THE TRUTH Will Set You Free…or Not

French Playwright Florian Zeller burst onto the New York theatre scene this past season with the excellent Broadway production of The Father.[1] Though he’s been popular in London for a few years thanks to the excellent translations of Christopher Hampton,[2] the relatively young Mr. Zeller is a new, much welcomed commodity for New York theatregoers hungry for fresh dramatic voices. As such, when I found out another of his plays – also translated by Mr. Hampton – had recently transferred to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre after a successful run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, I made it a priority to see The Truth on a recent trip to London to determine whether Florian would be a one-hit wonder or a promising playwright to keep an eye on.

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Well, I’m happy to report that the man is a REAL playwright, one who seems interested in exploring similar themes through wildly different perspectives from play to play, building upon his past theatrical explorations in a similar vein to some of the best playwrights of the last century. Though the plots of The Father and The Truth[3]a tragedy about a man succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and a comedy about a man juggling an extramarital affair with the rest of his life, respectively – sound exceedingly unrelated, the consistent style in which Florian tells these stories connects them almost intrinsically, revealing him to be the sort of relentlessly intellectually probing, high caliber playwright whose works are best understood when you view them as a sort of developing conversation that he’s having with his audiences.[4]

Many have labeled The Truth as slight in comparison to The Father, but they in fact share a similar thematic and philosophical foundation, both grounded in the theory that ‘reality’ is an infinitely subjective construct whose fluidity almost proves its inexistence. By likening the ephemerality of an individual’s conception of reality with that of the ephemeral reality of a theatrical production, Florian rather brilliantly forces his audiences to question their own steadfast beliefs in what they define as the reality that they occupy, both in the theatre on the night of the performance and the reality waiting for them once they leave the theatre, which may look a bit different after spending some time in Florian’s mind.

“Hold the phone,” you may be asking, “‘ephemerality of an individual’s conception of reality?!’ I thought you claimed this was a comedy!” That question in and of itself relates to why so many people have mistakenly assumed plays like The Truth – and other dark comedies of its ilk, most notably Harold Pinter’s Betrayal – lack the substantive heft of plays like The Father. When a typical audience member goes to the theatre to see a play – which usually requires a much larger financial investment than any television show or movie[5] – they expect the production to tackle complex, high-minded, and Important (with a capital ‘I’) subject matters, such as Alzheimer’s in The Father. The infidelity of The Truth, on the other hand, is usually the stuff that soap operas are made of, and thus audiences often assume that it simply cannot serve as the basis for a Great Work of Serious Theatrical Art.

Mr. Zeller tries to turn these expectations on their head by using these assumedly vastly different subject matters to equally question our understanding of reality and, in turn, the truth. Though many have suffered through a loved one succumbing to the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, almost EVERYONE has experienced infidelity firsthand in some way or another. Understanding that most audience members can get a tad touchy when dealing with subjects that hit too close to home, Florian decided to mask his probing analysis of affairs – and what they say about the nature of subjective existence – in lighthearted yet exceedingly clever, but ultimately distancing humor. “If we’re laughing at this…” the audience may subconsciously feel, “…then it can’t be THAT serious, ha ha ha!” Yet as Shakespeare’s plays often convey, and as a character quite literally suggests during The Truth, the faint line between a tragedy and a comedy is often simply a matter of perspective – how much of a difference is there between a comedic tragedy and a tragic comedy?

And how much of your answer to that question depends on your subjective perspective, which you might not even be able to truth in the first place. The Father chronicles a man slowly losing his grasp on his reality due to Alzheimer’s; though he’s in deep denial – as most of us are when it comes to valid questions regarding our conceptive perspective of reality – the play slowly calls into doubt as it progresses everything that he believes to be true about his life. By the end, not only does he have no idea which of his memories are true and which are just tricks of the mind, the audience as well has no idea how much of what they have just witnessed has actually occurred versus simply being this unreliable narrator’s false conception of the reality around him.

By structuring the play around this central character, Florian forces the audience to adopt his crumbling perspective; hopefully escorting him through his plight will in turn inspire the audience to question how much of their own reality is constructed around memories that may be misremembered. If you admit that any of your memories could bear even a smidgeon of false information, then how can you fully trust any of your recollections? Once you start asking questions regarding where to draw the line between The Objective Truth and merely the truth of your own subjective perspective, how can you ever determine the true location of that line? In a way, The Truth would have been an equally apt title for The Father.

Due to the exceedingly philosophically existential nature of these questions – and given the subject matter of Alzheimer’s is conventionally understood to be one of pure tragedy – The Father has of course been deemed a Serious Drama. And yet, such a limited classification fails to convey the play’s pitch-black humor. Florian understands that the existence of a person suffering through Alzheimer’s toggles between the tragic and the absurd; though it is of course heart wrenching to witness a loved one being pulled away from the reality that we once shared, such repeated occurrences as them citing theft when they in fact have simply lost track of where they last put their watch – a common incident in The Father – slowly becomes comical in its tragic absurdity. Similar to the question that I posed above about the purportedly different genres of these plays, I can ask the same about life itself: is it a comical tragedy, or a tragic comedy?

If The Father comes down on the side of the former, then The Truth is decidedly of the latter persuasion. Though it can easily be interpreted as a frivolous comedy about a man trying to conceal to his loved ones the truth of his new extramarital affair until this quest slowly forces him to face the possibility that he may have been the one unknowingly living in the lies told to him by those same loved ones for all this time, recognizing its similar style to The Father reveals that the play is asking a lot of the same existential questions, just through a more casual subject. Ultimately, both plays depict the journey of men gradually realizing that what they’ve long believed to be the truth may only be their truth, both regarding their lives and reality in general.

Though The Truth derives a lot more humor from the plight of its lead character desperately trying to preserve his truth, both plays are keenly aware that the subject of subjective truth is perfectly suited to be explored through theatre, a medium that constantly flirts with the line between the artifice of the stage and the reality not only of the audience but of the real-life actors knowingly performing a fictional reality on stage. As such, Florian’s stylistic tics featured in both The Father and The Truth are of a highly theatrical nature, elucidating his plays’ metaphysical underpinnings.

Much like in The Father, the minimalist set designs subtlety and fluidly change from scene to scene, reinforcing the idea that the “reality” of the play communicated through these designs is just as transient as our reality outside of the theatre. In The Truth, the sets – each conveying a different locale relevant to the relationship depicted in the play – not only barely change but also feel as sparse as model homes; the substantive and personalized details that the characters and us feel define the truth of our lives are merely superficial distractions that attempt to mask one’s awareness of the universally abstract nature of our existence. We desperately want to believe that the truth is as solid of a construct as the rooms and homes in which we reside, but in actuality it’s as flimsy and changeable as your average theatrical set.

What the characters in The Truth – and thus us – define as the truth of our reality can also change at a moment’s notice; when we’re given a bit of information that contradicts our former conception of the truth, our reality immediately changes. You may think that you’re living in a loving and faithful relationship, but a guilty admission from your spouse can completely alter your reality and what you thought was the truth of your life. Since most people understand that they can’t know or remember every little detail about both their lives and the lives of those with whom they share their life, their reality is almost the result of a series of decisions as to what truths they decide to focus on and root their reality in.[6]

Choosing a reality in which to reside in is inherently a theatrical concept – every theatrical production decides to create a certain type of reality for their actors to exist in and their audiences to visit. The lighting design of The Truth conveys this similarity between the creation of reality both on stage and off. When the play starts, the lights dim in a conventional manner – commonly understood to signify that the reality of the audience is about to give way to whatever reality the production is about to depict. And yet, the lights don’t come down all the way to total darkness. Instead, director Lindsay Posner and his lighting team allow the audience to watch the actors enter and assume their blocking positions. The first scene begins with a couple sexually climaxing together, but the fact that we watched them walking on stage literally five seconds prior reinforces the artifice of the reality that the play is trying to introduce.

The beginning and end of every scene of the play follows this same artificial principle; the lights start to dim well before a scene’s conclusion, reminding the audience in a Brechtian manner that – though they may have become invested in the often hilarious escapades of these characters – they are still indeed watching a bunch of individuals creating a fake reality in front of them. The lights never fully dim during scene transitions because it’s important for us to see how easy it is for people to create fake realities, and how quickly the reality of a play can change, be it from one locale to the next or the differentiated ways a character can be re-understood from moment to moment.

Though most audiences love to draw a distinct line between the reality of the stage and the reality of their lives, The Truth tries to convey that they’re all equally artificial. Its lead character believes that he understands the full truth of his life – that he’s the one having an affair, and he must lie about it to everyone else – but he slowly starts to realize that he’s merely occupying the truth that he knows, and what he believes to be true about everyone around him may just be the lies that they’ve told him. Once he starts wondering how much of the truth of his life is propped up on lies, his reality starts to change as quickly as the lights and sets change the scenes. And the same life-changing realizations could happen to anyone sitting in the audience at any point in their own lives just as quickly.

Since our lives are not based on The Truth but merely the truths that we’ve decided to convince ourselves, we are all in a way performing in the same way as the actors on stage that we see so suddenly assume their characters as the lights change during the scene transitions. Our behavior is also merely a series of choices based on our conception of the truth of a situation. Every conscious behavioral decision is in a sense a performance because it’s not 100% organic and natural. We are all merely characters in the plays that are our lives, and the chosen reality that we’ve determined will govern our lives can change as quickly as the scenes do in The Truth.

Florian understands this performative nature of our daily existence, and he imbues his fast-paced dialogue with fittingly theatrical flair. His characters sound like they’re speaking naturally, yet there’s always a sense that they’re performing in some way because Florian understands that everyone in real life is actually performing at all times. He has a real gift at capturing the cadence of everyday human discourse that’s intended to obscure the insecurities derived from the fear that the superficiality of one’s daily performance will be seen through; in the characters’ conversations, they rely on such familiar defense mechanisms that they elicit legitimate laughter from the audience stemming from deep, perhaps subconscious recognition. When a man trying to hide an affair is asked a question to which he needs to come up with the best answer to avoid the truth being revealed and getting him in trouble, he repeatedly asks for the question to be clarified to give himself more time to think of the perfect response. And when that same man is trying to convince others of the truth of his lies, he transparently overly declares their validity in a sort of “the man doth proclaim too much” manner.

The four actors pull off this oxymoronic “realistic performance” act flawlessly, to the point where the distinction between the actor and the character begins to blur. Their performances feel very performative at first, but as the play progresses and its reality-questioning subtext is gradually revealed, it becomes clear that they’re consciously trying to come off like they’re performing because, again, everyone is always performing. The actors superficially commit to their characters and the reality of the play within scenes, but their casual, characterless demeanor during the half-lit transitions between scenes sometimes leaks in. Since we see them as real people performing their jobs as actors getting into position before a scene starts, they wisely never lose their awareness that they are always acting, as are the characters themselves within their chosen realities.

As such, these characters come off as almost next to normal – they want to completely commit to the truths propping up their shared reality with the other characters, but they’re also subtly aware that they’re all living both in their own lies that they know AND most probably in the lies of others that they can only merely suspect. They sometimes look as if they feel outside of themselves, subtly revealing their deep-seated fear in the superficiality of the truth of their reality. Though they don’t want to admit it to themselves or others, they know the roles that they’re playing are just that: roles, and their roles can so easily change if they’re faced with any new revelations that will force the truth of their lives to change.

Alexander Hanson – the main actor of The Truth who plays the lead role of the philanderer – perfectly depicts the journey of a person becoming aware of the artificial nature of the truth. In fact, he serves as a sort of everyman for the audience members Florian is trying to force to come to terms with this sentiment as well. In the beginning, Hanson’s character is just having a blast without a care in the world – sleeping with his best friend’s wife, lying about it to his own wife and best friend, and just jollily changing his performance from scene to scene based on his audience – be it his mistress, his wife, or his best friend. Yet as he begins to realize that he shouldn’t fear the truth of his affair coming out as much as he should fear others informing him of all of the lies on which the truth of his reality is based, his character and performance begin to physically break down. His body starts to constantly though subtly shake after being so poised; he starts to sweat through his makeup after looking so well-coiffed; and he stutters over a lot of his lines when he was once so effortlessly eloquent. By the end – without spoiling anything – he’s quite literally grasping onto a symbol representing the strains of the old truth of the reality that he so enjoyed occupying at the beginning of the play.

This final image also reflects the intended state of the audience at the end of a Florian Zeller play. Though they may walk into one of his plays expecting certain truths to be communicated to them, Mr. Zeller is in the business of questioning all of the truths that prop up our lives. Both The Truth and The Father end at the exact moment when every aspect and truth of their lead character’s lives – and in turn all of the scenes that the audience has just witnessed – have been called into question. They’re desperately trying to cling to the past truths of their lives, but after Florian has put them – and us – through the unsure ringer of life’s infinite truths, such a task may be impossible. When they walk out of the theatre, his audiences may want to return to the world that they thought they knew before sitting in their seats, but Florian has already detached them from the comfort that they were clinging to. This is their new truth.

Well, at least until Christopher Hampton translates his follow-up play, The Lie. With numerous plays either not having come to New York or not even having been translated into English yet, we are hopefully in for many more years of Florian Zeller. He may be the closest thing the theatre world has ever had to the next Harold Pinter. Yes, one could criticize him for being too Pinter-esque; legitimately everything that I’ve written in this piece fits comfortably in Pinter’s theatrical ethos. The Truth could even be interpreted as a modern day, albeit chronological retelling of Betrayal – they’re THAT similar, even down to both of their male characters playing a sport that comes to symbolize the power balance of their relationship.

But since I love Pinter, I have absolutely no problem with this comparison. Young playwrights often overly rely on channeling their artistic inspirations until they find their own voice, which only happens as they write more plays, which only happens if those plays keep getting produced. As such, it’s in all theatre lovers’ best interest to continue to see Mr. Zeller’s plays to support such a promising theatrical voice. You could do a lot worse than starting off as the next Harold Pinter, and I’m just damn excited to see where Florian Zeller goes from here to become Florian Zeller.

FOOTNOTES

[1] You can’t have a more auspicious American theatrical debut than premiering on The Great White Way.

[2] A quality writer in his own right in addition to being an expert translator.

[3] Though it’d be easy to lightheartedly chide Florian for the stark similarities between his titles, I believe their consistent grammatical structure conveys how he’s consciously wrestling with a lot of the same themes across his plays.

[4] The oeuvres of most of my favorite playwrights bear this trait, be it Pinter, Ibsen, Beckett, Brecht, Kushner, Shakespeare, etc. etc. etc.

[5] When discussing Broadway or West End productions, it’s always important to keep in mind that they are ALL produced for financial reasons. As such, money must factor into one’s appraisal of them in some fashion. By no means am I suggesting that a lucrative production is the same as an artistically successful one; unfortunately, it’s usually quite the contrary. But since commercial productions must charge ludicrously high ticket prices to even have a chance of recouping, and since most audience members know how much they paid when evaluating a production, money plays a big role in how productions are often received by the general theatergoing public.

[6] An interesting sidebar to this: audiences also can’t remember every little detail that a playwright communicates to them over the course of a play, be it through characters’ dialogue, the slightly changing set design, costumes, lighting, etc. As such, our understanding of a play is based on what we do remember, which may be different than what the person next to us remembers. How often do you find yourselves zoning out of plays, potentially missing important information while you do? Yeah, you can try to tell yourself you only zoned out because nothing important was happening, but we all know deep down that’s just bullshit. Audiences tend to avoid blaming themselves when a play doesn’t speak to them and instead cite the play itself as the problem even though they’re usually the ones at fault for not being able to come up with a theory to understand what the play was trying to do. Just because the play’s artistic language doesn’t speak to you doesn’t mean it’s not saying anything worthwhile; perhaps you’re just not fluent in that language. The point of this longwinded footnote is to point out that what we believe to be true regarding what a play is about can be vastly different than others’ conception of its truth. As such, the same play can exist in as many different realities as there are audience members in the theater, in the same way that all of us exist in as many different realities as there are people in the world. Just another observation inspired by the mad genius of Florian Zeller.

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