Few will know Honoré de Balzac as a playwright, and with good cause. Compared with his sprawling Comédie Humaine, the seven plays he left behind are little more than an afterthought in his oeuvre, and remain virtually unknown. The last one, Mercadet, later renamed Le Faiseur, has fared best, with stagings by Jean Vilar and the Comédie-Française over the years. And now a new production by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota at the Théâtre des Abbesses reveals it to be a comedy with real appeal.
Its main theme – money and debt – is quintessentially Balzacian. The writer was debt-ridden for much of his life, and, like many of his novels, Le Faiseur features an ambitious arriviste, Mercadet, who has built his lifestyle on credit. By the time we meet him he is a professional trickster, conjuring up Bourse deals or a lucrative wedding for his daughter to stall his creditors. His ultimate ploy is a seemingly fictitious associate in India called Godeau; much of the play is spent waiting for Godeau. (We’re told Beckett didn’t know Balzac’s play when he wrote Waiting for Godot, but as literary coincidences go, it is delightful.)
Le Faiseur brings out Balzac’s humour, already evident in the whimsical descriptions that pepper La Comédie Humaine. The plot is handled with a nonchalance worthy of Labiche, with a deus ex machina ending. The text itself is all aphorisms and witty repartee, with memorably lowbrow puns: when Godeau returns from Calcutta, his fortune is, Mercadet tells us, “incalcuttable”.
Unfortunately, Demarcy-Mota takes the play much more seriously than Balzac himself did. The director of the Théâtre de la Ville, who also handles programming for Les Abbesses, is hell-bent on finding a connection with the current debt crisis and paints an overwrought picture, complete with ominous sound effects. Creditors emerge from wooden traps like vampires, with wan make-up and demented eyes. The sets are foolishly literal: in an attempt to show how precarious the Balzacian social ladder is, the stage is covered in platforms that rise and tilt, with characters left to climb, slip and slide around furniture glued to the surface as they deliver their lines.
Few emerge unscathed, but Serge Maggiani is superb as Mercadet, his phrasing and demeanour not unlike a politician’s as he finesses his creditors. As his daughter Julie, Sandra Faure revels in the comedy, particularly when her parents despair of her average looks; her poor, clumsy suitor (Jauris Casanova) also gets his share of laughs. Le Faiseur has the potential to elicit more, however, and directors looking for a comedy might do well to bring it back again.