Marguerite Duras was fond of saying that she did not come to theater, but that theater came to her when she was asked by the actor-director Claude Martin to rewrite her novel The Square for the stage. The theater was certainly a most appropriate medium for her because she aims at communicating the intensity of the moment. Although motion pictures offer more possibilities for the evocation of atmosphere, and the novel—if penned by a magician of style of Duras’s caliber—can leave much more to the individual imagination, in theater, the audience participates in the “happening.”
Ironically, this spontaneity is partially occasioned by Duras’s elaborate stage directions, in which the audience is often mentioned as having already (or not yet) seen or heard or even smelled what the characters have already (or not yet) noticed. This creates a unique sense of immediacy for the audience. In Duras’s plays, there is always a feeling that what is happening might not happen, that something else might happen instead. Most of the time, nothing happens at all, and everyone is kept in a state of expectation with no conclusion offered.
For Duras, writing a play did not consist of placing characters in an unfolding action with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She was not interested in individual psychology or in the resolution of a plot. Rather, she was in search of the absolute as revealed in the intensity of an instant. Duras once overheard someone describing the land he had just bought, and she placed this description at the beginning of her novel L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas (1962; The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas, 1964): “Here, there are instants of absolute light, revealing everything, polyvalent and at the same time precise, relentlessly bearing down on a single object.” Duras brings that kind of light—polyvalent, precise, and merciless—to her subject, aiming at the absolute truth of the instant.
The sensual element was extremely important for Duras. She provided extensive details for sets, costumes, lighting, sounds or music, actors’ movements, which are nearly choreographed, and even vocal intonations. Her prose is deceptively simple; easy to parody but difficult to imitate, it is sparse, disconnected, obsessive, and subtly effective.
Duras undertook nothing less than to establish a new type of communication between people. She refused any complicity with the reader or spectator; she refused to catalog things, to allow the audience to take anything for granted. Duras sought instead “a collective conspiracy” in order to come closer to reality. In the process, a comfortable sense of clear meaning is sacrificed. “Clarity is a disease of the French,” said Duras. “They believe in it, it is everywhere!” With complex and subtle narrative techniques, Duras attempted to destroy memory, culture, and clarity, to arrive at a tabula rasa on which to build. She moved toward greater sobriety and complexity.
Duras’s first play, The Square, is a conversation in a public garden between a young maid and a middle-aged traveling salesman. These two strangers leading uneventful lives try to break free of their solitude and to define their identities, as if talking to someone should help them to do so. Nothing happens, not even a hint of a flirtation. Their dialogue resembles two parallel monologues. It could go on forever if the public garden, le square, did not close. They part without having really met.
The Viaducts of Seine-et-Oise
The starting point of The Viaducts of Seine-et-Oise is an actual crime that Duras covered as a journalist: An aging couple had inexplicably murdered a deaf-mute relative who had been keeping house for them for a long time. After cutting up the body, they had disposed of the pieces by dropping them in the cars of freight trains as they passed under the Epinay viaduct. They were then arrested. In the play, two old people retrace the successive stages of their crime and finally confess it publicly in a café. The structure of the play, Duras’s second, is still relatively traditional. About a decade later, with L’Amante anglaise, Duras would use the same story in a very different play, devoid of any realistic representation and with absurdist overtones.
The Rivers and Forests
The Rivers and Forests is Duras’s only comic play and also the one in which Eugène Ionesco’s influence is felt most strongly. Despite its bucolic title, it actually takes place on a crosswalk where a man and two women engage in banal conversation; a dog belonging to one of them has bitten the man. In its tangential relation to the play’s action, Duras’s title recalls Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve...
(The entire section is 1987 words.)