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The Heir Apparent

November 29

January 17, 2016

in CST's Courtyard Theater

written by David Ives, adapted from
Le Légataire universel
by Jean-François Regnard
directed by John Rando

A Scholar's Perspective

Rhymed Schemes
by Stuart Sherman

For lovers of comedy now, much about the frantically scheming characters in Jean-François Regnard’s The Heir Apparent will feel familiar. One thing may not: they speak in rapid, funny rhyme.

Regnard (1655-1709), like his immediate predecessor Molière, drew heavily on the small but phenomenally fecund stockpile of character types with which the centuries-old Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte has imbued comedy ever since: two young lovers intent on marriage are thwarted by hidebound blocking agents (here a rich miser and a fuming gorgon) who withhold assent and cash, but are abetted by a clever servant or two (often themselves in love) who devise intricate capers to fulfill both their masters’ desires and their own.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is built like this. So is Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, itself a resurrection of the Roman-comedy prototypes that had fed into commedia dell’arte. So, in its way, is Seinfeld and many of its sitcom successors, where the appetites, inept but infinite, for cash and coupling remain the plots’ prime motivators. For us as for the commedia’s audience, the ease and abundance of available laughter depends on the familiarity of the character types, and the novelty of their predicaments and ingenuities.

The rhyme, though, is another story. We’re used to rhyme in musicals, where the surge into song warrants the liftoff in the language toward another passionate planet, livelier and more luminous than ours, where syllable echoes syllable with preternatural precision, but without any apparent effort on the part of the singers.

In spoken dialogue, by contrast, pervasive rhyming now runs the risk of overkill. But Regnard, and his dazzling twenty-first-century adapter David Ives, make a giddy case for it. What’s striking in The Heir Apparent is how deftly the rhyming dovetails with all that’s going on with both the plot and the characters. In The Heir Apparent, most of the good guys’ scams depend on quick, convincing disguises. And successful disguise is itself a kind of visual rhyme, with clothes and props in place of syllables.

Regnard enjoys this parallel so much that at one point he farcically compounds it: three of the schemers, oblivious to each other’s identical tactics, enter in swift succession, each disguised (with varying degrees of persuasiveness) as the same fourth character (whom in fact we’ll never see). While our ears absorb their frenzied improvisations in the face of this foul-up, our eyes take in the triple rhyme: clowning by way of cloning.

But amid all this chiming of plots and protagonists, why the need for actual rhyme at all? For Regnard as for Ives, the verbal music is indispensable: not excess but infrastructure.  The rhyme not only reproduces the patterns of the plot in fast-moving miniature; it also makes subliminal, suasive arguments of its own.

Regnard’s first audiences would have found in his deft couplets a pleasing take on their specific cultural moment and shifting tastes. Commedia dell’arte, in its original form, had worked from loose scenarios sans dialogue; the performers improvised their speeches and almost everything else. French comedy, enthralled by the formula, also tweaked it, meshing the feverishly improvised ingenuities of the characters with the pyrotechnic verbal control on display in the impeccable rhymes and rhythms of the playwright.

This mix may have come naturally to Regnard.  His name means fox, and he displayed throughout his career an extraordinary combination of control and improvisation. As a devout gambler, for example, he consistently made fortunes at the tables where others lost them. And as a playwright, he began by sketching open scenarios for the commedia’s improvisers, before modulating to the clockwork comic dexterities of his virtuosic couplets.

Regnard’s rhymes remain delightful in part because he, and Ives in his metric footsteps, make them a kind of microcosm for the quasi-providential patterns endemic to most comedy. At one point in The Heir Apparent, the comedy’s crustiest blocking agent, in an epiphanic pivot toward magnanimity, discovers that he wants to marry a woman he’s long known. After all, he pleads to this sudden inamorata. “We’re soulmates… we rhyme.”

And so, Regnard suggests, do we—in our aspirations (where cash and ardor still loom large), in our passionate, precarious pursuit of them, in our unions with each other. Listening to the rhymes, we live them too.

Comedy comes from komos, the ancient Greek term for the dances of communal harmony that concluded all such shows. The sweetest subliminal message in Regnard’s rhymed schemes accomplishes something similar. We see and hear the onstage improvisers pursue their wildest, most harebrained schemes in clicking rhymes precisely timed, and absorb as if by osmosis an expanded sense of human possibility: the richness of our own language (so copious in its array of meshed and dancing syllables), and the potential in ourselves: the abundant gifts for thinking, acting, speaking— frantically, wittily, hopelessly, happily—bestowed on mortal minds. As the play’s febrile plotters voice their cunning and their panic in quick rhyme, we know of course that what we’re listening to, and laughing at, is in one way superhuman: no one on earth can be this smart, and this much fun.

But then, some are: Regnard the fox, for example, and his heir apparent, David Ives.

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