Monday, October 19, 2015


     Everyone knows about this now, but in 1979 it was a shock: two gay roommates are recapping last night’s wild party, whereupon the trick that one of them brought home walks in, completely naked. Present-day Manhattan, the West Village, right?


     Only not long after this, military men burst  in, shot the trick and then cut his throat while the two gay boys fled. And a sign came down from the flies, reading “Berlin—1934.”


     It’s Bent, and the nudity, which lasted while the trick paraded downstage and then, facing away from us, moved back up and exited, was at once natural and gratuitous. That is, of course the trick would leave the bedroom skin-side out after a night of lovemaking. But the actor had clearly been chosen to stun us, with a toned physique, glistening flesh, and a spectacular bottom. He later became a prominent Hollywood name, but in 1979 he was just starting out, and though he is unquestionably a fine actor, his job in Bent was to remind us of the essential visual component in the way we understand the intensity of sexual hunger. More: all Broadway told the tale that one of the actors playing the Nazis complained that, backstage before his entrance, the young actor was fluffing himself—well, duh—and summed it up as “I’ve played Shakeapeare and the classics, and now this!”


     Nudity was rare then. True, there had been a season or two of mostly gay nudefests, almost entirely off-Broadway, starting in 1969 and often starring avatars of the gay cruising grounds. You saw them dancing at the Tenth Floor, shirtless in the Eagle, or exciting comment at tea out at the Pines. Or they worked out at your gym; now they were actors. And of course there was Oh, Calcutta, though that was more of a counter-cultural statement than an acknowledgment of human hunger. It was political, conceived by Kenneth Tynan because he was one of England’s leftist bad boys, antagonizing the authorities because that’s how freedom exercises its muscles. As one of those authorities himself once said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”


     Also true, nudity is all but routine today, even in opera. At Covent Garden, I saw the world premiere of three hours of twelve-tone shrieking, Gawain. Its composer, Harrison Birtwhistle, never got the memo that dodecaphonic music, having produced all its masterpieces relatively early in the twentieth century, was now a closed thread. Anyway, in the title role, Francois le Roux underwent a sort of shriving ceremony completely naked, full frontal, for something like ten minutes. (A friend asked, “And?,” to which I replied, “Promising.”) Further, Christopher Alden, one of my opera-director friends, says that whenever he proposes to set a scene from something in a spa—Monteverdi works well, apparently, but you can do it with anything except Suor Angelica—and asks if one of the chorus guys is willing to drop his towel, there’s always a dude who immediately raises his hand.


     Moving on to literature, though, the showrunner (so to say) can get away with a lot more, because sex becomes intellectualized. There are still some things you can’t show on stage or film, but you write as honestly as you like—and don’t we have to understand what a character needs from sex simply to know that character? I’m not talking about kink. I mean how people are drawn toward or away from the physical expression of affection. Women want to re-encounter the daddy they knew when they were toddlers, that source of love and protection. It’s an emotional attraction; how does that translate into the physics of love? Men are easier to comprehend, because the physical is their portal; only the most intrepid among them master the emotions in the room behind the door.


     So authors develop character in a sex scene. I had to grip this while writing a novella called One Day in France, centered on an atrocity of World War II that took place in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane: the burning alive of the inhabitants and the destruction of their little town (which, by the way, has been left as the Nazis left it, by order of Charles de Gaulle, to serve as a war memorial). I wanted to show how the civilized always face barbarian enemies, in whatever age, and how defenseless the civilized have made themselves. But I wanted to show as well how full of life everyone is before the catastrophe, because civilization is full of life, with its rich stock of music and theatre, its nudity and fluffing and sarcastic gay dish, its nonconformism and playful crazy beingness. Everything barbarians hate.


     So I modeled one (straight) couple on the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut and her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, simply because the novel and its opera, ballet, and film versions typify our arts world. It’s an edgy story, though we think of it as just another constipated old classic. Lurking behind its plot, very near to the view, is the same need to reveal how much of the visual resides in the sexual that I just remarked upon in Bent. Manon Lescaut tells of two teenagers in an obsessive romance that is destroyed by her wish for financial comfort. Here are two beautiful creatures so mad with love that, in effect, they fuck till it kills her—but of course Prévost couldn’t say that in 1731, or even twenty-five years later, in a very slight revision. The first version was banned in France, because it told of a love whose only morality is its own greed for consummation, and everyone reading the novel back then knew what a writer of that epoch couldn’t say outright: that marriage is society’s method for suppressing sex. A hot coupling brings us close to the divine, but it also threatens social stability. To tell, as Prévost did, how the utmost beauty inspires the densest hunger, is to blaspheme, which is one reason why gay-hatred is often a religious phenomenon. Indeed, at one point des Grieux’s family forces him to take holy orders, a hetero version of Pray Away the Gay (and, like the current version, it doesn’t work).


     There is another layer atop all this, because Manon Lescaut the novel is narrated by des Grieux himself. Or, more exactly, it’s narrated by “a man of quality” who reassigns narrator command over to des Grieux. So we have  the young hero’s viewpoint, not that of the usual omniscient narrator. Once only, the man of quality meets Manon, to ruminate on “le caractère incomprehensible des femmes”: womankind’s incomprehensible nature. But isn’t that mankind’s rationalization for the way women resist his control?


     Because we notice that, in all the modern adaptations of Prévost, Manon has all the power in the relationship. Auber’s opéra comique adaptation of Prévost (1856), immensely popular for a generation despite its unhappy ending—a provocative violation of genre—gives all its goodies to the soprano, with a ton of coloratura escapades. The baritone, as one of her admirers, gets some nice couplets, but des Grieux, the tenor lead, has no self-defining solo.


     At least Massenet (1884) and Puccini (1893) bring the tenor forward, and, after Auber’s tuneful but shallow piece, it’s refreshing to hear his two successors exhilarate the tale, open it up to take in the life around the central couple. Prévost’s novel is constricted and obsessed; he travels here and there in Paris but takes no notice of his surroundings—the markets, the Opéra, the people. He scarcely even gives anyone’s name—it’s all M. de T. or M. de G.M. (There are two G. M.s, father and son, both of course wild for delectable Manon; Prévost really does shatter the Commandments.) Des Grieux has no first name, and when the two lovers and her brother (her cousin in the operas) are out walking, a man steps up, crying, “C’est Lescaut” (as the stranger lets off a pistol shot). “Il ira souper ce soir avec les anges”: Tonight he’ll dine in heaven.” Then this who-was-that? takes off, and Prévost never troubles to tell us what that was about, because it’s des Grieux’s tale to tell, and all he knows is Manon.


     Are they the only people in the world, those two? Massenet and, to a lesser extent, Puccini color in the narration with piquant episodes, though the latter felt he had been sharper at realizing Prévost. Massenet, he said in a famous line, saw the story en francais, with “wigs and minuets,” while he, Puccini, gave it “passion.”


     Yet Puccini’s second act is half wigs and minuets and only then passionate. It’s an act like no other in opera, because his first act introduces Manon as little more than a cipher. Massenet filled her out with stream-of-consciousness confessions and endearing flourishes, but Puccini leaves everything out. We know only that she is insanely beautiful (the music says so), that des Grieux falls wildly in love, and that they run off to Paris together.




     Then the curtain goes up on the greatest cold-open non sequitur in opera: Manon has already left des Grieux for some old clunkabunk’s gilded-cage palace, a naïve sweetheart boxing above her weight in the world of the wealthy, jaded exploiters of life’s chance thrills, such as helpless young women. Massenet’s heroine is on top of all this, but Puccini’s doesn’t understand the rules by which powerful men play with sweethearts—and, in the France of Manon’s day, aristocrats had the legal power of a hanging judge.


     Now for another coup de théâtre. The clunkabunk and his courtiers depart, and Manon, alone, turns to find in front of her, seething with rage, the last person she ever expected to see again: des Grieux. This is the passion section, in a splendid love duet of the kind that was pretty much the last formal invention in the form that we call “opera.” True, there’s that strange last scene in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, when two besotted freaks fit for I, Claudius launch their honeymoon. But not till Les Huguenots, Tristan und Isolde, Un Ballo in Maschera do we get love duets worthy of the name, and this one in Manon Lescaut is in the tradition.


     And yet Massenet is defter in the counterpart scene, when it is Manon who does the confronting and the Abbé des Grieux who does the resisting. Yes, she actually love-duets him in the church where he now preaches, and at its center is a tremendously intimate sequence, at “N’est-ce plus ma main?”:


          Isn’t this my hand in your hand?

          Isn’t this my voice

          Caressing you as always before?


The orchestra is reticent here at first, Manon’s phrases echoed by a solo violin. Opera occasionally tries to musicalize difficult propositions; one theme in Wagner’s Parsifal depicts the suffering on the Cross, or perhaps the tender horror it inspires. (Parsifal doesn’t lock all its leitmotifs into business-card clarity.) And here, Massenet tries to capture what the sexual temptation that you cannot resist sounds like. It’s naked music, but on the exalted level, wheedling but fierce. I love the live performances. At La Scala, Mafalda Favero gives it the verismo approach, pulling the line around, cringing and sobbing, but you can virtually hear the audience rapt in concentration; at the Met with conductor Thomas Beecham, Bidu Sayao is stupendously beguiling, with a hunger you can hear from space.


     And there’s a Manon ballet. When Nicholas Hytner was preparing his Carousel for England’s National Theatre, he told his choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, that Carousel was about “sex and violence.” And MacMillan amiably growled, “Sex and violence is what I do.” He’s perfect for Manon—and dance is about bodies, so it can ask how much sex is there in love, how much love in sex. I recall a German staging of On the Town in which the Great Lover Pas de Deux found Gabey and Miss Turnstiles nearly naked and all but copulating. But is his idolization chaste and wondering, or just the dream of a horny sailor? And here’s the great On the Town line, from a wrecked old lush who teaches singing: “Sex and art don’t mix. If they did, I’d have gone right to the top!”


    But sex and art do mix. They have to, or art would be dishonest. Like the hot young devil in Bent, Prévost’s novel focuses on something unmentionable: the hotness that threatens to unravel the social order if we give it the reins. Isn’t that why all fascisms are by nature puritanical? Sexual freedom is freedom, period. And freedom is subversive to those who could control us.


     Thus, my French novel tells how democracies are always under the assault of fascists, and that led me to include a couple modeled on Manon and des Grieux. I may have under-modeled, though, because I changed almost everything about them. My des Grieux is shy, and my Manon likes to confuse people with ironic jokes. When the former speaks of how men see Prévost’s Manon as prey and hate her if she resists, the latter tells him, outrageously, “We women need these little attentions.” And she’s far more in charge of the liaison than he is. After their night together, he finds his way to church to repent, and she, untroubled in guiltless sin, takes a meditative walk along the riverfront of Limoges that seems to place her, through the magic of meta-fiction, in Roman Gaul, literally a Manon for the ages.


     Prévost wrote before psychology took over the novel; it was all narrative then while today it is all analysis theory. There is far too little history in the form, too little awareness of what forces have made us who we are: in a world in which the aggression that would smash Manon and des Grieux simply because they are so beautiful finds the free peoples not only failing to repel but actively welcoming it. Like the Wolves in the current season of The Walking Dead, barbarians don’t need a reason. They live to destroy and they destroy to live. What, then, happens to Shakespeare and the classics, even to Bent? The Wolves and their collaborators are everywhere among us now. James Burnham said, “Liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide.” I don't think he meant the liberalism of social safety nets, women's biological rights, and so on. He meant our eagerness to tolerate the intrusion of those who would destroy us.