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O Fim duma Viagem

Tuesday at the Theatre

FRANCE | Sunday, 4 October 2015 | Views [390] | Comments [1]

On Tuesday, we went as a group to go see Le Faiseur at the Theatre des Abbesses. Le Faiseur is a play by Honore de Balzac. Balzac, it should be noted, is not remembered for his plays. But regardless, he did write at least one play, (he actually wrote six) and we’d read it during the class with Christine for preparation. She hadn’t made us read the entire play out loud, and we were going to see a professional production of it, so overall, I liked it more than Le Medecin malgré lui. Which isn’t exactly saying much.

In a move which should surprise no one, the metro stop closest to Theatre des Abbesses was Abbesses. This, as a reminder for those who have never had the fun of getting off there, is the deepest metro station in Paris (36 meters below the ground). I assume that anyonewho has gotten off there and naively started climbing the stairs without knowing what was waiting for them doesn’t need the reminder.

Honestly, when you have some idea in advance how many steps you’re going to need to climb, it’s not that bad. You pace yourself more when you’re not constantly going “surely I’m almost there.” You can stop and look around at things you might have missed the first time, like the lovely wall murals. And, suddenly, in less time than you’d pictured it in your mind, you’re stepping outside.

Painting in metro

We’d had two weeks to read Le Faiseur during the course with Christine. It was given as homework in two parts, (the first half for the first Friday, the rest for the last day of class) so this translated as two days of reading through and trying to grasp as much of the French in a limited period of time as we could. Which was great preparation for watching the play which required trying to grasp as much of spoken French in a super-limited period of time as we could.

Plot summary: Le Faiseur follows the Mercadet family, especially Monsieur Mercadet, a man with no real employment and a lot of debts, and his daughter, Julie. Mercadet likes to complain about how all of his problems are due to the disappearance of Godeau to India with all of his money a number of years ago. His creditors like to complain about how Mercadet just needs to pay them already.

Mercadet knows that his only hope is to marry Julie off to a rich man. Which is kind of difficult, since Julie isn’t exactly what anyone would consider beautiful. Which is bad for Mercadet, since he now needs to find a rich man willing to marry an ugly girl, but arguably worse for Julie. Despite this, she still manages to find and fall in love with a man who loves her back. Minor problem: this man, Adolphe Minard, is the bastard son of Godeau, and consequently penniless.

Minard talks with Mercadet, Mercadet reveals their true state of finances, and Minard backs down, partially appeased by Mercadet’s solution that, if he does truly love Julie, he’ll let her marry rich and then just keep her as a mistress. Julie curses her ugly face, Mercadet curses his lack of money, and then he leaves and Julie needs to meet up with the rich man her father had picked out for her.

This man, de la Brive, turns out to have about as much money as Mercadet. Which explains why he was willing to get engaged to an ugly girl he’d never talked to. De la Brive wanted to marry Julie for the wedding-money her father had finagled out of his creditors, Mercadet wanted Julie to marry him for the family lands and reliable income he thought de la Brive had, and basically the marriage would have ended with all of them, especially Julie, deeply unhappy. Fortunately, one of Mercadet’s creditors shows up, reveals that de la Brive is also worse than penniless, and then runs giggling back to the stock exchange.

Mercadet and de la Brive turn from father/son-in-law bonding to “You’ve also racked up large debts? Cool! I’m not alone!” bonding. At any rate, that marriage is not going to go through, so Julie’s less unhappy. Minard comes back, apologizes for not wanting to force her to live in poverty, and promises to love her forever. Mercadet, rubbed of his last hope, doesn’t know what to do. Unless…

He starts rumors that Godeau has returned, wealthy and ready to acknowledge his son. Under Godeau’s name, he buys up shares in lower India (which he’d earlier been counseling others to sell) and gets de la Brive to pose as Godeau. Madame Mercadet (oh, yeah. She’s been around, but up to this point basically just going along with Mercadet) shows up, reveals it as a hoax, and she and Mercadet fret more about the state of their finances.

They’re struggling between living in poverty, but still relatively honestly, and continuing the farce of Godeau so that they can keep money, when some of the creditors show up. They start talking about Godeau’s return, Mercadet begs them not to mock him, they say “no, really, it’s true,” and finally Minard comes back. Mercadet asks him for the truth, and Minard says it was just as Mercadet had unwittingly described: his father came back, wealthy, and re-inherited him. Godeau paid off all of Mercadet’s debts, and Minard is now a millionaire who is still very much to do. Happily ever after. Now all that’s left is to see him so they can thank him in person, and the play ends with them waiting for Godeau.

That’s the plot. A rather typical 19th century comedy with a thoroughly unrealistic ending. And, as with Molière, it was hard to appreciate the humor when I was just reading it. This is partially, but not exclusively, a language issue. Partially, because obviously it’s easier to appreciate humor in a language you’re fluent in, but not entirely, since I have a similar issue with certain English-language playwrights. Shakespeare comes to mind. I can appreciate his tragedies fine when I read them, but unless I’m watching a particularly good production, I don’t find his comedies comedic. It’s similar with French, and, fortunately, the production of Le Faiseur was very good.

It began with a woman coming out and giving a short (not included in Balzac) speech about wealth and poverty and debts. She said that, according to some source, there were 36 kinds of debts, and then proceeded to name all of them. I think there was a socialist message going on, but it was kind of hard to be sure. And then she left and the play could begin.

After the austerity in the production of Madama Butterfly I’d seen, Le Faiseur was a very welcome change. They had props. And a stage that moved.

The stage had a foreground, which was flat, and then three distinct parts of the stage that were elevated. During the performance, the angle of each of these sections changed. So sometimes the actors would be standing on a perfectly level platform, and other times they’d be fighting against a very steep slope.

And, as would be expected when you have a stage like that, the actors were very comfortable on it. The only character who seemed to have any trouble with the stage was Minard, but that was clearly a deliberate choice, and he had such an awkward manner one wouldn’t be surprised if he managed to trip on a completely flat surface.

Generally, the actors were all very good at physical comedy by exaggerated gestures. In one of the first few scenes, a pretty clearly drunk Madame Mercadet shows up, and she falls down from the elevated stage right into the arms of three of her staff on a flat center stage. There was also a lot of jumping around and perching very well in what looked like precarious positions. No one apart from Minard had a problem with the slope of the stage, and if it weren’t for details like neglected plates of pasta sliding down the table, you could almost forget the stage was inclined.

And, although the plates of pasta had it bad, the flower pots had it much worse. There’s a scene where one of Mercadet’s very angry creditors shows up. In the play, he showed up with a golf club and started destroying things. Vase… thoom! No more vase. His next “ball” was the bottle of wine the family had been about to drink. The audience was a mix of people who were looking away, not wanting to see the damage, and people who were leaning forward, eagerly anticipating the blow. (Mercadet snatched away the bottle, so we didn’t get to see red wine splatter all over the set. Probably for the best, since that would have been such a pain to clean.)

So, text was OK. Staging was magnificent, acting was great. There were really only two things I didn’t like about it.

The first was the music. Julie is a (good) musician, and, when Balzac had her practicing piano, the production had her playing her guitar. With music from Red Hot Chili Peppers. Besides that, the transition between scenes was snippets from ABBA’s “Money Money Money.” Some people hated this, because they found it jarring. Personally, I was more on the ambivalent side. This production was clearly not set in Balzac’s Paris, (if I needed to hazard a guess based on costumes and decoration, I’d say Upper East Side, more or less contemporary times) so the music kind of fit in.

The second was the last scene before de la Brive is revealed to be lying. In it, Julie, though upset over the departure of Minard twenty minutes earlier, realizes that she needs to do her duty to her family with de la Brive. So she gets up on a table and spreads her legs. He takes off his clothing. Completely. When we’d come in, I’d noticed other groups of students waiting for this same performance, and I’m pretty sure most of them weren’t groups of college students.

Despite that very conspicuous reminder that it’s not just movies that are different, the play was overall pretty good. It had been depressingly long since I’d seen a play, and even longer since I’d seen one with such elaborate staging. It was, at times, challenging to understand them, but having read the play before certainly helped.

I need to go see more plays.

Tags: abbesses, balzac, props, theater



"... and the play ends with them waiting for Godeau."
Really? I didn't know Becket was such a fan of Balzac's plays.

  Barry Oct 4, 2015 8:00 AM

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