Art/Culture  •  Impressions

Impressions: “La Maladie de L'amor: Detoxification of a Heart”

Coco Petrachaianan plunged into the realm of drama to discover the relationship between love, art, and homosexuality at Thonglor Art Space.

August 22, 2017
Fresh off the plane from Taipei, Wasurat Leon Unaprom, Banthun Ratmanee, and company delivered their second deconstruction of Marguerite Duras’ novella La Maladie de la Mort suitably entitled, La Maladie de L'amor: Detoxification of a Heart, which was staged at the same venue (Thonglor Art Space) as An Epilogue to the Malady of Death two years earlier. I was drawn to this reinterpretation with its subtle argumentative methodology: how the original structure stayed but the small alterations offered a radical alternative point of view.
Director Wasurat Leon Unaprom remade this version in sympathy of Yann Andrea, the transcriber and likely sufferer of the malady of death. Yann was a homosexual man that Duras paid to be with her, and the novella was dictated by Duras for Yann Andrea to transcribe verbatim. The nature of their relationship was not clear cut and whether they had intimate intercourse is unknown. What was certain however, was Yann's devotion to Duras.

For 11 long years Yann lived under Duras’ dominance until her death. It was said that Duras would sometimes lock him up for prolonged periods of time out of obsessive jealousy. Despite that, Yann worshipped her as the prominent literary figure she was. As Wasurat explained, “It was beyond love; it was consecration.”

The show began with an re-enactment of the discussion between Wasurat (director), Banthun Ratmanee (scriptwriter and actor), Pornthep Petchsumrit (assistant director and stage manager), and Nuttamon Pramsumran (visual designer) about the show, which took place in the middle of the bar. It was a very neat method to give the audience context while simultaneously blurring the margin between stage and reality.

As we entered the dark performance room, we fell into the rabbit hole of Yann Andrea’s psyche. The floor was entangled with crumbled typewriter paper resembling both clouds and trash. The space was designed to put the audience within the action—or the inaction of the performance. The mise-en-scène wasn't overly extravagant but sums up pretty much what was necessary. The mirrored wall on the left was covered with excerpts from the novella, written in white ink. Almost against the mirror was a stool with a saline bottle filled with sanguine fluid. In the limelight was a typewriter and chair. A beach video was projected onto the wall opposite the viewers.

The performance itself was simple yet condensed with sentiments. Banthun recited the lines of La Maladie De La Mort and typed on the typewriter. He undressed himself and gave himself unto the dominating female figure performed by Yuka Ehara. Then towards the ending, he walked out of the room filled with the mingled papers upon which he had typed.

Impressions of each element on a deeper level
The excerpt written on the mirror with white ink was an intertext form Hélène Cixous’ feminist literature. Her famous phrase “writing in white ink” is an epitome of the écriture féminine or the very same literary style Duras writes in. Banthun explained the style as ‘to write with the body’, as opposed masculine writing, which is more cerebral and structured.

The bottle with red wine in lieu of saline reminded us of the crucial element of intoxication that one should not disregard for setting the mood and sentiment prior to the performance. The hanging saline bottle would provide an intravenous supply of alcohol: red wine in the bloodstream suggests alcoholism, addiction, and intoxication. During the period Duras was writing, the disruption of logic induced by intoxication could be tied to the feminine side of the binary; very much like how Hélène Cixous and her comrades might later argue.

The typewriter was used most in the performance. In fact, I see it as the most prominent prop on set. The paper in the room was from the typewriter, symbolizing the space as the embodiment of the Yann’s literary world. How I relate the typewriter to the title, Detoxification of a Heart is that it is a writing tool: as Hélène Cixous argued in her essay, writing will liberate women, and Yann would be liberated from this melancholia if he wrote. I asked Banthun what he was typing during the performance and his answer concurred with my interpretation: “I was typing the excerpt together with personal my love letter.” Like the Freudian talking cure, Yann/Banthun released repressed emotions through the process of writing.
Further Impressions
After speaking to the translator and actor, Banthun Ratmanee revealed that the translation and acting process was both taxing and “intoxicating”. He had been drinking since three in the afternoon to get into the mood for the show, which was at eight in the evening. How the name of the performance deviated from the original title reminded me of Hélène Cixous’ Laugh of the Medusa. Small changes were made to make drastic changes in the meaning. Moreover, as with Cixous, it was a rhetorical tool to rebut an argument in a sarcastic manner. La mort (“death”) from the title of the novella was changed into l’amour (“love”).

How Duras recited the story and Yann transcribed the words reveals the gender dynamic beyond the narrative. As explored (and deconstructed) by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Western tradition values the written word as a mere derivative of its spoken counterpart. If the one who speaks is considered more important than the one who writes (especially if she is telling him what to write), we can see domination of one over another. Duras is active and audacious while Yann is passive and silent. Hélène Cixous described the female sex as the “colonized subjects”; however, when a heterosexual female is juxtaposed with a homosexual man in such way, we can see that Yann is feminized and Duras masculinised. Yann is colonised while Duras is the coloniser.
I read the English translation before watching the performance. The novella drew me in with it’s poignant charm. The way I initially read it was as a piece on the suffering of a homosexual man as a muse to the meaning of love: a painful experimentation between the body and soul. It wasn't homophobic until I learned that the published novella was edited for two months to get rid of certain elements. The phrase les pédé (“faggots”) was edited out of the text. In an interview, Duras disclosed that homosexuality was the most fatal sickness of all. Still, her relationship with Yann Andrea may prove to us that she was not unconditionally homophobic. Just as I can see Lars von Trier’s films as feminist, I can understand La Maladie de la Mort as sympathetic to homosexuality.  

The parallelism with the text and the biography made me think about the feelings Duras had towards Yann. Is the man with the sickness of death Yann? Who is the prostitute? Is it Duras herself? Or is it the other way around? The ailing old woman told Yann to write this novella as she told him to. Is it possible that there are some parts of her projected into the character of the homosexual man, or both the man and the woman? I would say so.