Augustin-Eugène Scribe would’ve felt right at home in today’s television industry. The most popular French playwright and librettist during a good chunk of the 19th century, Scribe anticipated the Hollywood writers’ room by maintaining a creative staff whose members assembled the hundreds of entertainments that appeared under his name. He also invented the well-made play, a template capable of generating endless variations within an ironclad set of narrative rules. Scribe was, as his 1861 New York Times obituary noted, “Less a dramatist than a manafacturer [sic] of comedies, vaudevilles and opera librettos.”>
And he turned out a quality product. Witness his 1848 Le Puff, ou Mensonge et Vérité—or Puff: Believe It or Not, as Ranjit Bolt calls his English translation, getting a smart, cynical world premiere production now from Remy Bumppo Theatre.
Let’s deal with that unfortunate title first. “Puff” in this context doesn’t refer to a drag, a dragon, or something a drag queen might use to apply powder. It isn’t an exhalation or the white halo that forms on a dandelion when it’s going to seed. It’s more closely related to “puff” as in “puff piece,” but stripped of any mitigating sense of sincere flattery. It’s hype. Deception. Salesmanship. Self-interested, strategic, enthusiastically unprincipled lying. And, as César Desgaudets, the play’s wise old philosopher of puff (not to say its most profound practitioner) suggests, it’s absolutely indispensable to survival in a society so fraught with contradictions that it can’t handle the truth. “Puff,” Degaudets asserts, “is king.”
The play, being well-made, consists of an elaborately plotted yet perfectly trivial love story centered on Albert d’Angremont, a titled French military officer who’s just returned to Paris after years of living in a tent in the middle of the Sahara, fighting Algerians. All that time spent in cultural isolation has made a sort of human time capsule of him: Quixote-like, Albert cherishes old aristocratic values based on honor and truth and the willingness to die for stuff, which puts him utterly out of sync with the going social modalities of his peers back home. Then too, he cherishes Antonia de la Roche-Bernard, the younger sister of his good pal Maxence. The whole Algerian adventure, in fact, was his attempt to become deserving of her hand.
Unfortunately for Albert, the notion of proving one’s worth through demonstrations of courage, fortitude, and martial skill has become as quaint to Parisians as truth itself. In the world of puff, matches are made for the sake of advantage and good optics. Albert’s reeducation begins when he happens to save Desgaudets from getting run over by a horse cart, and comes to a crisis when Antonia is contracted to marry the wealthy, frivolous Comte de Marignan in order to settle Maxence’s debts.
There’s a huge number of twists, turns, and even double flips along the way, many of them resulting from the usual farce fodder—eavesdropped conversations, snooped diary entries, misinterpreted signals—but others attributable to nothing more than the quick pace of developments leaving people a scheme behind, which is only appropriate for a play spinning on the axis of perception. Unlike David Ives, whose adaptations of Molière and Corneille are ostentatiously anachronistic, Bolt is a quiet and fluid modernizer here; it’s only late in the game, after you hear someone say “I suffer from low self-esteem” or “It’s the way I’m made,” that you realize you’ve been listening to 21st-century tropes all evening. Nick Sandys’s direction, quiet and fluid too—resisting what must’ve been a sore temptation to overplay the sense of many balls juggled, so that small gestures, like those of Christopher Sheard’s Comte de Marignan as he rearranges his public face after a miscalculation or Joshua Moaney’s Albert as he suffers a fit of the moral dry heaves—can read as human as well as comic.
It’s easy and apt to apply Puff to the state of our present-day union, Trumpian and otherwise. Kelsey Brennan has a great turn as César’s daughter, Corrine, a writer who’s weaponized the memoir genre so as to make herself a dangerous player. What’s more, Scribe and Bolt are remorseless, though far from moralistic, in their presentation of the lie as the essential currency of a literally fraudulent society. But we’d better be awake to the possible risks of identifying too closely with these characters. After all, the year of Puff’s original premiere was a year of revolution throughout Europe. In France it saw the toppling of one royal house and the establishment of the Second Republic, followed by the subversion of the republic by its own president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. v