A Giddy Francophile at BAM
I am a textbook Francophile. I have studied French since middle school, I spent my junior year abroad in Paris, and I currently work at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. I am secretly giddy when French people unwittingly accept me as one of their own (with my last name, Parenteau,) until they hear my American-accented English.
I came to Savannah Bay by Marguerite Duras in the fall of 2011, while studying in Paris during my junior year of college. All courses in the Sarah Lawrence study abroad program were conducted in French, and I distinctly remember scooting in my chair to listen in rapt attention to my professor’s lecture while the early autumn light drifted in through the floor-to-ceiling atelier windows and me and my classmates learned to wrap ourselves in scarves against the chill. Although I’m sure my professor had taught this same curriculum to bright-eyed American students innumerable times, he still took delight in sharing his studied knowledge with us and letting us make our own discoveries.
I first read Duras my freshman year of college, when I extensively studied L’Amant with my professor, trying to keep an open mind about the nature of the relationship between the young girl and the much older man. (I was wary then about the potential disparity and exploitation in such a union, and I admit, the feeling was still present watching Savannah Bay this past weekend.) Studying Duras in the broader context of the French theatrical canon, I finally came to appreciate what a remarkable, revolutionary figure she was. With the open and eager mind of a college student, I was willing to accept her dreamy aesthetic despite my preference for more linear American drama.
I came to last Friday night’s performance of Savannah Bay at BAM with a heavy heart, given the attacks in Paris earlier that evening. And yet, despite the tragedies of the day, the curtain rose on time. As we settled into our snug theater seats, we were all the more grateful for Geneviève Mnich and Marie Vialle’s performances, giving us a narrative focus for our communal sympathy and meditations on love and death.
Didier Bezace’s production was profound in its simplicity (a hallmark of the French aesthetic), which highlighted the poignant details of the production. The set consisted of a bare white room, with a long dock protruding into the center and furnished with a gray, wooden chair and a mirror. The calm of these surroundings made the details, such as the shadows cast by the Venetian blinds on the opposite wall of the room or the backlit hidden cabinet filled with jars of potted jam, all the more enticing. In addition, it allowed for the sonic beauty of the French language to wash over the audience in all its lilting glory.
With strong parallels to Clouds of Sils Maria (the film by Olivier Assayas released earlier this year), this story examines the life of an actress as she advances in age and begins to lose the boundary between her own identity and that of the most affecting characters she has assumed. The meta-theatricality of direct addresses to the audience helps depict the disorientation of the aging actress as she struggles to find herself within the many stories her body has told. Lines referencing how the show must go on were particularly poignant on Friday evening, as we found ourselves less interested in entertainment, but rather solidarity.
Duras writes in the opening notes of the play:
Le rôle du personnage nommé Madeleine dans Savannah Bay ne devra être tenu que par une comédienne qui aurait la splendeur de l’âge. La pièce Savannah Bay a été conçue et écrite en raison de cette splendeur. Aucune comédienne jeune ne peut jouer le rôle de Madeleine dans Savannah Bay. (The role of the person named Madeleine in Savannah Bay should only be played by an actress with the brilliance of age. The play Savannah Bay was conceived and written for this brilliance. No young actress can play the role of Madeleine in Savannah Bay.)
How beautiful and how insistently remarkable, in 1982, for Duras to have made this proclamation. Contemporary American actresses are rightfully bemoaning the fact that there is a lack of serious roles for them as they enter the later stages of their careers. Over thirty years ago, Duras was already addressing this issue by writing a substantial, thought-provoking role for an older actress and insisting that the part be cast according to the role. Moreover, Duras acknowledged the beauty that shines from the experience of old age and wanted to pay tribute to that splendor.
Like many French expressions of art, Savannah Bay centers on the themes of love and death, particularly the crazy, all-consuming kind of French love that drives lovers to death when they are overwhelmed by their passions. Like the lovers in L’Amant, the young woman in the story recounted on stage was barely pubescent when an older man noticed her swimming and fell in love with her. Her initial offerings of herself and her body seem so innocent and naive that they made me uncomfortable, but they lead to a sort of obsessive, enduring love that somehow makes the story more palatable. This type of love is smothering, however, and leads to the young woman, after she has given birth to her lover’s child, to commit suicide by swimming out to sea. Evoking mermaids and ethereal youth, the story that is told but never shown on stage casts a haunting shadow over the real relationship between the old woman and her younger companion.
The story of Savannah Bay unfolds in a novelistic fashion, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to create the central scene which both women take turns in describing. As an ode to storytelling, this play slips between realities and chronologies like a lithe swimmer, leaving it to the audience to figure out the linear version of the story. This storytelling hinges on moments, rather than building dramatic action. Its ability to make you regard an event that you don’t see depicted on stage but rather only hear described, and then to make that event the most important part of the larger story being told, is magical. The action on stage matters less than the action you personally imagine collectively as an audience, thanks to the characters’ descriptions. If you are looking for a plot, this type of piece can be frustrating, but if you lose yourself in the swells of detail, it is a sensuous experience. (I learned the word “houle,” [“sea swell”] while studying this play in Paris, and its onomatopoeic whistle does much to describe the flow of this play’s storytelling.)
I can understand how this type of theater might be frustrating for an American audience. I too am often frustrated by this type of storytelling, especially when I have spent too much time with French drama. But when it comes into town as a special treat, a diverse expansion of the way theater can be used to bring people together and tell a story, that’s why we go to plays, isn’t it? To see things in a new light? This production of Savannah Bay certainly cast its special light on love and sorrow, tragedy and community, for those assembled on Friday evening. After all, if what remains of a relationship is its story, we begin to see the necessity of a proper telling.