January 9, 2004: Hampton, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Playhouse, From the novel by Choderlos de Laclos

The Playhouse has very pleasant associations for me, because I always remember when I go there that, under its earlier name, The Avenue, it was the venue for Shaw’s first commercially successful play, Arms and the Man. Some time back it evidently underwent a rehabilitation, its nether regions turned into a pleasant bar and lounge with many posters and pictures of predominantly Shaw-related plays, including one of Sybil Thorndike as Saint Joan, on her knees, praying.

Pleasant circumstances, then, for a revival of a play I seem to remember seeing in its transfer to the West End from a Royal Shakespeare Company premier. It is a play well worth reviving, and the interview between the author and the current director, Tim Fywell, printed in the program offers an interesting “take” on it — it being Hampton’s impression that both offer what is in effect a broader metaphor for our understanding of human relations that transcends both Laclos’s time and the time, twenty years back, of Hampton’s initial response to Laclos’s novel.

What is striking about this revival is its rather remarkable transparency. Hampton recalls that he had two false starts in writing the play. He first attempted to render Laclos’s characters and the action of the novel in ways that were linguistically “true” to the late eighteenth century (he read Tom Jones and Smollett and tried to imitate the language). Seeing that this only created a useless distancing effect, he then brought it up to date entirely. When that didn’t work either, he created a melding of modern language with the syntax and rhetoric of the period. It was a strategy that worked then and continues to work now, and it is one reason why the play reads in so transparent a way, taking us into the lives and even the psyches of these characters as if they were objectified versions of ourselves, while somehow rendering those realities “in the habits” — not only the costumes, but the ways of linguistic expression — “of the time.”

Hampton and Fywell also speculate over the extent to which the licentious actions and motives of these characters represent our own secret desires to transgress the boundaries of orthodox decency, of acceptable behavior, and so claim from us a fascination and the desire to emulate their lives in behavior that runs at odds with our well-trained morality. We want to be secretly what they are openly, we want to embrace the seemingly amoral behavior that eschews morality and holds pleasure as the highest good, and we want to do so without suffering any consequences. And we want to do this in a context quite free of emotional engagement — which, we know from experience, invariably brings with it consequences of connection with other human beings like ourselves.

In the moral economy of this seemingly amoral play, the character of Madame de Tournel is the pivotal character. In pursuing her seduction, the Vicomte de Valmont finds that, unaccountably, and quite beyond his control (a phrase that echoes ironically in the last minutes of the play), he falls in love with her — she who has represented a high standard of moral behavior but who also, despite her most fervent resolve, has fallen in love with him too and at length surrenders to his importunity and her own “weakness.” Manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil, his former mistress, a woman who, once widowed, refused to marry ever again and be ordered about by a man, Valmont breaks off with Mme De Tournel, causing her great and ultimately terminal distress; and he himself is killed in a duel by the young lover that the heartless Mme de Merteuil has taken. And thus, as Feste might put it, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

The question often raised about Laclos’s novel, a question drawn by Hamp­ton’s adaptation as well, is whether the novel (and so the play) adopts a scandal­ously immoral — or amoral — view of human relations or whether that bad, sad end serves to point a moral as well as to adorn a tale. A more profitable line of inquiry is to pursue the richness of the novel and its burgeoning afterlife in the play. Laclos has seemed to find a remarkably lithe instrument for invoking some of the most pressing, and interesting, social questions implicitly raised by a society on the brink of a huge, mind-altering and partly catastrophic transition. We ourselves, in the midst of our own huge transition into a world more pro­foundly ill and out of order than the world of Louis XVI ever was, are a prime audience for such a play, whose issues are of course not only social and political but moral and philosophical and ultimately deeply personal.

A few words about the mounting of the play. The stage, slightly raked, is taken up almost entirely by a turntable. Surrounding it on three sides is a very tall cyclorama painted in ways that hint at rich, eighteenth-century wall-paper but without any definite pattern, adding to the idea of a universal world. A concentric depression two or three steps down surrounds the turntable, and a set of double doors up stage center, opening out and away from the stage and painted to match the walls, makes a main entrance, supplemented by other entrances left and right. On the turntable itself, a selection of props: a chaise longue, doubling as an actual bed; a table and chairs; a trifold screen; and not much else. The turntable moves at the end of every scene, as stagehands dressed in the same costumes as the characters come on in the half-light and re-set the stage for the next scene. This arrangement has the double purpose of making the scenes flow quickly and efficiently into one another and of establishing the continuing metaphor of a constantly turning world, a sphere, perhaps a void, as artificial and overtly construct-like as any frankly acknowledged stage set could be. It did the play and its actors fine service, and I came away thinking that the play is more brilliant than I had deemed it before. There were a few places where I thought the actors, especially Polly Walker as Mme de Merteuil, were using too conversational and casual a tone to deliver language as eloquent and rhetorically so well turned as this; but by and large I thought they played it well, never giving in to a temptation to make it precious or self-conscious. We don’t want to be reminded what well conceived expressiveness lies in these lines. We simply want to hear them delivered full force but at the same time naturally, as if the product of clear, generative thought and feeling. And that was what we got.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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