It’s all about Flaubert.
If I had an image in mind of Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, before attending Dear Master the actor playing him did not supplant it. Michael Ray Wisely plays the French novelist like a grumpy, avuncular Pierrot. His characterization at times is comic, at others tender. His approach, like the playwright’s, is always sentimental. In that respect, this version of Flaubert fits right into Dorothy Bryant’s curated play of epistles between this Uncle Gus and his Dear Master.
Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, a.k.a. George Sand, was already a celebrated writer when Flaubert was growing up. Sand, almost twenty years his senior, wrote, it would seem, the only favorable review of his 1862 novel Salammbô. Their correspondence, according to Bryant, began in earnest after he thanked her for her solicitousness. At the time, Flaubert was 41; Sand, 58.
It’s never made clear from the letters Bryant shapes and takes excerpts from if Flaubert addresses Sand as “Dear Master” because she’s older than he is, or if he still admires her writing as ardently as he did when he was young. If he ever wrote a review, or journal entry, on one of her novels, we never hear of it. We do hear Sand the apologist declaim more than once that she’s not a true artist like her correspondent. If she’s being falsely modest, Flaubert doesn’t bite. As the years pass, he finds consolation in their exchange but praises her person, when he’s not talking about his own financial woes, and not her literary output.
False modesty was not on Judy Davis’ agenda when she played Sand in the 1991 film Impromptu. If my impression of Flaubert was fuzzy before seeing the play, Davis left a lasting impression of Sand as a strong-willed, pants-wearing, Chopin-wooing rapscallion. Kimberly King as Aurore (the name she went by in her daily life, not Sand), arrives in her pants-less, later years. In securing Flaubert’s friendship, she assures him that her interest in him is not due to physical desire: she’s past all that.
King’s performance is a celebration of passion that’s been transformed into nostalgia, and remembered in handwritten letters. The actress communicates Sand’s wistfulness for the woman she used to be, and the political upheaval she once vehemently supported. There are times when King, in a bronzed brocade dressing gown, fully inhabits that state of being. She focuses a pair of dewy eyes out and above the audience, willing herself back in time. But when she goes on about her precious granddaughter, you long for Davis’s riding crop and malevolent grin. It’s like being forced to look at endless online pictures of your friends’ children: very sweet and very dull.
The play ends with Flaubert getting unstuck from a bout of writer’s block. He and Aurore have been sparring on paper. She challenges the limitations of his cynical worldview, and how it impacts his artistry. He, at first, is baffled by her criticism (she didn’t like his novel Sentimental Education). Then he comes up with the idea for his short story “A Simple Heart,” in which a maid spends her life in unselfish servitude to those around her. Bryant underlines the scene to make sure we understand that, just before her death, she was, at last, Flaubert’s final muse.
The story was published the year after Sand died so she may not have had the chance to read or critique it. As a proto-feminist, it’s hard to believe that Sand herself would have come up with or approved of either the story of a happily subservient woman, or the way Dear Master ends. Sand did more than service Flaubert’s imaginative life. She wrote acres of plays and novels in her own right. Bryant does justice to Flaubert’s brilliant career; it’s a pity then that Sand’s comes across as something lost in the past.
Dear Master, through Oct. 2, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-843-4822.