A Door Must Be Kept Open Or Shut
Alfred de Musset
Osborne Studio Gallery, London SW1
In the UK, French theatre generally means Molière, Feydeau and Cyrano de Bergerac. When did playgoers last have a chance to see a play by Alfred de Musset?
Probably the only thing most English people know about Musset (1810-1857) is that he had a tempestuous affair with George Sand, six years his senior. An alcoholic, he led a melancholy and dissipated life and was dead by the time he was 47.
Musset, Romantic, dramatist, poet, novelist and dandy, was a detached and cynical observer of life. A Door Must Be Kept Open or Shut (Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée), published in 1845 but not performed until 1848, is set in a small salon in Paris and is one of his bitter-sweet comédie-proverbes, a comedy of manners, a duel between the sexes. Love, as Musset points out, makes for the very best comedy.
These small-scale, sophisticated, intelligent, psychological comedies, which illustrate well-known proverbs, were extremely popular with professional and amateur actors in 19th century France. The French film director Eric Rohmer continued the tradition in the 1980s with a cycle of six film proverbs.
A lonely baron pays a social call on a marquise, a widow, approaching thirty. Fortified by her wit, grace, beauty, money and rank, she affects a fashionable cold indifference to men and their conceited and everlasting love-making, which she pretends to find intolerable. She is the cruel lady par excellence, a tease, who knows how to make men suffer.
But then men, as she knows from experience, are liars and deceitful. She doesn’t believe the baron is really in love with her and thinks that he is just going through the motions, like everybody else, with a litany, full of insincere and patronising compliments, expressed in the most hackneyed of love phrases. She presumes he wants her to be his mistress.
Musset’s proverb, translated by Peter Meyer, is a refined and delicate entertainment, a charming trifle, written in a style which recalls the plays of Marivaux and which later influenced Jean Anouilh. Director Martin Parr updates the action to 1955; no doubt, to save money on costume and furniture. The civilised badinage is eloquently acted by Christopher Staines and Katherine Heath in a tiny, intimate art gallery, seating only 30.
The production, which lasts just 50 minutes, is framed and punctuated by Musset’s poem, “Le rideau de ma voisine” (“The curtain of my neighbour”), which is sung by Ana Maria Rincon to a musical score by Laurence Cummings.
One-act plays were highly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian era as curtain-raisers and afterpieces. It might be a good moment for other producers also to revive the genre either in the evening, as Martin Parr has done in Belgravia or at lunch time, as the Butterfly Theatre Company has done at the St James Studio in Victoria. There are a great many one-act plays by famous classical and modern writers waiting to be revived.
Reviewer: Robert Tanitch