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manon lescaut

14 march 2015

Manon Lescaut is one of those early-modern classics that seems excessively concerned with social class distinctions, even "for its time." Given that its time is 1731 and its place the Ancien Régime, that's saying something.

The story relates, via a frame narrator, the first-person story of the Chevalier Grieux – the "Chevalier" part of his name, with all its privileges, insouciances, and fits of pique, is crucial to his identity. He is "un homme de quelque distinction" and never lets anybody forget it.

At one point, springing his lover Manon from one prison or another, our hero has to suborn one of her captors, and reflects:

Je comptais bien qu'il me serait toujours aisé de récompenser un homme de cette étoffe.

[I figured it would always be easy to pay off a person of that quality.]
"Cette étoffe," literally "that stuff," that quality, might mean weak moral fiber, but I think the predominant tone is "of that class." Money means nothing to the Chevalier (whether he has it or not), because he's above such considerations. He lives on pure love, or at least pure enough on his side if not Manon's. But the vulgar masses always have their price.

In cases like the Chevalier's, I might tend to agree with historicist critics that early modern folks thought of themselves in terms of social roles, not unique personalities. He presents his story frankly as "la plus étrange aventure qui soit jamais arrivée à un homme de ma naissance et de ma fortune [the strangest thing that ever happened to a man of my birth and fortune]" – not that it would be likely to happen to anyone who actually had to work for a living, but that the reverses that he undergoes just shouldn't happen to men like him. He literally gets away with murder at one point, just because he kills a servant rather than a gentleman.

Manon Lescaut is a crude, stylized, vigorous, and often hilarious tragic romance with noirish overtones, 200 years before Americans invented noir, even if the French got to name it. "Nuance" was not in the Abbé Prevost's literary playbook. The Chevalier's character note is "obsessed lover." Manon's is "incorrigible whore." The minor characters just facilitate that dysfunctional mix.There's not much plot to get in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say. Boy meets girl, boy imperiously orders girl to run away with him, girl keeps leaving boy for older and richer lovers, girl keeps gravitating back to boy and thinking of interesting ways to cheat the older and richer men, until both are slapped in prison and eventually transported to Louisiana, where human life is cheap and extremely short.

In Massenet's opera, which I saw earlier this week at the Metropolitan, the lovers don't make it all the way to Louisiana. In fact, at the Met, some supernumeraries simply dump Manon on a ramp and she expires in the Chevalier's arms after the usual dying duet. If Laurent Pelly's staging leaves something imaginative to be desired, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo are awfully powerful as the young lovers (who couldn't possibly be played by the teenagers they're supposed to be).

Massenet (to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille) softens the callousness and cynicism of Prevost's story considerably. Manon lives for pleasure in prose and in Massenet, but on the page manipulation is the source of her pleasure; on stage it's all youth and love. In one of the most memorable passages, she advises a men's chorus

Profitons bien de la jeunesse,
Aimons, rions, chantons sans cesse,
Nous n'aurons pas toujours vingt ans.

[Make good use of being young,
Love, laugh, and sing without a rest,
We won't be twenty forever.]
Well, who can argue with that. But Prevost's Manon never imagines that she won't be twenty forever.

Abbé Prevost. Manon Lescaut. 1731. iBooks.