La Comédie humaine is the diary of American expatriate Claire Berlinski’s amazing journey onto the Parisian stage. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) If you missed the Introduction, we urge you to begin from there.
Thank you, gentle readers, for your submissions in response to last week’s contest. As you will recall, Fabien had given us this text to interpret.
|–Excuse me, may I pass by?|
–No one passes!
–We don’t pardon anymore. We kill!
–You’ll let me pass, yes or …
–Not without the password!
–What’s the password?
–I don’t have the right to tell you. Not even under torture. Military secret.
–Listen, I pass here 36 times a day without a password.
–That’s in the past. But no passing anymore.
–And if I pass by force?
–Force will respond to you.
–Individuals who try to pass without a password are trespassing.
–And the enemy, who is he?
–You don’t know who the enemy is?
–But where do you live?! Where!!!
–Down there, behind, at the dead end.
–The enemy … he is everywhere.
–Okay, I’m getting past or not?
–Without a password: Negative.
|–Pardon, je peux passer?|
–On passe pas!
–On pardonne plus, on tue!
–Vous me laissez passer oui ou …
–Pas sans mot de passe!
–C’est quoi le mot de passe?
–Je n’ai pas le droit de vous le dire. Même sous le torture. Secret militaire.
–Écoutez, je passe ici trente-six fois par jour sans mot de passe.
–Ça passait, mais ça ne passe plus.
–Et si je passe en force?
–La force vous répondra.
–Le quidam qui tente de passer sans mot de passe trépasse.
–Vous êtes dingue!
–Et l’ennemi, c’est qui?
–Vous ne savez pas qui est l’ennemi?
–Mais où vivez-vous?! Où!!!
–Là-bas, derrière, au bout de l’impasse.
–L’ennemi, lui, est partout.
–Bon, je passe ou pas?
–Sans mot de passe: négatif.
Our groups were to study the text together for fifteen minutes and come up with three completely separate, unrelated interpretations—ones in which all of the words made sense. Then we were to choose our favorite and perform it. There were three people in each groups, but it was a dialogue; Fabien said it didn’t matter: “Just choose the best person for the role.”
The goal was to convey what was going on through body language and voice alone—because the words had to stay exactly the same, and we had no set, costumes, or props. If the rest of the class grasped when, why, and how this dialogue transpired, we’d done it right.
Our gentle readers sent us quite a few good suggestions about how they’d interpret the text, but no suggestions for how they’d perform it. We chose the suggestions below because they also happened to be class’s most-favored interpretations, except for the inspired “Tom Stoppard gets the doorman’s gig at Samuel Beckett’s apartment building” idea, which, incredibly, none of us thought of even once.
From Gentle Reader Gaby Charing:
1. A game between a parent and kid.
2. One or the other is nuts
3. It’s for real. How scary is that?
From Gentle Reader Percival:
1. A security checkpoint at a workplace where there are already multiple levels of security. [This] works better if “where do you live” becomes “where is your lab,” but “lab rats” are said to live in their labs anyway.
2. Tom Stoppard gets the doorman’s gig at Samuel Beckett’s apartment building. I have no idea how one would impersonate either Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard.
3. A doctor making the rounds at a psychiatric hospital runs into an obstreperous patient in a hallway.
I was with Julien and Anne-Laure. This was my first experience of acting with other people. Taking the initiative, I said, “What if ‘A’ is a soldier from an occupying army, and ‘B’ is the village idiot?”
“Which occupying army?” Julien asked.
I remembered my mishap with the improv we’d done during the audition. Here was my chance to make it right! I can play an American! Make the character an American! So before thinking through the political or historical ramifications, I said, “The American one!”
The words hung in the air a bit, as Julien and Anne-Laure looked at me expectantly.
But then … why would my counterparts be French?
The ghost of a severe Oxford history tutor materialized before my eyes to offer me a look of pure contempt. “Miss Berlinski,” the don said witheringly. “How very interesting. The United States is occupying France?”
Shit, why did you say that, I thought. Acting is your hobby. It’s okay to screw up acting. But knowing whether the United States occupied France? That’s your day job. You can’t screw that up.
Anne-Laure seemed to be thinking the same thing. She began shaking her head. But—oh, dear God—Julien didn’t seem to realize how wrong this idea was! He seemed willing to run with it! He was already planning to resist the American Occupation. He suddenly believed, you could see it in his eyes. What had I done?
I tried to walk that cat back as fast as I could. “Non, non, non, ce n’est pas possible, les Américains n’ont jamais occupé la France, la France a été occupée par les Nazis, les Américains ont libéré la France ! Les Alliés sont les héros et les forces de l’Axe sont les salauds, alors, c’est inutile c’est idée—”… But no, he was still into it.
“Could you, maybe, be a collaborator?” I asked. “One who’s gone crazy—you know, what’s the French word for ‘shell-shock?’”
“Choc de l’obus.”
I wrote choc d’autobus in my notes, thinking it must be a generic term for the shock you’d feel if you’d been run over by a bus. I later looked it up—obus means “shell.”
Anne-Laure looked old enough to have personally seen the liberation of Paris, and French enough to be offended if I didn’t pay tribute to the local historiography. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I thought she gave me an arched-eyebrow look—as if she’d personally heard Charles de Gaulle gave his famous speech at Hôtel de Ville about Paris having liberated itself—“Paris, Paris outragé, Paris brisé, Paris martyrisé mais Paris libéré ! Libéré par lui-même, libéré par son peuple avec le concours des armées de la France, avec l’appui et le concours de la France tout entière … ”
I quickly remembered that this was an acting class, and this whole situation was my fault, so it wasn’t the time to get into a honor-feud about who had liberated France most.
“The text doesn’t include a part for the Resistance,” I said, “so let’s say I’m just one American soldier talking to l’idiot de village. I don’t realize he’s French, and I can’t find a translator—c’est la guerre!—so oui, I speak to the French village idiot severely, voyons? I suspect he might be a disguised Boche, left behind to commit acts of sabotage …”
But what gestes could I use to convey this? What could I do to convey, clearly, “I am not the 5’4” middle-aged American woman you see before you, but a strapping G.I from the Iowa cornfields riding with the great Third Army and a son-of-a-goddamned-bitch named George Patton, so lemme just deal with this here village idiot?” What could convey that?
Julien, I suspected, was asking himself the same questions about how we’d pull this off. He could play “the village idiot,” I thought hopefully—but still, I’d either put myself in an impossible role or I’d consigned Anne-Laure to an even more impossible one: Anne-Laure as GI Joe? With a perfect 16th-arrondissement accent and a Hermès cache-cache fleuri twillon tied around her neck in a double-knot?
“Alors, let’s forget this one, I said briskly. “Anne-Laure, what do you think the exchange means?”
Anne-Laure sensibly suggested it was a game between a grandfather playing Papa Noël and a child wheedling for Christmas gifts. We realized immediately that would be a lot easier. We changed it to a “grandmother,” because Julien was more convincing at playing the kid than Anne-Laure. Anne-Laure tried being his quirky grandmother. It worked. Good.
Julien then suggested the nuthatch scenario—every group landed on this one—but it’s trickier to pull off than it sounds. We decided—or they decided, actually—that I should be the nut. Julien would be the doctor making the rounds on the psychiatric ward, so most of the acting burden would be on him. I just had to seem nuts, which after liberating France in my head, I most certainly was. Barrage started 0530 today. Shelled all day. Noisy as hell. Jerry broke thru. Ready to scram. Pulled out this afternoon. We don’t pardon anymore. We kill! On Elsenborn Ridge being shelled. No food. The enemy … he is everywhere. …
So we’d devised three scenes, as instructed, but I didn’t know where this was heading. I was worried we’d be asked to perform all of them, and somehow a YouTube video of me starring in “The American Occupation of France,” would go viral and that would be the end of my day job. I racked my brain. What else could be going on?
Just in time, it hit me: B is Siri. After the singularity. Siri has developed a mind of her own and she’s not giving us directions to the nearest dry-cleaner anymore. I grabbed my cellphone and showed Julien and Anne-Laure my vision. Anne-Laure didn’t get it, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more foreign than I did when I said, “Like HAL! In 2001, A Space Odyssey”—and they both looked at me blankly.
But Julien got it anyway. It was a robot thing. He had a terrific robot accent. And I certainly knew how to look as if my phone’s advanced technology was driving me berserk, as if one more useless, lying word out of Google Map’s insipid trap would have me shouting “putain!” and smashing the phone into a million little pieces.
“Bien!” I said. “Let’s completely forget, forever, the first idea, the one about the Americans …. ”
“Forgotten already,” Julien said graciously.
In the end we saw ten interpretations. Fabien had us all go twice, to make sure everyone had a chance to act. I can thus offer you this advice unreservedly: Don’t go with the psychiatric hospital interpretation. It doesn’t work. Or maybe it would, with better actors.
Two other teams did something military-ish, and while the characters weren’t fleshed out—we never really understood why B was so clueless—we all understood it from A’s body language that A was serious about guarding the thing at the end of the road from the Enemy. So that one can be done, by beginners, but only if B remains a cipher.
We did my Space Odyssey interpretation. Julien slipped behind the curtains so the audience could only hear his voice (a clever touch), and I used my real cellphone, which in reality drives me around the fucking bend every single day of the week. No one understood that I was speaking to Siri or that the singularity had occurred, but that was okay: They definitely got the general idea, and they laughed despite having heard the same lines, by that point, about forty times, so I considered that a success.
Fabien too liked it, though he told me (not for the first or the last time) that I spent too much time looking down, at the phone, when I should have been face publique, and that my gestes were too “irritated and angry,” as opposed to “fearful and confused,” the latter probably being the way you’d feel if you discovered the singularity had occurred and Siri was now running the planet. He was right. Look at the way Keir Dullea does it:
Notice how much time, too, he takes to react after hearing HAL speak—look how much he conveys during the pauses. It didn’t occur to me to do that. I suppose I figured if I paused like that, Julien would conclude I’d forgotten what I was supposed to say and prompt me from behind the curtain. (These are the sorts of details the professionals know to work out in advance.)
The best performance, by far, was between Anouk the Professionally Adorable and the guy whose real name I can’t ever remember, but whose Utensil name I can’t seem to forget: Monsieur Spatula. They’re at a bar. They’re flirting. She likes him and wouldn’t mind flirting some more, but she actually needs to get past to go to the ladies’ room.
They were well-matched, physically, and the chemistry between them was perfect. I completely believed Monsieur Spatula was feeling witty after knocking back half a bottle of the Beaujolais Nouveau. I was convinced Anouk had knocked off the other half and needed to pee like a racehorse. Anouk played the transition from “fancying Monsieur Spatula” to “okay, this isn’t so funny anymore, I need to go” perfectly. “Flirtation” is much easier for beginning actors to do than “liberating France,” so if you ever find yourself forced to interpret a Jean-Claude Grumberg scene on the fly, go with “flirtation.”
Although I didn’t realize it then, that was my first introduction to Grumberg, with whom I was about to spend many weeks. If Grumberg is known at all in the US, it’s because he was the co-author, with François Truffaut, of “The Last Métro.” I don’t think any of his plays have been translated into English, and that’s a shame, because although I didn’t get him at all at first, I love him now.
At the end of the class, Fabien assigned me my first role—I was to play “–” in a Grumberg dialogue called “Ca va.” My counterpart, Adeline, was asked to play the second “–.” We both skimmed the dialogue; I assumed I had a French comprehension problem and that I’d just have to study it when I got home. But Adeline looked up at me and said, “I don’t get this at all.”
Claire Berlinski, La Comédie humaine