Sunday, 24 January 2016
The remarkable Marquise
She's a real villain by any standards, a manipulatrix who seems to take active pleasure in ruining people's lives. And yet you have to be fascinated by the gameplayer, the actress in Choderlos de Laclos's Marquise de Merteuil. That I would be spellbound by the characterisation of Janet McTeer in Christopher Hampton's adaptation of that peerless, ultimately profound novel Les liaisons dangereuses at the Donmar was almost a foregone conclusion: this woman has consistently amazed, in the wonderful Sam Shepard play Simpatico, as the Duchess of Malfi, Mary Stuart, Petruchio at the Globe and above all Nora in A Doll's House, which I still count among the handful of most shattering performances I've ever seen. You can read my review of the latest triumph on The Arts Desk (production photos here and there by the excellent Johan Persson).
That I would find the novel even more extraordinary - where has it been all my life, or where have I been, unintentionally avoiding it? - took me more by surprise. It shoots to the top of my list alongside War and Peace and Don Quixote (I think I'm allowed three), books I could read any number of times with pleasure. And pleasure is still the word despite the appalling machinations of the Marquise and her not quite so sharp-witted accomplice the Vicomte de Valmont, who either tyrannises women or is enslaved by them (that was maybe why there was a touch of the bovine about Dominic West's performance. How I'd love to have seen the late, great Alan Rickman in the original cast, not to mention Juliet Stevenson).
In Laclos one finds the most devilish tricks wrapped up in the most elegant language (Helen Constantine's Penguin translation, I'm guessing, must be a good one; I only wish my French was good enough to read the book in French, though there's still time). What is the writer's declared aim? 'To unveil the strategies used by the immoral to corrupt the moral' through a series of letters in which the principals, loving enemies and co-conspirators, never meet. Hampton did a magnificent job in turning that in to drama where they do meet. But his achievement has to be a long way from the book itself, and above all its magnificent portrait of the self-contradictory anti-heroine, who is always cleverer than her male counterpart. She wants to play the goddess with human puppets on a string, spelling out a hubris which must be punished; and she says her aim is to wreak revenge upon men, but she seems to amuse herself just as much in destroying the women who are always the victims as she follows Gresset's maxim 'Fools are on earth to keep us all amused'.
The heart of the book, to explain if not condone the lack of heart, is Letter 81, where she analyses Valmont and sets herself apart.
Tremble, above all, for those women whose minds are active while their bodies are idle; you call them 'sensitive' women - who fall in love so easily and overpoweringly...They are imprudent creatures, for in their present lover they fail to perceive their future enemy.
But I, what have I in common with these empty-headed women? When have you ever seen me break the rules I have laid down for myself or betray my principles? I say my principles, and I use that word advisedly. For they are not, like those of other women, discovered by chance, accepted uncritically or followed out of habit. They are the fruit of my deepest reflections. I have created them, and I can say that I am what I have created.
The Marquise goes on to give Valmont and us her history, how she concealed beneath a society mask her thirst for a knowledge which, had she been politically powerful, could have been put to better use. There was no proper outlet for women like this. If only Merteuil had become queen and not Marie Antoinette, whose tragedy as a pleasure-loving mediocrity is ruthlessly outlined by Stefan Zweig in the biography I've just started.
Later Merteuil allies the past with a knowledge of fading beauty in the present, the only possible power that a middle-aged woman can hope for. There is some pity in this, and Laclos wrote several treatises on the education and (lack of) rights of women after finishing Les liaisons dangereuses. For this quotation from one of them I'm grateful to Constantine's introduction:
Wherever slavery exists, there can be no education. In all societies women are enslaved...It is the role of education to develop the faculties of the mind, the role of slavery to suppress them...Where there is no freedom there is no morality, and where there is no morality there is no education.
Interesting man! I must search out a biography. But in the meantime Zweig on Marie Antoinette must lead me sadly forward to the end in which she rose at last to some stature.