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The Lovers of Viorne

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THE LOVERS OF VIORNE

Interplay

When my father-in-law goes to the doctor, he refuses to describe his symptoms. "It's the doctor's job to figure out what's wrong with me. I'll be damned if I'm going to do his work for him."

Marguerite Duras seems to bring a similar attitude to her play The Lovers of Viorne. She undoubtedly had a purpose in writing this account of a brutal murder that took place in France in 1966, but she'll be damned if she'll let the audience in on its meaning. Like my father-in-law, she steadfastly refuses to provide any clues to the mystery she sets forth. Why should she make the audience's job any easier?

Actually, The Lovers of Viorne is not a mystery--it's a psychological thriller. The question is not who did it. That is known from the start. The question is why did Claire Lannes, a middle-aged French woman, kill her deaf-mute cousin and dismember her body, dropping pieces from an overpass onto freight trains headed for various regions of France? Duras provides some tantalizing clues, but two exasperating hours later the questions are unanswered.

The play consists of two interviews conducted by a woman who is writing a book about the notorious case. In the first act, the woman interviews Pierre Lannes, the 57-year-old husband of the killer. From his descriptions of Claire, she sounds like the victim of serious mental illness. He says she would break plates and cut up her blankets. She would bury objects in the garden and throw her glasses down the well. She could not distinguish stories on the radio from actual events. And over the years she had withdrawn farther and farther into a private world, seldom talking to either her husband or her cousin, who lived with them.

"Nothing but total indifference for years," Pierre says. "She didn't look at us anymore. At meals she sat without raising her eyes. It was as if she was frightened. As if as time went by she knew us less and less."

The second act consists of the journalist's interview with Claire Lannes herself, who freely admits to the murder and expresses no remorse. "You can't imagine how tiring it was, all that butchery at night in the cellar," she says. "I'd never have believed it." Claire withholds only one detail--where she disposed of her cousin's head, which has not been found. But Duras assigns her no motive whatsoever. Yes, Claire probably has hallucinations and the attendant difficulty of distinguishing reality from illusion. But when asked why she killed, Claire replies with words that suggest she knew exactly what she was doing: "I shan't tell."

Claire also adds a profound ambiguity. "There are two things," she tells the journalist. "The first is I dreamed I was killing her. The second is when I killed her, I wasn't dreaming." Claire says she dreamed of killing all the people she ever lived with, including her first lover, a policeman from her hometown. Because of these dreams, she concludes, "I was bound to do it in real life, someday."

But why? Claire says she felt no animosity toward her cousin and disapproved only of the woman's corpulence and her beef stew. The playwright implies that Claire was shell-shocked after her unhappy love affair with the policeman, but draws no clear connection between that experience and Claire's homicidal tendencies.

The translation contributes to the obscurity so carefully maintained by Duras. In French the title is L'amante anglaise, a direct reference to a telling Freudian slip made years earlier by Claire. According to her husband, Claire occasionally uttered bizarre comments such as, "English mint is thin and dark and smells of fish and comes from the sandy isles." Then, while writing to a newspaper for advice about storing English mint during the winter, she wrote l'amant--lover--instead of la menthe. This slip of the pen sounds significant--Claire obviously has lovers on her mind--but Duras says no more about it.

The actors, under the direction of David Perkovich, seem as determined as the playwright to avoid interpretation. As Pierre, Leo Harmon keeps his answers to the questions perfectly neutral, betraying no guilt, paranoia, or other emotion that might hint at a different meaning to his words. Dorothy Milne takes a similar approach as the journalist, always keeping her questions free of innuendo or skepticism.

And as Claire, Caitlin Hart merely muddles things further, even though she has the greatest opportunity to assign meaning to this play. Hart is an outstanding actress with many fine performances to her credit, but even she seems unable to give her role any coherence. She starts out portraying Claire as a woman visibly disturbed--detached and distracted, with only a tenuous connection to the world around her. But Hart soon loses this posture and becomes lucid, chatty, and affable. At times she even resembles Carol Burnett.

The Lovers of Viorne may have meaning embedded in it somewhere. More likely, it is just what it seems to be--a self-indulgent scribble by an arrogant writer who feels no obligation to be coherent.

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