Ronald Millar’s “Abelard and Heloise” is that most disturbing kind of play, a drama that is intelligently written, striking, has an interesting story and is excellently acted in all of its roles, and yet somehow fails to live up to the emotional power of its theme. The story of the most famous star-crossed lovers outside of Romeo and Juliet, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, it just misses out in the dramatic forcefulness it demands. Although the fate of its central characters inevitably calls up memories of the two luckless sweethearts in Shakespeare’s drama, their tragedy was of a decidedly different sort. Peter Abelard, the brilliant French theologian of the 12th century, and Heloise, the beautiful and intellectual woman he loved, were not separated by death. That was too heroic an end for their romance. Their terrible misfortune was that Heloise’s vengeful uncle was so filled with resentful bitterness toward Abelard that he arranged to have him castrated.
Mr. Millar, a British playwright who dramatized two of C.P. Snow’s novels, is interested in the religious and intellectual climate of Abelard’s day, and his depiction of it adds effectively to the colourful atmosphere of his play. But, while almost everything he has to say is thoughtfully arresting, there is a surprising lack of emotional value in his narrative. In fact, its most moving scene is but peripherally concerned with the central situation, having to do with Heloise’s brief visit with a sweet old Irish nun who is dying. Another handicap, it seems to me, lies in what might be called a theological complication. Abelard was a priest at the time he married Heloise, but he hadn’t taken his final vows, and, although it would have interfered with his advancement in the Church, there was apparently no canon law against it. Because the matter is never made quite clear, the thought is suggested that the uncle took his vengeance on him, not out of religious zeal, but simply because he couldn’t stand the fellow.
The chief reason for my reservations concerning the play arises from doubts about Mr. Millar’s prose style. As I’ve said, he writes with unquestionable intelligence, and Abelard has a speech at the end that is eloquent. On the whole, though, the writing seemed to me somewhat flat, no doubt in the determination to avoid anything pretentious, and “Abelard and Heloise” has a lyrically tragic theme that calls for verbal beauty. There is also the matter of a second castration, that of a treacherous servant, which is an unnecessary intrusion.
Keith Michell, a fine actor, is brilliant as Abelard, and Diana Rigg is attractive as Heloise. In smaller roles, there are admirable performances by Ronald Radd as an amiably bibulous cleric, Barnard Hughes as the vengeful uncle, and Peter Coffield as an ardent young admirer of Abelard. As my last quibble, there is a brief nude scene of love-making between the hero and the heroine which is unlikely to excite, even a voyeur, in the audience, because it is done in the dark.