and we begin

      2 Comments on and we begin

Well, and rehearsals for lLD have begun. Again, I’m not going to do a production diary here, but for anyone who is interested in the process, here’s another note.

As I was working my way through the script, trying to get lines in my head, I was also (inevitably) trying to figure out ways to play the scene. One thing about this play is that there are a lot of different ways to play each scene, without necessarily making an inconsistent play; Valmont represents himself differently to different people, far more so and far more deliberately so than most characters. In addition, he is dishonest with everybody, including himself, and part of Mr. Hampton’s play is having fun with the layers of dishonesty.

Hm. The plot outline in brief, for those who don’t know it or are unaware: Monsieur the Vicomte de Valmont and Madame the Marquise de Merteuil are old friends and former lovers, high in 1785 Paris society. Monsieur the Vicomte is a rake; he is famous for seducing and abandoning women; Madame the Marquise is a respectable widow, who seduces and abandons men without fame or infamy. They arrange, for plot reasons, to destroy Cécile Volange, a fifteen-year old just out of convent school. Simultaneously, Monsieur the Vicomte embarks on a seduction of the deeply religious and happily married Madame de Tourvel. Both seductions are successful, but Madame the Marquise manipulates Monsieur the Vicomte into a premature abandonment of Madame de Tourvel. The Marquise and the Vicomte break their friendship, leading to the Viscomte’s death in a duel with one of the Marquise’s lovers. I think that covers most of it.

So. There are two major sources of plot tension, as I see it: the uncertainty whether the Vicomte has this time actually fallen in love (with Madame de Tourvel), and the uncertainty whether the Marquise will finally break with the Viscomte. These are, of course, connected, and we will need to play each in a way that gives both the necessary interest. As it turns out, I think we will accomplish a lot of it by having the first two scenes between Madame the Marquise and Monsieur the Vicomte be chock-full of sexual tension. Oh, there are jokes and all that, and there’s a bit I find terribly funny where we pick up the playing cards and play a hand. Actually, that bit helps, too, as it (I hope) establishes that level of intimacy where you can just pick up the cards and deal a hand without talking about it, without even intending to finish it, really, because there’s you, and there’s her, and there’s the deck. It’s like that bit in The Tall Guy where Emma Thompson knows that Jeff Goldblum has had an affair with the Sarah Brightman character because he refills her champagne glass without her asking or thanking him, or him expecting it.

So. The big question, for me with Valmont, is what destroys him? Is it the knowledge that he’s lost Madame the Presidenté de Tourvel? Is it the knowledge that he’s lost Madame the Marquise de Merteuil? Is it, and this would be difficult to play for the audience, the knowledge that he has lost the Vicomte? After all, whatever happens, after the Marquise breaks with him, he will never be able to resume his old life. And, I suppose, if he loves Madame de Tourvel in some sense, that love in itself may show him a glimpse of what he will never be, and that glimpse is enough to make it impossible to remain complacent about what he was.

Of course, right from the beginning, there’s a sense that the Vicomte is, in some sense, growing out of himself. “I don’t get much pleasure out of that anymore”, he says. To the extent that the play follows the tragic pattern, the Vicomte’s flaw is self-absorption, to the point that he has to break down rather than change. He’s built his cocoon so strong he can’t get out of it, and when he changes (as he must), he crushes himself on stone he erected himself. Madame de Tourvel is the catalyst for the change; Madame the Marquise de Merteuil is, in large part, the wall around him, the castle he has built for himself.

Or that’s how it seems we’re playing it. There are other valid ways. A fairly simple way is that he really does fall in love with Madame de Tourvel, and it’s the simple loss, and the knowledge that he did it himself because he didn’t recognize that this really was different, that kills him. Another is that it’s all bullshit from beginning to end, that his dying protestation of love is just a way to salvage his all-important reputation. That lets you play Valmont as a pure villain. Another is that it’s Madame the Marquise who is really the main character, and Valmont is the catalyst for her self-destruction. Lots of ways. We have to pick one, or rather the director does, and then from those big decisions come the endless little decisions about how to play a scene, a bit, a line.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

2 thoughts on “and we begin

  1. Jacob

    If we’re all going to talk about this process, and I very much hope that we are, there’s one question/issue that I want to get out of the way right off the bat.

    The only version of this text that I am familiar with (and I imagine this is true of other readers) is the Stephen Frears film with John Malcovich and Glenn Close.

    Are you interested at all in discussing any of these questions with regards to the choices made, for better or worse, by that film? Or would you rather ignore it? (I’m curious, in general, about how you’re affected as an actor by a well-known previous portrayal of a character.)

    And while I wait for an answer on that issue….

    Another way to think about the question of what destroys him is to ask, taking a page from your earlier series on the Torah, whether there’s a particular point (either before or during the action of the play) when his destruction becomes inevitable. And whether there’s a choice or group of choices he makes that makes it inevitable.

  2. Vardibidian

    On the question of Mr. Frears’s’s’s film, which is based on Mr. Hampton’s play, but which evidently has several important changes including the ending, well, I haven’t seen it. I’ve never seen any production of the book. I don’t mind discussion of the film on this blog, but such discussion should probably be tempered by knowledge that I haven’t seen it, and won’t see it before the show is up.
    As a rule, I don’t like to see other versions of a role as I’m preparing it. I don’t mind having seen them in the past, but since I missed the thing in the first twenty years, I will have to wait until I’m done with it before I’ll be willing to watch it. The thing is that I have such a weak mind that I won’t be able to help myself from, well, helping myself to bits out of a performance, even if I have a different take on the character. Then I wind up with a hybrid thing, and it’s just not a good idea. That said, talking about Mr. Malkovich’s performance is unlikely to arrest me the way watching and listening to it would, so feel free.
    Now that you mention it, I am curious to know if my Gentle Readers would, on the whole, describe the choices made in the film the same way, or if the film admits of a variety of interpretations. And whether that’s a good thing.
    Finally, I think your point about a counterfactual technique is a good one. It opens up a variety of questions. Perhaps too many. And, of course, there’s the overriding matter of the audience; the important thing isn’t so much when Valmont’s destruction becomes inevitable but when it becomes apparent to the audience that Valmont’s destruction is inevitable. And whether that moment, if there is one, is or should be visible to the audience.


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