PRINT Summer 1982


She [Carmen] should be gagged, a stop put to the unrestrained twisting of her hips; she should be straitjacketed and cooled off with a pitcher of water over her head. The pathological condition of this unfortunate woman, devoted without cessation to the burning of the flesh . . . is more likely to inspire the solicitude of medical men than to interest the decent audience who come to the Opéra-Comique with their wives and children.
—from a review of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, 1875.

ONE EARLY EVENING IN the 1960s I came upon a fleet of police cars some doors from my home. Cops carrying a stretcher rushed out of a doorway. A bloodsoaked sheet partially draped the body of a young girl I had spoken to several times that spring. She looked as if she was sleeping. (She really did.) Then more cops rushed out with a second stretcher. A bloody sheet covered the face of this one. One young cop kept crying out, “For Christ’s sake! Oh! For Christ’s sake!”

Since no ambulance had yet arrived the police packed the bodies into their cars and sped away to some hospital. They were dead anyway. They were two kids from Georgia who had come to New York to be part of the (last) great days of the East Village—the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Diggers, Gem Spa. It was a new world, as she once explained to me, and the revolution was tomorrow afternoon. He didn’t like me and shrugged his hellos as we passed in the street.

I was very jealous of them. He was 24, she, 22, and they were rich and very appealing, each with delicate, tight bodies, like Vietnamese. They had quarreled many times that spring, and one night, when he beat her up, there was so much yelling that a neighbor phoned the police.

She (simply) was seeing someone else (on the side) and he couldn’t take it. She took four bullets in the chest. He, one behind the ear.

Love as a work of art. Like sculptures. Some are assembled. Some deconstructed. Artworks, like love, have (or have had) their conventions, their rules. And for this reason, all transgressions of the form are, at their least, provocative, and, at their most, qualitative leaps of experience. Artworks like love are most exciting when they are most recondite or when they are so transparent that they seem recondite. We don’t want everything revealed at once, too soon or ever completely. There is companionable art as there are companionable lovers but neither bring us beyond the surface of things and neither, really, bring us to that qualitative leap outside of ourselves. One is never driven to kill a companion—the whole point of having one is to break bread with him or her and not to get so loony over the table as to drench the common bread with one another’s blood.

Love as an artwork: it must be distant to be intimate. Corporeal, material, yet transcendent. Stupid stones can move us more than bright, sensitive humans. Stones allow us so much more space for our imagination.

Artworks like lovers are always on loan. We must grow accustomed to the idea that we own neither. Do you own your Cézanne? We would like that, wouldn’t we, to own the things we most love, forever. Ownership, I suppose, is an intimation of immortality. “You belong to me.” “I’m yours.” “Never leave me.” “As long as forever.” “Yours till the end of time.” And so on.

Life is really short. It’s so hard to imagine and to believe that. We still want the “I’ll love you forever”s and “to the end of time”s. We’re all made of that. Engels thought that with socialism there would be real love. The abolition of economic disparities would allow free choice (on the open market, so to speak) unencumbered by economic need. No more slaves in the name of romance. None to marriage. Authentic love in this new world where men and women own themselves and thus their personal stars. We must believe whatever serves us best. Perhaps it is necessary, finally, to conceal our losses under the aegis of history, or how else could we bear our own private failures?

I’m tempted to say—but how dare I without fear of retribution—that love is successful fascism. I mean, in the name of love we have tyrannized others and have been subject to the tyranny of others. And yet we still dream of love. To paraphrase obliquely, love is fascism with a ravishing face. This is not true of companionable love. Companions live in the area of social democracy. Lovers live under fascism.

Power is what all this means. Some have it. Some do not. No one has it for very long. (Even now, there is someone more beautiful, more distant, more stonelike, more powerful than you.) But for whatever the span—some hours or years—power is the bed of passion. There is little to do about where we lie in this bed. Our position is not determined by our will or our talent. The course of passion is inexorable. The fit ineluctable.

Yet not everyone wishes or is chosen to be cast in its form. The bourgeoisie (my abstract, pointless target) believe their work and their missions will save them from passion. And they want to be spared it. Why not? At least there will be no brains splattered on the bedroom walls. They prefer to consume themselves in productive activities. Their ambition is their passion. And in the economics of time they are wise. How much passion can one fit in during the course of the day? Ambition is fueled and rewarded at all hours.

Passion has become one of the truly dirty words in both socialist and capitalist societies. For the post-Freudian West, passion is unsocial, unruly, and infantile—the big question behind passion always is where lurks the father, where the mother? This is a great and good question. But most of those who ask it bear ill-will to passion, being, as it is, incompatible with achievement. Or, wanting as they do to miss out on nothing, they hate passion, fearful they may be missing out on some vital and mysterious thing. For the social engineers and despots great and small, as George Orwell understood, passion is a menace. Anarchic, passion is the infernal-machine that can blow up the state. Passion doesn’t give a damn for the dialectic and, as was once said of nature, it abhors vacuums.

From the middle to the close of the 19th century, passion, though always a threat, was still on the invitation lists of the middle and upper classes. It was certainly a welcome relief from the dry-hump of Finance and Enterprise. It lived beyond reason and somewhere fitted in with destiny, the stars, and the like, and, thus, to a world that housed the mysteries of religion there was always a spare room for another mystery. Even Flaubert did not mock passion, only its sickly substitutes, sentimentality and wishful thinking and the terrible prose these two engendered.

By 1929, passion had had its day. It took a vacation, except for an occasional return visit to such innocent hot spots as James Cain’s California, let’s say. But by the late ’60s, a certain form of passion in America and elsewhere was dead. (For that reason the current remakes of such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice are never as successful as their archetypes.) America discovered that sex can be just plain fun and that it need not lead to spawning complications. Passion still lives here and there. Sometimes something reminds us of it long after we ourselves think we have survived its shocking visit. Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen does this.

When first presented in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in March 1875, Georges Bizet’s Carmen was poorly received. No fistfights in the audience, nothing on the order of a grand scandal, but it was duly flogged in the press and ran some 46 performances to an often half-empty house. Within a decade, however, it was praised and performed in the other major cities of Europe, and even Paris reclaimed it in 1883. It has remained a golden-oldie ever since. By the time in the ’50s it reached its Bronx high fame as the vehicle for that much sung, much loved aria, known to every street kid as “Tor-re-a-dora, don’t spit on the floor-a,” Carmen had undergone other transformations since Bizet’s death, but not even Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones equalled this Bronx rendition.

Carmen as cliché. Carmen would have been a heavensend for a full-scale high-toned production in New York at Radio City Music Hall, should it ever have dared to go all the way. Carmen as Lola (she turns professor to rooster). Carmen as Circe (transforms grown men into little porkers). She’s our Lady from Shanghai—she’ll crack your mirrors and frame you for life. “Don José: ‘Tu es la diable, Carmen.’ Carmen: ‘Oui . . .’ ” It’s the Fall via Eve’s apples, Carmen’s oranges.

How can one be expected to see it with fresh eyes? Some authentic life must have pulsed through this opera once. Its archetypes of love and death still press near the surface of even the most facile productions. But how to resurrect it from its deadly familiarity? A Prospero could manage it. A wave of his learned wand and the pure, unadulterated material is released from its bathetic suspension.

It would be interesting to learn what brought Peter Brook to attempt to bring a new life to Bizet’s Carmen, why he decided to do his magic on it. Since its opening here in Paris last November La Tragédie de Carmen, or, as it’s frequently referred to, Brook’s Carmen, has played to a full house each performance. There is no reserved seating and long lines of ticket holders appear hours before the theater doors are opened.

One is usually right in being suspicious of “events,” suspicious of the nature of the attraction that draws such interest. There was too much talk of it going about to reassure me that it wasn’t just another pretext for social ritual. How could you get through a season in Paris without seeing Carmen?

The tiny theatre, Bouffe du Nord, does not house this production, it organically lives with it. No stage, just ocher-rust-orange earth floor; the walls of the theater molting black, white, orange, ocher, red, are like southern, Spanish earth. In “center stage,” a large square bag is heaped with sacks. Off to the left, by a door, stand the only other props—a chair, on which sits an earthen pitcher, a knife, a white plate with one orange and a bunch of black grapes. This is the same knife Carmen will use to slash Micaela’s forehead, the same plate she will crack against the wall and from the shards make castanets to counterpoint her dance celebrating her love for Don José. The orange will become Escamillo and Carmen’s mutual love offering: she peels it, he halves it and squeezes the juice into her waiting mouth. (The American writer, Joseph McElroy, said that Brook shows us how love intensifies simple objects and gives them presence.) At a certain moment, the formal black-tie orchestra of some 15 pieces strolls in and takes its place which is described by a huge carpet off to the left and behind the center of the action. The lights go out. When they reappear another mound or sack seems to have been added to the others. It is Carmen.

It is an astonishing, beautiful work. Brook reconstitutes those elements in the opera which first made it, if not a work of great complexity or musical originality, a work directed to common denominators in our psyche. He pares down Bizet’s opera to one hour and fifteen minutes of continuous flowing action. Pares down the cast to six, though some take two roles, and eliminates the side plots, side characters, the silly chance happenings, the dead weight of its exposition and the all-around timefillers. He shapes the opera to an essential, coherently elliptical line of action in its progress from Don José’s attraction to Carmen through to the bloodlettings and murder for the sake of her exclusive love.

Peter Brook’s Carmen is diagrammatic only to a certain point. The elements which make up its look of passion are intangible and mysterious—a shrouded figure appearing to light little orange-colored fires about Don Josè and Carmen’s love-bed under the open sky, or Carmen fingering the earth searching for the spot where she is to die.

While the Bizet version expunges some of the blood found in the source for the opera—a story by Prosper Mérimée—Brook restores and even introduces more. Don Josè would just as soon kill for Carmen as, were she to leave him, kill her. Either she is with him or there is no him. Brook’s production registers the intensity of Don José’s obsession in one of the swiftest and most convincing delineations imaginable. Both Julian Pike and Howard Hensen, who played Don José on the two evenings I went, were transformed from ordinary, vulnerable fellows to men whose vision of love at once disintegrates and reconstructs them. Reconstructs them not to elevated levels of being but to more intense ones. The ideals of harmony, wisdom, serenity will not sprout on this terrain.

As chance had it, of the three who perform the role, I saw Helène Delavault and Eva Saurova play Carmen. These are no mere stagehall spitfires, no vulgar creamy Carmens, but great outlaws. Carmen has the ability to persuade you that she could easily take your heart, that is, you just hope she would bother. This is not a willed, self-consciously created power. It is not the power of special intelligence or even great beauty. Carmen is vain, ironic, sure of her own autonomy. She keeps her word:

Si tu ne m’aimes pas je t’aime
Et si je t’aime prends garde à toi.

(If you do not love me I love you
And if I love you, beware.)

When she chooses you, she is there totally. In your blood. You have to be disposed to it. It could get exhausting, if you thought there were more important things to do, or unless you yourself walked a higher tightrope than she. But for the ordinary type—a simple countryboy without much hope of advancement, which is what Don José finally is—Carmen’s promise is that life will be neither boring nor banal. There will be no perambulators standing in the hall, no old-age home at the end of the line to reward your reasonable, well-managed lives together. With Carmen, it’s a short tight season.

One of the wonderful qualities about Brook’s production is that while Carmen is made to have dimension and erotic appeal, so too do the men she chooses. Even when Don José has become a kind of dangerous forlorn dog who whines and begs for love, the sexual charge is there. In Escamillo, the toreador, Carmen has met more than her match. (Played by Carl Johan Falkman and John Rath, each invests the role with different qualities. John Rath is lithe and virile, an athlete of love. By comparison, Falkman is a bit pudgy and debauched looking. They make up the opposite sides of the erotic coin.) He is exactly what Don José is not and could never be, a narcissist and a success. He is Carmen two steps higher. And of course there is the added glamour of death which he radiates. Don José endangers his life for Carmen and becomes a man on the run. But Escamillo courts danger regardless of and in disregard of love, and thus his total and fascinating self-assurance. And thus Carmen’s devotion to him. Perfect psychic symmetry. In Brook, not Bizet, the toreador dies in the arena. And Carmen lets Don José kill her rather than return to him. With Escamillo dead, she is dead.

Frederic Tuten is a novelist and professor on the faculty of The Graduate Program in Creative Writing at The City College of New York.