"She's a bitch. A witty bitch, but a bitch. She's terribly sexual, of course; she'll do anything just to keep a circle of panting males around her. That's because she feels empty by herself, without people around her. She's a young woman who is frantically avoiding loneliness that she must be all things to men, in order to be constantly surrounded by people; in order, you see, not to be left alone with herself."
"She" is Célimène, the heartbreaking-heroine of The Misanthrope. Molière created her in 1666, modeling her character on his own young and coquettish wife, Armande Béjart. To Diana Rigg, who co-stars with Alec McCowen in the National Theatre production of the comedy classic, Célimène is as contemporary as Untrasuede - and just as smooth. The Misanthrope opens March 12 at the St James.
Decorating a banquette at Sardi's, and serenely supervious to the barrage of slack-jawed stares being hurled at her, Diana Rigg considers the character of Célimène. She lowers her eyelids and smiles a crooked smile. For the briefest moment, Célimène is here, "at home to friends."
"I do adore playing the part," Ms. Rigg says, throwing off the illusion. "She brings out all the things which I dislike in women, and which I try to avoid in my own life. You know - that calculated seductiveness; that partial commitment some women make to men, just to keep them around, waiting."
When the National Theatre presented it's new Misanthrope, for the 1972-73 London season, audiences were struck by the historical aptness of the play's contemporary setting. Director John Dexter, who is currently represented on Broadway by Equus, had advanced the social comedy to the France of Charles de Gaulle, setting it about 1966. According to Ms. Rigg, it was Dexter's insight and literary adapter Tony Harrison's poetry that validated the venture.
"Harrison is a scholar and a poet and he therefore avoids that perversity of doing things just because they're 'in.' There always have to be reasons, beyond the appetite of the director, for taking plays out of the periods and putting them in other periods. Often it's done just because it looks pretty."
The charge was not applicable to Dexter because, according to his leading actress, "there were obvious correlations between the two periods. De Gaulle was like the court kings of the 17th century, and not merely in terms of his power and influence. He created the atmosphere of a kingly court, partially restoring the monarchy and its rigid social structure. This, of course, led to that sycophancy among his followers which is what Molière's play is all about.
"French society hasn't changed all that much since 1666. There is still that incredible snobbery, which is why one should never feel paranoid when one visits France. It's absolutely true that the French don't like foreigners; they dislike themselves heartily, so why should you be any exception to their dislike?"
To research the play's social structure, the actress traveled no farther than her native England. "We have a monarchy ourselves, so it was easy to draw parallels. It's not as rigid as one might think, but you know very well if you're 'in' or 'out.' The upper classes can be as rude or as obscene as they wish - about their lineage and their natural superiority - but they are always rude or obscene with style."
Speaking of style, critics on both sides of the Atlantic certainly like hers. Last seen here on Broadway in Abelard and Heloise, Ms. Rigg - whose only unfulfilled ambition is to direct herself someday - is also known to Americans as the redoubtable Emma Peel, in The Avengers series on television, and for her appearances in such films as On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Theatre of Blood and The Hospital. In England, however, she is considered principally a classical actress, lauded for her work with both the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"The critics back home are always saying I'm 'growing' or 'stretching,'" she laughs. "God knows what they mean by that. I suspect the critical establishment has simply never forgiven me for doing The Avengers, and this is their way of welcoming me back to respectability."
The Avengers, she admits with a grin, was an adventure. "The role of Mrs. Peel was originally written for a man, and although Honor Blackman took it over, the basic attitudes and capabilities of the character were never changed for a woman. There were some subtle differences, though. If you noticed, I was never really a serious threat to the fellows. I'd spend half a shooting fighting off three stuntmen, for example, and then Steed would come along and demolish them all with one stroke of his umbrella."
Most of her memories of the memorable Mrs. Peel and cohorts appear to be strongly tinged with amusement. "That show catered to every kinky thing imaginable - and no wonder, considering some of the writers we had. We had a foot fetishist I'll never forget. That's why I was always being photographed in leather boots, with my feet stuck in the air somehow. Another one was fascinated by bondage, so for another string of shows I was always getting tied up in some outlandish way. And the leather! God, I never thought I'd get out of all that leather."
Although she insists that her work in television and movies has sharpened her technical skills as an actress, she candidly admits its economic and sidebar benefits. But English actors are not afraid to do something trashy, for whatever reason," she says. "In England we juggle far more than you do here. For example, I was doing a CBS television special at the same time I was appearing in the West End, in John Dexter's production of Pygmalion. And when I was doing Stoppard's Jumpers, and already in rehearsals for Macbeth, I was making a horror film called Theatre of Blood. Now, I ask you - what better apprenticeship could there be for Lady Macbeth than Theatre of Blood?