A new play, A Misunderstanding

The approach of summer means that it will soon be time for the Crouch End Festival once more. This year I’m producing an adapted play amongst a trio of short original works by members of the Crouch End Players to be performed once more (we hope!) at the Great Northern Railway Tavern.

The piece I’ve chosen to adapt is by Henry de Montherlant, one of France’s leading novelists of the interwar years. His behaviour during the Occupation, when he ‘maintained an attitude of highly correct neutrality towards the Germans’, does however present problems to the modern mind. Cruickshank defends him, saying that what was suspect ‘was not his behaviour but his ideas’.*

Solstice de Juin, his controversial wartime collection of essays, marked a turning point in Montherlant’s career where he ceased a public engagement with politics and moved on from being a novelist to writing for the theatre. His 1942 play La Reine Morte was a hit at the Comédie Française and he followed this up in 1943 with Fils de Personne and the play I’m adapting, Un Incompris.

I first came across Montherlant more than a decade ago when researching French sport. Montherlant, following service in World War One, became an avid sportsman and part of a group of French writers, artists and musicians who saw sport as central to modern life – although for Montherlant it also had resonances with his obsession with the paganism of the Greek and Roman world. I’ve been turning over writing a paper on his sports writings for the 1924 Paris Olympics for quite some time (like, a decade!) but somehow never got round to it.

Robert Delaunay’s illustration for Montherlant’s La Relève du Matin, (1928)

Following the success of Sartre’s No Exit I’d been looking for something for the Festival written around the same time by a writer such as Camus, Claudel or Guitry. And then I remembered Montherlant. Adapting a short play of his seemed a way of getting back into his mindset and easing myself into the historical research via drama.

Un Incompris, which I’ve translated as A Misunderstanding (which doesn’t quite get the ambiguity of the original but what can you do?) was written at the request of the manager of the Théâtre Saint-Georges. He wanted a curtain-raiser to beef up the evening for people who’d paid to see the relatively short Fils de Personne.

What Montherlant produced is a pleasant surprise. His novels and plays can tend to be quite austere explorations of human relations (and deeply misogynistic) with the humour savage and ironical.** There are some aspects of that in Un Incompris but the surprising element is how Montherlant satirises the noble turn of phrase and uses all sorts of comic techniques to undercut the pomposity of the central character, Bruno.

In the original the plot concerns Bruno, who is in love with Rosette, who is habitually late for their dates. Bruno vows to his friend Pierre that he’s going to dump her if she shows up late to his date that evening and we, the audience, are left to find out whether Bruno would prefer to be unhappy with head held high or happy but humiliated.

Montherlant had a complicated private life (to say the least) which mostly revolved around him being a closet homosexual. Which taste led to him being attacked and losing an eye in 1968 but also informed his staunch anti-colonialism. The underlying misogyny of Montherlant’s work is also present in the play and I didn’t want any part of that. So in our version Rosette becomes Richard and Pierre becomes Madeleine, making a much more interesting dynamic than the trad boy/girl (I hope!).

Monty by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1922)

As far as I’m aware the play has never been put on in English and rarely in French. Despite being written to fill time it was in fact cut from the programme after its première. The Nazi authorities brought in a curfew of 10 o’clock in Paris the day after its première on 18th December 1943 and Fils de Personne was performed alone.

I’m pretty sure that in the GNRT they’ll be calling time at 11 o’clock so the audience will have plenty of time to get refreshments after the show and make it to le denier métro.

* J. Cruickshank, Montherlant (Oliver & Boyd, 1964), p. 50-51.

** Simone de Beauvoir reserved a special place in hell for him in The Second Sex.


f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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