Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's All About Rank and Precedence

Reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses made me curious about something: who outranks whom in terms of titles? And what exactly is a chevalier? And what is the correspondence to the British nobility, a system I'm a little more familiar with. So I did some research and it's pretty interesting. 

The French nobility (la noblesse) was the privileged social class in France during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period until the French Revolution in 1789. The nobility was revived in 1805 with limited rights as a titled elite class from the First Empire to the fall of the July Monarchy in 1848, when all privileges were abolished, and survived in hereditary titles until the Second Empire fell in 1870.
In the political system of pre-Revolutionary France, the nobility made up the Second Estate of the Estates General (with the Catholic clergy comprising the First Estate and the bourgeoisie and peasants in the Third Estate). Although membership in the noble class was mainly passed down though hereditary rights, it was not a closed order. New individuals were appointed to the nobility by the monarchy, or they could purchase rights and titles or join by marriage.
During the ancien régime, there was no distinction of rank by title (except for the title of duke, which was often associated with the strictly regulated privileges of the peerage, including precedence above other titled nobles). The hierarchy within the French nobility below peers was initially based on seniority; a count whose family had been noble since the 14th century was higher-ranked than a marquis whose title only dated to the 15th century. Precedence at the royal court was based on the family's ancienneté (seniority by age), its alliances (marriages), its hommages (dignities and offices held) and, lastly, its illustrations (record of deeds and achievements).
  • Titles:
    • Duc(Latin dux, literally "leader") possessor of a duchy, was originally the governor of a province, usually a military leader. 
    • Prince: possessor of a lordship styled a principality (principauté); most such titles were held by family tradition and were treated by the court as titres de courtoisie -- often borne by the eldest sons of the more important duke-peers. This title of prince is not to be confused with the rank of prince, borne by the princes du sang, the princes légitimés or the princes étrangers whose high precedence derived from their kinship to actual rulers.
    • Marquis: possessor of a marquessate (marquisat), but often assumed by a noble family as a titre de courtoisie. In older times it was a count who was also the governor of a "march", a region at the boundaries of the kingdom that needed particular protection against foreign incursions (margrave in German, marchioness (female) in Britain).
    • Comte(Latin comes, literally "companion") possessor of a county (comté)  and was originally an appointee of the king governing a city and its immediate surroundings, or else a high-ranking official in the king's immediate entourage. In Britain the equivalent would be a count. 
    • Vicomte: possessor of a viscounty (vicomté) or self-assumed. Originally he was the lieutenant of a count, either when the count was too busy to stay at home, or when the county was held by the king himself. Equivalent to the British title of viscount or viscountess.
    • Baron:  (a later title) was originally a direct vassal of the king and owned a barony, or of a major feudal lord like a duke or a count. 
    • Chevalier: an otherwise untitled nobleman who belonged to an order of chivalry, such as the Legion of Honor or the Order of Malta. In earlier days it was a rank for untitled members of very old noble families. 
Many of these titles eventually became hereditary and formalities and didn't require any particular skill. 

If you want to get a pretty exhaustive look at the history of French nobility, I refer you to this website, which has all kinds of fascinating detail. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Comportment and Corsets and Cards, Oh My!

Les Liaisons Dangereuses presented a particular challenge to us because it's actually our first ever big costume drama. Since we don't have a vault full of clothes from the 1780s, our costume designer, Scarlett Kellum, had to reach out to other companies to beg, borrow, and steal some costumes. Ok, well she didn't actually steal anything but you get the idea. We also had to acquire swords and the like for the big fight scene. because again, it's not something we have on hand for our normal productions. And because Scarlett is a stickler for details, all of the ladies' corsets were handmade and custom fitted for them. No faked up velcro rigs here - these are the real laced up deal.

Director Jeffrey Bracco brought in Kristin Kusanovich in to talk to the cast. Kristin has a background in dance and movement and spoke to the whole cast about how people in the 1780s moved - we're incredibly casual these days in the way we walk, talk, and hold our bodies. We slouch, cross our legs at the knees, and move quickly. So Kristin discussed comportment with the cast - there were rules of etiquette that governed behavior and posture and movement. Some of this movement was, of course, tied to the fact that ladies were corsetted, as corsets really restrict the movement of the upper body. Much of the movement of the time was tied to dance training, so their movements were much more graceful and deliberate than modern day movement. With Kristin the actors learned how to how to correctly walk and sit, the correct body language to use to address one another.

And finally, a few of the ladies got together to learn about piquet, the card game that you see the ladies playing at the beginning of the show. It's a challenging game for two players with fairly complex rules. Card games were incredibly popular among the aristocracy at the time of Liaisons because, let's face it, they didn't have much else to do to kill time. Researching all of these little details makes it easier for the actors to slip into the time period of the show, and creates an authentic world for us, as audience members, to believe in.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Who is Choderlos de Laclos?

The story of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was actually written by a French novelist, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, in 1782. de Laclos started his career in the French military, but became disenchanted and left the military to become a writer. 
His first novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in 1782 - 7 years before the French Revolution), caused an immediate sensation. It was also immensely popular - it sold 1000 copies in a month which was unheard of at the time. 
Liaisons was written as a series of letters (called epistolary form) and is considered one of the very first psychological novels ever written. A psychological novel shows the characters interior motives as well as the external action of the story - you know the WHYs of what's happening,  rather than just watching a story play out. The book was an immediate hit and generated lots of buzz as it showed the amorous vices and machinations of the upper-class. It was also banned for some time in France because it was just too racy and scandalous. 
The book was viewed as scandalous at the time of its initial publication, though the real intentions of the author remain unknown. It has been suggested that Laclos's intention was the same as that of his fictional author in the novel; to write a morality tale about the corrupt, squalid nobility of the Ancien Régime. However, this theory has been questioned on several grounds. In the first place, Laclos enjoyed the patronage of France's most senior aristocrat – the duc d'Orléans. Secondly, all the characters in the story are aristocrats, including the virtuous heroines – Madame de Tourvel and Madame de Rosemonde. Finally, many ultra-royalist and conservative figures enjoyed the book, including Queen Marie-Antoinette, which suggests that – despite its scandalous reputation – it was not viewed as a political work until the events of the French Revolution years later made it appear as such, with the benefit of hindsight. He served
in the Rhine and Italian campaigns and was made commander in chief of the Reserve Artillery in Italy in 1803 and died shortly afterward, likely of dysentery and malaria.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Christopher Hampton, the playwright

Christopher James Hampton was born on Jan. 26, 1946, in the Azores archipelago, Portugal. Of English nationality, Hampton's father was an engineer with Cable and Wireless, a British telecom company, and the family moved often, finally settling in Alexandria, Egypt, when Hampton was a boy. He was a precocious reader, adept at languages, and became a brilliant student when his father shipped him off to boarding school in England. Mastering French and German as well as English, he wrote poetry and acted in plays. He also had his first sexual experiences, which in the all-male culture of English public schools included homosexuality. Although Hampton would eventually marry and father two children, he turned his early sexual confusion into the basis for his first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, which he wrote before matriculating at Oxford University.

When his play When Did You Last See My Mother? opened at the Royal Court Theater in London in 1966, Hampton was just 20 years old - the youngest playwright ever to have opened a play in the West End. Since then, Hampton has had a very successful career, both on the stage and in Hollywood. Upon graduation from Oxford, the Royal Court Theater made Hampton a writer-in-residence. For the next few years, he wrote tirelessly. He also received his first screen credit and excellent reviews for his film adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House (1973). This success prompted Hampton to move to Hollywood where he began writing for the screen. It proved to be a frustrating experience. Unlike the ease Hampton found in getting his work produced on stage, the film projects he worked on stalled in development, so he returned to England with a renewed commitment to the theater. However, he brilliantly spun his maddening time in Los Angeles into artistic gold. His play Tales from Hollywood (1980), which followed the trials and tribulations of displaced European wartime exiles in Hollywood, was an enormous popular and critical success. It also gave Hampton the creative clout to do just about anything he wanted for his next project. He took an enormous risk, but it would prove to be the greatest triumph of his career.

Hampton's stage adaptation of the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses - renamed Dangerous Liaisons - was an international sensation, winning many awards and transferring from London to Broadway without a hitch. The boisterous tale of greed, sex and power resonated with modern audiences in both England and America, who saw reflections of their own societies under the Free Market governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan respectively. Hampton's Oscar for his film adaptation catapulted him into the stratosphere of in-demand screenwriters overnight.

In 1995, when director Mike Newell dropped out of a Hampton-scripted project, he convinced the writer to take over the project himself. Hampton accepted the offer, and Carrington (1995) became his directing debut, opening up yet another new career path. The film, about the platonic love affair between the writer Lytton Strachey and the painter Dora Carrington, did not do well financially, but received excellent reviews.
After years of not seeing his screenplays produced, Carrington seemed to change Hampton's luck. In short order, he saw the premieres of Total Eclipse (1995) - an adaptation of his play starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud, Mary Reilly (1996), starring Julia Roberts as the housemaid to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Secret Agent (1996), an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad Novel that he also directed. Although he was finding success in films, some of his theater friends were less than happy. The playwright David Hare, an old friend, bemoaned that fact that Hampton had been lost to the cinema. But even though Hampton had not had an original play produced since his autobiographical White Chameleon in 1991, he continued to work in theater by adapting the work of others. He had a huge success with his translation of Yasmina Reza's Art (1996). He also co-wrote the lyrics and book to the stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, winning two Tony Awards in 1995.

Hampton continued to write and direct films into the 21st century. He adapted the Graham Greene novel The Quiet American (2002) for director Philip Noyce. After reading the bestselling Ian McEwan novel Atonement, he immediately called his agents asking them to put him up for the job to turn it into a film. They explained to him that it was one of the most coveted assignments in Hollywood and that McEwan himself had say over who would get the gig. It turned out, however, that McEwan was a fan of Hampton's work and he was hired. Atonement (2007) starred two of the hottest young stars in film, Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy. It opened to strong reviews and earned Hampton numerous award nominations, including a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Art of Acoustics

During our down time we took a crack at addressing some issues with the new facility. Among these issues were the sound. Acoustics is the science of sound as it reacts to air, water and solid materials. There's s a whole branch of the science called architectural acoustics that studies how sound plays out in buildings like theaters. So we talked to some folks who know something about architectural acoustics and had them help us address the sound issue in the new space. 

The basics are like this: sound travels in a wave and it bounces off of solid surfaces - surfaces like polished granite, cinder block walls, and so on. This is how you get echoes. Lots of things absorb sound, but in this case, people, their clothes, their wool coats, and so on. So a play rehearsing in an empty house is going to sound much different than a play performing in front of a full house. Anyway, as a result, we've had some new acoustical tile and foam installed in the ceiling to address the sound bounce off the flooring and seating and walls. It's already made a difference so we're hoping that this will be our fix. Isn't building a new home fun? :) 

If you want to learn more about acoustics, How Stuff Works has an interesting series, as does the NTD Center