The night I went to see the Comédie-Française, an actor lost it onstage.
I’m not talking about him flubbing a line and involuntarily reacting. Nor did he dry up, forget what came next, and momentarily froze. I mean he went full-on Harvey Korman as Rat Butler opposite Carol Burnett’s Starlet O’Hara in “Went with the Wind”: completely broke character and burst out laughing on the hallowed stage of the 18th-century Salle Richelieu. This was in front of a packed house for a Saturday night performance of the company’s current production of Georges Feydeau’s 1894 farce Un fil à la patte.
Between 1892 and 1914, Feydeau was the king of Parisian boulevard theatre, the Belle Époque equivalent to Broadway’s Neil Simon. When the playwright scored his first big hit, the French were halfway through enjoying the uninterrupted 43 years of peace that came after the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune and before the horrors of World War I. France wouldn’t again have that much uninterrupted national tranquility until the Algerian War for Independence ends in 1962.
One might argue that the Paris and Nice attacks of the past 18 months mark the end of this most recent pacific period, especially considering that ISIS released a new video just today claiming responsibility for the latest attack and calling for an intensification of such actions against French citizens on their own soil. (This despite the fact that, one week after the massacre in Nice, while French prosecutors now believe that Mohamed Bouhlel had accomplices, there is neither material nor electronic evidence that the Syrian-based terrorist group had any direct involvement in either its planning or execution.)
The situation is growing increasingly dire. As I wrote last week, officials in the Front National, France’s most successful right-wing political party, have turned up the rhetorical heat even higher on their anti-Muslim message. The Bastille Day attack took place in the second largest city in the south of France, the region with the highest concentration of FN supporters, who are now even more receptive than ever to the Islamophobia promulgated by the party and other European populist groups.
“We’re on the verge of civil war.”
As it so happens, France is gearing up for national presidential election next year. In a disturbing echo of the inflammatory words and chants that dominated this week’s Tr[i]ump[h] of the Will at the RNC, Christopher Dickey, writing on The Daily Beast, speculated that if Marine Le Pen, the FN’s presumed candidate, fails to capture the presidency, her supporters may violently take to the streets. He quotes France’s Director of Internal Security, Patrick Calvar: “We are on the verge of a civil war.”
And in an equally disturbing (and bizarre) echo of both the Cleveland convention this week and the Orlando shooting a month prior, Dickey also reports that it appears as if the Nice mass murderer may have been a bisexual hustler, with an active list of both male and female clients willing to pay for his sexual services. Under the Napoleonic Code, France was the first country in Europe to decriminalize both prostitution and male sodomy. A liberal sexual atmosphere has prevailed in the country, and been enshrined in law, since the Revolution. This 200-year tradition now appears to be coming into conflict with both external cultural traditions and internal sexual confusions.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that France’s national theater, in existence since the reign of Louis XIV and housed in a building dating to Napoleon’s empire, would turn now to a comic piece from the country’s indisputable fin de siècle glory days. In this time of intense political unease, uncertainty about the nature of French identity, and religious extremism, there is something undeniably appealing about Feydou’s privileged, cosmopolitan Parisians. They are entirely secular, wholly obsessed with status and money, completely disinterested in politics, and blessedly free of sexual hangups. So while Jérôme Deschamps’s mise-en-scène dates to 2010 (this is at least its second revival since then), the production feels entirely like a response to the moment. It’s, as the French would say, à la mode.
Which is perhaps part of the reason it’s also wildly successful. The performance I attended appeared almost entirely sold-out (six years after the production’s premiere.) And apparently it’s been popular every time it’s been presented. Ironically, the Comédie-Française waited until forty years after the playwright’s death to fully embrace his work. His brand of commercial sex farce was considered beneath the dignity of the troupe until 1961 when Jacques Charon’s revival of this same play (which he also acted in) became the company’s biggest hit since its founding. Hardly a year has gone by after that watershed moment when one of Feydeau’s works hasn’t been in its repertoire.
Un fil à la patte is commonly known by the English title Cat Among the Pigeons (British playwright John Mortimer’s 1969 translation). But it’s also been rendered as Love on the Rack and Not by Bed Alone (Norman R. Shapiro’s 1962 version). None of these come even close to the French original, which literally translates as “a wire on the paw,” in other words, a leash. “Wrapped Around Her Finger” would probably be a closer approximation in English of this French idiom.
The finger in question belongs to Lucette Gautier, a French nightclub chanteuse. And the men who find themselves attached to it include Bouzin (Christian Hecq), a legal clerk and amateur songwriter; The General (Thierry Hancisse), a wealthy Latin American hothead; and Fernand de Bois-d’Enghien (Stéphane Varupenne), her aristocratic but penniless lover. The plot contrives to get all three men to the stairwell of de Bois-d’Enghien’s apartment building in the third act, where mayhem ensues.
The joke is all about foreigners fucking up French.
It was during this final confrontation between the general and the aristocrat that the rupture in the fourth wall occurred. The running gag throughout the play directed at the General is his appalling French spoken in a “funny” Spanish accent. (He keeps insisting on calling Fernand “Fernando,” for example.) At one point he confuses the words “skeptic” and “septic.” (The joke works exactly the same in French.) Hancisse hits his punchline, “Ees make no deefference. Septeec, scepteec…Ees all the same.”
Even with my appalling French, I get that the joke is about foreigners fucking up the language. It’s about Third World resident aliens not quite fitting in.
Hancisse holds for the laugh, looking straight out. The audience erupts, the laugh crescendos, and then it starts to die out. Except for one woman. Who keeps laughing. And laughing. And laughing. Very loudly. Somewhat hysterically. Finally, he breaks but tries to hold on. Then Varupenne breaks. And then they completely demolish the fourth wall, ad-libbing something I don’t understand to the disruptive audience member. The audience roars. Huge applause. It’s quite the spectacle in the birthplace of theatrical decorum. (But apparently, actors falling out in this production has become something of a thing.)
If Hancisse stopped the show, Hecq’s Bouzin stole it. His may be the single most physically virtuosic performance I’ve ever seen an actor give onstage. Whether falling downstairs, walking into walls, or shaking his legs with sexual arousal, his portrayal of Lucette’s most trollish suitor is a bottomless comic goldmine of tics and slapstick. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a Warner Bros. cartoon rendered by a living body in three-dimensional space. Thankfully, whenever I was completely lost as to what was happening, Hecq would enter with some dazzlingly inventive bit of business. At the end of the play, when in Feydeau’s original, Bouzin is hauled off to jail, Hecq instead launches himself into the air and hurls his body down the stairwell. The accompanying sound effect makes it unmistakable that we are several stories high. The curtain rings down on this last image of self-destructive desperation.
When it rises on the company assembled for its bow, out of the 22 actors onstage, only one is of non-European descent. The same was true when I had attended the Paris Opéra Ballet earlier in the week. The Arabic and African bodies that are seen everywhere on the streets of Paris are completely absent from these official theatrical offerings of the French nation. Nor were they present in the audience at either the Salle Richelieu or the Palais Garnier. Not a single writer in the company’s next season of 27 plays is a person of color. The Comédie-Française may be holding up a comically distorted mirror to the societal ruptures and suicidal gestures dominating the French news, but it’s this representation of ongoing white privilege on its stage that is perhaps the clearest reflection of the crisis facing the nation.