- Dom Juan, and: La Double Inconstance
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350 years old and one of the world’s great theatrical institutions, the Comédie-Française is often dismissed for stuffiness. Much of the company’s work since 1990, however, has embodied “national theatre” at its best: grand but precise. This made the company’s 1996 visit to New York especially welcome. Unfortunately for both the company and its American audiences, however, the Comédie-Française did not show itself off at its recent best.
The first problem lay in the pairing of the plays. Thematically, these two parables about how we love those who abuse us inform each other nicely. But Molière’s Dom Juan dates from 1665 and Marivaux’s Double Inconstance from 1723, and, whatever the differences, no major social or political watershed separates the two scripts. What impression can this leave except that the French stage was petrified sometime before America was born, and that the French are proud of the fact? The Comédie-Française has produced everything from Sophocles to Hugo to Césaire recently; a good way to help cast off international scorn would have been a three-century stretch between the two showpieces, but this opportunity was lost, and probably won’t come again soon.
Molière’s Dom Juan is more powerful intellectually than theatrically. Instead of a sensualist on a spree, it gives us a genius who spends his life pointing up the inconsistencies of lesser minds. The theatrical fun of it lies in the challenging passivity of Molière’s Juan. He stands still while all the other characters spin themselves into tizzies around him. When two women approach him at once he stands back while each tries to prove to the other that she alone is the one he wants. He doesn’t destroy his wife: he avoids her until there is no way she can possess an identity except by joining a convent. He doesn’t push away the tailor to whom he owes money, but makes much of him, so that the tailor is torn between social gratification and financial need. This is a Juan who sets everyone up, then watches them dissolve in their own inconsistencies. Molière’s version of the figure is not an animal force taking the world on for bodily pleasure; he is more like a hacker, planting a virus of sexual or theological frankness, then watching the conventional systems of the world shut down around him. In a straightforward sequence, Molière has him undo the major ideological fixtures of his day: marriage, courtly love, friendship, medicine, theology, the code of honor, filial piety. Finally, when Dom Juan has virtually nothing left to deflate, a piece of art leads him to hell. Curtain. It has all been a bit mathematical.
Many actors try to counteract Molière’s conceptual coolness by heightening the carnality he was so stingy with. None of this for Andrzej Seweryn, the Polish actor who has been with the company since 1993. His Juan is the world’s most elegant libertarian android, porcelain over a steel armature, superarticulate and a bit queeny. His Juan cannot arouse our discipleship or our desire. Rather, he humiliates us, making us feel that he already knows our price, which is always less than his own. His sexual activity is just a further instrument of superiority. Seweryn pushes this aloofness right to the end: even at his most animal moment, with his flesh on fire in the statue’s hand of doom, his final outcry is quiet and precise: “I burn,” he says coolly.
Director Jacques Lassalle brings this dispassionate world to life in a titanic wooden hangar designed by Rudy Sabounghi. Over this hanger floats...