What were the Paris audiences clapping for? One evening a few weeks ago, it was for Michel Bougot in Stringdberg's Dance of Death, directed by Claude Chabrol. Bougot played the vicious husband with more humor than one sometimes sees in this play, and with a lot of skill, too, mostly of a formal sort, so that one continually marveled at how well he squinted and rumbled his voice. But it wasn't a performance to rip your guts out, in this respect unlike a production I attended at a tiny kosher couscous establishment which cut my tour of Paris stages disastrously short. Dashed were my hopes of seeing the dreck operetta Napoleon, toward which the French masses are streaming in from the provinces.
But I did see a presentation at the Petit Odeon of Adiedi by Jelena Kohout, who like her husband, Pavel, is a Czech in exile. A man has trained his dog to speak, a deed so inherently suspicious it prompts the authorities to hound both man and dog. A Kafkaesque fable in short, and in long--digression being Adiedi's principle flaw. But this is really a very good play, full of canine clowning and political meaning. The politics, which are abstractly antiauthoritarian, made me consider the influence of Eastern European protest on the Western theater, or on our social imaginations generally. This influence is of course very great. If you go to an idealistic political-minded play today, the likelihood exists that the play will come from Eastern Europe and will hang communism from the proscenium on the ground that anticommunism is, after all, antifascism, more or less.
Antimonarchism appeared in the performance I saw of Moliere's Le Misanthrope at the Comedie-Francaise, where the production is said to represent something of a comeback for the Comedie and in any case conforms to the grand classic tradition. What gets hanged here is the hypocritical backbiting glad-handing ambition-ridden life at court. But the hanging is hardly very impressive. Moliere's genius--what does it consist of? The play consists largely of set speeches, which were mostly recited by an actor who stood facing the audience, gesturing grandly to another actor who sat in a chair, also facing the audience. sometimes, for variation, both actors sat and dispensed with gesturing. At one point nearly the entire court sat in a row, like guests at a talk show. Strange, wooden, inert, tomblike. But enlightening, for I've often wondered why the people in nineteenth-century French novels arrive late at the theater and spend their time scanning the boxes and balconies for the faces of courtesans, and worry about after-theater dinner, and in sum do everything at the theater but attend to what is occurring on the stage; and now I see. Then the play ended and the audience started to clap, quite as if no one had ever thought of rushing out to catch the last train to Croton.