La Bête—you know, that backstage comedy in heroic couplets, set in 17th-century France, which revolves around the beleaguered playwright-producer Elomire (anagram of Molière), his princely patroness, and the Rabelaisian street clown Valere, whom the Princess has directed Elomire to take into his troupe.
In print, Valere's opening harangue runs a virtually uninterrupted 30-plus pages of star-struck sycophancy, chipper self-congratulation, cockamamie learning, and oblique insults. As performed these days on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre by Mark Rylance, the speech clocks in at about half an hour, or so I am told. Who's counting? No doubt about it, Valere's scene partners are crucified, especially David Hyde Pierce, who mostly glowers and emits smoke from his ears. But for the folks out front, time whizzes by like an arrow. Casually uncouth, Rylance ambles as if dressed by the rag-picker, false teeth lending dazzle to his village-idiot grin, greasy locks gently brushing his collar. If Arcimboldo had painted a Thespian to set beside his Librarian, he might have looked like this.
And within seconds, he's off and running, spouting nonsense the way Deepwater gushed oil, belching, farting, ducking into a closet to use the chamber pot, ripping pages from handy leather-bound folios to wipe. Then, without warning, he displays a profile worthy to strike in a medallion. Laughing, he seems a joyous cavalier by Frans Hals. Anxious, he goes shadowy but transparent, like a self-portrait of Rembrandt in middle age. To listen to, Rylance is likewise a marvel. The artifice of rhyme notwithstanding, every line sounds spontaneous, improvised, daftly new-minted. The Princess calls Valere an idiot savant. Elomire thinks him merely an idiot. Is he a snake in the grass, like Molière's religious faker Tartuffe? Or an innocent, desperately living by his addled wits? Rylance tips the balance towards innocence, which may be the deeper reading (and is surely the more generous one).
Who on earth could have conceived of such a creature, and what is he up to today? I had good hopes of finding out in person, but the sketchy biography of the playwright David Hirson seems destined to remain that way. Before the opening of the Broadway revival, he was unavailable for interviews. Then, before an appointment could be arranged, he jetted off to Berlin—not without having sent (personally, himself, from an East Side address, with a hand-written note of surpassing courtesy) a copy of the French translation of the play I had requested via the play's publicists. His website (davidhirson.com) gives little away, and certainly not his theatrical pedigree. For the record, his father, Roger O. Hirson, wrote the book of the long-running musical Pippin, now a pillar of amateur theatricals.
The younger Hirson was born in New York City in 1958 and educated at Oxford and Yale. La Bête opened on Broadway in 1991 to overblown expectations with a $2 million budget (unprecedented for a straight play), the backing of Andrew Lloyd Webber (but not enough), and an understudy (Tom McGowan) in place of the original star (Ron Silvers). After 15 previews and 25 performances, it limped into theater history.
"A cult flop," Ben Brantley called La Bête in his review of Hirson's second play, Wrong Mountain, which closed unlamented on Broadway nine years later after 19 previews and 29 performances. But La Bête had its defenders from the start. Outraged at Frank Rich's and David Richards' scathing reviews in the New York Times (the time-honored two-critic system—one for the daily paper, one for Sundays—was still in effect), a phalanx of theatrical luminaries rose to La Bête's defense. Jerome Robbins, Katherine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, Harold Prince, Liv Ullman, Kevin Kline, David Henry Hwang, Peter Shaffer, Jules Feiffer, and 19 other signatories fired off a joint letter of protest, ignored by the paper of record but eventually published in TheaterWeek. Living well is the best revenge: beyond New York, La Bête won the Laurence Olivier Award in London for Best New Comedy in 1992 (Alan Cumming starred), was translated into classic alexandrines (the verse of Corneille and Racine, as well as Molière) for the delectation of the Paris audience, and has enjoyed a robust afterlife in the American regional theater.
In the current revival, Rylance shares billing above the title with David Hyde Pierce (Elomire) and Joanna Lumley (the Princess). The entire company has fared well by the critics, for the most part, though many continue to find fault with the script on the grounds that the second act fails to clinch, let alone top, the first. Elomire's refusal to accept Valere angers the Princess. Elomire stands apart but his ensemble joins in as Valere orchestrates an impromptu command performance. The delighted Princess takes Valere under her wing. Elomire, seeing no alternative, walks away, alone.
A clear case of elitist sour grapes, you might say, yet there is more to La Bête than that. Like a jurist incorporating essentials by reference, Hirson drops hints we ignore at our cost. As countless critics have pointed out, the name Elomire is an anagram of Molière. What few French and fewer American or English spectators will know is that that anagram goes back to Molière's lifetime, crafted by one Boulanger de Chalussay, the author of the crude, male-chauvinist Marriage Maxims quoted at length in Molière's inflammatory School for Wives. The first captures the philosophy pretty much in full.
A woman who in church has said
She'll love and honor and obey
Should get it firmly in her head,
Despite the fashions of the day,
That he who took her for his own
Has taken her for his bed alone.
In Molière's play, we hear the next nine and part of the eleventh, read out by Agnès, the newly-wed convent-bred ninny, at the command of her elderly, pathologically possessive husband Arnolphe. Boulanger de Chalussay eventually settled the score with his scabrous satire called Elomire hypochondre (Elomire the Hypochondriac).
In La Bête, two members of Elomire's troupe bear the name Bejart, that of an acting family to which Molière was linked by business and marriage. The character of the Princess was originally Prince Conti, who really did extend his patronage to Molière and his itinerant troupe but then got religion and showed the players the door. In the end, it was for the best: eventually they made their way to Paris and their place in the Sun King's favor. Much of what happened en route is lost to time, but we do know that Molière took tragic roles in plays by his contemporaries, without success. Elomire fancies himself a tragic poet: more fodder for Valere's burlesque, who gaily cites Elomire's Mandarin (a tragedy) as the funniest play he has ever seen. One more thing in passing: Valere's play-within-the-play is set up in much the same way as the opera-within-the opera of Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos, another confection (postmodern avant la lettre) heavily indebted to Molière.
How to connect the dots? In A Midsummer Night's Dream we hear of a satire, "keen and critical," of the Thrice Three Muses Mourning for the Death of Learning, Late Deceased in Beggary. On the surface, La Bête seems a lament in very much this generic vein. Rubbish triumphs, Art is left in the cold. At a deeper level, Hirson's web of allusions conjures up a parallel, counterfactual universe in which art languishes for lack of anarchic vitality and a naïve will to please. Elomire as we find him fancies himself an Artist but is something less: a false Molière, the conceited, pampered plaything of the ruling class, content in his mediocrity. Stripped of his privileges, the Elomire we take leave of him could morph into the Molière of history: a flinty, furious spirit striking sparks in a world that gives no quarter. Though Elomire's role pales beside Valere's, his presence touches the action—especially the final cadence—with heartache that lingers.
A word on language. Hirson makes no secret that his poetic model is Richard Wilbur, whose English Molière was and remains a cognoscenti's delight. (The maxim quoted above is an example.) In truth, Wilbur's Molière resembles the original scarcely at all. Like Corneille and especially Racine, Molière deliberately restricted his vocabulary, avoiding snazzy verbiage and dazzling rhymes like the proverbial plague. The French dramatists and their public prized impersonal constructions in a way English writers and readers do not. Let a couplet from Le Misanthrope suffice by way of illustration. The flirtatious Célimène has just wrecked her chances with the prickly Alceste, to the delight of the aging Arsinoé, who now makes her move. When Alceste rebuffs her, she quickly turns the tables.
Le rebut de madame est une merchandise
Dont on aurait grand tort d'être si fort éprise.
More or less literally:
Refuse of Milady's is a commodity
One would be quite wrong to be so taken by.
With a modicum of poetic license, one might say "a scrap from Milady's table." But where Molière's dowager condescends, Wilbur's lands a zinger.
I'm not so interested as you suppose
In Célimène's discarded gigolos.
La Bête abounds in such surprises; I open the book at random to the rhymes marrow/pharaoh, rhyme/paradigm, Elomire/stratosphere. In the French edition, diligently adapted by Mariem Hamidat, such flourishes seldom appear; our random sample this time comes up elle/belle, veille/merveille, convive/expectatives. (The last, disagreeing in number, would not pass muster with Molière as rhyme at all. This is not an isolated example.) The typesetting and numbered lines of the French recall the textbooks generations have grown up with to an uncanny degree, but no Frenchman would mistake Hamidat's language for Molière's. Hirson's mimicry of Wilbur—or is it parody?—is mostly pitch-perfect.