When Antaeus offered me LLD earlier this year, it was not an immediate ‘yes’. Particularly concerning to me was how the sexual assault of Cecile is handled in the play. It was only after consulting with trusted dramaturge Christopher Breyer that I began to understand the feminist DNA of the 18th Century source material, and my take on the play became clear.
We were in tech the week of Oct 9, 2017 when the Weinstein abuses story broke and the #MeToo movement was born. I can only imagine the past productions of LLD I read and heard about would not have been tolerated, and I’m thankful for the insight that led to our particular production. I’m also deeply satisfied that our intentions were registered by both audiences and the press.
Here are a couple press reactions to this particular aspect of the show.
There was inevitably one major conversation at Antaeus Theatre‘s post-performance opening night celebration for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and it began with the hashtag, #MeToo.
More than ever, it’s a play for our time.
…Director Robin Larsen has deliberately gone for a realer approach to rape and sexual harassment… the choice is smack on the timeline.
…Here Larsen employs a superior, accurate script. A more cruel Le Vicomte de Valmont (Henri Lubatti); a far colder, self-possessed La Marquise de Merteuil (Reiko Aylesworth) playing for higher stakes than just petty revenge; a less laughably hysterical, very practical Madame de Volanges (Dylan Jones); a rather wretched, amoral Chevalier Danceny (Josh Breslow) and a distinctly naive, completely non-sexualized Cécile (Elizabeth Rian), who is so innocent of her own body, she tragically, by all accounts of her cloistered convent upbringing and instructions in purity from her mother, doesn’t even possess a language, conceptual idea or defense for forced penetration, ongoing molestation, PTSD, depression, unwanted pregnancy or sudden miscarriage.
…in fall 2017, the play’s observations on gender and society drown out its political ones. In the opening scene, Madame de Volanges reveals to her daughter the conspiracy within “society” to continue receiving the unsavory Valmont despite his misdeeds: “You’ll soon find that society is riddled with such inconsistencies: we’re all aware of them, we all deplore them, and in the end, we all accommodate them.” It’s impossible not to hear in her striking words a commentary on the culture of silence that produced a Harvey Weinstein. Director Robin Larsen makes the most of these echoes…
In Larsen’s staging, 15-year-old Cecile’s “seduction” by Valmont is unquestionably a rape. But despite that clear-eyed depiction, this Liaisons is a delicious, crackling production that seduces the audience with its wit, humor and behind-the-curtain peek at sexual gamesmanship — even as it snatches away the veil and forces us to confront our own complicity.
And here is my Director’s Program Note.
Reading Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, along side Christopher Hampton’s 1987 stage adaptation, one is struck by how faithful the playwright is to his source material and by how disturbing Laclos’ portrait of power and gender remains even today. Hampton would be the first to name the novelist chief auteur of the drama, and in our production we too have attempted to be faithful to M. de Laclos and his masterpiece. As a resource and inspiration, the novel has been invaluable, and I wish every play came with a brilliant 400 page guidebook.
Laclos’ life and times suggest two impulses at work in the novel, impulses particularly relevant to our own age. The first and most obvious is that Laclos’ portrayal of the wealthy 1% who dominated 18th century France is, to put it mildly, unflattering, and while this did not prevent the nobility from avidly reading the notorious ‘libertine’ novel (Queen Marie Antoinette owned a copy), the book’s political implications did not go unnoticed by readers in 1782.
The second impulse is much entangled with the first. After the publication of his novel, Laclos began a treatise on the disenfranchisement of women. He explicitly argued that men will always use force and tradition to enslave women, and that women can only escape slavery through “une grande revolution.” Writing about the oppression of women may have been in part a covert way for Laclos to write about the general state of French society, but the fundamental story elements of Les Liaisons dangereuses explicitly involve wealthy and powerful men dominating and sexually exploiting women.
This is my third production with Antaeus, and each – Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Les Liaison Dangereuses directly, Uncle Vanya more subtly – has been a remarkable opportunity to learn what women have struggled with in the past. I am incredibly lucky to enjoy freedoms that were denied my predecessors. But … I can imagine Choderlos de Laclos looking upon our world, following the news of the last eighteen months, and saying: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” We all know there’s more to be done.