Peter Abelard was one of history’s more pathetic losers. A celebrated philosopher and theologian whose lectures were all the rage in Paris in the early twelfth century, he made two crucial mistakes. His first one was to fall in love with one of his pupils, a seventeen-year-old girl names Heloise who was twenty years younger than himself. His second was to propagate doctrines repugnant to the Pope, who at that time was in the religious and intellectual bag pretty much by himself, as one of my houseful of teenyboppers might put it.
For his first error Peter was castrated by some thugs in the employ of the girl’s uncle. For his second he was compelled to wander from monastery to monastery and was finally condemned for heresy. He died in 1142, while on his way to Rome to defend himself, and his body was shipped back to Heloise, who has since taken the veil. She was eventually buried beside him and their love story, chronicled in the long letters they exchanged, has continued to enthral and move us through the centuries. Too bad Shakespeare never made a play out of it.
If we can’t have Shakespeare, we can at least have Ronald Millar, whose dramatization of the immortal story, entitled simply Abelard and Heloise, is currently on view at the Ahmanson, in a production imported practically intact from London. It is a splendid one and Millar’s play deserves it. The text, though in prose, frequently achieves the intensity and eloquence of great poetry, and it is splendidly rendered by a large and talented cast headed by Diana Rigg and Keith Mitchell, two young English actors of astonishing delicacy and conviction. I also especially admired the work of Ronald Radd as Gilles de Vannes, a Canon of Notre Dame and Peter’s troubled, sympathetic and irreverent friend: Jonathan Kidd as Fulbert, Heloise’s querulously vengeful uncle: and Jacqueline Brookes as the tippling Abbess of Argenteuil.
Robin Phillips seems to have choreographed as well as directed the play, so smoothly and fluidly does it spin itself out through Christopher Morley’s elegant, austere and supremely practical unit set. Here’s a production in which all concerned set out truly to serve the play, an occasion so rare in the theatre that I strongly urge you all to go and see it. Without preaching or screaming at us, Millar tells us all he knows about love, carnal as well as spiritual, and what can happen to it and its practitioners when it becomes too overwhelming and too much in conflict with the social strictures of the day. His love story is a few thousand notches above Erich Segal’s, in execution as well as intent, and frankly I don’t care whether it makes you cry or not. It will certainly make you think as well as move you.
I suppose CTG’s Elliot Martin ought to be congratulated for bringing this first-rate production to Los Angeles. Let’s hope that he sticks to English imports from now on and forgets about using the Ahmanson as a tryout house for his Broadway ventures, all of which have so far been undistinguished, not to say dismal.
And while we’re on the subject of the Ahmanson, can’t anything be done about improving the theatre’s acoustics? The sound system blurs the spoken lines so that words, entire phrases are irretrievably lost. It occurred to me that at the Ahmanson, the play, any play, ought to be sung. This one, in fact, would make a splendid opera, though the part of Abelard would require a singer of incredible range. He’d have to be a baritone, say, for the first half of the piece and a boy soprano for the rest of it. Maybe I’d just better forget the whole thing.