(John Lahr’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 10/18.)
Reader, have you noticed a whiff of misrule in the air? At home and abroad, terrorists and Tea Partiers, emboldened by ignorance, are threatening to bring an early fin to our siècle. Civil discourse is strained; understanding is regularly trumped by hectoring—a folly that has a hilarious correlative in the prolix clown Auguste Valere, the main character in David Hirson’s 1991 jeu d’esprit “La Bête” (in revival at the Music Box, directed by Matthew Warchus). Set in seventeenth-century France, told in heroic couplets, and played in the high style of comédie bouffe, “La Bête” begins as the buffoonish Valere (Mark Rylance), the author of “The Dying Clown” and “Death by Cheese,” is being forced on the royal theatrical troupe by its patron, the Princess (Joanna Lumley). Can Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the troupe’s high-minded playwright and actor-manager, swallow the indignity of artistic compromise and accept this “bombastic ninny”? “I shall not tolerate another word,” he says, spitting spiders in the play’s opening line. On the surface, the setup seems the predictable folderol of a comedy of manners; by degrees, however, the characterizations become an extraordinary metaphor that resonates with our own noisy, deracinating moment.
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