The names that cluster near Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites provoke nostalgia for one educated in Catholic schools in the years following World War II—Gertrud von Le Fort, Georges Bernanos, Raymond Bruckberger. It is old home week for such oddly assorted Catholic heroes.

Gertrud von Le Fort was one of those baronesses taken up by Catholic liberals. Maritain was known to admire her Novelle, Die Letzte am Schaftot, which we read in high school as The Song at the Scaffold. The Baroness pitted grace against human wisdom in a schematic way, to make the Cross double-cross the World. That was a theme dear to Thirties Catholicism in Europe—the theme of Paul Claudel: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Sister Blanche of the Novelle is an improbably cowardly hero, the kind who would become a whiskey priest in Graham Greene. God makes the last ones first.

In Die Letzte, an epistolary story told in pious tut-tuts by a spokesman for the ancien régime, Sister Blanche is a Carmelite nun who runs from martyrdom during the French Revolution and finds it, while Sister Marie seeks martyrdom and is cheated of it. This simple story, with only two important characters, Le Fort extends by the use of rather heavy-handed imagery. First there is the runaway carriage. Blanche’s untimely birth, which killed her mother, was precipitated by horses starting at fireworks and rattling the family carriage wildly off. Then the grown-up Blanche is described to us, first, as trapped in the family carriage by a raging mob. Her neurotic fears become mantic, premonitions of the Revolution. The author’s fragile carriage is as reactionary as Dostoevsky’s troika, but not as expressive.

Another sustained image is that of the Royal Infant, a convent statuette of Jesus crowned and clothed by gift of King Louis XV. The statue is dropped and loses its head as a symbol of the king’s beheading—the Revolution has assaulted God. A third symbol depicts the Revolution as a Black Mass. Blanche, running from the convent in fear of revolutionary violence, becomes by accident a mad mascot of the rabble, and drinks a “communion” cup of blood from murdered nobles (Poulenc had the sense to cut this). In case the reader does not get these symbols, the epistolary narrator is there to point and nudge each of them over the page. He explains the holy deaths to death.

The Novelle was very loosely based on the fact that sixteen Carmelite nuns were guillotined in 1794. Among the evidence used against them was a picture of the convent’s benefactor, Louis XV. The nuns were beatified by Rome in 1906, partly as a rebuke to modern liberalism. It might seem odd that Jacques Maritain and others liked this smug masquerading of politics as piety. But the Catholic left in France has never been able to come to terms with the Revolution. It sought elsewhere its symbols of patriotic loyalty and populism—principally in Jeanne d’Arc, Péguy’s patron before she became a decoration for de Gaulle’s epaulettes. A feckless royalism had for some French Catholics the “otherworldly” air of opposition to all regnant powers—which explains how so many left sympathies were nourished in the unlikely crucible of Maurras’s Action Française. Gertrud von Le Fort tried to foster a revisionist reading of her own work (written in 1931), saying its premonitions forecast the Nazi triumphs. Her Blanche becomes the “embodiment of deathly anguish as a world was ending.”1 But the Novelle, in its original context, seemed more concerned with the past than the future.

Nonetheless, Catholics of the Resistance read Le Fort’s story in a French translation (made in 1937), and loved it. Georges Bernanos read it in Brazil, in a copy given him by Père Bruckberger. After the war, Bruckberger sought rights to the story, hoping to make a movie of it. He composed a scenario with Philippe Agostini, concentrating on the visual possibilities of the Novelle’s crass symbolism. Then he persuaded Bernanos to supply the dialogue to his camera continuity.2 I have seen rather mystical conjectures on the meanings of Dialogues in Bernanos’s title—“interior dialogues” and that kind of thing. But the word seems born of a working literalism, “dialogues” supplied to fit Bruckberger’s fully described “scenes.” Bernanos, in Tunisia, no longer had a copy of the Novelle with him; but it did not matter. On the scenario supplied him he imposed the obsessions of his own last year of life, reshaping the story drastically though not totally (the Baroness would later protest his liberties).3 Bernanos knew even less about the original Carmelites of history than Le Fort did—which is just as well. His nuns are to those guillotined women as Péguy’s Jeanne is to La Pucelle—which means he may have found what real heroism lurked in the first scandal of mere death and politics.


In the Novelle, the clash was simple—would-be martyr (Marie) vs. would-be coward (Blanche). The frame enclosing this clash pitted King and God against the Revolution. Bernanos retains the conflict between an aggressive Marie and shrinking Blanche, but weaves it into a far denser fabric. Marie’s real struggle in the Dialogues is with her superior, Mother Lidoine, who stands outside both the fear and the quest of martyrdom. Mother Lidoine is a woman of low birth trying to preside over the touchy aristocrats of her convent. Marie, the aristocrat who seeks conflict, cooperates unwittingly with the forces of Revolution, yearning for worldly conflict and a test of strength. The simple politics of Le Fort have been effaced in complexities. Her double-crossing of the world is double-crossed.

Bernanos enriches the story by his handling of two other characters—Sister Constance, a giddy young novice of the order who has a child’s eye for truths she does not understand, and Madame de Croissy, Mother Lidoine’s predecessor as superior, who admits Blanche to the order despite her timorous qualities. This “First Prioress” of the Dialogues crowns Blanche’s fears by dying in an agony of despair. This fits the “Catholic existentialist” mood that filled postwar France, when “the agony of atheistic humanism” was seen as a crucifixion for the modern world, one that some saints would have to undergo. So far Bernanos was rather reflecting his time than rebuking it.

But his explanation of Madame de Croissy’s final agony is more interesting that that. The young postulant, Constance, musing in addlepated piety, puts the point without really getting it: she says God seems to sort deaths oddly with people’s lives, like a footman giving out the wrong coats at the door. Perhaps someone will die peacefully, now, since Madame de Croissy got that person’s death. The unexpected humiliation of the pious mother superior will, through the unpredictable currency of Christ’s undeserved death, get traded off for an equally improbable serenity at the opera’s final scene of martyrdom. Bernanos worked hard at his script while facing his own death, and turned it into a series of linked meditations on the subject, suggesting we all die each other’s deaths.

Bernanos missed his movie deadline, and completed a script beyond the prescribed length. The script was published only after his death, and took on a life of its own. Bruckberger finally made his movie in 1959; it was a failure. But before that the Dialogues had been presented on the stage (Poulenc saw the play twice) and translated into German as a fresh creation (to the distress of Le Fort). This narrative soul in quest of a theatrical body, which Poulenc had run across in both printed and acted form, was thrust on him by accident in 1953; and it fit his whole career to that point. (Art at least wrote straight with crooked lines in this sequence.) Poulenc, whose major theatrical work before this was a little Dada shocker translatable as Tiresias’s Tits, was the crazily right choice to make The Song at the Scaffold finally sing.

Poulenc said he had the faith of a country priest, and he mixed sheltered birth with avant-grade pranks in a way that made privilege serve innovation. He was born with a lyric gift he felt obliged to deny. As one of Cocteau’s “Six,” the composers of the Twenties, he had to play with abruptness and angularity, attempting a musical analogue of cubism. But as he grew older, religion gave him an excuse to lift the soaring lines he loved yet treated as a temptation. The austerity of the liturgy would redeem his lyrical propensities and give us the Mass, the Litanies, the Stabat Mater, and the Dialogues. The liturgy freed him from the broken rhythms of modernity.

Here we come up against the most widespread misunderstanding of the Dialogues, one repeated all around the Met’s new production by our critics—that the opera was modeled after Pelléas et Mélisande. The points of comparison seem obvious enough—a literary prose text scrupulously preserved; music subordinate to that text, with rich but conventional harmonies; orchestral interludes; heightened-speech phrasings instead of formal song. But the obvious is here, as so often, misleading. Speech patterns stir music in Debussy as a pebble, dropped, stirs water. The music reacts, shivers off from the words, skitters near them, haunts and evades them. The effect is of speech always becoming music without ever becoming song. The music is diffused, unfocused, wispy as Maeterlinck’s characters, a gauze of harmony through which we see the “real” world at first transformed, and then dissolved. The infuriating dead-end mysticism of Maeterlinck is perfectly captured.


Nothing could be farther from Poulenc’s intention or practice. He meant from the outset precisely to break into song, at regular intervals and on a plan. There is nothing like the liturgical sequences of the Dialogues in Pelléas—and the Dialogues exists entirely for the sake of those Latin high points. Poulenc wrote at a time when the Catholic left was thinking of liturgical reform as a return to the Latin, not departure from it. Four times the Carmelites lift their voices in prayer. At the first three, Blanche is part of the community. After the fourth song, she rejoins them by singing a fifth hymn on her way to the guillotine. (The amazing Harold Schonberg of The New York Times managed somehow not to hear that climactic moment of the whole opera—he said in his review that the other nuns are “followed silently by Sister Blanche” [my italics].)

Even when there is no formal Latin song on the stage, Poulenc uses his orchestra in a way very different from Debussy’s. At times, admittedly, he “paints” an after-effect in the orchestra—the whiplash and clop-clopping wooden blocks of the runaway horses, the flute-shimmer of fireworks that scares them, a shepherd’s pipe when the superior speaks of her flock. But most of the time the orchestra forces the words instead of waiting on them. The drama is urged by a rising figure repeated over and over, or a rhythmic singultus, or two plaintive chords falling, lachrymose as the weepy punctuations of a Verdi aria. Verdi was one of those Poulenc said he took as a model for this work—which should make us think (e.g.) of the glimpses of revolution opened up by Rodrigo’s plea for Flanders in Don Carlos. The other name Poulenc invoked was Mussorgsky’s and, once again, one thinks of the clock motif in Boris Godounov. Poulenc’s First Prioress dies in a torture of conscience like that of Boris. Voices ride on the propulsive lurchings of the orchestra, rising above them, wrestling back, dragged along. This music does not attend on the words, like Debussy’s. It sustains an andante tread whose very monotony is appropriate, a stalking grace. Debussy paints like Renoir; Poulence, like Rouault, juxtaposes brutal things to form an icon.

Poulenc was as sensitive to the word as any French composer of this century, as he proved by setting classic and modern French texts in dozens of songs. (Again, some think this enough to liken his opera to Debussy’s.) But Poulenc expressly urged that his Dialogues be performed in the language of whatever country it played in—indeed, he gave it its premiere, at La Scala, in Italian. Nothing can show how far the Dialogues stands from Pelléas. It is impossible to imagine Debussy’s opera being performed except in French.

Of course, some (like Mr. Schonberg) try to rescue Poulenc from himself, and keep insisting on the French—with apparent excuse: Bernanos’s text forms one of the most successful libretti in opera, profound in concept, simple in its wording. But Poulenc wanted to mark off the pettier conflicts of personality in the convent from the periodic rich Latin songs that lift and fuse the persons in something above themselves. Here Poulenc’s real models were Franck and Fauré (though he ritually denounced the men whose sensuality he turned into ritual).

So his opera works, musically, on three levels—the dialogues, tortured by a harsh grace; the interludes, which let that grace speak on its own; and the prayers, which fuse and perfect the other two. The flow of action moves constantly from intimate settings before the inner curtain to scenes of the whole community. All this, alas, is lost in John Dexter’s current Met production. The three levels are homogenized. Everything becomes liturgical. Instead of using the curtain to shift scenes from the intimate to the communal (the interludes maintaining tension), Dexter keeps the nuns moving in slow regimen right through everything, a hooded band of spookey Rockettes.

One example of many: the soubrettenovice Constance tortures Blanche by her innocent and carefree way, but does so in private converse. Mr. Dexter has the whole convent scrubbing in unison around the two, casting reproving glances at poor Constance, who looks here like some Flying Nun beset by sourpusses. The stiff and minimal movement of the nuns makes it hard to sketch the conflicts meant to be transcended when they pray together. Mr. Dexter seems to realize this, and tries to make up for it in ways that just make things worse. To underline the clash between the superior (Mother Lidoine) and the impetuous Sister Marie, he keeps Mother Lidoine onstage to look reprovingly at Marie’s fierce responses to a revolutionary officer come to inventory the convent’s goods. But by standing there and doing nothing, Lidoine—the final rock of strength—is just made to look superfluous; there is some excuse for Marie’s taking charge when the superior herself says nothing (she is not even there in Poulenc’s score).

One can understand this still treatment of a play so full of variety. The Dialogues does not really belong in a house that seats four thousand people. It is a great opera, but not a grand one. The demands of vernacular intimacy in the dialogue sections are simply on the wrong scale for that. So Dexter plays everything out on a huge tilted crucifixplatform, with a whole corps de ballet of unison Carmelites haunting every scene. In the impersonal, big Met, audiences tend to talk through orchestral interludes, as we found out in Wozzeck. Dexter therefore gives us large enacted “dumb shows” during the interludes. All this forces up the scale. The private conversation of two young nuns takes place in a sedate mob scene. Mother Lidoine, addressing her subjects for the first time in a simple speech, never even faces them, but fights across the orchestra toward the last row. The conchestra Michel Plasson, a sweaty demon in the pit during his Metropolitan debut, caught the exigency and played to fill the house, drowning out the “conversations” in just the way Poulenc said must never happen. Mr. Dexter might claim some justification for his gamble: the opera did grip its matinee audience at the premiere performance (a broadcast one). But there is a sad side even to that. The thing worked even in such straitened circumstances, and may fool people into thinking this was the Dialogues. It wasn’t. Everything was subtly off, where subtleties are everything.

A brilliant cast helped the deception along. Maria Ewing, who could be known to most of the New York audience only for the bit part of Ninetta on James Levine’s recording of I Vespri Siciliani, made a successful debut as Blanche, after slowly chinning herself on the As and A-sharps in her first two speeches. But Miss Ewing, who has the Leslie Caron pretty-look of a Pekingese, was forced to move through the scenes like a pious zombie. Paralysis was her only way of sketching fear—and this was a part Poulenc crafted for the mercurial Denise Duval, the heroine of his La Voix humaine (which owes something to Poulenc’s friend, Edith Piaf) and of Les Mamelles de Tirésias! The hieratic rocking movements of the nuns rob the play of its earthiness, and therefore of any contrast with its Latin flights toward heaven. Poor tough Sister Marie has to mock the invading officer’s uniform without looking at it.

Still, that Marie was Mignon Dunne, who manages to hulk in her bodily as well as her vocal carriage. Shirley Verrett, as Mother Lidoine, smoldered even through the Dexter stillnesses. Betsy Norden was a charming Constance. Régine Crespin, Poulenc’s own original Second Prioress, here got the juicier dramatic part of the First Prioress—and gave the opera its one touch of raw vitality as she died the horrible death that “pays for” later serenities of martyrdom. She would have chewed the scenery if Mr. Dexter and David Reppa (the set designer) had given her any. The ferocity of it all stood out in brilliant contrast to the other scenes, and should make us see how much we were missing in this play of conflicts muted to sameness, to the flat level of the cross everything was danced out on (the Dexter nuns are like the Egyptian “relief” figures of his Aida).

The main lesson of this production is that nothing can spoil the effectiveness of the opera’s end—superior to the last pages of the Novelle, the scenario, and even the Bernanos dialogues; for they all add something after the climactic stroke of the guillotine that ends Blanche’s song at the scaffold. Everything comes together in Poulenc’s last chant of the community of nuns, which is pitted against the hums and murmurs of the crowd. The savage ostinato of the dialogues at last enters the liturgy, with each whack of the guillotine blade. The voices diminish, one by one, but Poulenc enriches them by moving out from unison singing to harmonic parts, so that the song, superbly driven by the orchestra, both sinks and swells. The community is completed as each individual is slain: we not only die each other’s deaths but live each other’s lives. Constance has feared to be “last at the scaffold,” yet that is the place fate gives her—until Blanche comes out of the crowd, serener now than the soubrette, to sing the pure coda with which this music hurts us back toward heaven.

This Issue

March 3, 1977