The French literary classic The Red And The Black was written by Stendhal (pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle - 1783 to 1842) in 1830, and is now making its world premiere on stage at the Theater at St. Clements in Manhattan. The Red and The Black (in French Le Rouge et Le Noir) is often credited as the first psychological novel.
The story is set in 1827 during the Bourbon Restoration in the fictional towns of Verrières and Vergy near the French Alps and centers around the ambitions of the young Julien Sorel (Lucas Wells). Julien is poor and of the lower class. Much to the chagrin of his peasant family, he has received an education from an old Napoleonic soldier who taught him to read and instructed him in history and Latin (and who left Julien dozens of books at his death) as well as instruction from the old local priest Chélan (Jeremy Johnson) in theology and advanced Biblical Latin. Indeed the “The Red And The Black” is a reference to the red uniforms of the military and the black robes of the clergy. Julien’s education above his “station” combined with his learned admiration of Napoleon (He often asks himself, “what would Napoleon do?”) and ”liberalism” and his sense of injustice is arguably the root of his downfall. In spite of Julien’s wish to go to seminary for a career in the church (because the Army no longer offers young men of the peasant class the opportunity to rise and better themselves as it did in Napoleon’s day) he becomes tutor to the children of the wealthy and upper class Mayor de Rénal (Brian Linden) and his wife Louise de Rénal (Krista Adams Santilli). The maid Elisa (Katie Burton) and Madame de Rénal both quickly become infatuated with Julien and trouble ensues. Julien dislikes the de Rénal’s materialistic, aristocratic lifestyle and his “conservative” royalist views and Julien begins scheme for his own advancement and revenge. His plans are only derailed when his intelligent, analytical mind is betrayed by his own passion.
Adapting classical literature for the stage is a challenging endeavor. Deloss Brown’s script focuses primarily on the first half of Stendhal’s novel and nicely captures the spirit of the story. The unfolding life of Julien Sorel fascinates and keeps the audience interested throughout. Where Brown’s play falters are in a few unnecessary scenes (for example the opening scene where Stendhal and his editor appear, commenting on politics - never to be seen again.) and in an inconsistency in style. The play awkwardly shifts between realism and high comedy leaving the audience confused as to how to respond. Brown also uses his characters as narrators, which works effectively in some scenes (for example when Julien and Louise deliver their inner monologues and they are completely incorrect in their assumptions about what the other is thinking) but other times the constant narration becomes a little too much and begins to feel redundant and we long for more immediate interaction and connection between people. That being said credit must be given to Brown for bringing this intriguing and surprisingly entertaining French classic to the American stage (Stendhal’s work, needless to say, is much more popular in Europe. The Scarlet and The Black was a mini-series for the BBC with Ewen McGregor and Rachel Weisz among other film adaptations).
Lighting (Sarah Lurie), Sets (Ika Avaliani), and Costumes (Lux Haac) are merely suggestive but support the action of the play. Brown, who also directs, keeps the pace and the action moving but his staging is a little clumsy and misses many opportunities for visual variety and innovation. He has successfully assembled a hardworking cast led by Lucas Wells who makes a charming and convincing Julien. Excellent work is also turned in by Krista Adams Santilli as the wealthy Madame de Rénal who falls in love with Julien against all of her personal prejudices. Other standouts are Brian Linden who finds all the humor in his solid portrayal of the oblivious and ineffectual Mayor de Rénal, Jeremy Johnson as the paternal Chélan and Jessica Myhr as Madame de Rénal’s suspicious friend Marie. The cast is rounded out by Keith Herron, Katie Burton and Philip Rossi in multiple roles.
Brown’s script ends somewhat abruptly and only hints at the rest of the story and Julien’s ultimate fate. Still The Red And The Black proves a worthy subject of adaptation and the play rings with resonance and relevance for contemporary audiences. Being a new script with miles of potential one hopes that Brown will continue to refine and elevate the material (and perhaps make some bold choices and give us the second half of the novel? Or a sequel? ) If you have an interest in classic literature, French history or even political class struggle or comic social satire The Red And The Black may be the theatrical destination for you.