March 16, 2010

The King's Fool

1832 play
written by Victor Hugo

(1946 film - RIGOLETTO)

Early in his career, just one year after publishing THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME, Victor Hugo wrote a play that was banned after a single performance. His ensuing lawsuit against the government - who claimed it was a thinly veiled parody of the current king - made him a beloved and revered symbol of freedom amongst the people.

The play itself opens with King Francis I of France, a devastatingly charming playboy who dances from one woman to another, regardless of class or marriage, leaving them all with feelings of satisfaction and devotion. This doesn't sit so well with the men of his court, many of whom have seen their own wives and mistresses swept up by the King's empty promises of eternal love. There's not much they can do without upsetting the entire political system, however, so they set their sights on the King's right-hand-man: his jester, Triboulet.

Though Triboulet sulks each night at all the taunts and jeers his job and King require him to hurl - regardless of the fact that it's aimed at people who would and do insult him merely for being an ugly hunchback - his public facade of crushing jokes has made him a constant thorn in a lot of the courtiers' sides. When they learn he's been sneaking into a quiet part of town to visit a young lady, they all devise a plot to introduce his mistress to the King so the joker will suffer the same humiliation as them.

But what they don't know is that the young lady, Blanche, isn't his mistress. She's his daughter. And she's a pure, innocent young woman who wants nothing more that to know who her father is and what he does and why he keeps her locked away. She, you see, is the one light of his life, and he wants to shelter her from the awful humiliation, corruption, and scandal he witnesses and takes part in on a daily basis.

For the first half of the play, it's a wild, satirical romp as the king drifts through a swirl of women at a party, all the courtiers bluster about with impotent anger at the handsome man stealing the brides from between their fat legs, and a kidnapping plot barely falls into place as Triboulet himself is tricked into unknowingly participating in his daughter's abduction. It really is quite funny and lively, culminating with the King's cheesy serenade once he finds himself face-to-face with the young Blanche.

But then, with a cry, the slam of a door, and a key in the smiling King's hand, the tone takes a dark turn. It's not easy to go from screwball to tragedy, but Hugo masterfully pulls it off with an increasingly tense sequence as the courtiers carry on with a joke they don't realize has lost its humor and Triboulet's snarky wit turns to desperate pleas, all while an unseen crime takes place in the next room.

It's devastating, gripping writing, but a lot of the plotting starts collapsing in upon itself. There's a lingering old man, the exiled father of a violated woman, who serves no purpose to the story than to needlessly foreshadow Triboulet's journey and make a cyclical point. There's a sibling pair of gypsy assassins (she seduces, he kills) who are clumsily introduced at random because they'll need to be called upon at a later time. And the ending. I just don't buy the ending. It not only lacks a true confrontation and makes an odd thematic digression, but it features a brutal twist that is nonsensically justified by the idea that every woman the King beds, even when presented with proof that his affections are false, still loves him so much that they'll either give their own lives or aim their vengeance at random strangers, sacrifices the King neither knows of nor cares to.

But I still liked the script. No matter how nonsensical the justification for the plot twists became, they were still pretty damn good twists, and the characters were so well written and defined that I felt every ounce of their betrayal and suffering. And Hugo is so great at painting unforgettable moments. A servant repeatedly reaching to the king for payment as she puts in numerous good words for him to a chick he's trying to bed. Triboulet holding his daughter close, comforting her, both lit only by the flashes of a raging storm. The two assassins sitting in a quiet living room, her sewing, him cleaning a belt, as they patiently wait for their intended victim to fall asleep upstairs.

This is the first piece of writing from Hugo I've ever read, so I don't know how representative it is of his broader body of work. But if half that stuff is this good, then it's no wonder he's a legend.



Anthony Williams said...

You got your fastball back right away. Nicely written, as always. What lead you to Hugo and this play in particular?

I didn't know any of Hugo's work beyond "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". He certainly has a thing for the hunchbacks doesn't he?

NoelCT said...


I read this because my current theme is Sergio Leone, and his first credit, as an uncredited assistant director, was a filmed version of an opera adapted from this play. Which I'll be reviewing next.

Yeah, I don't know what it is with Hugo and bent spines. The only other work of his I can name off the top of my head is LES MISERABLES, though I don't know if it features anyone of a stooped stature. :p