Victor Hugo's
HERNANI

MONDAY, JANUARY 15, 2018 AT 7:30 PM

Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.)

 

Translated by John Strand

Directed by Ethan McSweeny

 

  

Featuring Frankie J Alvarez, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Ryan Garbayo, Anthony Martinez, Ismenia Mendes, Luis Moreno, Tony Plana, Matthew Saldivar, and Derek Smith

 

A tale of passion and intrigue from the young Victor Hugo (of later Les Miserables fame), complete with sword fights, a lover in disguise, and deadly poisoned cup. The play begins in the fictional Spanish court of 1519 with the King Don Carlos sneaking into the bedchamber of the beautiful Doña Sol, who is tragically betrothed to her elderly uncle, and already plotting her escape with the mysterious bandit Hernani. With three men in love with one woman, could it ever end well? The play famously incited a riot in its 1830 Paris premiere, as the Romantics and Classicists duked it out over dramatic structure (those were the days!).

 

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ABOUT the PLAY

by translator John Strand

 

If Victor Hugo ever did anything small or insignificant in art or life, it is not recorded. Hernani, his third play, written when he was 28, was not so much a piece of theater as a bombshell dropped directly into the laps of les classiques, the conservative defenders of French drama and its perfect garden of rules, regulations and Aristotelian commandments of How Things Must Always And Forever Be. Subject matter, setting, tone, characters, dialogue, the metrics and rhyme scheme of the dialogue were all required to conform to precise standards established centuries earlier. Deviation was considered heretical; innovation unnecessary, and to some minds, criminal.

 

Into this boutique of delicate porcelain sensibilities strode Victor Hugo, club in hand.

 

Hugo found it convenient to his mission--essentially to become the world’s greatest living author (he ultimately succeeded)--to use his play to free French theater from the conservative forces of darkness that held it prisoner. At the same time, he would liberate French poetry, French literature, French society and a whole generation of bored young intelligentsia. He would get to the working poor and the rest of Europe later.

 

Hugo, it must be noted, was a nut, even if an enormously talented nut. Jean Cocteau had it right when he famously observed that Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo. No one could be Victor Hugo. It was too exhausting a task.

 

Even so, Hugo gave it a shot.

 

Six hours before the opening performance of Hernani, February 25, 1830, a line of young, loud, ostentatiously dressed spectators had formed outside the Comedie-Francaise, the very bull’s eye of classical tradition in art. These were the foot soldiers of the Romantic Movement, most of them having been recruited personally by Hugo (his father, after all, had been a general). They could be counted on to register loud approval at all the critical moments of the drama. (Stacking the audience had a long tradition in French theater. The top actors of the day negotiated the number of paid “claqueurs” they were allowed to have in attendance and even how loudly and often they were to applaud). Hugo, meanwhile, was dashing around Paris, calling at newspaper offices, appealing for last-minute support and warning of attempts by his enemies to arrange organized hissing.

 

By the time the curtain went up at 7:00 p.m., the house was packed with 1,600 tense spectators so clearly divided between Romantic and classical camps that they might have been painted red or blue. One group was counting on disaster, the other hoping for triumph.

 

With the opening line of the play, the Romantics got in the first punch. It was an innocuous verse, but contained an “illegal” enjambment, a continuation of the line that deliberately violated classical rules. The battle was on. In the second scene, when the young hero Hernani advises the old nobleman Don Ruy Gomez, “Old man, go and be measured for your coffin and leave us in peace!” the Romantics erupted, cheering and stomping their feet until the House of Molière fairly shook.

 

Not to be outdone by such tasteless behavior, the guardians of good taste took to shouts and hissing of their own. There were fistfights. Objects and insults were thrown. Threats were made. The play was interrupted repeatedly. At times it was hard to hear the text and therefore difficult to know when to be outraged or when to be smug. After the final curtain, young Romantics performed a victory dance in the lobby. Hugo later received a bullet through the window of his apartment.

 

What exactly was all this fuss about? After all, Hernani is a stage play set in Spain in 1519. But the French establishment of 1830 was a weak and rotting structure. The king, the eminently forgettable Charles X, would be dethroned within a few months. The French Revolution and its descent into carnage were a mere three decades in the past, not more distant than George H. W. Bush is to us today. Romanticism was nothing much more than a movement for freedom of individual expression. But because it mirrored, even perhaps fed, the parallel struggle for political freedom, it was deemed dangerous. Victor Hugo was hero or insurgent. It depended on your point of view.

 

But all this tends to obscure the play. Hernani is a wonderfully rich emotional ride through some remarkable narrative terrain, a place where heroes and villains still reign, where kings abduct damsels in the night and where men and women are ready to die for honor. The characters, like their author, are a little larger than life. Their reality, like Hugo’s, a little heightened.

 

We should not forget that Hugo, a great admirer of Shakespeare, was a magnificent storyteller. After Hernani he would complete perhaps the second greatest French novel of the 19th century, Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame); the greatest is likely his Les Miserables. Hugo’s political and social agendas may still stir audiences today. Regardless, though, Hernani stands very proudly on its own merits. The action, the passion, the sweep of the story, the tragic ending all combine to create unforgettable theater. What –ism the piece belongs to is of secondary importance.

ABOUT the PLAYWRIGHTS

 

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was born shortly after the French Revolution, and his family was divided in ways that reflected the great social and political upheaval that roiled France during his lifetime. His father was an officer in Napoleon’s army and his mother a committed Catholic Royalist. Their marriage was troubled. Hugo is perhaps best known for his great novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, both of which called unprecedented attention to the plight of the poor and disenfranchised in French society. He was an early, outspoken advocate for numerous progressive causes, and became a standard-bearer for French Romanticism, establishing the Théatre de la Renaissance in 1838 for the express purpose of propagating Romantic drama. In 1852 he was forced to flee France with his family because of his opposition to Louis Napoleon’s political coup. After spending eighteen years in exile on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel, he was welcomed back to Paris in 1870 as a national hero and remained politically active until his death in 1885.

 

JOHN STRAND, playwright-in- residence at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, Washington, DC, 2014–2016, is a winner of the Charles MacArthur Award for playwriting. His recent work includes the play The Originalist, featuring the character of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia (Arena Stage premier; Chicago, and NYC in 2018); the book for the musical Snow Child (Arena Stage and Perseverance Theater, Juneau, in 2018);
the book and lyrics for the musical Hat! A Vaudeville (South Coast Repertory); the book for the musical The Highest Yellow (Signature Theatre); Lorenzaccio, an adaptation of Alfred de Musset's 1834 French classic (Shakespeare Theatre Company); the play Lincolnesque (The Old Globe); and the novel Commieland (Kiwai Media, Paris). He is at work on the film adaptation of his play The Originalist (Rocklin/Faust).

 

 
MORE ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Conceived in Germany, Romanticism was an artistic and philosophical movement that privileged novelty, individualism, and emotion over tradition, order, and reason. Romantic ideas made their way to France in part through the publication of Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne, written after she befriended August Schlegel during her travels in Germany.

 

Today Hernani is remembered more for the controversy it provoked than for its independent value as dramatic literature. Its 1830 premiere occasioned boisterous demonstrations between the classicists who opposed Hugo and the Romantics who supported him. The great show-down was in part manufactured by the author himself, who hired a claque of one hundred spectators to attend each performance and loudly make their approval known. “Bald pates to the guillotine!” one of Hugo’s young followers shouted at the defenders of classicism on opening night.

 

Hugo gave fullest expression to his ideas about Romanticism in the famous preface to his earlier play, Cromwell (1827). There he writes that the classical conception of beauty “was magnificent at first, but, as always happens when something is systematized, in later times became false, trivial, and conventional.” He argues for abolishing the “pseudo-Aristotelian” code stipulating the observance of the three “unities” of time, place, and action, and advocates the mixing of comedy with tragedy, as “true poetry…resides in the harmony of opposites.” For the theater to reflect the vast and awesome complexity of human existence, he says, it must embrace subjects and forms previously considered beneath the dignity of the stage. “The modern muse will view things from a higher and broader vantage point,” he writes, “She will see that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, deformity beside gracefulness, the grotesque on the reverse side of the sublime, evil with good, light with shadow.”

 

The rather unwieldy plot of Hernani embodies many of these convictions. Set in Spain in 1519, the play follows its titular young hero, a bandit of obscure origins, as he attempts to navigate a treacherous love quadrangle and a political conspiracy. Hernani is in love with Doña Sol, and his rivals are no less than Don Carlos, the King of Spain, and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, Doña Sol’s elderly uncle and fiancé. Hernani begins comically, with all three men colliding in the bedchamber of their mutual beloved, but after numerous (anti-Aristotelian) jumps in time and place it ends tragically with a triple suicide that leaves only King Carlos, now Emperor, standing. With its hero, whose affections the heroine returns, locked in erotic competition with an older man, and the authority of the Spanish crown in jeopardy, Romantic themes of the vital, dynamic New prevailing over the ossified, decrepit Old are dominant throughout Hernani.

 

Interestingly, however, Hernani is not permitted to triumph unequivocally. In the final acts he abandons a revenge plot against Carlos and makes good on a debt of honor that obliges him to take his own life just as he has attained that which he most cherishes, the lovely Doña Sol. Hernani is furthermore revealed to be of noble birth himself, thereby undermining the critique of the aristocracy that the play half-heartedly advances. Whether this subtle conservatism is attributable to the demands of the form, the moment, or the author’s personal psychology is difficult to say, but Hernani will always be remembered as the play that gave French writers permission to “tear down that old plasterwork which masks the façade of art!”

 

Jessica Rizzo

The Theatre Times

NYC Editor

 

SYNOPSIS  (SPOILER)

Dona Sol, betrothed to her uncle, the elderly Don Ruy Gomez, and coveted by the King, Don Carlos, is herself in love with the outlaw Hernani. He swears to kill the King in order to avenge the murder of his own father by Carlos’s father. Hoping to marry Dona Sol, Ruy Gomez takes her to his chateau. When Hernani follows them, he is himself followed by the King, who has sworn to capture him. Though aware that Hernani and Dona Sol are lovers, Ruy Gomez refuses to surrender Hernani to the King, as he is a guest in his house. When the King leaves, taking Dona Sol as hostage, Hernani emerges and reveals to Ruy Gomez that the King is in love with Dona Sol. The two men join forces against the King. However, to repay Ruy Gomez for saving his life, Hernani presents him with a horn, promising that when it is sounded he will surrender his life. Their designs against the King are frustrated when bells ring out announcing his election as Holy Roman Emperor. Turning his back on his youthful adventures, the new Emperor grants Hernani a pardon, the return of his ancestral titles, and Dona Sol in marriage. On their wedding day, however, the jealous Ruy Gomez blows the horn, and, faithful to his word, Hernani determines to take poison. Dona Sol, unable to persuade him to live, drinks the poison herself; Hernani drinks the remainder and they die in each other’s arms. The repentant Ruy Gomez kills himself.

 

 

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