Dear Master is about that relationship, and you might think a play based on a long series of letters by fusty novelists from another century would be mortally bland -- all pompous phrasing and no action -- and it's true that a few people were heard snoring at the Berkeley City Club during Dear Master's opening week. But the play isn't boring, partly because Sand and Flaubert weren't fusty. Sand was a spirited and brilliant woman, full of the optimism Flaubert lacked; and their conversation in Dear Master is accessible even if you're not especially interested in writers or the history of Europe. It's carried along by the story of France itself, which rose up against the vestiges of monarchy in 1848 and went to war with Prussia in 1870, and it becomes a self-standing duet between the two writers' outlooks, cheerfully idealistic vs. misanthropic and sour.

Since Sand was a woman with a male pen name, and since "Dear Master" is how Flaubert addressed her in his letters, the play could have turned on feminism and gender roles; but it doesn't, and focusing on their temperaments feels both deeper and more dramatic. Sand is an object lesson in female independence anyway; she doesn't need explanation. Barbara Oliver plays her gracefully, managing by turns to seem sweet, impertinent, and bullheaded; novelist Dorothy Bryant actually wrote the role for her in 1991. And Owen Murphy plays Flaubert as a large and blustering man. At first he seems too overbearing, maybe because I've always pictured Flaubert as more quiet than loud, but when the play settles into its groove you forget about the acting altogether. The unlikeliness of finding such a word-bound play absorbing reminds me of something I think a New Yorker critic recently wrote: Good dialogue is action. "Compared to most of what goes on between men and women," Flaubert says at one point, "I think prostitution is an honest transaction." And says Sand, near the end of her life, even after the Franco-Prussian War shows her "a world of hypocrites and criminals": "Hope, my friend, is not a delusion. It is a necessity."

-- Michael Scott Moore

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