That’s the best equivalent I can find for la frontalité, a term used by Benjamin Lazar, Vincent Dumestre, and others involved in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production to describe one aspect, and not the least interesting one, of their reconstruction of Molière’s staging. It’s one of those terms that sounds straightforwardly descriptive in French, but impossibly abstract and academic (or else vaguely lascivious) in English.
In the early years of the last century, the view was nearly universal among “advanced” theatre practitioners that the proscenium had to be abandoned in favor of a thrust, half-round, full-round, or other more three-dimensional type of stage. Frontal staging reverses all that, but it goes much farther. It aims to restore, not the 19th century proscenium, but a more drastically flattened stage picture in which the actors are nearly always facing the audience, even when they are addressing other characters on stage, and where, because the playing area lacks depth and because candle footlights are the only lighting,* they are kept as far forward as possible.
No doubt a lot could be, and has been said about frontality in terms of cultural semiotics or what have you. The term originated in art history, apparently, to characterize ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art in which the figures depicted always face the viewer, in whole or in part. The head, for instance, might be in profile, while the torso faces full on. According to one scholar, frontality is especially characteristic of courtly and ceremonious societies. That would certainly fit with its appearance in the France of Louis XIV. But what interests me, and appears to interest the creators of the BG production about it is not its origin but its theatrical possibilities. It’s one of those cases where severely constraining one’s options can free the imagination.
Look at that opening scene with M. Jourdain again, where he is having his robe put on, then taken off, then put on again. He stands center-stage, facing the audience, arms held out like a statue, and he and his enormous robe, flanked by the two servants holding it for him, seem to take up the entire stage. That’s all you need to bring out the comic essence of the scene. How much irrelevant business has probably been expended on it in the past!
A somewhat special aspect of the frontal approach is how it interacts with candle lighting and heavy makeup. In the absence of lighting that can track them, as Lazar explains, the actors have to become aware of and responsible for lighting effects themselves. Simply moving closer to the lights or away from them can change facial appearance dramatically, quite apart from the quality of candlelight itself, which is a subject of its own.
Finally, what’s nice about frontal staging is that it looks good. Or it can. It encourages an awareness of the total stage tableau at every moment, and exploits two-dimensionality in the same way that painting does. That’s also no doubt part of the reason the video, which I’ve still only seen parts of, looks so good. But that’s its own subject too. I’ll have more to say on that soon (I’ve ordered the DVD, and should have it in a few days).
*addendum: not quite accurate; there are also candles in chandeliers, which can be raised and lowered.
Those familiar with my Greek recitation pages will know that historical pronunciation of languages is something I’ve devoted some time to. One of the many fascinating things about the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production was that it gave the chance to hear Molière’s lines in something like their 17th-century pronunciation. I would never have thought that the French, of all people, would get ahead of us in this. I remember years ago, when I briefly lived in France, the hilarity or disgust that a Québec accent could provoke – as it happened, I had also briefly lived in Canada. And yet here, in this production, you could hear some of that same twang (of course Quebeckers have always insisted that what they speak is pure 17th-century French).
The case for historical pronunciation in Shakespeare has often been made; indeed, his language, though not that much older, feels much farther from us than Molière’s French does to modern French-speakers, I would guess. That may have been part of the point of doing it here: Molière has been the dominating presence on the French stage ever since his own day; people know him backwards and forwards, or at least think they do. This may have been one of the few ways left to defamiliarize him and hear him freshly.
There’s clearly a different feeling about these things now, at least among the younger generation. And there’s some interesting background which, via the Wonder that is the Web, I’ve been able to learn a bit of, at odd moments. Benjamin Lazar, the director of the production, is in his early thirties; at age eleven he began studying with Eugène Green, a somewhat shadowy figure of American origins who has lived and taught in France for some forty years. Like another expat, William Christie, he seems to have gained the knack of interpreting for the French their own artistic past. He was probably the first to stage classic French works in period pronunciation, culminating with his 1999 production of Racine’s Mithridate. Apparently he had his troubles with the French theatrical and cultural establishment, but Lazar, like a number of other young French actors, many of whom were also in the BG production, became an enthusiastic follower of his methods.
Green eventually published La parole baroque, a summation of his research, which involved not only language but gesture, movement, iconography, and a whole artistic sensibility that had become foreign to modern performers of this repertoire. After that he turned from theater to filmmaking. His 2004 film, Le Pont des Arts, has shown in art houses here; the plot includes some early music performers in modern-day Paris, with music performed by Le Poème Harmonique, though the musicians in the film are played by actors.
As for Lazar, he has directed a number of other shows, ranging from baroque opera (Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, Le Poème Harmonique’s next large production after BG) to modern plays, and continues to act. He may be the preeminent reciter of classic French texts in period pronunciation (I don’t want to go overboard embedding videos, but there’s a nice clip on YouTube of him reciting a fable of La Fontaine that I highly recommend). It’s interesting too that a number of early music performers with whom he has worked, such as the wonderful singer Claire Lefilliâtre, also take acting roles in his shows, and that he is obviously quite musical himself and watches closely what the musicians do; but this is evidently all part of the extraodinary collegiality, breadth, and versatility of these young performers, which bore such remarkable fruit in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.
Harry Partch and his marimba eroica, Mills College, 1952. Photo: Carl Mydans
A few months ago I learned of this archive of Life magazine photos of the 1952 production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus, the first version, using the Yeats translation of Sophocles’ play. I was told of it by John Schneider, whose group, Just Strings, has performed a lot of Partch, as well as Lou Harrison and other composers in what could loosely be called the “West Coast just intonation tradition.” He had been sent a copy of my long article on Oedipus by Danlee Mitchell, Partch’s heir and best friend in his later years. I’ve known Danlee a long time, but had not seen him in many years until I ran into him at the 2005 Montclair production of Oedipus, the premier of Partch’s 1969 final revision of the work, which he had flown in on the red eye from California to see, along with Jon Szanto of Corporeal Meadows. My article started out as a review of that production, but by the time it was done it was not very timely. Still, most of the main Partch experts saw it and commented on it, which was gratifying.
John also told me that there had been plans recently to do another production of the first version of Oedipus in California, but the economic situation had put them on hold. Still, he seems to think it may yet happen. He would certainly be instrumental in making it happen, if you’ll pardon the pun. His group has made reproductions of over a dozen Partch instruments (see below). The originals permanently reside in Montclair, New Jersey, under the care of Dean Drummond.
In France and elsewhere in Europe they’ve been talking about this production ever since it premiered six years ago. Here it is known to early music lovers, because of the splendid performance by Le Poème Harmonique of Lully’s complete score for this, the last and largest of the comédie-ballets he did with Molière. But otherwise I don’t think many on this side of the Atlantic are aware of it. It continues to tour in Europe, but as far as I know has not yet played in North America.
As yet I have only seen clips of the splendid video version, which lists for close to $100 around $20 on Amazon, and is PAL format only, so in the States and Canada you’d also need a region free player to watch it. But it looks well worth it.
I’ll have more to say when I’ve seen the whole thing. But it’s already plain to me that it really is a landmark, particularly for the theater. There have been plenty of good productions of baroque opera in recent decades, but this takes an entirely different direction (this is not opera, for one thing). What it does, in fact, is finally apply all the vitality of the early music movement to the theater. Baroque gesture, dance, pantomime, reconstructed 17th century pronunciation, candle footlights, frontal playing, all done with the greatest conviction, imagination, humor, and verve, and without the slightest concession to “contemporary relevance” or directorial “concepts.” In Europe, where that sort of nonsense has been even more rampant than here, it must seem more than just a breath of fresh air. No wonder people love it.
Not everyone, of course. Some in France haven’t been too wild about the period pronunciation, which is taken pretty far here. Many others are charmed by it. It’s a complicated issue – as one critic points out, to a modern audience the effect is in any case exotic, as it would not have been to an audience of Louis XIV’s time, so “authenticity” in this case defeats itself. But paradoxes of this sort are second nature to the current generation of early musicians, who do not take them (or themselves) too seriously. In the best, like Le Poème Harmonique, what you see is a passion for discovery and reinvention, with very little dogma. Now it seems that spirit has reached the theater as well. At least in France.
My translation of Alexander Griboyedov’s verse comedy Gore ot uma (The Woes of Wit) was published by Hermitage in 1992. It has been out of print for some time now. I am planning a second edition, with revisions; I would like, however, to get it produced first. It had a table reading by professional actors in New York in 1992, but has not yet been performed publicly.
The performance history of this play in English has been dismal, considering that in Russia it is regarded as a classic on a par with Molière or even Shakespeare. It has had some success on stage in Germany and Poland (Joseph Conrad’s father did a Polish adaptation), but if there’s anywhere outside of Russia where it is performed with any regularity, I don’t know of it.
Two other English versions appeared around the same time mine did, one by Beatrice Yusem, and the other by Anthony Burgess, the late British novelist. The Burgess version, so far as I know, was never published, but it had a run of some weeks at the Almeida theatre in London followed by a tour in 1993. Since then at least one more English version has been published, by Mary Hobson. There are plans afoot now at the National Theatre in London to do an adaptation (I have this from Ranjit Bolt, who has been commissioned to do it).
My translation was always intended as a performing version, but it is not an adaptation. I have the same feeling about adaptations of classic drama as Richard Wilbur, whose approach to verse translation I largely share. The aim is to achieve line-for-line, or thought-for-thought, rather than word-for-word, fidelity. When a dramatist writes in verse, the verse line becomes the rhythm of the drama; it’s not decoration. That means that some sort of equivalent for it must be found in the target language, or we lose the whole savor of the thing. Of course the story remains, and one can try, by updating language or action or both, to make it compelling, or at least entertaining, to a modern audience. But the result generally has little to do with the original work. Which is fine, as long as the adapter has the honesty to claim the work as his own, and not use a revered old name to sell it. To make an old play come alive, our best hope, as Wilbur put it in an introduction to one of his translations, is to “see whether a maximum fidelity, in text and in performance, might not adapt us to it.” If old plays have nothing to offer beyond what we already know, why bother with them at all?
I discussed the language and style of Griboyedov’s play in some detail in my translator’s introduction. To give English speakers a very rough sense of the dramatic rhythms that emerge from Griboyedov’s verse, I recently took some video clips of filmed Russian performances of the work, and added subtitles from my translation.
The first is from Oleg Menshikov’s 1998 stage production, which ran for two years in Moscow. A video version was made in 2000 by Peter Shepotinnik. This is Act 3, scene 3, where Chatsky and Molchalin, rivals for Sofya’s love, have their one conversation. Molchalin, the obsequious social-climber, is often played as mere foil to the witty and intelligent Chatsky. But the Molchalin in this performance (Alexey Zavialov) holds his own. He throws Chatsky’s irony right back at him, clearly considering one who alienates all the important people around him to be the real fool. Chatsky (played by Menshikov) is not just disdainful, either; the flashes of real anger and dismay on his face show the passion and vulnerability that make him more than just the author’s witty mouthpiece, as he is often taken to be.
The second clip is from the 1952 film directed by S. Alekseev and V. Voitetsky. This is Act 3, scene 21, where the guests at Famusov’s ball, after Sofya has started the rumor that Chatsky is mad, find confirmation of his madness in all the quips that have offended them earlier. This is a very satirical scene; the Soviet tradition was to make the guests a gallery of grotesques, and some of that can be seen here, but there are some fine performances. Famusov (Konstantin Zubov) and Khlyostova (Vera Pashennaya) are both good, though the latter is perhaps a little too soft in the role. The Khlyostova in the Menshikov production is more formidable: when she utters her final “three!” to clinch the argument with Famusov, he is reduced to jelly.