Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Man Who Laughs - Victor Hugo's obscure masterpiece - interview with Alicia Nyblade

I’ve known Alicia Nyblade for about five years. She’s a fellow Hugophile (an avid fan of Victor Hugo). We first got in touch on Facebook when she was posting an audition notice for her theatrical adaptation of Hugo’s lesser known novel L’homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs). The novel itself is incredibly complex on so many levels and has intricate political, philosophical, religious and esoteric  overtones, though it’s often oversimplified as a “beauty and the beast” story because it features a disfigured male protagonist and a blind love interest Dea who perceives his noble soul. Alicia is a recent college grad who is compelled to advocate for visually impaired individuals, and writing a play based on a novel featuring a blind heroine seemed like a perfect vehicle for her advocacy.  I would’ve loved to participate in the production myself, but I am on the East Coast.  Let’s welcome Alicia as she talks about her play and the production in Sweden. The play has been revised several times and performed as a staged reading, so the author is contemplating the next step. Alicia clearly has a marvelous project in the works, and I hope it gains the prominence and recognition it deserves. In her guest essay she talks about the inspiration and the mechanics behind the project.

The Man Who Laughs, a novel written in 1869 by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Gwynplaine, a boy who was disfigured with a Glasgow smile on the orders of King James II as a punishment to Gwynplaine's father, the rebellious Lord Clancharlie. Knowing nothing of his aristocratic origins and abandoned by the men who disfigured him, Gwynplaine wanders through a deadly blizzard, rescuing a blind infant girl named Dea along the way. Together, they find shelter with the gruff peddler, Ursus, and, over the years, earn a living by performing a play which shows off Gwynplaine's eerily comical grin. Their reputation brings them to Southwark Fair in London, where the Duchess Josiana attends a performance and she is drawn to Gwynplaine due to her lust for the deformed. Yet Gwynplaine has only one love—Dea—and they live a harsh yet happy life under the watchful eye of their surrogate father.

However, this would not be a tale penned by Monsieur Hugo if political plots were missing from it. Gwynplaine’s true origins are soon discovered by Queen Anne’s court and he is whisked away into the life of the aristocracy. At first, Gwynplaine is delighted by this change, thinking that he can use his newfound position of power to help the lower classes in which he grew up. But after he is humiliated by Duchess Josiana during her attempt to seduce him and is laughed at in the House of Lords as he makes an impassioned speech on the plight of the poor, Gwynplaine sees the so-called noblemen as cruel, self-serving gluttons. He renounces his titles and desperately returns to Ursus and Dea, yet of course, the story ends with another Hugo trademark—tragedy.

I was inspired to adapt The Man Who Laughs into a stage play for several reasons. I’m visually impaired as a result of being born prematurely and as a result, although I loved reading all kinds of books as a child, I became particularly fond of the underdog’s story. I first read The Man Who Laughs in my late teens and felt an immediate sisterhood with Dea. I approached adapting her from the perspective of a writer using the character to “tell it like it is” in regards to the emotions of being a woman with a visual impairment and also from the viewpoint of an actress who might play her. Any performer with a disability can testify that there’s nothing more irritating than having to play either a stereotype or a shadow of what a similarly-bodied person is like and so, in creating Dea for the stage, I wanted to give a role that would be truthful both for the actress and the audience.

Anton Salvin, a dear friend of mine who lives in Sweden, was the one who introduced me to The Man Who Laughs. He had known about the story since he was a boy and, being an actor as well, he had always wanted to play Gwynplaine. In short, I wanted to make that dream come true for him and so, he became my muse for the role; I tailored my adaptation of the character to fit his talents. In November of 2009, he played Gwynplaine in a selection of scenes from the script with two university classmates (see photos). While that was a wonderful taste of what he could do in the role, I would love to see him in a full production of the play (and would like to play Dea beside him, I must admit).

The Man Who Laughs is a wonderfully complex tale, the kind only Victor Hugo could have written. Its talk of political and social equality for all people makes it a story that will always be relevant. Yet, at its core, it tells of two souls who found happiness in one another despite being flung together by less than favorable circumstances. Hugo describes Gwynplaine and Dea as two lights bedazzling each other even though they are surrounded by darkness and that is the essence of the tale I want to tell through my play. I thank you for taking the time to read my post, and most of all I’d like to thank Marina for letting me be a guest writer on her blog.

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