Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

Carol Rosegg

Matthew S. Tompkins as Nelson Algren and Elizabeth Rohan as Simone de Beauvoir in a theatrical version of their romance, “Transatlantic Liaison.”

Simone de Beauvoir’s second love

By Jerry Tallmer

He was 39. She was 40.

They were meeting, this time, in New York City.

He was American all the way. She was French all the way.

Nelson Algren. Simone de Beauvoir.

Thanks to him, in bed and otherwise, she had discovered a degree of womanhood, of love, that swept everything else aside. Almost.

He had written “The Man With the Golden Arm,” which had even Ernest Hemingway gasping: “Mr. Algren, boy, you are good.” It would win the National Book Award and thereafter become a smash motion picture.

She — nourished by the moral and intellectual support of her life mate, Jean-Paul Sartre — was in the process of finishing “Le Deuxiéme Sexe” (“The Second Sex”), a book that would change the world.

In “Transatlantic Liaison,” a play by Fabrice Rozié, a New York-based cultural attaché who is now almost precisely the age Algren was then, they have reached a moment of intensity:
 
SIMONE: You said you wouldn’t love me so much if I were different.
 
NELSON: I said the things you wanted me to say … I wanted to tell you a lot of other things, but you began weeping. That kept me quiet.
 
SIMONE: I was so afraid!
 
NELSON: I know. And that, too, kept me from talking.
 
SIMONE:  I know. As soon as you love someone, you’re no longer free. But anyhow, loving a woman who believes she has claims on you isn’t at all the same as loving one who doesn’t.
 
NELSON: Oh, a woman can believe she has all the claims in the world on me, but so long as I don’t recognize them, it’s all the same to me. Let’s not talk about all this. You only get things all messed up when you talk about them.
 
SIMONE: They also get messed up when you’re silent about them. You no longer love me the way you used to?
 
NELSON: I think that love is less important than I once believed.
SIMONE: Since I must leave [to go home to Paris and Sartre], it doesn’t make much difference if I’m here or if I’m not.
 
NELSON: Something like that. And yet, how I awaited you!
 
SIMONE: And now …
 
NELSON: Now I still want you.
 
SIMONE: Oh, in that way!
 
NELSON:  Not only in that way. I’m ready to marry you on the spot.
 
But the moment of course passed. She went back to Paris and completion of “The Second Sex.” He went back to his Chicago, or wherever. And how do we know that what Elizabeth Rohan as de Beauvoir and Matthew S. Tompkins as Algren are, on stage at the Harold Clurman Theatre, saying what de Beauvoir and Algren really said, back there circa 1949?

Says playwright Rozié, who drew from de Beauvoir’s novel “The Mandarins” (Norton, 1956) and her “Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren” (Gollance, London, 1998):

“I’ve used what she quotes from Algren. When I have Algren say something, it’s what she says he said, even if, as she says, it’s a lie.” [SIMONE to NELSON: “What is literature, after all: clever lies which secretly say the truth.”]

 Beauvoir’s share of the dialogue comes more directly from her own tongue, straight from her letters.

When he was a schoolboy of 14, Fabrice Rozié – whose mother had been a teenage heroine of the Resistance – picked up and read “The Second Sex” because of its title. “I must confess except for ‘The Second Sex’ the writings of Simone de Beauvoir made no particular impression on me. Then, when I was almost 30, and had my Ph.D., years after de Beauvoir’s death, I read her letters. How you say in English? — it stroke me? – struck me — the theatrical voice in her letters is something that would work on stage, Simone de Beauvoir disclosing to someone else her inner dramatic story.

“Otherwise it’s just a movie story about a man and a woman in love. But because it’s Beauvoir and Algren …
“Unfortunately, because Sylvie de Beauvoir, her adopted daughter, a wonderful woman who edited her mother’s letters, did not get permission to translate into French the letters of Nelson Algren, I was only able to put the de Beauvoir material on stage, framing it as best I could.”

He did get to read some excerpts from Algren’s end of the correspondence and others of his works “including a beautiful book about his boyhood.”

One outburst of Beauvoir’s — the ultra-political Simone de Beauvoir — which should evoke a smile is: “You know, I care about all these things [Indochina, Gaullism, threats against Sartre’s life, etc.] because I think I have to. But I am fed up with it. I loathe politics. I should like a world without politics.”

Wouldn’t we all. That’s not a contradiction, by the way.

“No, it’s not,” said Rozié. “And de Beauvoir is a woman I feel a great affection for. I love people who dare to love fully and yet are very responsible human beings.”
 
Rozié, born in Paris on May 27, 1965, has the job at the French embassy in New York of promoting French writers and writing in the United States, working with publishers and translators, organizing lectures and conferences.

When he first read Beauvoir’s letters he heard in his head the voice of that splendid French actress Marie-France Pisier (known to Americans from “Cousin, Cousine” and the films of Truffaut and Godard). It was she who played the role at the Theatre Marigny on the Champs Elysee.

John McLean of Theatre Three in Dallas went to Paris looking for a play to bring home to Texas and found this one. It ran three months in Dallas with the same two players he’s now directed here at the Clurman.

“When my father was dying,” says Fabrice Rozié, “his last words were: ‘How are the rehearsals going in Dallas?’”

Well enough. Harold Clurman, wearer of the Legion d’Honeur, would approve.

TRANSATLANTIC LIAISON. By Fabrice Rozié, from the letters and other writings of Simone de Beauvoir. Directed by John McLean. Through April 2 at the Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200.

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