The Enchantment

Victoria Benedictsson was a Swedish writer writing at the end of the 19th century. She’s noted for her novels and, to a lesser extent, for a play called The Enchantment. She had a passion for the famous critic Georg Brandes, and it’s conjectured that he seduced her. At any rate, she committed suicide in 1888, just after writing The Enchantment.

Her life was well known, and she is said to have been a model for Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. However, Germaine Greer has pointed out that she has little in common with those dramatic characters besides suicide. At any rate, Louise, the central character of The Enchantment, certainly anticipates those two characters. After indulging in a prolonged love affair in Belle Époque Paris, Louise commits suicide.

At the play’s opening, we meet Louise as she’s recovering from an illness. In the first scene she meets Alland, a sculptor. Louise is a timid innocent, of course, and Alland a libertine, but as the relationship develops we can hardly say that he takes advantage of her. He never pretends that he’ll stay with her. “Show me you are a free woman,” he tells her. She leaves him and returns home, presumably to Sweden, although she refers to the land simply as “this cold place”. But after receiving a note, presumably from Alland (there’s a nice mystery here), she returns to Paris – “for a few days,” she says.

The second act finds them living in Paris nine months later, although not living together. Louise is enjoying the bohemian life with her artist friends, although she herself seems to have no occupation.

Alland tells Louise that he’s leaving for New York. Just as bad, Louise is running out of money, as Emma Bovary did before her in Flaubert’s novel. So she jumps in the river.

Benedictsson shows us that Louise is responsible for her behavior. In the second act, during one of their interminable discussions about romance, Alland tells her “You are teaching me what I have taught you.” Moreover, she’s 32 years old, not a child. And she’s not without wisdom: she tells her brother upon his marriage “Free love isn’t for everyone.”

Louise may be in line with the great tragic female characters of the late 19th century, but this isn’t a very good play. Louise and Alland spend their time talking about free love, and about their relationship specifically. There’s no plot to speak of. The characters are insufficiently particularized. They’re ill-defined because there’s not enough dramatic action.

There is, however, a lot of platitudinous talk about love, with lines like “A lonely woman will age before her time,” and “Love is a fragile flower that needs to be nurtured.”

Ducdame Ensemble (in association with Breukelen stage + Film) has just produced the play at HERE, Off-off-Broadway. The production is nice enough, given the quality of the script. The director and her ensemble present the script well enough, but they don’t compensate for its weaknesses.

The show is directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson in a straightforward style. She shows us that Louise decides her own fate: two or three times during the show, Louise kisses Alland – as opposed to him kissing her. Ms. Atkinson eschews melodrama and has her actors underplay their roles – at the cost of sacrificing some conflict she might have mined from the text.

Louise is played by Fiona Mongillo. She’s serviceable and expressive, but she never really makes us care much about Louise. Neither she nor her director show express Louise’ transformation from innocent to a woman of the world.

The role of Alland isn’t very interesting – the character never changes. Matthew DeCapua is solid enough in the part, but, like Ms. Mongillo, never captures our imagination. 

The best performance of the production is given by Jane May in the role of Erna, a sculptress who has a history with Alland and who is suited to the bohemian life. She warns Louise about Alland, and scolds her about her financial habits. She also cares for her own sister. Ms. May gives us a mature, layered performance. Erna is harsh and controlling because of her sense of responsibility for those she loves. At heart, she’s caring.

The translation is faulty. The characters speak generally without contractions. But they’re inconsistent: sometimes they do use contractions. And at one point Alland, for all this formal speech, says “You and me will never be as before.”

And so The Enchantment is an interesting production, but interesting only to academics. Ducdame Ensemble is an able company who need to be more selective about their material.

Steve Capra
July 2017

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