Formed in a climate of soul-searching, intensive reading, and recurring bouts of madness, Arthur Adamov’s early plays offer an original, highly personal (if depersonalized) artistic deformation of perceived reality, rivaling in their finest moments the dramatized nightmares of Eugène Ionesco. As with Ionesco, the dialogue is more often serviceable than memorable; in transcribing his disturbing visions, Adamov was less concerned with prose style than with the evocation of memorable scenes. Adamov’s first play, La Parodie (although third or fourth to be performed), is his most derivative; although based on personal experience, it relies heavily on August Strindberg and on the conventions of German expressionism. By contrast, L’Invasion, Le Sens de la marche, Professor Taranne, and especially Ping-Pong bear the mark of a singular, mature talent, breaking new ground in the development of contemporary drama. Although comparable in many ways to the works of Ionesco and Beckett, they could have been written only by Adamov. Professor Taranne, offering the unforgettable spectacle of an apparently distinguished man systematically and symbolically stripped of his identity, is by any standard a landmark in the evolution of contemporary drama. So also is Ping-Pong, with its portrayal of humankind’s fascination with games and machines that effectively predicted and parodied the era of computers and video games that would surface a quarter-century later.
As noted above, Adamov’s later, didactic plays, with the exception of Paolo Paoli, his first venture into the new mode, were at best qualified failures: Le Printemps ’71, a dioramic re-creation of the Paris Commune, preserved some element of the author’s objectivity and trenchant irony; La Politique des restes, a similar attempt to portray American racism between the two world wars, failed even to match Jean-Paul Sartre’s severely flawed La Putain respectueuse (pr., pb. 1946; The Respectful Prostitute, 1947), loosely based on the famed Scottsboro case. M. le modere, although acclaimed for its innovative infusion of humor, failed to deliver the promise of a “third style” that critics of the time thought to be in the offing. Adamov’s reputation therefore rests primarily on three or four plays from his earliest mode, partially augmented by the brilliance and relative success of Paolo Paoli.
The second of Adamov’s plays to be written, by only three days the second to be produced (Paris, November 14, 1950), L’Invasion was nevertheless the first Adamov effort to reach a wide audience and served as the basis for much of his growing reputation. The search for identity, perhaps the dominant theme of all Adamov’s early work, here finds expression in the mixed, mysterious legacy of a deceased writer known only as Jean. Jean, it seems, has left behind in his apartment a bewildering assortment of unpublished papers, most of them penned in an illegible hand in rapidly fading ink. The legatee of record is Jean’s disciple and brother-in-law, Pierre, who now lives in the apartment with his mother and his wife, Agnès, sister of the dead man. It is imperative that Jean’s work, now in great disorder, be preserved intact, against the danger that some well-meaning disciple might invent new passages or improvise unintended meanings in order to suit his own fancies.
As the cataloging process gets under way, disorder inside the apartment is mirrored by disorder outside; there is a war or revolution in progress, and the unnamed country is being overrun by refugees. Pierre, meanwhile, must contend not only with his wife and mother but also with Tradel, a rival disciple with his own strong convictions concerning the organization of Jean’s legacy. Soon, a man who is supposedly looking for someone in the apartment next door strikes up a flirtation with Agnès and becomes, in effect, her live-in lover as Pierre spends more and more time trying to make sense of her brother’s papers. In time, Agnès elopes with the man, known only as le premier venu (“the first one who comes along”). By the time she returns, ostensibly to borrow Pierre’s typewriter, order has been restored both inside and outside the apartment; Pierre is nearing the end of his task, with all Jean’s writings arranged in neat stacks. Before he can be told of Agnès’s return, however, Pierre is found dead in his downstairs study by Tradel, to whom he has confided his decision to abandon what remains of the project.
Clearly, the dead man’s papers represent for Pierre both an occupation and a search for meaning—despite ironic suggestions scattered throughout the play that there may well be less to Jean’s literary legacy than meets the eye. It is Pierre’s preoccupation with his lifework that costs him the affection of his wife, although, as Esslin observed, Agnès herself appears to stand for disorder: It is, after all, through her that Pierre has become involved with her brother and his papers; when she leaves with le premier venu, order returns to Pierre’s life and work in direct proportion to the disorder that begins to plague the life of her new lover. Yet as soon as Pierre questions and begins to renounce his long-term project, he dies, having apparently failed both in his work and in his interpersonal relationships. Implicitly, L’Invasion casts serious doubt on the validity of work, as well as that of love and friendship. Such, Adamov seems to be saying, is the eventual result of all human endeavor: futility.
Like L’Invasion—the title presumably refers to the intrusion of each person’s life into the life and pursuits of others—all Adamov’s best plays graphically illustrate the isolation and alienation that he sees as defining human life, both individual and social. His main characters, usually sketched rather than fully drawn (yet still more rounded than, for example, those of Ionesco), are seemingly adrift in a sea of humanity, desperately seeking some meaning that would give confirmation to their identity.
Professor Taranne, perhaps Adamov’s best-known play, was said by the author to have come to him in a dream, requiring only transcription and a few minor changes in the main character. To an even greater degree than L’Invasion, Professor Taranne describes in unforgettable imagery the isolation of each individual, even with regard to himself.
The action of Professor Taranne begins when the title character, a distinguished-looking man of about forty, is accused of indecent exposure on a public beach. Incensed, the professor points with pride to his reputation as an internationally famous scholar,...
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