January 12, 2010

no trifling with love

Before going too far into my lit project, I wanted to get some practice writing about books and I wanted to write about some of my favorite plays. This post is about Alfred de Musset's play No Trifling with Love (1834).

Here are the play's opening lines:
CHORUS. Gently rocked on his prancing mule, Master Blazius advances through the blossoming cornflowers; his clothes are new, his writing-case hangs by his side. Like a chubby baby on a pillow, he rolls about on top of his protuberant belly, and, with his eyes half shut, mumbles a paternoster into his double chin. Welcome, Master Blazius; you come for the vintage time in the semblance of an ancient amphora.
The chorus and stylized language recall the Greek tradition. What is striking (what stroke me) is the expressiveness of the language. These are details and descriptions usually found in serious literature, not in plays. More naturalistic dialogue would fail to capture so expressive a tone. From what I have read, Musset wrote his plays without any intention of having them staged (because of the disaster the production of his earliest play proved to be); and they are, indeed, seemingly unstageable. Though No Trifling with Love is quite stageable (in spite of its frequent scene changes), its high language conveys a stiff attitude of indifference to performance and theatrical convention. I find this a most attractive feature of the play.

The play's opening lines set the tone for what is to follow. Observe how Master Blazius, a man in a position of respectability (as tutor to Perdican), is characterized as slovenly and child-like, as a hypocrite and a drunk. The language is dense, the portrayal brutal. So too the rest of the play swells with vicious satire and cruel wit. One might call this "comedy" but would soon find the description inadequate. The best description I have yet read calls the play a "tragedy of innocence." But this too is inadequate.

The play reverses the time-worn comic conflict -- two young lovers, cousins Perdican and Camille, have both just finished their education and have come of age; they are brought together to their childhood home by the Baron, who intends for them to marry. Rather than the Baron standing in their way, as classic comedy calls for, he has planned for this day his whole life. No, it is not the Baron who keeps the lovers apart but the lovers themselves. It is in particular Camille's education at the convent, where she has adopted the wounds of life of the elder nuns, that prevents her from accepting this marriage proposal. Upset with each other, Perdican and Camille play games of jealousy and revenge, ultimately ending in tragedy.

The lovers destroy themselves. This appeals to me. They understand only too late that happiness was there for them were they but to accept it; but they, humans that they are, did not want it, could not have it. Camille's fear is singled out as the igniting cause, fear that she would end up broken and alone like the nuns in her convent. In the final scene of Act II, Perdican confronts her fears and scolds her for refusing life. The following is from his speech:
Farewell Camille. Return to your convent; and when they tell you one of their hideous stories that have poisoned your nature, give them the answer: All men are liars, fickle, chatterers, hypocrites, proud or cowardly, despicable, sensual; all women faithless, deceitful, vain, inquisitive and depraved. The world is only a bottomless cesspool, where shapeless monsters climb and writhe on mountains of slime. But there is in the world a thing holy and sublime -- the union of two of these beings, imperfect and frightful as they are. One is often deceived in love, often wounded, often unhappy, but one loves, and on the brink of the grave one turns to look back, and says: I have suffered often, sometimes I have been mistaken, but I have loved. It is I who have lived, and not an imitation created by my pride and my sorrow.
Perdican is trying to teach what few humans learn: life hurts (a lot), and is going to hurt... and that's OK. Camille, who has lived life's pain through the stories of her convent's nuns, has chosen, in declining marriage to become a nun, to reject life. Too blinded by the anticipation of pain, she has rejected what it means to live and all the highs and lows that life might bring. For Perdican, pain and ugliness are part of being human; we must accept it. He (with weighty viciousness) rebukes Camille for doing otherwise.

I love this speech. I had, upon first reading the play, absorbed it into my own philosophy. We are human, we are monsters; and I'm fine with that! I have taken a lot more from the play as well, especially Musset's writing style -- one can be tragically expressive yet incisively witty (though his other plays are perhaps better examples; they are less vicious, and I hear it theorized that this is because of his personal romantic life, which looked quite bleak while writing No Trifling with Love).

The play's rich style and tragically youthful philosophy have branded me. I hope I have conveyed something of my admiration with this post. I leave you now with other quotes from the play that have left quite an impression on me, and I hope that if you have not yet read the play, I have convinced you now to do so:
AiSii ... Neither friendship nor love should accept anything but what they can give back.

AiSiv ... Knowledge is a fine thing, lads. These trees and this meadow find a voice to teach the finest knowledge of all -- how to forget what one knows.

AiiSi ... I don't deal in pride; I care for neither its joys nor its pains.

AiiSii ... like Caesar, I would rather be first in the village than second in Rome.

AiiiSVii ... Shall I not find a sensible man here? Upon my word, when you look for one, the solitude becomes appalling.

AiiiSviii ... Why is truth itself a liar?

AiiiSViii ... We must do wrong, for we are of mankind.

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