Coriolanus was directed by Leo Egger TC ’24 (whom you may know from being the editor-in-chief of the Herald, and from never having been implicated in a conflict of interest of any kind) and ran from March 2 to March 4.
Boris Vian was an author, jazzman, all-around genius goofball, and a Pisces. For reasons unknown, he’s been peeking out from behind unexpected corners of my world for the better part of the last year. On his 102nd birthday last March, I didn’t know who he was. In May of that year, my professor gave me a book about the French existentialist set, of whom Vian was a friend and occasionally a part. My grandfather, an obsessive musical collector, saw me reading the book and asked me if it mentioned this Boris Vian guy. I left his house with a book about Boris Vian and the birth of hot jazz.
I read the book and made a mental note to write about Boris Vian in the Herald in early March for his birthday this year. When my friend took me to her favorite bookstore, Los Angeles’s Skylight Books, in December, I had all but given up hope on finding any of his novels in English. Of course, there it was on the shelf: a brand-new Wakefield Press translation of his Vercoquin and the Plankton, a spectacle of wordplay and over-the-top cleverness.
I was at quizbowl tournament in New York a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t played quizbowl in months but decided to go with Yale’s team because I missed it, and besides, some of my friends were playing. In the final round, there was a question about Boris Vian. I remembered my idea for a Herald piece about him, but quickly wrote it off: after all, I had already committed to writing a piece about Leo Egger’s production of Coriolanus for the week before spring break.
I walked into the Coriolanus dress rehearsal at around 9:30 p.m. I was incredibly sleepy, and Leo was giving notes to his cast in between runs. Before the cast launched into their final rehearsal, Leo encouraged them to go wild: “During performance, don’t do anything rash. Now is the time to take some risks.” He sounded like a basketball coach telling his team to cut loose right before the big game. That metaphor is a little forced—Coriolanus is being staged in the Berkeley College Multipurpose Room, otherwise known as the worst basketball court you have ever seen. It’s cramped, and a rectangle of tape marking off the foul line is the only suggestion that this space might be used to play sports. In other words, it’s perfect for other purposes.
The actors were exhausted (they were approaching hour 4 of rehearsal when I showed up) but played well to their audience of one. Coriolanus is a play about a proud general (guess his name) who gets banished from Rome after he pridefully reprimands starving peasants. He joins forces with his mortal enemy, the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius. When Coriolanus’s family persuade him to make peace between Rome and the Volscians, he is killed by the Volscians as a traitor.
At the end of the play, a song began to play:
Monsieur le Président, je vous fais une lettre / que vous lirez peut-être, si vous avez le temps.
It’s called Le déserteur. It’s been used as a protest song for almost 70 years, since the days of the French colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria. It makes sense—Coriolanus first deserts Rome, then breaks his promises to the Volscians. In the last speech before the end of the play, Tullus Aufidius, having just killed Coriolanus, proclaims: “My rage is gone/and I am struck with sorrow.” The play is a tragedy; tragedy comes when first good sense and then rage desert Tullus Aufidius.
If you haven’t already guessed where this is going, I’ll tell you. Le déserteur was written by Boris Vian. I laughed through the bloodstained curtain call. It often feels like coincidence runs rampant through my life. In a long winter like this one, coincidence in life, in art, offers a sense of coherence. Coincidence is ephemeral, but the ephemeral is life-affirming, more so than the solid which has the weight to crush.