Emille Zola was a popular French novelist in the late 19th century. He wrote dark, dark stuff. He adapted his hugely successful novel Therese Raquin for the stage in 1873. The National Theatre in London is staging a production now.
It starts with the sounds of Therese Raquin drowning her fussy, sickly husband (also her cousin). She is aided by her lover, the painter Laurent (also the drowned husband’s best friend). From there, it becomes very unhappy. Although the killing was meant to enable the lovers to marry, the overwhelming guilt they feel makes them abhor each other. Therese’s aunt compounds the guilt when she urges Therese and Laurent to marry in order to stop Therese from dying of grief and joining her husband. Therese and Laurent agree, but on their wedding night are too haunted to even sleep. Madame Raquin overhears them discussing her son’s murder and has a stroke on the spot. This turns her into a scary speechless cripple, desperate to tell her friends the secret. Therese becomes a drunk and everything Laurent paints turns into a picture of the dead guy. Madame Raquin almost tells her friends, but before she can succeed, Therese and Laurent kill themselves in a suicide pact each agreeing they deeply despised the other and that life had become an utter hell.
According to Wikipedia, Zola is “the most important example of the literary school of naturalism in France.” I loathe the recent anti-French sentiment in the United States but, if Therese Raquin is naturalism in France, then I'm grateful I grew up in New York.
The production was impeccable, I always feel like I am seeing the platonic ideal of a production when I see something at the National. The set had an amazing fireplace with a reflective copper mantle and three recessed alcoves, including Therese’s bedroom, which were shrouded in shadows. It was dark and claustrophobic, like the guilt that destroyed them.
Conventional wisdom says that whenever a novel is adapted to the stage, the real difficulty is in portraying the inner life of the characters. I don’t agree. Theatre companies like Shared Experiences and directors like Nicholas Hytner have been doing it with astonishing art for years. I do agree, however, that this was a big problem in 1873. Back then, apparently, to convey anger and frustration, the playwright repeated the scene over and over again until the audience became angry and frustrated.
The shear intensity (and repetition) of it all was a little wearing and kept me as a spectator rather than a participant. But it did spark a lively discussion after. Is a play about guilt relevant in our liberated times of “to understand is to forgive”? Did Therese’s and Laurent’s guilt come from a fear of hell and God’s retribution? Or did it spring from a violation of some objective rule which could be culled from a global standard diety? Or because, absent any moral code, and taking into account Darwinism, the act of taking the life of a human and causing grief to your family damages your soul to such an extent it ruins your life?
Zola said that “civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” Does this change your answer?
Last edited on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 10:03 pm by Swann1719