Saturday, November 21, 2009

(Une) comédie française

Wednesday night, Molière's L'avare at the Comédie Française. I waited for my husband between the columns of the portico of the Palais Royal, fumbling with my cell phone keypad, occasionally looking up across the cobblestones, which were luminescent from the rain and the Paris street lamps.

"You parisiennes have a look," my husband said after he found me, "And telling you apart isn't easy."

"You mean we're all standing on the sidewalk dressed in black winter coats and shouting into our phones?" I teased.

"Now, you're all elegant, a certain je ne sais quoi," he said, taking on a mocking faux-American accent with the last phrase, which is almost never used by the French, and giving me a kiss.

We made our way to the entrance, and were momentarily blinded by chandeliers and polished marble as we blinked the November night from our eyes. We were just behind a group of middle school students who seemed even more dazzled. "Hey, that's Molière, isn't it!" shouted a boy to his friends as he passed in front of a bust that dominated the vestibule, then added proudly, "I recognized him, you see." Three teachers silently herded them all up the stairs.

A long windowed corridor on the second floor had more busts, facing off from their marble pillars at regular intervals. Three blond students were grouped around a large glass display case at the end. I couldn't see what it contained, but I heard them exclaim excitedly, "Is it really?"

"Yes, the real one."

"Can't be."

We wandered back and forth, up and down stairs, staring at our tickets like a hidden treasure map, trying to figure out where exactly we were going. When we doubled back in front of the glass case, the students were gone and inside I could see a simple chair covered with tattered leather of an indeterminate age and color.

"It says that this is the chair where Molière died on stage while playing Le Malade Imaginaire," my husband said.

"I thought that was a myth," I said skeptically, and shuddered. Under the chandeliers and behind the glass the chair suddenly took on the creepy aspect of an electric chair.

We finally found our seats and I glanced around the theater, furtively assessing the crowd. There were lots of students, some college kids uncomfortably dressed up to impress their dates, some high school and middle school kids in jeans and sneakers. There were nondescript professional Parisian couples like ourselves wearing what they'd worn to work. There were older well-to-do couples, the women with their hair meticulously arranged to show off fur collars and large earrings, the men like drab birds in uniform dark gray and black. The lights went down, the curtain went up, and all disappeared into the abstraction of rustling programs and intermittent coughs.

When the lights came on at intermission, the audience was gripped by a group reflex to stand, stretch, and search in pockets and purses for a cell phone. News of the 1-0 lead held by Ireland in the soccer World Cup qualifying match started murmuring its way through the crowd. My husband thumbed at his BlackBerry and confirmed. Harpagon ceded the stage to Thierry Henry.

We were among the first to enter the salon with the bar, a stunning mirrored room with a high ceiling and palatial windows facing the street. While we debated what to order, a small flock of adolescent girls rushed across the room and alighted at the bar, giggling and discussing loudly. I observed the jeunes parisiennes, noting that for once this foreign-to-me species had pushed their voluminous bangs back from their foreheads to reveal an expertly-applied excess of dark eye makeup. Strange plumage, indeed. I suddenly felt rather old.

"Check out that hair!" my husband hissed in my ear.

"What hair?" I asked.

"La bourgeoise behind you. You can't miss it!"

I turned around discreetly and saw a short woman with gray hair that was puffed up, rigidly and perfectly symmetrically, and pulled into a large bun. It almost doubled the volume of her head, and was seemingly shellacked into place by some grandiose post-war hairdresser.

"How does she do that?" my husband asked.

"Better living through chemistry?" I giggled. "And she must not wash it often..."

As my husband tried to fight his way to the bar, which was by then mobbed from one end to the other, I stood self-consciously alone in the middle of the crowded room, clutching my purse. I tried not to stare at a twenty-something man sitting by the window with a bored look on his face. He had on a crisp dress shirt, unbuttoned slightly, a pale blue sweater thrown over his shoulders, and his arms were draped over the back of a neighboring chair with studied ease. His neighbor had a similarly tailored dress shirt and wavy, perfectly styled chin-length hair. An attractive and expensively-dressed young woman leaned ostentatiously into his shoulder.

Must make sure my husband sees the Neuilly UMP fan club over there, I thought with disdain. Then I looked up at more busts on marble pillars, just tall enough to be a head above everyone in the crowd. Molière and Corneille were staring down on us with crooked stony smiles. Oh, what comédie humaine has been acted out below them through the years, I thought. I wonder what they think of me.

My husband had been standing patiently near the bar for some time waiting for his turn to place an order, when a short, shrill woman elbowed her way past and loudly hailed the bartender. My husband glared at her, which she pretended not to notice, then shrugged and maneuvered to wait behind her.

"Madame," called a stern voice from behind, "That shows an utter lack of savoir vivre."

She feigned not to hear, paid for her drink, and disappeared.

"I saw that you were there first," assured the bartender, "But with people like that, it's best to just serve them quickly and get rid of them." My husband agreed with an amused nod, then clutching two glasses of white wine, wove his way back across the room to meet me, chuckling.

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