Readings — From the November 2014 issue

Nymphéamaniac

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From La Colère du Tigre, a play by Philippe Madral about the friendship between Georges Clemenceau and Claude Monet, which premiered at the Théâtre Montparnasse in Paris in September. After World War I, Monet promised to donate his Nymphéas (Water Lilies) series to France in honor of the victory, but when galleries were built to house them at the Jeu de Paume and the Orangerie, he struggled to finish the paintings. Translated from the French by Christopher Beha.

[A garden. Clemenceau is planting seedlings in a pot while Monet looks on.]

clemenceau: We planted those poor boys in the trenches just like this. Some sprouted back up, others never did. Why? Why does life survive in one place and not another?

monet: Not there. A little farther down.

clemenceau: You’re right. He must stay at the bottom of his hole. Otherwise, the poor boy will be mowed down when he sticks his nose out. [He stops and turns toward Monet.] And then what?

monet: Then you close the hole back up with your spade, and you pack it down — not too much. And there you have it.

[Clemenceau looks over what he’s done.]

clemenceau: Then what?

monet: You water it a little, carefully.

[Clemenceau takes the watering can and sprinkles lightly. His mind is obviously elsewhere, though Monet does not notice and gathers the pots they’ve already planted.]

monet: [To himself] You have to put them in a warm place, without any breeze, out of direct sunlight.

[Clemenceau puts down the watering can and lowers his hands to the table, dropping his head.]

monet: What’s happened?

clemenceau: All these dead. They haunt me at night. I saw appalling things. Shattered jaws, gaping holes in the middle of the face. [He stops a moment, immobile, then pulls himself together.] At Versailles, there were four of these men with broken faces. The ushers had placed them in a corner near the window so that the diplomats weren’t made too uncomfortable by the sight. I had them brought over and demanded they be placed up front for the photo . . .

[He goes back to planting. Monet comes to help him. They work side by side, in silence. Clemenceau stops suddenly and puts a cigarette in his mouth.]

clemenceau: Tell me something. What am I going to say to the director of the Beaux-Arts? Last year, you asked for another delay. Thanks to my intervention, you got one.

monet: And I am very thankful to you for that.

clemenceau: But you’ve pushed off the inauguration indefinitely, without even giving a date.

monet: We can’t start this again.

clemenceau: Of course we can. Do you know why? Because I need a date.

monet: I’m incapable of giving you one. My honor as a painter is at stake.

clemenceau: And my honor as a man! You entered a contract with France. A man — artist or not, diminished or not — does not have the right to go back on his word, above all when he has given it to his country.

monet: I am not the same man who signed that contract.

clemenceau: Has the state kept all the commitments you asked of it? The Jeu de Paume was not great enough for your paintings? We found you the Orangerie.

monet: I know, I know.

clemenceau: Two oval rooms, exactly as you wished. We had to move all those orange trees! Redo the ceilings, raise the beams so that you were happy with the light.

monet: You’ve told me all this before. I may be blind, but I’m not deaf.

clemenceau: You conduct yourself like a thug. I don’t know what’s keeping me from dueling with you.

monet: What a great idea! With pistols?

clemenceau: Or swords, if you prefer.

monet: Even better. Two old men who can hardly stand up . . .

[He hits Clemenceau on the leg with his cane. Clemenceau stumbles. Furious, he grabs his own cane to hit Monet back. But Monet blocks the strike. The two stand en garde, ready to fight.]

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