An essay about The Man Who Laughs, as performed by Stolen Chair Productions.
The Man Who Laughs is my favorite book, and its author, Victor Hugo, is my favorite person. You’ll find out why later on in this essay, but let’s suffice it to say for now that Animus Empire wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for The Man Who Laughs. Well, maybe it would still exist, but it would be indistinguishable from your typical bro website. Plus, I probably would have given up after a few months after I realized writing is a bad mating strategy.
So when I found out there was an off, off Broadway production of The Man Who Laughs, I went online and ordered the tickets before I even knew what I was doing. When you’re excited to do something, you do it as if you’re a machine made specifically to do that thing. This is why having sex for the first time is more natural than you would think.
I bought two tickets because I wanted to take a girl I was seeing. But then, because I wanted my experience of the play to be free from extraneous concerns, I canceled on my date the day before. I was afraid she would say something stupid afterwards, which wouldn’t ruin the play for me, but it wouldn’t help.
I’m telling you all this because, in order to understand my thoughts on this play, you have to understand how seriously I take this story about the importance of being serious.
As I took my seat, I began talking to the guy next to me. “So why are you here? Is The Man Who Laughs your favorite book, too?”
“I’ve never read the book,” he replied. “I just read a review in The New York Times that said it was really funny.”
A positive review is good, I thought. Except the book is about as funny as an abortion. This was my first hint that what I was about to see was an abortion.
In the original story, Gwynplaine, the hero, is a young man who lives with his father, Ursus, and his girlfriend, Dea. When Gwynplaine was a young boy, a band of criminals carved a permanent smile into his face to turn him into a sideshow clown. As a result, Gwynplaine’s mien is horrific yet comical, causing a full belly laugh in all who see him. The trio travels around performing plays, capitalizing on the mangled face of Gwynplaine. Think of them like those subway breakdancers. The story takes place in the 17th Century England, so they probably smelled just as bad.
One evening after a performance, Gwynplaine receives a note from a beautiful Duchess. The Duchess, the letter reveals, is in love with Gwynplaine, not for the best in Gwynplaine—his character—but for the worst—his permanent rictus. Concurrently, Gwynplaine discovers he’s actually of noble birth, and so is returned to his rightful position as an English Peer. Through a drama only Hugo could concoct, Gwynplaine renounces the false love of the Duchess, he renounces the false family of the peerage, and he rejoins Dea to pass on into the next realm, a psychologically higher plane of existence.
With the cards stacked against him, and with a sliver of integrity, as fragile as it is fundamental, Gwynplaine remains resolute against a world out to control him. In doing so, he demonstrates once and for all that his life is not the joke he sees on his face.
In the play, the story’s essentially the same as the book up until Gwynplaine receives the note from the Duchess. Instead of renouncing the vile love of the Duchess, however, Gwynplaine, overcome with rage, accidentally chokes the Duchess to death. Then, chased back to his home, he gets in a knife fight with an English Peer and accidentally kills Dea. I think he kills Ursus, too. My mind was skipping beats by this point, so recollection is fuzzy.
The values of Gwynplaine and the story are not only unrepresented, but inverted A man of self-determination becomes controlled by forces beyond his control. A story of originality becomes laughably banal. Optimism becomes pessimism. Love becomes a triviality. Gwynplaine’s life, it turns out, is indeed the joke he sees on his face.
I couldn’t believe it. Afterwards, I moped around the city for a while. I walked by the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, because his sweet calves usually cheer me up, but not that day.
When I got home, I contacted the playwright, Kiran Rikhye, to do an interview with her for The Brazen Heads. At first she agreed on unstated terms, but then she later declined when I told her the interview would be more confrontation than discussion. Interestingly though, she didn’t decline because she didn’t want to discuss the themes and values of the book, but because she wouldn’t know how. Her fascination with the story never made it past its “visceral horror,” to use my words.
To use her own words, Ms. Rikhye says:
The truth is that I read the novel once and only once, nearly ten years ago, and I was reading it, not as a reader getting immersed in the story, but as someone who had latched on to the premise, seen the 1928 silent film, and was dashing through the novel the way one would cram for a test. My memory of its subtleties is, therefore, pretty shaky.
She then justified her interpretation of the story:
Whenever people ask me about the Hugo connection to the play, I try to be as clear as possible that this really is just using the Hugo as inspiration, and that we’re certainly not trying to be true to all aspects of the book.
I understand using an author only as inspiration. It’s healthy for artists to do their own thing, jettisoning the tradition of artists past. But what Ms. Rikhye misunderstands is even though she found some aspects of The Man Who Laughs fascinating, she is no more inspired by Hugo than Predator is inspired by the Gatling gun. Hugo was the first author, and arguably the last, to portray characters not as beasts, but as men. Greek characters were ruled by the fates. Shakespearean characters the same. Dante was cast into an unknowable world. Gulliver the same. Tolstoy and Hemingway were glorified journalists. And even Dostoevsky, a man worthy of respect as a writer as well as a psychologist, was too infected by the cold and culture of Czarist Russia to see man for what he is. So it is Flaubert, not Hugo, who is Ms. Rikhye’s inspiration.
The play, it turns out, wasn’t an abortion. It was a miscarriage. Even if Ms. Rikhye wanted to carry the magnificence of Hugo to full term, she doesn’t have the intellectual nutrition to do such a thing. Not because she’s dumb, but because it doesn’t matter. Ms. Rikhye is beholden only to audiences and critics who would rather smirk their mouths than furrow their brows.
I’m neither old nor cranky enough to extrapolate this aimless production of The Man Who Laughs into a condemnation of American culture. I don’t think that would be true, anyway. Sometimes it’s simply too easy to get wrapped up in the acting, lighting, makeup, music, and costumes, and so forget why we even have stories in the first place.