An eclectic Script Reading Roundup today: a French-language play I found at a Little Free Library, an excellent edition of Oscar Wilde's best plays, a reread of a Canadian Christmas dramedy I originally blogged about in 2010, and an epic adaptation of my favorite children's fantasy trilogy.
Les Combustibles by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Les combustibles, the first and only play by popular French-language author Amélie Nothomb, is a fable about the role of literature in times of turmoil. It’s the second winter of a siege, and at the University, there is no fuel other than the books on the shelves. The cynical Professor, his assistant Daniel, and Daniel’s girlfriend Marina debate whether they should burn the books to keep warm, or whether that would be a pyrrhic victory for humanity.
I read Les combustibles in French after picking it up from my local Little Free Library, figuring that I’m probably the only person in the neighborhood who’d be interested in reading a French-language play. (An English translation exists under the title Human Rites, a somewhat irrelevant pun – a more accurate title might be Kindling.) The writing was elegant and easy to read, and I enjoyed following the characters’ arguments. At times, however, the intellectual combat is so tidy that it’s easy to forget that the characters are desperate and starving. Also, it can be hard to understand their anguish about burning the books. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451; presumably, other copies of these books still exist in other collections, in cities that are not currently under siege. As such, destroying the Professor’s library doesn’t mean irreparably destroying human knowledge. Maybe I’m heartless, but in that situation, I’d say, burn the books and save yourself!
It was also annoying that the only female character is a beautiful, waiflike 20-year-old whom the stage directions constantly compare to a child or an angel. Naturally, both of the male characters have sex with her, and neither of them seem to respect her. I’m used to this kind of stuff from male playwrights, but not necessarily from women.
Les combustibles, la première et seule pièce de théâtre par Amélie Nothomb, est une fable à propos du rôle de la littérature aux temps troublés. C’est le deuxième hiver d’un siège, et pour combustible, chez l’Université, il n’y a que les livres. Le Professeur cynique, son assistant Daniel, et Marina la petite-amie de Daniel, débattent s’ils doivent brûler les livres afin de réchauffer, ou si cela serait, pour l'humanité, une victoire à la Pyrrhus.
J’ai lu Les combustibles en français après l’avoir pris de la Petite Bibliothèque Gratuite du coin, en supposant que je sois la seule personne dans mon quartier qui s’intéresse à lire une pièce en français. (Il y a une traduction en anglais avec le titre Human Rites, un jeu de mots assez hors sujet – un titre plus exact serait peut-être Kindling.) L’écriture était élégante et facile à lire, et j’aimais suivre les arguments des personnages. Cependant, parfois, le combat intellectuel est tellement rangé qu’on oublie que les personnages sont désespérés et affamés. Aussi, c’est peut-être difficile de comprendre leur angoisse à propos de brûler les livres. Ceci n’est pas Fahrenheit 451; probablement, d’autres exemplaires de ces livres existent encore dans des autres collections, dans des villes qui ne sont pas assiégées. Alors, la destruction de la bibliothèque du Professeur ne signifie pas la destruction irréparable des connaissances humaines. Peut-être que je suis cruelle, mais dans cette situation, je dirais: brûlez les livres, sauvez vous-mêmes!
De plus, c’était ennuyeux que le seul personnage féminin est une jeune femme de 20 ans, belle et frêle, comparée avec une enfante ou un ange dans les indications scéniques. Naturellement, les deux personnages masculins font l’amour avec elle et ne semblent pas la respecter. J’ai l’habitude de voir ces bêtises chez les dramaturges masculins, mais pas forcement chez les femmes.
The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's easy to give Oscar Wilde's collected plays five stars just because he was so brilliant and
The Importance of Being Earnest
is one of the most perfect comedies ever written, but where this Penguin Classics edition really excels is in Richard Allen Cave’s introduction and notes. Cave reminds us that these are not just collections of witty lines, they are plays, and Wilde was a man of the theater. The endnotes are full of information about the sets, costumes, and stage business of the original productions, and sometimes even include Cave's thoughts on moments that are particularly difficult to pull off in performance. Some people might find his opinions too obtrusive, but I loved this level of detail and think that all aspiring directors of Wilde plays should peruse this edition, since Cave has thought so much about how these plays work onstage.
The edition collects all of Wilde’s major, mature plays and even throws in his one-act Florentine Tragedy for good measure (though it's a rather weak play, requiring you to slog through a lot of sub-Shakespearean blank verse for the reward of a sword fight and a twist ending). There are his three Society Comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband), which blend melodrama, satire, social commentary, and aphorisms; his decadent and pageant-like
; and the incomparable Earnest.
Reading all of these plays in a row, I realized that the scope of Wilde's characterization was wider than I'd given him credit for. For instance, though the three Society Comedies all feature an aristocratic dandy character, each dandy has a very different personality and function. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan is an irresponsible romantic; Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is an unscrupulous cad; Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband is his play’s moral conscience. I was also impressed with the variety of female characters and the amount of stage time they receive. Young actresses love the Gwendolen-Cecily scene from Earnest, of course, and there are other all-female scenes in the Society Comedies that are even longer and more complex. Good roles for women aren't rare in classic drama, but it's quite unusual to see 6 distinctly characterized women talk for 12 pages without any men interrupting, as they do in Act Two of A Woman of No Importance!
Cariboo Magi by Lucia Frangione
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Programming a holiday-season play can be really tough for theaters, especially small indie theaters that want to do something a little quirkier than A Christmas Carol. Where to find a play that is Christmassy but not overtly religious, cheerful but not cloying? Well, Lucia Frangione's Cariboo Magi feels like it was written to solve this problem. You could even interpret it as a meta-commentary on the challenges of staging a Christmas play: it's about a desperate, ragtag theater troupe that travels to the goldfields of British Columbia, circa Christmas 1870. Their final product--a mash-up of the Nativity story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans--must be seen to be believed!
Frangione, an actress as well as a playwright, wrote herself a fab starring role as Madame Fanny Dubeau, the theater troupe's leader, whose "elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman." But the other characters are also vividly drawn: there's Joe Mackey, a Chinese-Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, self-pitying minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who is eight months pregnant. There are no villains here, just four misfits who act tough but are all lost or wounded in some way. Fittingly for a Christmas tale, in the end they are all healed and uplifted. But it's not Christianity or even "the Christmas spirit" that saves them--it's the power of theater.
His Dark Materials by Nicholas Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Golden Compass
was my favorite book when I was 9 years old and I grew up to be a playwright, so I found it very rewarding to read and consider Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed its self-assurance, its willingness to deviate from the novels in order to tell a story that makes sense onstage. Characters with similar functions are combined: Tony Makarios and Billy Costa; Serafina Pekkala and Mary Malone. Some plot-holes are filled: I really like how it rewrites Lord Boreal’s theft of the alethiometer so it doesn't involve Lyra’s foolish failure to recognize him. And at least one of the play’s innovations—having Lyra learn the truth of her parentage from Mrs. Coulter herself, rather than from the gyptians—is so emotionally compelling that the otherwise lackluster film version used it too.
I have to disagree with my friend Stuart, though, about whether the play seems less anti-religion than the books. On the contrary, I think the atheist themes are more explicit in the play version. But this means it feels better integrated. The books can feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch: the first book mostly reads like a thrilling fantasy-adventure where Dust is a MacGuffin, while the later books push an anti-religion, pro-Dust agenda. In the play, religion is depicted as sinister and oppressive from the start. The people in Lyra’s world are constantly praying to “the Authority,” and the role of Fra Pavel, a high Church official, is expanded into a real villain part.
Of course, in order to condense 1200 pages of fiction into a 2-part play, the action has to move insanely fast. (In the books, Lyra’s stay at Bolvangar covers nearly 70 pages; in the play, it covers 11 pages.) I do wonder how an audience who’s not familiar with the books would react to the play version, especially the relentless pace of the action. I also wonder if I’d find it too rushed, were I to see it staged. That’s unlikely to happen, however: this epic drama requires vast resources and I don’t think anyone besides the UK’s National Theatre has produced it. Still, I enjoyed reading it and thinking about dramatic structure, theatricality, and how an adapter can wield his subtle knife to show us new worlds.