Only four plays by French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) maintain any currency in the English-speaking world.
Two are what I would classify as intellectual/philosophical drawing-room comedies: “Ring Round The Moon” and “Waltz Of The Toreadors”. Two others, “The Lark” and “Becket”, may be classified as history plays, although any historical content, like the historical content in Shakespeare’s history plays, is mere skeleton upon which to erect themes and arguments—and should never be accepted as factual presentation of history.
Minneapolis’s Theater In The Round recently opened a production of Anouilh’s “The Lark”, the playwright’s 1952 play about Joan Of Arc, and Joshua and I and my parents attended Saturday night’s performance.
Our decision to see “The Lark” was made more or less at the last minute. We had decided, several days earlier, to keep Saturday night open for “The Lark”—but to attend only if we found ourselves, late Saturday afternoon, in the right frame of mind to sit through a production we had been informed was very poor.
We did find ourselves in the right frame of mind late Saturday afternoon—it was the play itself we wanted to experience, not the production—and we went downtown Saturday night prepared to ignore the performance and to listen to the text.
Our stratagem was successful. We had a rewarding experience.
“The Lark” is a major work, exploring numerous matters that compel thought and reflection. Truth, morality, integrity, religion, government, politics, power: all are put under Anouilh’s microscope, and examined with cold, clinical detachment. Indeed, I am surprised that the play has not been widely staged in the U.S. the last three years, as it raises countless issues pertinent to the America of today. Anouilh, a vehement critic of Charles de Gaulle (even when de Gaulle was out of power), might as well have been directing his scorn to the current American executive, so withering is Anouilh’s treatment of hapless bread-and-circus governments courting popularity from the very basest segments of society.
Caution is in order; the case must not be overstated. “The Lark” is not pure Anouilh; it is a 1955 English-language “adaptation” of the original French text by Lillian Hellman.
Having not read Anouilh’s original French text, I have no idea what Hellman omitted and what Hellman changed—and Hellman very well may have contorted Anouilh to suit her own ends, something for which Hellman was notorious (most American observers in the 1950s believed that Hellman possessed an anti-McCarthy motive in “adapting” Anouilh).
When my mother was in college, she had studied Anouilh’s original French text—but, my mother says, too much time has passed to allow her to remember much about the original text, and to have noted accurately what was Anouilh’s and what was Hellman’s. (On Sunday, my mother located of her old copy of Anouilh’s original. My mother intends to reread it carefully this week, and to tell us how Hellman’s “adaptation” differed from Anouilh’s original.)
I can say, having heard Hellman’s text uttered by actors, that the Hellman version is prosaic—stilted and awkward in some places, too blandly American in others.
In other English-speaking countries, the Christopher Fry translation is the standard English-language version of the Anouilh play. The Fry has never gained currency in the United States, just as the Hellman has never gained currency outside the United States.
If I did not have to work for a living, and had endless free time on my hands, I would enjoy making a detailed comparison of Anouilh, Fry and Hellman. However, that not being the case, I am pleased that I have, at the very least, now encountered a fully-staged production of one version of the play. “The Lark” is an important and thought-provoking work, more spoken-of than performed or studied. It deserves its exalted reputation. In an excellent production, “The Lark” would prove overwhelming.
Theater In The Round did not do well by the material. The company had assembled a large and mostly-capable cast of fifteen players, but the production was more earnest than admirable—and, at its center, was a vacuum.
The young actress in the central role was not good. The young woman had recently relocated to the Twin Cities specifically because there are so many good acting jobs available in Minneapolis and Saint Paul—and, within months of her arrival, she had landed a plum role in a very important play.
The young woman’s amazing stroke of luck did not hold. Her Minneapolis debut was not a triumph.
In fact, her Joan Of Arc was a mistake—a mistake that should not have been inflicted upon a theater-going public, and a mistake that should not have been inflicted upon the young woman herself.
I have been told, rightly or wrongly, that the young actress was almost replaced numerous times during rehearsals, including as late as one week before the first preview performance.
I have also been told, rightly or wrongly, that area newspapers sent reviewers to “The Lark”—and that such reviewers decided it would be cruel to subject the production to public critical assessment.
Such decisions, if made, were probably the right ones. Productions as weak as Theater In The Round’s “The Lark” should, as a general rule, be permitted to pass unnoticed—and unrecorded in annals.
Moreover, any appearance of negative reviews might have killed an already-weak box office for “The Lark”. The production has been playing to very small audiences. Had local reviewers offered honest appraisals of the production, there might have been no audience members at all for what is an important and seldom-produced work.