Do you think we have problems, with our enormous partisan divide? It is 2022, and the French are electing a new President. In one corner, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (Stacy Whittle), France’s Apostle of Intolerance, for whom the concept of national identity is seamlessly fused with the identity of the native-born. In the other, Mohammed Ben-Abbes (Greg Ongao), the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is the avatar of family values: he would encourage women to advance the French family by cutting off their access to education.
Francois (Ron Littman), a professor of literature at the Sorbonne, mediates all this for us. He is an expert on the 19th-century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose dark, brooding pessimism presaged his conversion to Catholicism. Francois is also dark and brooding — and, in his heart of hearts, immensely trivial. He has a Francoiscentric point of view: he sees this colossal political and cultural clash largely from the perspective of how it will affect his career. He has a beautiful and passionate lover (Whittle), who he values principally for her skill in the amatory arts. When she is unavailable, he seduces his students.
Michel Houllebecq’s novel, upon which this play is based, created a sensation when he first released it; an instant bestseller, it has been translated into twenty-four languages, including Latvian, Estonian and Icelandic (Lorin Stein did the English translation). It is difficult to read it as anything but a warning against the coming Islamic threat to Europe, and particularly to France, a relentlessly secular country.
The charismatic Ben-Abbes pledges to subsidize the family with reductions in the Education budget, and professes unity with Catholicism (France’s largest religion, at least on paper) while declaring antagonism to secularism and atheism. He pledges to expand the European Union by adding North African nations to it, thus underscoring the argument that Islam threatens not just France but Europe as a whole. In this scenario, the execrable Le Pen appears to be a heroine. Steve Bannon would approve.
This may not have been Houllebecq’s intention: he may have been more interested in underscoring Francois’ moral and intellectual gymnastics as he seeks to accommodate changes in the nation. The Guardian’s Steven Poole said that Submission was “arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire — as in his previous novels — is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise.”
closes February 10, 2019
Details and tickets
But Poole’s explanation may itself be an accommodation — to Houllebecq’s intolerance — of the same sort as Francois’ accommodation to Ben-Abbes’ anti-democratic and anti-intellectual platform. While Francois is undoubtedly a trimmer who bends to the political winds (a familiar figure to Frenchmen who remember the Vichy days) he never establishes himself as a sympathetic figure, or one about whom most people would say “there, for the grace of God, go I.” He is, at bottom, a lecher and a self-pitying, self-indulgent fraud who periodically contemplates (but never attempts) suicide and who complains (to the point of cliché) of nausea. When his mother dies, and is buried in a pauper’s grave, it shocks Francois, who had had no contact with her for many years. This he blames, irrationally, on his “bourgeoisie” father, who had divorced his mother long ago. When such a person throws over against freedom and reason in favor of the dictator du jour, it seems less a commentary on human weakness and vulnerability than a condemnation of a specific character.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
Of course, part of the problem may be with the fact of adaptation; to do full justice to a novel generally takes eight hours or more. (The only novel I’ve ever seen fully adapted to the screen has been Jerzy Kosinski’s slender “Being There”; when Blake Robison conducted his campaign of adapted novels for Round House they were remarkable for their judicious magnification of key points.) Director-adapter Robert McNamara has elected to capture the narrative flow of “Submission” along with Houllebecq’s gorgeous language, but to reduce a 320-page novel to an 80-minute play necessarily requires some selectivity, and it may be the case that the need to present the story in a manageable timeframe comes at the expense of a more rounded portrait of Francois. For example, Myriam, his lover, decides to follow her parents to Israel in the face of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood; until that point, we have no idea that she’s Jewish. Notably, in this adaptation most of the narrative is placed in Francois’ mouth, which means that he must pronounce his own deficiencies, which otherwise would appear to the reader through context.
Littman, having been asked to portray a deficient character, does so with complete candor and honesty. This does not make Francois likeable, but it does make him credible, and thanks to Littman’s fine work in the role we understand how a weak man might turn his back on his heritage (national, cultural and intellectual) in order to secure his comfort. Whittle, too, does very strong work both as LePen and Myriam — two very different figures — and convincingly performs in some other roles as well.
But the most spectacular revelation in this production is the work of Greg Ongao as Ben-Abbes. Among all the human characteristics, charisma is the most difficult for an actor to portray (consider all the failed portraits of JFK you’ve seen); but to play Ben-Abbes the actor must also play a cultural outlier, one who must reassure the non-Muslim, non-immigrant majority that he is on their side. Ongao (aided by fine dialogue) does so beautifully, subtly emphasizing the fact that he is not as brutal as their worst fears in order to hide the fact that he is about to sunder their national values, and way of life, forever. That Ongao is actually a drama student at Georgetown University makes this breakout performance even more astonishing; once he becomes a mature actor, you can expect him to perform at the level of Ed Gero, Rick Foucheux, Ro Boddie, Jon Odom, Holly Twyford and our other major actors.
Beautiful language, compelling performances, powerful narrative — so why am I reluctant to give this play my full-throated endorsement? Because — and if this is a political critique, so be it — neither Europe nor the United States is being inundated by a waive of Muslim ideologues, clamoring for the imposition of Sharia Law. Instead, ordinary men and women, most of whom have been deprived of their homes, jobs and possessions by these same ideologues, seek to move to a place where they will be safe from them. Houllebecq — perhaps, as Poole argues, in service to a desire to satirize the modern metropolitan man — sets up a false predicament. There is no Muslim Brotherhood party in France, or in any European Union Country, and no Muslim Brotherhood candidates, even for dogcatcher. I would rather see the modern metropolitan man in a real predicament. There are plenty of them, here and in Europe.
Submission, adapted by Robert McNamara from the novel by Michel Houllebecq, directed by McNamara, assisted by Anne Nottage . Featuring Ron Litman, Stacy Whittle, Greg Ongao, Kim Curtis and David Johnson . Sound design by Kevin Alexander . Set design by Leah Mazur . Lighting design by Johnathan Alexander . Costume design by Kei Chen . Projections design by Patrick Lord . Laura Schlachtmeyer is the stage manager . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.