In 1920, Henri-René Lenormand presented (at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris) a play called Failures. The title of this play could serve to describe the main characters in most of Lenormand’s plays, which generally feature protagonists who are failures in some way: men and women who have failed to understand life or to take control of their lives and who are at the mercy of their instincts, their subconscious, or vague determining forces of which they are only remotely aware. Lenormand’s plays often resemble Greek tragedy in that the lives of their despondent, lost characters frequently end in suicide or murder. However, Lenormand’s theater lacks another important tradition of Greek tragedy in that there is not always a character who understands what has happened and attempts to explain the meaning of events.
Despite the bleak tenor of Lenormand’s theater, Gabriel Marcel, the great French philosopher and critic, called him the most important French playwright of the period between World War I and World War II. His work was championed by such well-known impresarios and directors as Georges Pitoëff, Gaston Baty, and Charles Dullin; prominent actors and actresses appeared in productions of his plays. However, Lenormand never wrote or produced any plays after 1938, when World War II loomed on the European horizon.
When Lenormand’s fame was at its peak, his plays were performed in several European countries and in New York City and Westport, Connecticut. His stature was still significant enough in the early 1960’s that his Failures was included in an anthology of twentieth century French theater—alongside plays by more famous writers such as Paul Claudel, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett—published in the United States and destined for use by American students. Although his work is rarely staged in the twenty-first century, his theater has not lost its power to create in the reader a fascination with his dreamy, even nightmarish settings and his dark, tormented characters who look for some reason to go on living—in creative work perhaps, or love, or benevolence.
Time Is a Dream
Time Is a Dream is one of Lenormand’s first plays to enjoy a significant popular success. Its title expresses the play’s focus, in that the fundamental philosophical tone of the play is nihilistic. As the play’s protagonist, Nico Van Eyden, comes to believe, it is impossible for humans to go beyond their subjective grasp of the world: People can never know “reality.” Therefore, concludes Nico, life is essentially dream, fantasy, illusion—and has no meaning.
Early in the play, Nico’s fiancée, Romée Cremers, tells Nico’s sister, Riemke, of a strange vision. As she walked to meet Riemke and Nico on their estate, she saw a man apparently drowning in a pond. She—as well as Riemke and Nico—eventually realize that Romée’s vision was of Nico. Her vision predicts the future (as Nico insists, past, present, and future are one and the same). The play ends with Nico’s suicide—an idea inadvertently and tragically planted in his mind by Romée.
The title of Failures works on at least two levels. The characters are a troupe of struggling, poverty-haunted actors and musicians; their lack of success in avant-garde theater forces them to tour France, where they perform in dubious venues of several sorts. In addition though, the play’s two main characters, husband and wife Lui (“he” in French) and Elle (“she” in French, although other characters sometimes refer to her as Juliette or Liette) desperately cope with their failures not only as actors but as husband and wife, and—ultimately—as human beings. Ironically, in this play about failed actors, Lui was played in the original Paris production by the very...
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