The weekend before last, I saw the Roundabout Theater production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an adaptation by Christopher Hampton of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The production was fascinating, the acting generally superior, and I’ve been smitten with Laura Linney since Tales of the City. . .but I’d forgotten since I first encountered it what a nasty story this is. Not that anything involving two bored French aristocrats who concoct sexual games in order to degrade and humiliate their victims could be anything but nasty. Still, at least in fiction, French aristocrats seem to make the best libertines. (Americans can sometimes be libertines, but they generally lack the requisite je ne sais quois. I’ve heard rumors that there are even libertine librarians, but I somehow doubt it.)
One of the things I found most disturbing about this theatrical experience was a phenomenon I’ve noticed in other Broadway productions of serious plays. The audience began laughing at almost the opening curtain and continued laughing straight through, as though they’d made a wrong turn going into the latest Mel Brooks comedy but weren’t going to let that stop them: having set out to have a good time, they were going to have it, no matter what.
During the rape scene, someone close to me was laughing so hard I thought he’d choke to death. Is this the only response available to Broadway playgoers? Is it like this outside New York? Do performers, when they start getting these inappropriate laughs, play to them, even at the expense of overall tone or mood? These are questions for which I have no answer. All I know is that this play, although it’s loaded with irony and has flashes of dark wit, was no gag-a-minute joke fest.
If you miss the Roundabout production, there are certainly enough other versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses to go around. I’ve seen two of the movies, one starring Glenn Close and the other with Annette Bening, but there are almost a dozen other filmed versions and adaptations, including a contemporary teenage one set in a Manhattan prep school with Sarah Michelle Gellar (which sounds less than promising). The Library for the Performing Arts has a video of excerpts from the 1987 production starring Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman; a German adaptation on DVD called Quartett; and the video of a musical adaptation called The Game --all of which can be viewed by appointment only. And there is, of course, the original epistolary novel, which seems to be perpetually in print, suggesting that games of seduction never really go out of fashion.
Ages ago, I read the Penguin edition translated by P. W. K. Stone, but there are numerous other translations in English, which sometimes use Dangerous Liaisons as the title and other times Dangerous Acquaintances. Many illustrated editions exist, as well. There are at least three in the collection of the General Research Division, and I’ve selected some of the less racey images to share with you, so as not to set off your children’s Internet protection filters. (Click on the image for the catalog record)
Although these illustrations might not be the naughtiest, they do capture the novel’s clingy, moist, hothouse sense of corruption.