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Black The Devil and the Good Lord and Two Other Plays by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Vintage, 1960) Related posts: • See this post for an introduction to Edmund Kean and some history on Dumas’ and Sartre’s plays. • This post looks at Alexandre Dumas' play Edmund Kean: or, The Life of an Actor, as well as some differences between the two versions of the play. • Some comments on the movie Kean (1924: France) Kean: Do you believe I am paid to act? I am a priest; every evening I celebrate mass, and every week I receive the offerings of my public, that is all. (Act I, page 180) The play begins at the Danish Embassy in London. Elena, Countess de Koefeld (the Danish Ambassador’s wife) is preparing the Embassy for a ball that evening. She confesses to Amy, Countess of Gosville, That she is in love with the actor Edmund Kean. The Prince of Wales arrives and informs the women that Kean has eloped with Anna Danby, a businessman’s daughter. Anna was a known admirer of Kean but was engaged to Lord Neville. Kean appears at the Embassy asking for help to clear Anna’s name. He gives a letter to Elena to read—on the front is a letter confirming Kean rebuffed Anna’s attempt to elope with him. The back of the letter, in Kean’s handwriting, contains an invitation for Elena to visit the actor in his dressing room. The next night in Kean’s dressing room the actor nervously awaits Elena’s visit while Solomon, Kean’s factorum, tries to get Kean to understand they are broke. The Prince of Wales arrives and draws Kean’s intentions from the actor, confirming what he suspected (since he has seen this before from Kean). They wager whether or not Elena will appear. The Prince hears a knock at the secret entrance and leaves, assuming Kean has won the bet. It is Anna Danby telling the actor she has run away from home in order to become an actress in Kean’s troupe. After the play Kean goes to his old haunt The Black Horse, a bar and brothel by the docks. The troupe Kean used to perform with is there but they are glum because a key member has broken his leg. Anna appears at the bar, following instructions she received in a letter she thinks is from Kean but is from her fiancé. A very drunk Kean offers to perform Othello the next evening with Anna playing Desdemona as charity for the troupe. Lord Neville comes to the bar but Kean, seeing through his intentions, embarrasses him and avoids his thugs’ attempts to murder him. The next day Anna rehearses her part in Kean’s dressing room. Elena arrives and tells Kean she couldn’t show up the previous evening because her husband is suspicious. Kean realizes the Prince of Wales desires Elena, too. A contest of wills follows as Kean and Elena demand favors from each other. The performance falls apart and Kean harangues the prince and the audience from the stage. The next day Anna tells Kean she is leaving for America. Elena and Kean agree to part but her husband shows up demanding satisfaction. The Prince of Wales saves Kean from the count, from the court, and protects Elena from discovery. Kean is exiled for a year and he chooses to go to America and marry Anna. Kean: What am I, if not the man you have made of me? Prince: I? Kean: You and all the others. We believe that men need illusion—that one can live and
it is the labor of others. the audience also has a role to play in the theater. I play at being what I am. Kean “rules” while in the theater. addressing the Prince of Wales): Where do you think you are? At court? In a boudoir? Everywhere else you are a prince. a national glory. Kean: “Are you unhappy? Are you in love?” Every woman asks the same questions. Sartre used the play to include expressions of philosophy but don’t try to hang all of existentialism on the play—it can’t sustain it. play-acting. Kean uses the unreality of his situation to reach self-awareness. What have you done? You took a child. disingenuousness. sir. emphasis mine) Sartre’s play was written as a favor to the French actor Pierre Brasseur so the focus is on the playful performance. is add funny and moving commentary on this alienation. so . alienated from himself and everyone around him. Showing these tensions in a theater is common since it falls within the normal course of business. In this case the framework was Dumas’ play. nothing. (Act II. where we enter the world of fiction in order see representations of ourselves. Do you understand that I want to weigh with my real weight in the world? That I have had enough of being a shadow in a magic lantern? For twenty year I have been acting a part to amuse you all. action vs. yes. He understands that people love Kean the actor but don’t care about Kean the man. or we will stop the performance. Since a “play” exists both on the stage and in the audience’s mind. pages 188-9. and you turned him into an actor—an illusion. He is sham prince. sham general. authenticity vs. Usually Kean’s focus is on Kean and no one else. Kean works toward self-realization and achieves it just as the curtain falls. reality. The rest of the post will look at the commentary Sartre adds. my child. while the audience escapes from reality while attending the play (in order to see their own representation on the stage). Despite his tendencies. of which I will have more on in a separate post. and all London will cry “Vivat!” But if I kiss the hands of the woman I love. page 195) These musings focus on reality and illusion as well as how the two interact. (Act IV. I shall take an old whore in my arms. We are working.die for something other than cheese. And. though. To be or not to be. but there are major differences between the two worlds. out of character. Like the audience understanding life from the artificial machinations it sees. and if there is one thing the idle should respect. Can’t you understand that I want to live my own life? (Act II. as everything folds back on itself in the play. Kean acts in order to move the audience and involve them inside the world he creates. As you can see from the synopsis it faithfully follows a Romantic comedy format. but here I am king. Kean succeeds as an “existentialist play” because it follows a traditional format. and I ask you to be quiet. In an hour from now. but while he may seduce countesses off the stage he is considered an inferior being—an actor. pages 248-9) Kean continually attacks the status quo but he also revels in it. though. I am nothing. Oh. As I mentioned in the earlier post on Kean. He enjoys the notoriety and benefits of being famous while at the same time bemoans his troubles. There are plenty of opposites in the play involving variations on image vs. From time to time. Kean (on stage. Scene ii. Under expert hands the theater becomes a mirror. sham king. Sartre was intrigued by Kean. Kean becomes a hall of mirrors highlighting the many roles we play in life. His affirmation comes from the applause in the theater and the adulation outside it. a fantasy—that is what you have made of Kean. What it does. Apart from that. But on condition that he makes no attempt to live a real life. seeing him as an archetypical existential man. I shall find myself torn in pieces. For Kean. Kean and Sartre highlight the role theater plays in our lives. the lines are blurred. sham minister. Kean himself plays a scene for Kean. While the actors play a role on the stage. Kean hides himself from the reality of his life.
such as throwing the last of his money to a street musician. he is a flower. but Anna rejects the societal upgrade thrown to her from her engagement to Lord Neville. Kean’s exhortation that they only care for illusion could be equally applied to himself for much of the play. royalty. ours. not an actor. Elena is typical of Kean’s attention and conquests. Elena makes it clear she fell in love with Kean the actor. and the old count must receive a great many decorations. Elena accepts her place in society and gives up Kean. And the Countess? I would say. Or Much Ado about Nothing? Wait. Kean is impotent off the stage. Anna represents an absolute. on the other hand. because of Solomon’s role in society). For him to feel he is a prince. in part. From this perspective she’s an uncorrupted version of Kean. because I was a bastard. too. And you. acting the part of Kean the man. Kean (to Elena): Listen—we are three victims. he. Consistent with Shakespeare. in acting as in life. Well-placed in society as a countess. we shall see which of us wins the greater applause. (Act V. page 269) . to insult the prince and draw his prop sword. Kean: Come. We live all three on the love of others. though. Three reflections. out of character. no doubt. we watch Kean’s self-destruction by committing lèse-majesté. You wanted my love—I yours. Anna Danby. refuses to be a victim. but Kean brushes him aside time after time (ironically. On the other hand. (Act II. doing what it will take in order to act on the stage and get what she wants. reality provides a bracing wake-up call. You were right. she must adhere to in their return. as shown by the handling of the return of her love letters. comes from a Danish merchant family (there are plenty of jokes about cheesemongering in the play) but she falls in love with Kean the man. we must make sure of a happy ending. Anna treats Kean as a man. The prince and the countess must have plenty of children. What a mix-up. Elena and Anna are similar people though from different classes. each of the three believing in the existence of the other two. When Kean walks to the edge of the stage. It is only Kean the actor. As for him. as shown in plays. You. of we three. [He laughs] What shall we call the play? As you Like It. a single and same mirage. who are you? You are playing the part of the Prince of Wales? Very well.when he genuinely helps someone else it stands out. and I discover my genius through their applause. she is by far the best actress. She refuses to give up her role in real life. genius. and we are all three incapable of loving ourselves. and I. night after night. he has to be admired. Beauty. the play within a play reveals the true state of things. because you were born a woman— he [the Prince of Wales]. Kean goes straight to the resolution by handing the letters to her while she delays accepting them because she follows the ‘form’. Anna. For a man that has acted in order to deceive himself. sir. The choice of Othello (a change from Dumas’ play’s choice of Hamlet) works perfectly. Kean accuses Anna of wrecking his life but she allows him to live the life he claims he wants. the handle of the sword symbolically comes off in his hand. his debts will be repaid. The result is you enjoy your beauty through the eyes of others. you need not be afraid. but the reality of his life receives the audience’s laughter and contempt. pages 191-2) The differences between the two lady-interests helps us understand Kean’s progress toward selfrealization. The illusion of the play has been destroyed. but he eventually finds his own voice. As for the buffoon—ah well. The only other person that treats Kean as a man instead of an actor is his servant Solomon. Often his generosity comes at high expense. Anna’s force is confirmed by Solomon as she practices her role of Desdemona and breathes too much life into the character. Instead of a murder. even if the performance turns into a fiasco. I am the man who makes himself disappear. that was comedy. His concern for former troupe members is genuine. because he was too highly born. Othello’s jealousy becomes Kean’s as he watches Elena talk with the Prince of Wales. which he has trouble handling even though he calls for this throughout the play.
that is) that Sartre’s Kean uses as its basis. In short. It turns out the existence of Sartre’s play follows nested reflections. Bias aside. but signed by a great novelist and playwright of the day [Dumas].As I mentioned earlier. and adopted from a play about an actor [Kean] requested by another actor [Lemaître] from an unknown author [Théaulon and de Couey]. Very highly recommended. Next week I’ll post on Dumas’ play (if he did write it. page 170 I'll admit my bias about the play. . the play is a hall of mirrors. Kean has been a personal favorite since I saw it at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 2000. too.Sartre’s Theatre: Acts for Life by Benedict O’Donohoe (Peter Lang: 2004). I think it's a marvelous play. with theater and reality constantly reflecting each other. I’ll end with a quote I found that concisely captures some of that mirroring. . Sartre’s Kean is a play about an actor [Kean] requested from him by an actor [Brasseur].