I have never understood what genre conjugal life belongs to: tragedy or comedy? My only certainty is that it belongs to the dramatic genre…
When I started Partners in Crime, I was filling a gap – to my knowledge, there is no play about lasting love. You can find thousands of plays about the beginning of love, hundreds about the end of love, the best known (such as Romeo and Juliet) about both the beginning and the end, but there’s nothing about persistent, ongoing, hardwearing love, in other words, marriage. The theatre apparently only accepts debutant or retired lovers; it seems to confine itself to incipient and comatose love and never presents living love.
Why are we never allowed a glimpse of mainstream reality? What becomes of Romeo and Juliet after 15 years? What do champion lovers feel after a few children and years of cohabitation? This failing in the dramatic repertoire eventually alerted my suspicions…If comedies end with marriage, might this not be to stop them turning into tragedies?
And if dramas and tragedies only represent thwarted love, perhaps this is only so as to leave us with our illusions?
The rare exceptions I found were hardly encouraging: Feydeau, Strindberg and Ionesco depict aged couples; their sketches border on caricature and take the form of sardonic farce on the theme, if the couple’s still there, love isn’t.
Can love survive the initial encounter? Does it still breathe when it ceases to be crossed? What happens to Romeo and Juliet after they are married?Only life could provide the answer to this question.So I had to wait till I was over forty to get an idea of conjugal relations and then to turn the idea into a play. Partners in Crime is proof of this maturity.
Far from romanticism and Hollywood idealism, the play bears the marks of realism, even if, like my other plays, it is not written in a realist style; it probes the complexity within us rather than simplifying it.
From experience, it seemed to me that forming a couple really is a most hazardous journey, the most dangerous you can make in love. How banal ‘adventures’ seem by comparison…
For marriage involves two dimensions that you don’t find in short affairs: absence of illusion and suffering.
Absence of illusion, because for six months or two years, you can go on not noticing who your partner is, embellishing him/her, overlooking his/her faults and playing down incompatibilities. Thereafter, reality sets in and love becomes lucid.
Suffering, because while everything is pleasure, joy and exaltation at the start of a flirtation (one is more in love with love than the beloved), other feelings then come into play. The strategies and compromises that shared existence calls for open up a field of defeats and grief. For some people, jealousy grows alongside attachment, for others, absences become increasingly painful and above all, the harmony of marriage creates a new feeling: fear of abandonment and terror of loneliness.
Violence and passion remain but come out in other ways.
Although Partners in Crime involves a tortuous plot, its ins and outs are merely a way of analyzing marriage.
In the play, amnesia is more than just a theme: it is a means of investigation and ultimately, a metaphor for husband and wife. Thus, Gilles had lost his memory well before this fatal night; he had forgotten the essential, forgotten to look at his partner, forgotten to listen to her, to ask questions, to get her to confide in him, to tell her how important she was in his life and to express his love. Thus too, well before this night, Lisa had, of her own volition, been practising the amnesia of her frustrations, doubts and fears and had shut herself off in silence, imbibing the unconsciousness brought on by alcohol.
The night of crisis in Partners in Crime shows, ultimately, the benefit of conversation. Through words, wiles and even blows, the two protagonists start talking again and therefore start to recover. Everything naturally deteriorates anyway, but when you add negligence the downward process is speeded up exponentially. Cruel as it is, my play is nevertheless not without genuine optimism, because love can last. But for love to last, the lovers must at the very least want it to. Active will and thought are major players in a love story; it’s intelligence not habit that can sustain passion.Whenever I write, I discover what I think, sometimes with surprise. I was amazed, for instance, to see the word ‘mystery’ issuing from my pen in a context so far removed from religion. Fair enough in The Visitor or Two World’s Hotel, but here! When Gilles tells Lisa that she is giving way because she cannot bear the idea of abandonment, that things are eluding her, situations are too hard and feelings too big for her, he is putting forward the idea that you have to ‘accept uncertainty’ and ‘have faith’ with ‘that faith that is not possessed but is given’. ‘It’s not truth couples have to share but mystery, the mystery that I like you, that you like me, the mystery that it doesn’t end.’ I realized through my characters’ dialogues that in love there’s a profound lack of rationality, which is absolutely vital. Telling stories helps me take my thoughts further. In Enigma Variations, I defined love as ‘tirelessly living a mystery’, but I said in Partners in Crime that above all you have to ‘agree to the mystery’. Spiritual themes and psychological themes are thus governed by the same logic and finally show the same unexpected similarities. The coherence of the mind works in curious ways – a coherence I discovered rather than invented as its author.
Partners in Crime was received with immediate enthusiasm. I imagined the story would only interest people who were the same age as my characters, but I found that all sorts of people saw themselves in Gilles or Lisa. Even so, couples who came to talk to me after the show reacted differently depending on their generation. Twenty-year-olds told me ‘How cruel!’, forty-year-olds, ‘Spot on!’, while sixty-year-olds said ‘How sweet!’ They were all right! At twenty, you want love to be straightforward; at forty, you find it complex; at sixty, you know it’s good because it is complex.
I have learned a lot through this play. Even as a child, I used to wonder as the curtain fell on young newly-weds: what happens now? As I finished Partners in Crime, I felt I perceived the answer: might it be that love begins when you cease to be in love?
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, September 2005.