The Usurper, however, did not allow his character to slide down the slippery slope of outraged stoicism, as is called for in Flavy’s play (a development very much in accord with what we know of the historical Soufissis). He kept to his lines, and yet at the same time began to rebel against it. At first this was done almost imperceptibly. Only gradually did his undermining of the text become clear. The Usurper succeeded thereby in slowly unsettling the usually effortless assurance of Jean-Francois Ernu, and, thereby, of the President. At first it was a discrete clinamen, a slight deviation of the orderly descent of textual atoms–a not absent in one place and slipped in somewhere else.
Novelist, playwright and member of the Oulipo, Jacques Jouet’s latest offering is a slim novel that lampoons the theater scene but also plays with the concepts of identity, the roles of playwright, actor and reviewer, and the politics of art. Regardless of all that, which are mere interpretations of the author, Upstaged is a very fun and funny read.
Narrated by the assistant director, Upstaged chronicles the events if one evening’s performance of Marcel Flavy’s play,
Going Out to the People. In the audience are two critics, Alexandre Bostinas of The Morning Republic and an unnamed reviewer who sleeps through the unusual performance. The play had managed to go along as usual for the first act until one of the leads, Nicholas Boehlmer, is gagged and bound by a man dressed exactly like his character. What ensues after the presence of the Usurper, as he is aptly named, is an altered performance that can never be replicated. The Usurper has memorized Boehlmer’s lines and blocking to such an extent that the other actors do not notice any difference. That is, until the Usurper begins to slightly change the lines and meanings of the scenes. Because the play has political content, the Usurper’s ad-libs and changes make the play seem as if it is a call to action for the audience. His changes and how the fellow cast respond to his improvisations only makes the play better, magical to the point of imparting political and philosophical messages. Once Boehlmer breaks free, the director whacks him on the head so that the Usurper can continue with his wonderful performance. Ultimately, after having sex with one of the female cast members, he disappears and is never heard from again.
The question of identity in this theatrical farce is a tricky one. There are the actors taking on another identity, their perception of themselves as actors, how the audience perceives their character, and the identity of self for the actors. The Usurper addresses this when he ties up Boehlmer and says to him:
“I am indeed taking part of you, but you will soon find it returned unharmed. You have my word.” The Usurper added: “In case this does not go without saying, I very much admire your work.”
The Usurper recognizes that he is taking his identity as the character, Boehlmer’s own identity as an actor, and by admiring his work and stealing his role for the evening, he is using his own perception of Boehlmer’s identity as an audience member and replacing that perception with himself. This may seem difficult and convoluted, but it is a concept that Jouet seems to be idly playing with in Usptaged.
Also, Jouet poses questions to the reader through the role of the Usurper. Once the Usurper goes off-script, we wonder what is the role of the playwright and of the actor? How can the playwright’s intention be truly understood once it is vocalized through the interpretation of the actor? And if one abandons the words of the playwright, does the actor’s changes belie his intentions, that of the character or a mere reaction to the playwright? As for the reviewer, is his interpretation true to the playwright or a critical response on a visceral level to the collaborative effort of the company’s representation of that intention? The unusual role of Bostinas in his role as reviewer is one of witness and one who understands and praises the performance. Ultimately, most of these questions are not explicitly laid out, but they pulsate under the humor of the story.
The philosophical and political undertones are nestled in the play as well as the story, best described here:
These hopes were soon dashed, however, as it became clear that the man playing the Republican Theodore Soufissis (the rebellious object of the aforementioned presidential ingratitude) had begun to deviate from the text of Flavy’s play. By his own admission, Marcel Flavy is by no means a revolutionary writer, and does not personally share the radical theses of his character Soufissis, or even those of the other more or less Soufissisian figures whom the president encounters during his adventure. Flavy’s general intention was to advocate a certain tolerance without presenting the political theories of this or that individual in any detail. What he wanted to explore were the dramatic possibilities of the encounter between two main characters–and to play upon the traces of past complicity resting beneath the present resentment. Flavy’s text is about friendship confronted with an ambition that has become too great to share. Complicating Flavy’s undertaking was the people’s image of Theodore Soufissis–held up as he is in our Republic as a hero whose life was rich in accident and adventure, full of a Romanticism remote from any Realpolitik.
The Usurper thus poses as revolutionary in the politics of Flavy’s play as well as questioning the audience’s image of Soufissis.
It was difficult to not think of Cassavete’s
Opening Night while I read this. Cassavete goes morbid while Jouet chooses the clever conceit. With Leland de la Durantaye’s playful translation, Upstaged renders a original and creative take on theatrical farce. Witty and fast-paced, told in a conversational style, it is a entertaining, imaginative read that fits nicely into the canon of Oulipian works.
By Jacques Jouet
Translated by Leland de la Durantaye
Dalkey Archive Press
Paperback, 89 pp.
Other Jouet works: