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David Hirson (2010)
Photograph: Kelly Curtis David Hirson

David Hirson

The author of La Bête shares his thoughts on highbrow, lowbrow and his tiny writing output.

By Raven Snook
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Considering his vocation, it’s not surprising that David Hirson is a stickler for words. Yet even more than other playwrights, he expresses himself with painstaking care, correcting himself (and, politely, others) if he thinks the wrong verbiage has been used. Hirson’s love for language is evident in his farce La Bête, which opened and quickly closed on the Main Stem in 1991 after being trounced by most major critics, in particular The New York Times’ Frank Rich, who glibly dismissed it as a show “for anyone who confuses high-mindedness with high art.”

But unlike most flops, the play, which is set in 17th-century France and written entirely in rhyming couplets, enjoyed an auspicious afterlife: It won the 1992 Olivier Award in London for best comedy, and went on to become a staple of regional and college theaters. Earlier this year, Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) helmed a star-studded West End revival featuring Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce, Absolutely Fabulous’s Joanna Lumley and stage legend Mark Rylance. Now, that production is headed across the pond to give La Bte a much-deserved second shot at Broadway success.

Fresh from England where he caught the show’s final bow at the Comedy Theater, Hirson admits that the play isn’t the usual commercial stage fare. “It’s never compared to other things,” he notes. “It doesn’t resemble other plays. People have very extreme reactions to it. It’s...weird.”

That adjective could also be used to describe Hirson’s career. The son of character actor Alice Hirson and screenwriter Roger O. Hirson, the 52-year-old dramatist has penned only two plays, La Bte and Wrong Mountain (2000), both of which ran very briefly on Broadway. What else has he been up to in the past ten years? “Working on a third play,” Hirson responds without sarcasm, then adds, “I have a certain writing tempo. I recognize that it’s not—in a lot of people’s view—the fastest, but it’s mine. Do I wish I were producing a play a year, and writing for television and movies simultaneously? Yes. But that’s not who I am.”

It certainly must take time to craft a text like La Bête. In addition to its demanding iambic pentameter, the play explores complicated themes, such as lowbrow versus highbrow, popular versus profound and what constitutes art, as two men of the theater—educated intellectual Elomire (Pierce) and vulgar street performer Valere (Rylance)—vie for the patronage of Princess Conti (Lumley). At first viewing, loquacious buffoon Valere seems like the villain, a symbol for the dumbing-down of culture, but he’s not necessarily the beast of the title. Depending on your point of view, la bête could refer to the stubborn Elomire, the obtuse Princess, ignorant audiences, snarky critics or perhaps all of the above.

“Most people and most experiences in life are very complicated,” says Hirson. “As a playwright, I’m not trying to make a particular argument. I’m surrendering myself to exploring these contradictions within myself, and I invite viewers to recognize their own contradictions. My characters are a kind of fun-house mirror reflection of extremes. Most of us live somewhere in between. Some people see it very clearly as a play that celebrates Elomire as an uncompromising artist. But I’ve had others proudly tell me, 'I am Valere.’ That level of ambiguity is dismissed by some people. They want to know, where does the playwright stand? They assume I’m Elomire when really, I’m all of the characters.”

While Hirson jovially but firmly refutes the characterization of the original Broadway mounting as a failure—“I think it depends on how you measure success in the theater. Is it simply something that makes a lot of money and runs for ten years, or something that you’re happy to sign your name to?”—everyone involved in the revival undoubtedly hopes La Bête does better the second time around.

Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess: The London run garnered mixed reviews, though Rylance, who won a Tony two seasons ago for his rollicking turn in Boeing-Boeing, was universally praised for his outrageous performance. The script remains more or less the same as it was two decades ago (the intermission’s been axed, and the Prince changed to a Princess, a switch that Hirson admits led to some “collateral revision”). But the world’s a very different place. Perhaps in the age of shameless self-promotion, reality TV and Twitter (all advents Valere would just love), the play could be a hit...or maybe not. Either way, Hirson remains positive. “It’s in the nature of the play to cause a bit of a rough-and-tumble,” he says. “For me, it’s a great privilege to see it again at this level. I can’t control the overall reaction, but I do know the play’s beloved by many, many people. I don’t think we’d be sitting here today talking if that weren’t the case.”

La Bête is playing at the Music Box Theatre.

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