All Conquers Love

Les Liaisons dangereuses

a play by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Howard Davies. at the Music Box Theater, New York City

Les Liaisons dangereuses, the novel by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos first published in 1782, has managed to keep nearly intact its reputation as a scandalous work. After causing an immediate sensation, inspiring the private delight and public censure of eighteenth-century readers, it went on to be banned in France from 1815 to 1875, and to occupy a prominent place in the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum until that august reading list was abolished in 1966. Even today, those more acquainted with the outline than with the substance of the text tend vaguely to think of it as a work of courtly pornography. Of course, it has a French title that fairly reeks of sin, and much bed hopping does take place within its covers, albeit in rather circumspect fashion. All this is good publicity, but what really keeps Les Liaisons potent after two hundred years is not so much its depiction of sex as its catalog of corruptions, including but not limited to the corruption of language by polite cant and the corruption of morals by manners. It implicates a whole society so founded on falsehood that a single act of emotional truth is tantamount to an act of subversion. On this basis, Les Liaisons dangereuses would seem particularly ripe for revival at the present moment, but it is not easy to “revive” a novel. Christopher Hampton has undertaken to solve the problem by translating the complex book into a play, and somehow he has done so successfully.

The novel, in epistolary form, centers on the correspondence between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, two bored aristocrats tending toward middle age whose activities seem to consist entirely of sexual games. Merteuil wishes to revenge herself on a former lover by assuring that the fifteen-year-old former convent girl he is set to marry be deflowered and thoroughly debauched before the wedding day, and for this task she enlists Valmont. He agrees to the job, but has his own agenda, that of seducing the notoriously pious and incorruptible Présidente de Tourvel. Meanwhile the convent girl, Cécile de Volanges, complicates matters by becoming infatuated with the weakly romantic and suggestible young Chevalier Danceny. These intrigues follow their various courses, unknowingly abetted or hindered by Valmont’s wise old aunt and Cécile’s stiffly right-minded mother, until the time comes when Valmont realizes that he has unwittingly fallen in love with the Présidente, and has caused her to fall in love with him, and that he is inescapably bound to Merteuil as well. At this point the work passes from comedy into tragedy.

That Les Liaisons is an epistolary work must have both helped and hindered the process of theatrical adaptation. The epistolary form is not as far from the stage as might at first be imagined. It implies enclosed physical space; it limits exposition to what people might reasonably tell one another; it is, finally, not unlike a series of monologues, or perhaps dialogues with certain lacunas between the retorts …

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