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Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

Questions on Dramatic Monologue

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EMPTY STAGE
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Who is speaking when the actor speaks?

The self or the other self, as Bakhtin would have it?

The ego or the alter ego, as Ionesco put in Notes and Counter Notes?

Or is it the mazes of consciousness, like those of Emma Bovary and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus? Or the multiplicity of subjects who inhabit the actor and, as in Tabucchi's The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa, as adapted by Denis Marleau, cause him to split, speaking over his own filmed image projected behind his face? Or is it the other, the real other, the entire population of others who are missing from the stage only because the monologist has incorporated them, swallowed them, as it were, as in Dario Fo's Comical Mystery, in which Fo played, depending on the day and his own mood, any of scores of jugglers, actors, angels, drunks, soldiers, and thieves, and even Pope Boniface VIII back from the hell to which Dante had consigned him to dialogue with the choir of voices dwelling within the monologue?

Or what if it is himself and himself alone?

Let's hypothesize a theater of solitude: a single character grappling with his own interminable discourse -- at intervals whispered and shouted; prosaic one moment, poetic or even epic the next.

What is the status, in that case, of this voice that speaks nonstop?

Is it the reverie of one walking alone?

Meditation? Confession? A wrestling match with an angel or demon, with the elusive world or the world rejected, with a decision that must be made (as in Hamlet) or with one already made that must now be accepted (as in Lorenzaccio)?

Is it a tempest in a skull, in the manner of Jean Valjean ?

A breaking of the very bones that hold the brain, in the manner of old Sartre tackling Flaubert in the throes of his Mao period?

Or is it just the unconscious, the unconscious of the Freudians and Lacanians, which everyone knows is never silent?

But we know that no one in the world has ever talked like the unconscious.

Everyone is aware that, though the unconscious may be structured like a language, its half-spoken, half-mute intimacy is reduced, as Maurice Blanchot said about the monologues of his friend Louis-René Des Forêts, to "a few signs spread out in space."

The monologue may try to mimic the turmoil, the shakiness, the lurches of free association; it may resort to ellipsis, enigma, allusion, retraction, denial, digression, and contravention; it may welcome, or make a show of welcoming, the chaotic displacements and metonymies that are thought to compose the incessant murmur that is the true sound of the unconscious -- but that language of the depths is a fiction that has no analog in any body or language.

The question then becomes: "Who is it that the actor is addressing?" Who is the recipient, real or imagined, of the monologue spoken, unechoed, into the void? Is it really himself? Or, again, is it others? The dead, the monologist might say, or, through the dead, the living? In the case of Hamlet, has not an entire library been devoted to the true recipients -- concealed or revealed, depending on the production -- of the combat of the self against itself? And though he may refuse to speak to them, though he may avoid addressing them directly or visibly, muttering instead, or speaking to the heavens or to his hat or to his past, is it not still to the audience, albeit in a new garb, that the character (as, for example, in Camus's The Fall) is aiming his darts? And, if so, what audience? How conceived? The audience in the streets or that in the seats? The community of those present or of those absent? Today's audience or tomorrow's?

And then the related question: What does it say about us when we unleash actor and author to speak together in a single voice such that it would require a clever listener indeed to say who calls and who responds in the machinery of the monologue? What are we seeking in doing this? What is our state of mind and spirit? Who are we (and where are we) when we force into a pure ribbon of words (where declarations and dicta are suddenly written in the same ink) the three unities of time, place, and action that have become indissociable? There is mourning here, but for what? For meaning, as in the sublime protests of Antonin Artaud at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier? For silence, as in the plays of Koltès? For belief, as with Thomas Bernhard? For hope, as with Beckett? Or simply for a wretched, doomed world that must be forsaken in order to create another? Or is it for the present-day community, symbolized by the audience, which we would not bother to face unless we harbored the secret hope of seeing it awaken and rouse itself, perhaps even metamorphose and give birth to the hidden audience that lies within it and that ceremony alone can bring forth?

Which brings us around to the original political vocation of theater, a vocation to which few remain faithful, and yet ...

Which brings us to the other possible meaning of the famous and much maligned Brechtian saying in which "dissolving" a people may also mean, after all, distilling from it its share of greatness, and to Vilar and his call for a theater of truth, loftiness, and excellence...

Whether you are shocked, scandalized, or simply surprised, petrified, incredulous or bored -- hear.

Come or go, as you see fit, into this place of no exchange that is the theater of words for a solo actor. For my part, I'll be back as soon as I can.

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The author's one-man play, Hôtel Europe, starring Jacques Weber, opens at the Théâtre de l'Atelier in Paris on September 9.--Ed.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy