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Object of Desire 

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Trap Door Theatre

When Emile Zola's blockbuster Nana began serial publication in the Paris newspaper Voltaire in October 1879, excerpts from his treatise The Experimental Novel ran alongside. It's a wonder the juxtaposition didn't get the writer laughed off the continent. The Experimental Novel was Zola's manifesto for naturalism: the novelist should be objective above all, he argued, observing and recording the workings of contemporary society like a chemist examining the contents of a test tube. He hoped the results of such "experiments," akin to today's longitudinal sociological studies, would better mankind. Imagination had no place in the process.

But take a look at Zola's "scientific" construction of Nana, an 18-year-old Parisian courtesan whose appetite for wealth and social position brings a substantial segment of the Second Empire to its knees. We're introduced to her at the tawdry Theatre des Varietes, where she's scheduled to make her debut in the title role of The Blond Venus. A massive publicity campaign has whipped Parisian society into a frenzy, and those lucky enough to be packed into the steamy cabaret begin chanting Nana's name long before she enters. (The Voltaire caused a similar furor with its hype for the novel's serialization, sending men in sandwich boards throughout the city.) Nana's first moments onstage nearly ruin her: she can't sing, act, dance, or even stand gracefully. But she has a way of thrusting her hips that keeps the men's attention. By the third act, when the crowd finally gets what it paid for--Nana's nude scene--Zola himself seems slightly more addled than your ordinary chemist staring into a beaker. "All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed," he writes, "a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater."

Zola sends the man-eater feasting across 426 additional pages. Nana bankrupts bureaucrats, bankers, and aristocrats and drives a teenage boy to suicide (Henry James called her a "brutal fille without a conscience or soul, with nothing but devouring appetites and impudences"). By the time she's finished, she's "standing alone in the midst of the heaped-up treasures of her house, with a nation of men at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient fable whose fearful lair was strewn with bones, she set her feet on the skulls." Thankfully a fatal attack of smallpox keeps her from ruining all of Europe, and she ends up "a heap of blood and pus, a shovelful of putrid flesh."

It's no surprise that Zola, in his preliminary sketch of the character, describes her as "the cunt in all its power; the cunt on an altar." In fact this purportedly objective novel relentlessly objectifies its protagonist. Nana has precious little to do with the social world Zola thought he was chronicling and everything to do with what F.W.J. Hemmings calls "the irresistible intrusion of personal fantasies" in Zola's works. The sexuality of his imagined character, which both fascinates and repels him, saturates the novel just as it saturated his outline for it. His imagination was overheated before he even began the opening chapter.

The fact that Nana has been dubbed a masterpiece rather than a puerile fantasy has a lot do with Zola's extraordinary storytelling skills--and with the pervasive strain of misogynist fantasy in Western literature. Perhaps the most surprising and powerful element in Beata Pilch's staging of the novel for Trap Door Theatre is its unapologetic embrace of that misogyny. Pilch sets the tone with her director's note, which reads in its entirety: "The whole society hurling itself at the cunt" (another phrase from Zola's preliminary notes). And in Olwen Wymark's adaptation Nana is indeed a seductive cunt, trapping men so that she can bleed them dry. Whereas in the novel it's debatable whether Nana's destructive acts are truly intentional, Wymark in her brutal portrayal scrapes off the literary patina to expose the creature it seems Zola harbored in his heart.

The electrifying Nicole Wiesner gives this Nana as much humanity as Pilch's highly stylized production will permit. For nearly two hours we watch actors painted deathly pale tear through sordid routines in a music-hall frenzy. Only Nana wears naturalistic makeup and expresses complex emotions--she's humanized in a way that tempers the role's misogyny. The debased characters swirling around her are grotesque exaggerations of Zola's originals while Nana, in stark contrast to the novel, is the only character granted a heart. As a result the secondary characters' sexual indulgences and perversions are more disturbing than anything Nana can dream up; it's difficult to feel empathy with a vile count who enjoys sniffing Nana's shoe, then masturbating into it. All the souls in this world are corrupt, and it's that universal corruption rather than its particular misogynist expression that is the play's central concern.

Wiesner and company are just as seductively sordid as their surroundings, well represented in Joey Wade's red velvet and white chintz set. And a simple but ingenious bit of staging allows Trap Door to capture Zola's ambivalence toward his heroine: when the actors are "offstage," they actually lurk before mirrors at two long dressing tables upstage. This enables them to turn their backs on Nana, showing their contempt for the courtesan, while surreptitiously scrutinizing her every move in the mirrors.

The challenge is finding a way to make the story pay off. Were Zola's novel a tragedy Nana might achieve some sort of enlightenment. But she's given no such self-knowledge, remaining "to the very end an instrument, an explosive or corrosive mechanism," as Roland Barthes writes, "fulfilling her task of destruction without any possible redemption." The tale is epic rather than tragic, thanks largely to Zola's sweeping narrative and exquisite control of the story's pace. Wymark's episodic adaptation, on the other hand, flies from one encounter to another and jettisons much of the crucial background information coloring the novel's key relationships. Staging the play with a constant manic pressure, Pilch initially sends the production to thrilling heights but ultimately flattens it.

Even without a meaningful destination, however, our journey into this world is by turns fascinating and harrowing as well as aggravating and exhausting. It may be a difficult world to understand without knowing the novel, but for those who've grappled with Zola's problematic story, it offers some bracing slaps to the imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beata Pilch.


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