Our productions

To the Oxford Company of La Bête

From the playwright, David Hirson

Greetings from New York City! Having been a student at Oxford in the 1980s, I have a special affection for the place, and it pleases me to imagine that a play of mine is being performed there! I wish I could be there to see it, and to meet you personally! In lieu of that, Helen Taylor has asked me to write a few words.

In 1990, during auditions for the original Broadway production of La Bête, I noticed many actors, after shaking my hand, would whisper something into the ear of the casting director, Meg Simon. When I asked Meg what they were saying to her, she answered, “Well, David. The actors are very surprised that the playwright is so … young.” (I was thirty-two at the time).

“Why?” I asked. “Do they expect me to be so … old?”

Without skipping a beat, Meg brandished a copy of my faux seventeenth century verse play and said, “David, they expect you to be dead.”

Being dead, I have come to realize, is one of the less off-kilter assumptions that people have made about the author of La Bête. Once I overheard a woman saying to her friend at intermission (in heavy Brooklynese), “This is not an original play, you know. It’s actually a translation based on a farce by Molnar.” This comment remains unsurpassed, in my experience, in the category of “Greatest Number of Wrong Things Communicated in a Single Sentence”!

Why the confusion? I think you will agree, having worked on the play, that it is less La Bête’s neoclassical authenticity than its absolute strangeness that provokes these reactions. When introduced as its author, I often encounter a gob-smacked look of skepticism, as though a person as regular-seeming as I could not possibly have created a world as monstrously idiosyncratic as La Bête’s. The original director of the play confessed to me that he had expected to meet Elomire or Valere, and was crestfallen to tell his disappointed friends back at the Old Vic that the author was really “just some polite American boy in an anorak.”

It’s difficult for me, sometimes, to regard the play without a similar sense of alienation, and over the last twenty years, as I have grown older (and apart from La Bête) that feeling of distance has only increased. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love the play, or that I’m not proud of it. It’s simply that I’m not entirely sure where it came from. And now, having written it so long ago, I can only feel intermittently connected to it, which is a measure of how decidedly it has taken on a life of its own.

In the winter of 1991, when La Bête caused a scandal on Broadway (and brought me theatrical notoriety of the splashiest, most controversial kind), it was interpreted in ways that stunned and perplexed me. In subsequent years (including the 1992 production in London, where it won the Laurence Olivier Award), it has been interpreted in entirely different, often diametrically opposed ways, to similar choruses of adulation and/ or indignation. And this, I believe, is the key to its durability. What I’ve come to understand is that the intense feelings, both positive and negative, that La Bête generates derive less from what the play says (which is anybody’s guess!) than from what the play is: a wild-child let loose in the room which, depending on one’s perspective, can be viewed as fascinating, irritating, brilliant, tedious, profound, shallow, polished, amateurish, beautiful, ugly, or all (or none) of the above. It’s a fiercely weird, passionate experiment that I couldn’t create again if I tried (and I’m not sure that I’d want to!). La Bête is, in other words, ineffably, inexorably alive, and - love it or hate it -- distinctively itself. No one has ever accused it of resembling any other play! And in its protean capacity to say different things to different people at different times, it feels, ultimately, completely unstuck in time. That’s why, in the twenty years since its premiere, La Bête retains the eerie quality of seeming perpetually new, and shows no signs of succumbing to age. It’s impossible, of course, to know what the future may bring, but if the current trend continues, the damn thing threatens to outlive me!

To be represented in the world by such an odd creature is haunting (to put it mildly!), occasionally embarrassing, but also awe-inspiring, as any parent would no doubt agree. And though I have complicated, often contradictory feelings about La Bête, the fact that it has enjoyed - and continues to enjoy - such a rich life in the theatre is a privilege that I certainly don’t take for granted. For twenty years, I have been humbled to see how, in the hands of hugely talented directors and actors and designers, my wild-child ceases to be mine and becomes theirs (as it has now become yours!), and with a depth of conviction that often astounds me! It has provided me with an invaluable, on-going education in the theatre, where I am continually reminded that I am just a beginner.

When I was at Oxford, La Bête existed merely as a notion. The idea that it now returns there, all grown-up, seems almost too surreal to contemplate. To Helen Taylor and the entire company, I send my best wishes for a thrilling and successful run of the play! As the original director said to me so many years ago, “I don’t know what people will think of it, but I can promise you one thing. It won’t be a wet firecracker!”

With warm regards,

David Hirson

About David Hirson

David Hirson was born in New York City and was educated at Yale and Oxford. His plays have been produced on Broadway and internationally, receiving nominations for multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and winning numerous honors including the John Gassner Award of th e Outer Critics Circle, the New York Newsday / George Oppenheimer Award, the Marton Prize of the Dramatists Guild, and London's Laurence Olivier Award.