match in sheer boorishness, but then we see that this is actually antisocial anger at an instinctive level; predictably, it wins the heart of Marguerite, who is not your run-of-the-park mercenary harlot, but a woman of almost animal passion, psychically improvident, in a true twentieth-century analogy to the economically improvident Marguerite, her predecessor. There is a wonderful first-night scene in which both tell all, and make love with great zest and abandonment, and seal their fates. Beautifully played, beautifully timed.
This is very competent theatre, very ably directed by Ron Daniels, in the service of a play that tells us what we are supposed to think we are, if we are really up on late twentieth-century mores (viz., the summary: “We are the sum of our circumstances, and of our past,” in case it wasn’t clear). And it is all very, very depressing, this itch after wealth and pleasure. But we stand convicted. Or so the play would seem to suggest, because its period costumes and wonderfully romantic music, played live on a grand piano by a competent pianist to whom Chopin and Liszt are French bread and butter, are really only an extravagant figure for our own romantic, disenchanted age. The warning is positively Wordsworthian: “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers; Little we know in nature that is ours.” Oh, yes: there is also a now seemingly obligatory suggestion of the homoerotic, male and female versions. Armand’s first — and, incredibly, he claims his only — love was a coachman; and Prince Bela is in love with him and tries to slit his wrists after Armand’s night of nights with Marguerite. And there is Sophie de Lyonne, played by a beautiful, statuesque black actress, Alphonsia Emmanuel, who has something special for Marguerite. One senses that these too are metaphors for attempts at genuine love and affection otherwise seemingly impossible in this bitch of a world.
I forgot to mention the neat trick of the evening: we do not find out until very late that it is Armand’s father who is the father of Marguerite’s natural son (one of the stage characters, not just a reference). We find it out when, in the scène à faire, as the makers of well-made plays liked to call the obligatory scene toward which the whole creation moves, Armand’s father arrives in a final effort to break up Armand and Marguerite. He uses first the same argument that, in the Dumas fils play, moves Marguerite: “I have a daughter, young and fair . . . ”— that is, my innocent daughter’s happiness depends on your capitulation; otherwise she cannot marry. Whereupon the old Marguerite gives in. Not this Marguerite, however; it takes the father threatening to have Marguerite declared an unfit mother and taking her son away from her that does the trick. And so she must choose between loss and . . . loss. If she rejects Armand, the boy will be adopted and educated. If not . . .
And so the choice is really between her son and her lover, a cruel choice. From Armand’s point of view, if we stretch to see it that way, his father has anticipated him before, and now does so again. The preservation of the father’s prerogative, then, involves ruin for his cast mistress and his own son. A nasty, ruthless, bitch of a world. And then you die — if you are Marguerite; or live on, to no purpose, if you are Armand.