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MILAN AND HIS MASTER Gerald Rabkin "I am not composing, / am not an author; 1am reading or conversing, questioning or answering." -Diderot, "Essay on the Reigns of Claudius and Nero" "Love is a constant interrogation." -Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being "The theatrical is the domain of liberty, the place where identities are only roles and one can change roles, a zone where meaning itself may be refused." -Sontag, "On Roland Barthes" Who are here met? A French philosophe long dead, an exiled Czech novelist, an American critic-writer-filmmaker turned theatre director. Masters, all. The place? The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts . The occasion? The American premiere, directed by Susan Sontag, of Jacques and His Master, Milan Kundera's dramatic "variation" on the most puzzling work of the Enlightenment, Diderot's novel-or anti-novel -Jacques le fataliste et son maitre. 17 An event indeed in the wasteland of the past theatre season, but was it a felicitous meeting? The Literary Critic was sure it was, but the Theatre Critic had his doubts. The Literary Critic: A perfect melding of sensibilities, and a powerful demonstration of such contemporary critical principles as intertextuality, equivocality, and the death of the author. Diderot's fascinating work of the literary imagination, which historically never received its proper due because of its formal radicalism, can now be seen to anticipate the questions which preoccupy the postmodern critical temperment: the unreliability of language, the ubiquity of textuality, the problematic status of causality , the intersection of eros and power. The Theatre Critic: Slow down. Less theory, more description, please. LC: I'll try. Diderot's work, published posthumously in 1796, is indeed a Chinese puzzle: a novel that denies it is a novel, that expresses itself almost entirely through dialogue. A work of stories within stories, voices interrupting voices. First, there is the authorial voice speaking directly to the reader, occasionally omniscient, at other times self-effacing, or bullying, or ignorant of what it records. The voice of the creator segues into that of the scribe who records and the editor who selects, not to mention the critic who analyzes the rhetoric of fiction. And this dominant framing dialogue of author and reader is intersected by other dialogues, preeminently that of Jacques and his master as they travel on their indeterminate journey telling each other amorous stories which they constantly interrupt. And they in turn are interrupted by the author and by other story-telling characters. Indeed , no objective source of discourse is left intact. This book, with its anatomizing of codes of writing, its equivocalityTC : There you go again. What may be radical for the novel with its usually singular narrative voice is hardly radical for the drama where discourse is fragmented, polyphonic, by definition. If it's innovation we're looking for, the question is whether or not Kundera has succeeded in finding dramatic equivalences for Diderot's daring narrative strategies. I'm not so sure he has: paradoxically, as a contemporary play-with all the legacy of modernnist theatre experiment behind it-Kundera's Jacques seems far less radical a work than its unclassifiable progenitor two centuries ago. LC: But Kundera is hardly unaware of the problem. He knows that he cannot "adapt" Jacques, for to adapt is to reduce, ultimately to betray, particularly in the case of so monumentally original a work as Diderot's. Nor is Kundera unaware of the formal difference between fiction and drama. He does attempt to recreate the radical polyphony of the original within the dialogic form of drama by several strategies, chiefly a tripartite structure which frames the central narrative of Mme de La Pommeraye's attempted revenge against her faithless lover with the intersected, contrapuntal tales of Jac18 E Licc JACQUES AND HIS MASTER ques and his Master's ironic amours. But he is not creating "equivalences." This play must be judged an original work, indeed an homage to Diderot, but one suffused with Kundera's own preoccupations. TC: I accept the intent, but I'm not sure the "variation" is as intertextual -as you call it-as you suggest. I've looked at Diderot, and Kundera's interventions seem thematically minor, literally reductive...


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