Paul Verdier is about to translate into English a remark by his longtime friend and director, Nicolas Bataille. But Bataille, sitting in the loft office of Verdier’s Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, brushes Verdier off.
“I want to say this in English,” says the Frenchman. Verdier demurs, almost bowing to him in the manner of a courtier. Bataille is preparing his staging in Verdier’s theater of the play that brought him, and its playwright, enduring fame and a piece of theater history.
It’s only right, after all, that Bataille would want to try out his English. The play in question--Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” opening today--can be seen as one non-English writer’s topsy-turvy view of what a typical English household might be like. A savage swipe at bourgeois values, Ionesco’s self-described “anti-play” emerged out of his reading of a simple English primer book. With Bataille’s original 1950 production at Paris’ Theatre des Noctambules, the few patrons who came were witnesses to the birth of the Theater of the Absurd.
In Southern California, at least, the Absurdists are back. “Soprano” is part of Stages’ second Ionesco festival, which includes Florinel Fatulescu’s staging of Ionesco’s “Jack, or the Submission.” South Coast Repertory has opened a 40th anniversary staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the All-U-Can-Eat Players are holding forth at the World Theatre on Theatre Row Hollywood with Alfred Jarry’s rarely seen precursor of the Absurd, “Ubu in Chains.”
Bataille’s staging has appeared here before, in two touring productions during the ‘60s at UCLA’s Royce Hall (with casts including Verdier himself). But it has never before appeared here quite as Bataille--and Ionesco--intended it, on a tiny stage holding, as Bataille terms it, “a miniature Jules Verne world.” Stages, Verdier and Bataille agree, is very close in dimensions to the stage of le Theatre de la Huchette, where “Soprano” finally became a cause celebre in 1957 and has run ever since.
Bataille’s English flows as he gleefully points out details in the model of designer Robert Zentis’ slightly macabre Victorian set. “This is not--how you say?--a replica of the Huchette set,” Bataille says. “I mentioned Edward Gorey’s wonderful drawing room settings to Bob, and three days later, he came back with this model.”
For the original production, Bataille had merely asked his designer, Jacques Noel, to make the set for “Hedda Gabler.” A combination of Ibsen and Gorey, though, doesn’t quite jibe with the usual American view of “Soprano” as a nutty domestic comedy involving two couples named the Smiths and the Martins, with a maid and a fire chief in the mix.
“When we first read the play, we played it as a comedy,” the director recalls. “But our great discovery was that it lost all of its vitality when played for laughs. So we went against the comedy, playing it as tragically as possible.”
Bataille’s company virtually stumbled upon the Absurdist style--the style he is employing with his Stages cast of American and British actors--but it was the kind of accident that typified the making of “The Bald Soprano.”
After performing a controversial 1948 version of Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell,” Bataille and his fellow actors were asked by Eduard Autant and Louise Lara (the parents of film director Claude Autant-Lara) to continue working in their avant-garde theater.
“I ended up being the director because everyone liked my ideas. But what to stage? A young Romanian woman, Akakia Viala, was adapting ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ for us, and one night she brought me a copy of a play by this Romanian friend of hers named Ionesco. It was then called ‘L’Anglais sans Peine’ (“English Made Easy”), and everyone who read it said it was impossible to stage.
“But I thought that it was exactly the kind of play I was looking for--audacious, completely unique, a firecracker in the theater. We had to do it. He wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know us. Of course, we didn’t know him. Our theater was so little. He had grand visions of doing it at the Comedie-Francaise. During rehearsals he was constantly changing the title, until one day the actor playing the Fire Chief mistakenly read a line as ' cantatrice chauve ' (bald soprano) instead of ' institutrice blonde ' (blond schoolteacher). He gave Ionesco his title.
“Ionesco went too far at times. He wanted to end the play with the Smiths and Martins leaving, have an empty stage for an hour, and then I would come out with Ionesco, who would then gun down the audience. I suggested to him that we needed a real ending . . .”
“And besides,” Verdier interjects, “with only his wife and the usher in the audience--which was sometimes the case--if everyone were gunned down, nobody would be left to see the play!”
The critics dismissed “Soprano” as a joke; a writer for Le Figaro’s predicted that “Ionesco would be forgotten in six months.” But seven years later, with money from a young filmmaker and fan of Ionesco and Beckett named Louis Malle, “Soprano” reopened at Huchette for a two-week engagement. “No one,” Bataille says, “imagined then that it would still be running in 1993.”
“Ionesco,” Verdier says as Bataille pauses, “is very sensitive, you see, about Nicolas being his discoverer, even though he really is. Nicolas found the key to the subtext under the absurd surface of the text, and this had a profound influence on Beckett, (Harold) Pinter and (Edward) Albee.”
The 80-year-old playwright and the 66-year-old director have carried on a friendly, but sparring relationship, as if wary of being too linked to each other. Bataille goes out of his way to emphasize his non-Ionesco work in the Japanese theater (“I speak Japanese better than English”). Ionesco’s footnotes in the “Soprano” text acerbically contrast his own stage directions with Bataille’s (sample: “In Nicholas Bataille’s production, Mrs. Smith did not show her teeth, nor did she throw the socks very far”).
But Bataille reveals a deep affection for the author when he spies a portrait of a glum-looking Ionesco in the Stages lobby. “People say he looks so gloomy. No! He’s looking at us , wondering what we think, waiting for our response.”