Some critics have noted that Jean-Jacques Bernard brought a new classicism to the French theater. Indeed, the simplicity of Bernard’s plays is comparable in some ways to the French theater of the seventeenth century—the era of classicism. His plays are concise and tightly focused, and although he does not follow seventeenth century theatrical conventions of confining action to a single day and place, Bernard’s theater has a spareness that creates a curious and strong impact.
Bernard is remembered as the chief member of the school of the Theater of the Unspoken or the theater of the unexpressible. In reaction to what he—and other playwrights—saw as the melodramatic and verbose theater of the nineteenth century in France, Bernard created plays in which verbal exchange is not necessarily the most important kind of communication. Instead, he believed that the real communication between people is in gesture, expression, and what is not said.
Clearly, such a theory places a great deal of responsibility on the actors of a play. Bernard wrote descriptions of his characters’ actions, reactions, and expressions, but it remains up to the actors—and to the directors—to successfully express what the playwright had in mind. Therefore, one cannot fully appreciate Bernard’s theater by simply reading the text of the plays. An ideal appreciation would be found in reading the text and seeing a performance of the play. This ideal approach might apply to all theater, but it is especially relevant to Bernard’s drama.
Invitation to a Voyage
Invitation to a Voyage takes its title from a famous poem by the nineteenth century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. The allusions that Bernard makes by using this title serve him well. His play is about the kind of vague, quasi-mystical longing to be somewhere else, with someone else, escaping from the humdrum of one’s everyday life of which Baudelaire writes. Invitation to a Voyage is also an excellent example of the kind of indirect communication in which Bernard’s characters engage.
The setting is the Vosges section of eastern France, in particular a mountainous, forested area near the town of Épinal. The pine forests are of crucial import to Marie-Louise, the play’s main character, because they surround her home and represent the imprisonment she feels in her life. Marie-Louise has been married to Olivier for several years. The couple has a young son. By all appearances, Marie-Louise and Olivier are happily married. However, in actuality, Marie-Louise hides a chronic but not explicitly articulated malaise. She feels trapped in a life that is, while peaceful and contented, confining and boring. She fears a future in which she will do the same things again and again.
Marie-Louise makes the acquaintance of Philippe, a businessperson visiting her father’s factory. He gives her a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), which contains the poem “L’Invitation au Voyage.” This poem comes to articulate for Marie-Louise her own discontent—and her thirst for the exotic. When she hears that Philippe is leaving for Argentina, Marie-Louise is haunted by the word “Argentina” and the resonances that match her longings. Olivier rightly senses his wife’s vulnerability; he is afraid that Marie-Louise will in fact run away with Philippe. He does not directly express his fears, nor does Marie-Louise express her fascination with Philippe and his life.
Time passes. Philippe returns to Épinal from Argentina for a visit. When Marie-Louise learns that he is nearby, she cannot resist the attraction; she abruptly leaves her home and goes to seek Philippe in Épinal. Olivier is terrified that she will not come back. However, Marie-Louise’s adventure turns out badly. She does see Philippe, but contrary to what she had hoped, he is in no way interested in her. They talk—but about his business, not about love. Marie-Louise returns to Olivier, accepts her disappointment and her former life, as it was.
The Springtime of Others
The Springtime of Others features one of the most memorably cruel mothers in all theater. However, the...
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