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. On the other hand the gradual pace, which is of a piece with the cold formality of the language of the novel, is impossible to reproduce on the stage. The letters are written in a high classical French, embroidered with decorous sentiments, in which all passions are masked; even Merteuil’s evil is wrapped in a sort of demonic rectitude. Only the guileless letters of Cécile and Danceny expose naked emotions, but those two are young and unformed persons, and their commitments are not to be trusted.
The form of the novel follows the form of the intrigue. Merteuil and Valmont construct a plot of great ingenuity and refinement, which is ultimately undone by the unwillingness of humans to behave like chess pieces. Laclos is similarly building a machine, but the inherent flaw in the design of the aristocrats is the motor in his own. As the symmetry of their machination unravels, his achieves completion, with all the major characters being implicitly or explicitly destroyed in the end.
Hampton resolves the dilemma of adaptation by substituting for the epistolary another mechanical form, that of farce. The play’s single setting is a room that stands in for the several rooms of the story. It comes equipped, per tradition, with divans, various doorways, and a screen, but even the screen, that standby of farce, is in the book. The play’s comical elements are in the book, too, although there they are sometimes hidden by verbiage. The jokes in the play arise naturally from the story, without violence to the theme, and they serve to sharpen the point of tragedy. The characters mostly appear in pairs and trios consonant with the pattern of exchanges in the novel so that, for example, the ironic discrepancies between Merteuil’s letters to Valmont and her letters to Mme. de Volanges can be effected by Merteuil’s shifting demeanor, depending on which characters are with her on stage. This, naturally, makes for broader effects, but then so does the English language. There is no English Academy, and no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the parsimonious vocabulary and intricately formalized discourse of Racine. Any attempt to reproduce it doggedly would lead the play into thickets of Latinism and put the audience to sleep before the end of the first scene. Hampton opts for a robust and mongrel, though elegant, language, perhaps inspired by Restoration comedy, and what results is a crispness of expression that sounds more oracular than it actually is (Merteuil in particular is given to mots like “Excess is something you reserve for people you’re about to leave” and “Love is something you use, not something you fall into like quicksand”) but that certainly fulfills the task of blurring the difference between the heartfelt, the tactical, and the perfunctory in the various speeches.
The staging is minimal in a way that suggests luxury, with draperies, furniture, and costumes in possibly ahistorical but poetically appropriate shades of white and cream. The acting is superb throughout. Lindsay Duncan is coldly beautiful and menacingly composed as Merteuil, with a faint hint of a sneer and flaring nostrils that suggest the fury she is holding in check. Alan Rickman is an elegantly world-weary Valmont. As Valmont’s doubt and confusion increase, Rickman’s stalking body plays them out, while his face and voice assume yet more languor and control. As Mme. de Tourvel, Suzanne Burden lets her elastic features gradually gain focus, from a kind of psychic dishevelment at the start to a final clarity of expression just at the point of collapse, which makes her tragic experience all the more wrenching. The rest of the cast is equally effective and intelligent.
Hampton’s work is impressive in its own right, although the chilling inevitability of Laclos’s design is so powerful that it could probably carry any adaptation. Even Roger Vadim, in his predictably vulgar 1959 film version, could not entirely damage it by modernizing the setting or jacking up the titillation factor. Hampton has been as true to the book as is perhaps possible without sacrificing theatrical vitality. He does not pretend to have found a way to convey the book’s pace, but within the limits of his chosen form the pacing takes care of itself. His only significant departure from the text comes at the end. Instead of punishing Merteuil, as Laclos does with a certain relish, he allows her to continue playing cards, her occupation in the first scene. With death and despair all around her, she reassures her companions:
A new year tomorrow and more than half-way through the eighties already. I used to be afraid of growing old, but now I trust in God and accept. I dare say we would not be wrong to look forward to whatever the nineties may bring. Meanwhile, I suggest our best course is to continue with the game.
Beyond the immediate confusion of decades, ours and theirs, there is another implicit punch line: the shadow of the guillotine. This specter literally appears as a stage direction in the text of the play but was dropped from the production in its early British run. Nevertheless, it is still there figuratively, and critics have protested Hampton’s apparent imposition. John Simon deplored “the smug anachronisms…heralding the Revolution” (but failed to specify any further). Robert Brustein, in The New Republic, liked the play but found a lapse in Hampton’s “bring[ing] the moral paraphernalia and social indignation of a later age to bear on events of the past.”
Laclos, however, was hardly blind to the events and rumors of his age, and it is by no means true that his tale was merely meant as a study in individual morals with no larger social reverberations. For example, Merteuil’s end in the book is quite different from the torments of the other characters. While they destroy themselves Merteuil, disfigured by smallpox and jeered at in the streets, is smitten by a combination of divine and popular will. It is the crowd’s only appearance in the novel, and it is scarcely accidental. A decade after publication, Laclos was finally able to openly declare his social intentions. In a review of the Maréchal de Richelieu’s memoirs (Richelieu being, in the à clef theory of the novel, a leading candidate for Valmont’s model) in the Jacobin Journal des amis de la constitution, he wrote, “The cruel or scandalous fictions, in which novelists unmasked and fought the infamous characters they depicted, were nevertheless mild compared with the truth. The Revolution was no less needed for the reestablishment of morals than for that of liberty.” Laclos’s friend the Comte de Tilly later called Les Liaisons dangereuses “a wave on the ocean of the Revolution.”
Not much is known about Laclos, and one can only speculate about the forces within him that brought about Les Liaisons, his only work of imaginative literature beyond a few apparently forgettable verses and the libretto for an opera that was hooted at its single performance. He was a member of the bourgeoisie, and it has been noted that the novel’s only bourgeois character, Mme. de Tourvel, is also its only pure victim. He spent most of his adult life in military service, and wrote the book around the age of forty, after more than twenty years of peacetime artillery duty, which has led to conjectures that his obsessive marshaling of triad patterns in the novel was inspired by cannon emplacements. When the Revolution came he joined the Jacobins, and entered the service of the renegade royal cousin Philippe-Égalité. He survived two imprisonments during the Terror, and in 1800 was made a general by Napoleon. He died three years later in Italy, of dysentery and malaria. After Les Liaisons he wrote a few tracts, notably an attack on the strategies of the Maréchal de Vauban, which inspired a different kind of scandal, and a treatise on the education of women, published posthumously. He died before he could begin a proposed novel extolling the joys of family life. He never profited much from his exceptional novel, nor did he concern himself much with its reception after it was published. It made him more notorious than famous, and inspired various great ladies to announce that they would not receive him should he call on them. A copy bound with a blank spine was found among Marie Antoinette’s effects.
Laclos might have come out of nowhere, but the same cannot be said of his book. Les Liaisons is very much in the current of eighteenth-century French literature. Most obviously, its epistolary form already characterized the two most popular novels of its day, Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse. It shares other characteristics with these works as well, Valmont, for example, having more than a little in common with Richardson’s Lovelace. Many of the epigrammatic citations sprinkled throughout the book allude to the period’s romans galants. These mildly prurient novels, frequently set in a mythic Orient, were all the rage, a sort of upper-class pulp. Even Voltaire and Diderot augmented their incomes by writing in the genre. At the other extreme, though often sharing writers and readers, were the romans noirs, a literature of corruption and ruin that ran the gamut from Diderot’s La Religieuse to crude pornographic pamphlets detailing the lewd activities of prominent persons. These works can be seen as subterranean heralds of the Revolution.
Les Liaisons fits firmly into this latter genre; it is simply better realized than most. The sincere and hapless Présidente de Tourvel, for example, could be the twin of Diderot’s nun Suzanne Simonin, whose family has had her cloistered for convenience and who is tossed helplessly between ascetics and sensualists, all of whom want to degrade and exploit her. Restif de la Bretonne’s Le Paysan perverti is the epistolary chronicle of a naive youth’s gradual corruption by older and richer persons who eventually transform him into a hardened debauchee who specializes in the debasing of devout women. Such works made the personal political out of necessity, speaking of sexual bondage in a society whose foundations rested on bondage. The master of the genre, of course, was Laclos’s exact contemporary D.A.F. de Sade, who may not have been much of a stylist but who threw himself into the abyss with unmatched ferocity. Valmont and especially Merteuil bear a distinct family resemblance to his monstres sacrés, and indeed the setting and initial framework of Les Liaisons makes it sometimes seem like a better organized version of one of Sade’s interminable sagas of the pleasures of crime, in particular the first version of Justine, a tale of sexual martyrdom. Sade must have been aware of this, perhaps rancorously so in the light of the success of Les Liaisons. Even his champion Gilbert Lély finds it strange that Sade omits mention of Laclos’s book in his encyclopedic survey of French literature in the preface to Les Crimes de l’amour, and that he shortly thereafter went on to plot out an epistolary novel of his own.
Of course, the other distinction between Sade and Laclos is that the former is constantly testing the limits—of behavior, of retribution, of logic itself. His vast novels constantly prod and dare the reader, attempting to exhaust the reader to the point of a sort of conversion. Sade’s response to horror is to wallow in it. Laclos, by contrast, appears a conventional moralist, but it is perhaps this feature that is the most critical. Les Liaisons turns from an alarming comedy into a tragedy with the appearance of love, and with the nearly simultaneous discovery that love is impossible, since it cannot compete with vanity, or gamesmanship, or the simulacrum of order provided by manners and the rules of discourse. Obstacles of this size can be overcome by nothing less than a general upheaval.
Christopher Hampton’s choice of the novel seems similarly counter to prevailing winds. The notion that love might be antithetical to order is not a popular point of view these days. It is certainly revealing that many critics of the play have accused the adaptation of betraying the novel. Fidelity to the epistolary form being manifestly impossible in the theater, this is as good a way as any of saying that the book should remain safely between boards, and probably unread. To call a work a “classic” is very often to declare it inert.
August 13, 1987