“I WISH I’d been born in the 18th century,” the man buying an ice cream said, in the interval of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He was thinking, no doubt, about the high levels of wanton sexual activity in the first half of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the novel published by a French army officer in 1782. The envious ice-cream-eater had clearly forgotten about 18th-century dentistry. That was not all that he was overlooking.
The novelist Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos set out to produce a work that would still create a stir long after his death. Two centuries on, he seems to have succeeded. Its story, of two aristocratic libertines who set out to debauch a series of naïve innocents, was asuccès de scandale as soon as it was published. Considered deliciously shocking, it sold a record-breaking 1000 copies in its first month, and so angered Laclos’s military superiors — who considered it an attack on the aristocratic morals of the ancien régime — that they ordered him to leave Paris for remote Brittany.
It still had the thrill of the forbidden when Hampton adapted the work for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, when the formidable Alan Rickman came to the attention of the wider world playing the dissolute Vicomte de Valmont. Valmont is engaged in a rivalry with a noblewoman, the Marquise de Merteuil, who was once his lover, but with whom he then engages in a cruel game of manipulation, in which they compete to deceive and seduce the guileless innocents around them.
Even before the interval, the man with the ice cream ought to have been able to work out that there was something disturbing about sexual power games that amuse by so clearly inverting the accepted moral order. It was more than the amoral perception of sex as a mere recreational activity which is commonplace nowadays. It was immoral even before the game began to unravel, in the second half of the play, to its pitiless conclusion.
The devil having all the best tunes, and the wicked all the wittiest lines, evil continued to exercise its glamour. Of course, whether Laclos foresaw it or not, the decadence of that world was to have an inglorious comeuppance only seven years later, when the French Revolution brought the guillotine down on those haughty necks.
In the Donmar Theatre production, which was broadcast to cinemas around the world last week, the director Josie Rourke installed a clever visual anachronism to remind us of the impending doom: a small painting of a flag of the Revolutionary tricolour, emerging from the smoke of battle, was set behind the final duel in which Valmont receives his apt retribution.
And yet the play departs from the novel in the fate of its callous heroine. In the book, her duplicity is exposed, and she is booed at the opera by the socialites who were once in awe of her. Disgraced, she flees Paris for the country, where she contracts smallpox and is robbed of the beauty on which her power relied. The playwright, perhaps wanting something more sinister, gives her the final line: “We continue the game.” The man with the ice cream, I suspect, could have done with something less ambiguous.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.