I was lying face-down on the pavement with it turned out later a dislocated attitude looking up at Hardy and wondering qu’est ce-que j’ai fait avec mes lunettes? We were riding my beast Honda CG 125 on our way to see Huis Clos, the classic existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre at Theatre du Vieux-Columbier when we were t-boned at the corner of Rue du Four and Rue de Rennes by a Renault 5 (known in America as Le Car), and I face-planted spectacularly, while Hardy, somehow and miraculously, timed the exact moment of impact perfectly and the motorcycle and I went flying out from under her, leaving her standing, literally, in the middle of the road.
She came up to me, handed me my sunglasses, which had the bubble gum I had been chewing stuck to them and quipped: I thought you said looking good was rule number one? Um, it is. As a joke I had tacked my “Rules for Life” on the wall of my apartment, and everyone who read them thought they were hilarious:
And they are hilarious, in theory. But try bouncing your head a couple of times on the Parisian pavement and tell me how arch and clever they are then, Mr. Bean’ed?
I thought I’d lay out a list of the Top Ten plays/theater performances that I think you need to see, and can kind of see during this ridiculous quarantine, as part of our co-personal journey to become less ignorant and depraved. I only got as far as five in this blog, but will complete the list, whatever it takes, by next week. From the comments I’ve received recently there are a lot of you who think my crude, circuitous digressions and exasperating introgressions make me a type of Meanderthal, and you’re absolutely right. Laurence Sterne would be proud.
The chic bulimic driving the Renault got out and was dramatically upset, the way only women, and particularly French women, can get, especially when there’s any blood involved. Come to find out there aren’t any stop signs at four-way intersections in Paris if both of the streets are one way, and the rule is that the vehicle entering the intersection from the right has the right of way. Yeah, right. There was no damage to her car so we didn’t call the police, and the motorcycle was still drivable, so Hardy and I went to the play like nothing happened.
You’re probably wondering if either of us was wearing a helmet. See Rule #1.
Except I had improbably lost one of my loafers. I hobbled along for a while until I realized it would be better if I just took the other one off and put it into my pocket. I’m not making this up for comic effect: so I went to one of the most surrealistic existentialist plays ever, summed up by Sartre’s famous quotation: L’enfer, c’est les autres, with I later found out a hairline-fracture in my mental foramen, shoeless, and a tall blonde glass of sardonic water laughing up her sleeve at me the whole time.
The play takes place in a surprisingly-uncrowded hell, and has only three characters: Joseph Garcin, Ines Serrano, and Estelle Rigault. The conceit of the play is that Hades isn’t torture devices and eternal fire and damnation, but simply people you hate. The stage was furnished in the Second Empire style, and was as plain and simple as can be. This is the type of drama Sophocles describes as a discovery play, where the hell only becomes apparent when the “love” triangle dynamic is revealed: they were sent to that specific place at that specific time because they are each other’s torturers. Estelle loves Garcin, but he loathes her and loves Inez. Inez hates Garcin, but is a lesbian and loves Estelle, who can’t stand her because of her wickedness, contempt and ill-treatment of Garcin. You get the picture.
I’ll write about Sartre and his blind, wandering eye (amblyopia), his love for Simone de Beauvoir, friendship with Jean Genet, that notorious dinge queen, and unfathomable admiration for Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, as well as his “condemned to be free” philosophy which is counterpoised to and ultimately annulled by his nemesis Albert Camus’s “one must think Sisyphus happy” shoulder-shrug. His novels Being and Nothingness, Nausea, knee-jerk nihilism, and Nobel Prize rejection are part and parcel of his enigmatic persona, and topics for another time.
Hardy and I hop back on board the bike after the show and head over to Caveau de la Huchette, a divey hole that has been more or less bustling in the same location since about 1551, to listen to some music. There was a shawarma place right next to it and we got a sandwich and stood aside in a small alley to watch the people pass life by. There was a lively black guy standing by the backdoor side of the bar smoking a cigarette, and we struck up a conversation. He had a southern accent, and was all wow-wow and fuzztone. He last-puffed and discarded his butt and went back inside. We finished our lamb and decided to skip the club and go back to her apartment to shamalamading-dong the doo-dang dee.
Come to find out that hoochie coochie man was Muddy Waters. Which I couldn’t have cared less about at the time – jazz to me was just a bunch of lines and circles on a page, a mysterious wavelength I could hear but couldn’t see, or see the point of. Riding home in the Paris night along the Quai with Notre Dame backlit by a waxing gibbous, Hardy’s arms around my exalting heart, the wang-dang doodle blues that were probably playing at the same time might as well have been a million miles away.
Speaking of a million miles away, I went to see this same play at the Roundabout Theater in New York City years later only because it was starring one of my all-time crushing Gallic honeyboos, Juliette Binoche. The other two actors were Liev Schreiber and John Slattery, who wasn’t at all famous at the time since it was way before Mad Men. I have to say Juliette’s accent could melt the devil’s ice cream, but it was Slattery who totally stole the show. He had a sidling charisma that snuck up slowly and stuck, mesmerizing everyone in the audience, and we all fell under his likeable ticks-and-tocks spell.
Except it wasn’t the same play; I just looked it up now. It was actually Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a three-player adultery/revenge wrecking ball, one of a trio of his famous “comedies of menace” that with a bit of a twist this time unfolds in reverse chronological order. So instead of going forward toward disillusionment and disgust, it goes backward toward redemption and recovery. I’m not a fan – his British schoolboy obsession with the Platonic ideal of male companionship, interrupted frequently by marriages and numbing mundanity, and then sidetracked adulterously by adoring and adored women, but which is ultimately ruined by the zero-sum game of competitive macho oneupmanship. The treachery, personal perturbations, complicated but self-serving marital conflicts and resultant disarray – with the usual messy, wrenching collateral damage – are in the end petty, boring and predictable.
And his macho chest-thumping rings hollow for me – his feigned mental breakdown excuse and steadfast refusal to register for national service are all I need to know about his fractured moral compass, narcissism and physical cowardice. He says, unconvincingly, and post facto, that he would have fought the Nazis if he had been old enough. So would I. On a personal note, I think Conscientious Objectors should be put in prison for the length of their abdicated service, and have their right to vote taken away. I guess if you have to see one of this Nobel Laureate’s plays you could do worse than The Birthday Party, but I wouldn’t recommend it, or anything Pinter, unless on a bet, or sarcastically.
What I really wanted to mention was the English translation of Sartre’s play – No Exit. Translations are one of my hobbyhorses as you already know, and this one especially is so wrong I don’t even know where to start. Huis clos is the French equivalent of the legal term in camera or in chambers, which describes court cases, or the parts of the cases that the public and the press are not allowed to see. A literal translation of huis clos is “closed door,” so an English translation that would better capture the spirit of the original would be Behind Closed Doors, which acknowledges that there is an ugly drama going on, but you, the audience, are not supposed to see it. But as long as you’re in the theater and allowed to watch the gabby agony, enjoy the ride – you can’t escape it either!
Seriously, No Exit on the other hand focuses instead on the hellish situation the characters have gotten themselves into, and lets us know right off the bat that it’s inescapable, unreconcilable – which serves as a sort of spoiler alert before the curtain even goes up. It has a different meaning and a different intent than Huis Clos.
My chambre de bonne was thrust up a six-floor spiral staircase under the mansard roof of 57 (bis) Avenue de Villiers, and had a sliver view of the Eiffel Tower. A black cat I called Rhiannon used to tip-paw-toe across the metal cladding late at night and sit on the sill, still, silhouetted. I picked that name because Stevie’s lyrics echoed in my head: “She is like a cat in the dark/And then she is the darkness/She rules her life like a fine skylark/And when the sky is starless. This floor was originally the servants quarters, and since the shared bathroom was down the hall, Hardy would usually just pee in the claw-foot tub in the corner of my room, while I shaved with a safety razor in the ancient-regime sink with pitted nickel-plated spigots. She always told me to please don’t watch, with genuine modesty, and to this day it’s one of the most charming favors anyone has ever asked of me.
Do you know Samuel Beckett, that withy Irish tragi-comic wit and master of failure and ennui? Or should that be patience? This gaunt epicene’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot always seemed to me to achieve a kind of strange miracle: since there’s no action in the first act, and the second is just a subtle reprise of the first, he’s written a play in which nothing happens, and then nothing happens again. It’s almost excruciating in its stiltedness and repetition. But this isn’t the play Hardy and I saw – we went to see Oh, Les Beaux Jours at some rinky-dinky doo venue with about twenty seats, most of them filled with Teutonic tourists and exchange students from Ohio.
This play (and playwright) deserves an essay of its own, which I might write one day, but what I remember distinctly about it was its strange, ritualistic futility, cringey comical desperation, deadpan sexual innuendo, and pervasive sense of sterility and ambiguity. I also remember Winnie had a kind of perverse fun playing with language and puns, double meanings and cliché. But Beckett never uses words to clarify; rather he uses them as a kind of balm for the psychological wounds and chafes and scrapes his characters have accumulated in life. He is not emotive, or easy, or generous with or about anything, and wrote in French so he could flatten his words and whitewash out any traces of nuance even more.
The theater was too small, the ceiling almost oppressively low, the audience packed in uncomfortably close, the stage practically in our laps, the play too long and intermission-less, and Hardy crossing and uncrossing her mini-skirted and stocking’ed legs bewitchingly beside me – all sensations perversely intertangling to make me almost like the play somehow much, much less. It puffed out pretense and intense intellectual effort in the service of a wrong ideal, and the audience liked it way too much.
Go see it and let me know why you think Winnie pulled the gun out of her purse at the end.
I’m not a huge fan of the theatre of the absurd, and especially not in French, but I did go against my gut judgment to see a classic of this genre, La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) with Hardy riding pillion, literally and figuratively, at the Theatre de la Huchette, where it had been playing continually since 1957. We probably shouldn’t have stopped at Deux Magots for an aperitif beforehand, because I had trouble getting to the theater, since my faculties were a bit impaired. Heck, I didn’t even know where some of my faculties were by the time we reached our seats. Hardy probably had a bottle of Lillet all by herself and I started with a Pernod, in a nod to Rimbaud, Verlaine, and La Fee Verte, but without absinthe’s hallucinogenic wormwood, I unfortunately remained gravity-bound to planet Earth. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, I always say, but I needed to up the ante quickly before curtain time, so I threw down a kir, a kir royale, and then deux panaches.
About half-way through the haircut I realized that non-sequiturs and senselessness were the (absurd) point of the play. I relaxed after that and hated it unconditionally. I even tried to light up a cigarette at one point. As we were leaving the theater we unfortunately noticed that Ionesco himself was in the tiny vestibule answering questions and signing playbills – it was some sort of anniversary or milestone for either him, the play, or the theater. Do you want to hear what I said to him in my drunkle compunctionless belligerence?
Of course you do. But I don’t remember. But what I do remember is Hardy and I ended up in his apartment on Rue du Bac, right across the street from a Felix Potin, that eponymous Third Republic chain-store success story, with various cheese eaters, surrender monkeys, and lukewarm pinkos. He wanted to pontificate about the banal futility of human existence; all I wanted to know was if Simone de Beauvoir was a babe-alicious robo-babe or not. You can imagine the hate.
Eventually and miraculously unscathed on the way back to my apartment in the back seat of a cab I was sloundering around in, Hardy asked me if I intentionally tried to be a complete asshole back at Eugene’s flat. I said she was so beautiful I was having a hard time keeping my eye on the meter. (Thanks, Woody.) She sat there like something, something upon a pedestal – how does that line go? We were coming up the Champs-Elysees and there’s a magazine stand at the corner of Rue Balzac that I would walk to almost every night at one am because they were the first to get the International Herald Tribune delivered. I told the cab driver to stop and I hopped out and bought one. I jumped back in. No, I told her, I was very lucky that way: being an asshole came to me naturally, without me even trying, just like and I snapped my fingers. She told me that from now on whatever my initial reaction was to someone I didn’t like, or an unpleasant situation, to just do the exact opposite and that would definitely be if not the right response, then much, much closer to it. I told her roger that.
I went back the next day to the theater to get my motorcycle and drive it home but couldn’t find it anywhere. I thought it was stolen, so I went to the local prefecture of police to report it. Oh, I just remembered: “She sat like patience upon a monument, smiling at grief.” Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, which I will discuss later. The gendarme said, no, it wasn’t stolen, they had it in their impound lot. He eventually released it to me, after more paperwork than it took Lee to surrender the South to Grant at Appomattox, but told me that the next time I parked it inside the Eglise (St. Germain des Pres) they would arrest me for trespassing and suspend my license. I told him I thought it would be safe there – I’d forgotten my lock – otherwise I would have chained it to Diderot’s leg (his statue is right across the street, pen in hand). He said something sniffy and snide through his nose about my uncouth vulgarity, and I’m sure he meant it as an insult, even though I didn’t take it that way.
Photo ©1964 Eksperimentalno gledališče