I was a bit surprised to see listed among the finalists of the Best Translated Book Award the very short Upstaged (La Scène usurpée, 1997; tr. from the French by Leland de la Durantaye, 2011). But, to be honest, I’m not sure why I was surprised. Yes, I liked a few of the books left off of the list of finalists more, but Upstaged, which is written incredibly well, had me laughing out loud. That tends to be rare, and I welcome it.
Upstaged is an attempt for a director’s assistant to document and make sense of a crazy evening at the theater. On the evening in question Marcel Flavy was directing his new play, Going Out to the People, in which the President of the Republican Council puts on a disguise and, well, goes out to the people and has an encounter with Republican rebel Théodore Soufissis. In the audience sat a detested, skeptical theater critic for The Morning Republic. The night, of course, doesn’t go as planned — it goes far better, in fact. Our narrator tries to be objective (which adds to the book’s droll tone) as she recounts these events “with no other aim than edification of a noble profession.” Here’s how the fun begins:
The events this chronicle was undertaken to relate began in the second minute of the second act. Nicolas Boehlmer, preparing to smoke his last cigarette before going onstage, heard a knock at his dressing-room door. “Come in,” he called out. He was to note later how difficult it was to deliver this unexpected line at a moment when he had already entered the imaginative universe of his character. In response to his invitation, a stranger entered — one wearing the same wig, makeup, and clothes as Boehlmer (the outfit — according to costume-designer Sylvie Plumkett — of “a careless intellectual”).
This stranger, who will become known among the theater troop as the Usurper, proceeded (with “perfectly unthreatening authority”) to bind Boehlmer with a red, white, and blue scarf.
Boehlmer recalls the following phrase: “I am indeed taking a part of you, but you will soon find it returned unharmed. You have my word.” The Usurper added: “In case this does not go without saying, I very much admire your work.”
To Boehlmer’s dismay, the Usurper rushed out and began performing Boehlmer’s role in the second act. The role? That of Republican rebel Théodore Soufissis. The Usurper was performing just as Boehlmer had performed the role (he’d obviously seen many performances), with the same gestures and all . . . for a while. Soon the Usurper was introducing subtle revisions in the script and the action. Nevertheless, the director, though mortified, fell under the Usurper’s spell and even knocked Boehlmer on the head when Boehlmer escaped his bonds and tried to get his role back.
Then, at then end of Act II, the Usurper disappeared, leaving the cast to pick up the pieces and finish the third and final act. And the critic? Of course he thinks the play is brilliant, a definite improvement to the text he had in his lap as he watched. His review is appended to the director’s assistant’s account:
Too often in theater a line of dialogue is shoved forward like a reheated pizza instead of like something unique to its time and its place — a time that is none other than now, and a place that is none other than here.
As a theatrical farce, I found Upstaged completely enjoyable, but, as I mentioned above, was still a bit surprised that it was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. I’m fairly confident that much of the politics of the little book were lost on me. In an afterword, translator Leland de la Durantaye adds a bit of color to Upstaged, explaining that it is part of Jouet’s “La République roman” series. So apparently I’m not very good at putting together the pieces of the story — such as the red, white, and blue scarf, the Republican rebel, and a newspaper called The Morning Republic — because I’m still not sure I understand what it was saying . . . but I completely enjoyed its playfulness.