David Lean's 1945 "Brief Encounter," written by Noel Coward, is a great period piece. Laura and Alec, two married middle-class people fall in love in England in 1938, and are stunned by their emotions. The screen is filled with Celia Johnson's face, caught, paralyzed, in great distress at her great love; sharing a life with Alec doesn't seem an option. "I didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people," she narrates.
Nowadays, with divorce widely available, and marriage itself an option for at least a few of Coward's queer ilk, it's hard to know how to take it. Laura in particular seems hemmed in by her own fears, rather than by social restrictions. "Impossible love" - does that still exist?
A different tack is taken in the ingenious adaptation by the English theater company Kneehigh Theatre, triumphant on Broadway after an initial run at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse last year - postmodern multi-media music hall! The film is peopled with working class characters, involved in their own less dramatic (but consummated) love affairs. On this stagey stage adaptation, they become the center of the production. And what fun they have, flirting and singing and dancing! As Laura and Alec fumble their way through something they dare not name, the people around them know exactly what's going on.
It's sort of an "Ariadne auf Naxos" situation with Zerbinetta in charge.
Much of the script of the film is kept, but the line "I didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people" couldn't be part of this production. "Ordinary people," the others would ask? As for the violence of emotion, it's lampooned. "Oh, just get on with it," the comic characters seem to say, and get on with their less pretentious assignations.
There's an "Upstairs Downstairs" quality to it all. The servants knows human nature better than her supposed betters do - including, especially, the supposed betters, who don't understand even their own most basic feelings. (Hegel!) But there's no rancor here; characters like the amazing Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson, above) are too busy with their own lives to harbor class resentments. Despite Laura's and Alec's drama (accentuated and mocked by film footage of crashing waves, etc.), the overall experience is a happy one. Life goes on, as it always has. If you can't get on with it, there's a good chance you'll get over it.
Part of the pathos of Strauss' proto-postmodern "Ariadne auf Naxos" is the incommensurability of the tragic and comic modes, heightened by the grandeur of opera's Gesamtkunstwerkiness; in this "Brief Encounter" tragic and comic are happily wrapped up in the pleasures of parodistic performance. As Strauss sensed already, in our post-modern moment even Liebesschmerz is a performance.
I can't help feeling something gets lost here (the pathos of the closet, I suppose, or the more general idea of doomed lovers), but also can't deny that this version of "Brief Encounter" is a romp. And in its way, this way of telling the story offers Laura and Alec hope of life after love...