Desire and Death 

Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin haunts Aurora.

Writer Emile Zola saw himself as a kind of research scientist, a fin de siècle Jane Goodall. After stringent observation and note-taking, he would carefully assemble characters, place them in settings, wind them up, and sit back to see what happened. While this is not an unusual modus operandi for modern writers, many of whom have been trained to create characters and then let said characters run wild, the results were horrifying to his public. The clerk-journalist freely admitted that he was "little concerned with beauty or perfection," and his stories proved as much. Instead of depicting well-behaved men and women of means, witty and simpering, Zola's work is peopled with larcenous, troubled Everymen. One of his first novels, the autobiographical La Confession de Claude, got Zola in trouble with the police and led to his being sacked. Trouble would trail the man Charles Child Walcutt calls "the fountainhead of naturalism" all his life, whether he was escaping imprisonment for his involvement with the Dreyfus affair, or dying under questionable circumstances of carbon monoxide fumes (some believe Zola's enemies blocked his chimney so the fumes would build up).

Zola's breakthrough 1867 novel, Thérèse Raquin, was no exception. He wrote of a beautiful, seething woman, her virile, importunate lover, and the sniveling, sickly husband unknowingly trapped between them like an egg in a closing fist. Lust, lies, murder, and suicide -- what's not to like? Plenty, to hear the moralists of his time tell it; the novel attracted the opprobrium of many who thought it pornographic. It also sold like hotcakes, going into a second printing in its first year. Six years later the "filthy" novel had been adapted for the stage, and it's an incredibly familiar story now -- two lovers conspire to eliminate an inconvenient spouse, then can't live with themselves or each other and descend into madness, trapped like rats in a too-small cage.

That cage, subtle as it may be, is the first thing visible in Aurora's haunting, finely nuanced production of Thérèse Raquin, in a new translation by Pip Broughton. A delicately filigreed scrim, an iron bed frame, a mismatched set of chairs around the dining table in the sloping-ceilinged flat above a haberdashery where Thérèse and her cousin-slash-husband Camille play out their miserable little marriage; all conspire with the lighting and the sound to give the impression of emotional shabbiness and ill-concealed despair. Still as death, Thérèse (the luminous Stephanie Gularte, back in another bad-girl role after assaying Evelyn in Aurora's The Shape of Things) lies across the bed, staring fixedly out the window at an imagined world of pleasure and freedom she has never known while her lover paints her addlepated husband's portrait. "Only cats would amuse themselves like that," Camille says dismissively of his silent bride, before he returns to a rambling, self-involved monologue composed almost entirely of complaints. From the very beginning, we sense that Thérèse -- a big, sensual presence trapped in an icy marriage -- is on the verge of snapping. Raised by her aunt to be a nursemaid and helpmate to her cousin, Thérèse wants out ("I would prefer starving in the wild to their hospitality," she snarls, and the cat analogy becomes more apt) and nobody sees that except Camille's friend Laurent.

Boy, does Laurent see it. Inflamed by his desire for the two to "know peace and happiness forever in each other's arms," Mark Elliott Wilson's debonair, vital Laurent agrees that Camille has got to go. In an inspired bit of stagecraft, it is ambiguous who decides that Camille must die -- as Gularte and Wilson exchange supercharged glances and coded phrases in front of Madame Raquin (Joy Carlin), it's hard to tell. It seems to be a decision made not by either character, but a third one that is their passion, tangible as another fully formed presence on stage. It also seems like an almost humane choice -- twitchy, fevered Camille (Jonathan Rhys Williams) is really too snivelly to live. One just wants to put him out of his misery, which the lovers do with a minimum of fuss.

The real fuss comes after a year of mourning has passed, and the lovers marry at the behest of Madame Raquin and the domino-playing friends of the family who come by every Tuesday night. It turns out to be a match made in hell as the conspirators, bound by their guilt, begin to loathe each other. "We are not a normal newly-wedded couple," Thérèse says, which is an understatement; most newly-wedded couples aren't building a marriage on the literal corpse of the previous one. Thérèse's cage is still evident, in a new form; no longer simply the victim of circumstance, she is now trapped by her own actions and spiraling into madness. Needless to say, there's no way to pull a happy ending out of this chapeau. Zola went instead for one that is both morally rigid and somewhat satiric, as evidenced by the inclusion of two regular visitors to the Raquins' flat.

Amid the wreckage, comic relief comes in the form of the ultra-fastidious publisher Grivet, one of the regular Tuesday night guests. Always ready to explain his superior methodology for everything, he explains that he has missed the source of a commotion in the street because he was too inconvenienced by having had to switch to the other side of the sidewalk. "I always stay on the left side of the pavement, like the railways," he says. "It's the best way to prevent getting lost en route." He has also avoided marriage to unsuitable women, such as the one who would have taken milk in her coffee every day of their lives together had he married her. "I loathe milky coffee. It would have upset my entire existence." Stephen Pauley is wonderfully prissy as Grivet, with his punctiliousness and his walking stick put away just so; Owen Murphy is equally correct as Grivet's foil and fellow bachelor Michaud, a doctor with a pretty, inane niece in tow. Michaud is warmer and earthier and eventually just as clueless as Grivet. These two illustrate a point Zola seems to be making about appearances and deception. Neither of these men, who pride themselves on their rationality and sensitivity, have any idea of what's really going on in the Raquin household. "The Raquins," says one even as we watch Thérèse and Laurent cracking, "now there's a true house of God."

The satire underlies the irony of the criticism the novel first received. Yes, it's blunt, sexual, and unsparing. But at heart it reflects Zola's intense moralism, and the idea that sexual desire -- particularly in a woman -- leads inexorably to mayhem, humiliation, and death. The goofy bachelors may be clueless, but they're happy and upstanding. The characters who allow themselves to be blinded by passion suffer the most, from the frustrated Thérèse to the lively Laurent, who withers and grows gaunt under the strain of his love for Thérèse and the guilt of the act they've committed. Thérèse Raquin was a daring experiment for Zola and the 19th century; now it's a searing, intelligent bombshell for the Aurora.


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