Monday, November 30, 2009

War and remembrance

Heroes, the poignant new comedy by Gérald Sibleyras at the Merrimack Rep, has been widely praised (including by me, see review below).

But there's an issue with the play that no one (at least so far) has discussed - and which I wish I'd mentioned in my earlier piece. Then again, perhaps it slipped my mind because I don't quite know what to make of this particular subtext, and how Merrimack might have integrated it into an American production.

The play, for those of you who haven't read my earlier review, concerns the last days of three French veterans of the Great War, on a sunny patio somewhere, we imagine, in Provence or Auvergne. It's a bittersweet comedy of bravado in the face of decay, and the Merrimack mines its comedy expertly.

But they don't quite know what to do with a series of references that, taken together, must have been meaningful to the play's original French audience, but sails right over the heads of most viewers in Lowell, MA. The heroes of Heroes all served together on the Western front, and so it's natural their various travails - and fantasies of triumph - should take shape in their minds through military metaphors. They babble about "defending their position," and yearn for sandbags, trenches and barbed wire. When they dream of escaping their nursing home for a distant stand of poplars, they even fantasize about roving onward, as far as . . . Indochina.

Ah, yes, Indochina. Which France abandoned, defeated, in 1954 (a French soldier, above left), in a set of accords which created North Vietnam - a nation that would, in turn, attack its southern neighbor in 1959 (roughly the period of Heroes), eventually leading to the notorious American involvement and escalation.

Rather an interesting subtext for a bittersweet comedy of age, no? And lest you think I'm reading too much into this, consider that the heroes of Heroes also ponder at length, and with a mix of denial and despair, the fall of France in 1940. So the playwright has clearly given as subtext to his veterans' delusions the major conflicts of twentieth-century French history - all of them, after the Great War, defeats.

This is, to put it mildly, rather loaded thematic material; it's a bit like threading through The Odd Couple a subplot about Vietnam. Not being that conversant with contemporary French attitudes about their military misadventures, I can't really judge how all this might have been construed by the playwright's compatriots. The comedy was a huge success upon its premiere - yet the French Indochina War is still known as "the dirty war" in France, and surely its mention must have brought a certain chill to The Wind in the Poplars (the play's original title).

At the Merrimack, however, this political subtext was simply ignored, and as I said, seemed not to even register with the audience. This may be indicative of one of our own cultural blindspots - how many Americans are even aware of the French "colonialist" prelude to the American "capitalist" war in Vietnam? But then again, how could this content be integrated into the comic mechanics of Heroes? I confess I'm not sure - the idea that Sibleyras may be insinuating a cooler critique of militarism beneath his affectionate gibes certainly suggests itself; but how the Merrimack might have translated that for an American audience is hardly clear. The references right now simply trail the action like indecipherable bits of semaphore. In a way, though, they remind us that something is always lost in translation when a play makes the leap from one culture to the next. Surely the first viewers of Heroes in Paris perceived in it a political ruefulness that is lost in its current incarnation. We are inevitably looking at a thinner copy of the original - and perhaps we always are, with every foreign original.

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