The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The opening dialogue among Marquise de Merteuil, her cousin Madame de Volanges, and her cousin’s daughter Cécile in the marquise’s luxurious salon on a warm August evening establishes the marquise’s spotless reputation and Cécile’s naïveté. With Valmont’s arrival and the Volanges’ departure, the play begins its alternation between the conspiratorial encounters of the two libertines, Valmont and the marquise, and scenes of their reprehensible manipulation of those they victimize.

Scene 1 introduces a double intrigue: The marquise wishes to revenge herself on Gercourt, a former lover who left her for Valmont’s mistress, by having Valmont seduce and debauch Gercourt’s pure fiancé, Cécile; Valmont is intent on seducing an administrator’s virtuous wife, Madame de Tourvel. Although Valmont refuses such easy game as Cécile, and the marquise scorns his seduction of a married woman, the marquise promises to renew their earlier liaison upon seeing written proof of his victory over Madame de Tourvel.

Scene 2 finds Valmont at his aunt’s chateau in the country, with the Volanges and Madame de Tourvel as fellow guests. To benefit from a scene of reform staged with Azolan’s collaboration, Valmont declares himself to Madame de Tourvel, only to be spurned despite her attraction to him; immediately after, scene 3 shows his cynical recourse to Émilie’s bare back, in bed, as a desk for writing Madame de Tourvel a love letter full of witty double entendres.

Ten days later, again conspiring with the marquise, Valmont is eager to seduce Cécile for his own sake, since he now knows that her mother warned Madame de Tourvel against him. Fooling both Danceny, who is in love with and is loved by Cécile, and Madame de...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play’s opening and closing scenes mirror each other: Two and three women, respectively, sit playing cards. Through this parallel, Hampton not only preserves the balance that he admires in classical French literature but also emphasizes his protagonists’ view of life itself as a game to win through strategy and trickery. In addition, he divides the play into two acts, each spanning more or less two months and comprising nine scenes. Further dividing these scenes into three units of three, Hampton condenses many of his source’s letters for most of the scenes but ensures that each unit includes “one interlude-like scene (always in second or third position) covering a single event, often in a bedroom, always featuring some kind of single-combat.”

The play’s final moments feature a stage effect that changes the novel’s ultimate punishment of the marquise (through loss of appearance and fortune): After her closing line, “Meanwhile, I suggest our best course is to continue with the game,” the silhouette of the guillotine appears briefly before the lights fade entirely, investing her comment about “look[ing] forward to whatever the nineties may bring” with irony and implying a violent reprisal for her aristocratic decadence. At the same time, this line, coupled with her comment about being “more than halfway through the eighties already,” is also one of the play’s most obvious links to Hampton’s own time and his criticism of the callousness toward the less privileged under British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government in the 1980’s.

Interestingly, Hampton’s decision to set all the scenes indoors—triggered by a problem with prop storage at the premiering theater—intensified the social containment and worldly removal from natural rhythms already evident in the novel.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Black, Sebastian. “Makers of Real Shapes: Christopher Hampton and His Story-Tellers.” In Contemporary British Drama, 1970-1990, edited by Hersh Zeifman and Cynthia Zimmerman. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Colby, Douglas. As the Curtain Rises: On Contemporary British Drama, 1966-1976. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

DiGaetani, John L. “Christopher Hampton.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, edited by John L. DiGaetani. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Francis, Ben. Christopher Hampton: Dramatic Ironist. Oxford, England: Amber Lane Press, 1996.

Free, William J., and Dale Salwak. Christopher Hampton: An Introduction to His Plays. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1994.

Gross, Robert, ed. Christopher Hampton: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1990.

Kiebuzinska, Christine. “The Narcissist and the Mirror in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Laclos, Hampton, Muller.” The Comparatist: Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association, May, 1993, 81-100.

Wilcher, Robert. “Christopher Hampton: Dramatic Ironist.” Theater Research International 22, no. 2 (Summer, 1997): 175-176.