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WOMAN WITH NO FACE (a synopsis)
(This is dictated at 1:11 pm on September 5, 1990, while driving on an autobahn about 55 km south of Nürnberg in Bavaria. These are notes for a play inspired by the "gueules cassées" phenomenon.)
The point of the play is this: The central character is a German woman born in 1900 in Berlin. In 1919, just after the end of the First World War, she comes to Paris (for whatever reason -- this is to be developed later) and there she meets and falls in love with a young French Captain who had been severely wounded in the face in the battle of the Somme, or Verdun, or one of these horrible trench-war battles. He is one of these "gueules cassées" (rough translation: bashed-in mug"), people with faces so disfigured that many keep them continuously bandaged. You can just see his eyes deep in their sockets through these bandages...and a little bit of what remains of his lips.
She falls in love with him for several reasons. He is a wonderful, just man and so on. But she also has some guilt about her country, doing this to him in the war. The guilt, at this point, should not be over-exaggerated.
During this time in 1919 when they meet and fall in love there is the beginning of the "gueules cassées" movement to secure them some rights and compensation, because they have none (quite unlike, for example, the amputees). Occasionally a benefit event is organized, typically attended by assorted French "celebrities" socialites, and so on ("Tout Paris"), including people like Josephine Baker (one could add Leonard Bernstein, Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, and Paloma Picasso look-alikes -- transcending time and place -- for good measure). The "gueules cassées" have no money, no pensions, no respect, no status -- and they are roaming the streets of Paris in this frighteningly disfigured state. They are outraged for being betrayed and discarded like so much human refuse, yet can't help continuing to love the idea of France and are profoundly proud of the sacrifice they made for her. So there is a mixture of almost pathetic patriotism, social degradation, and emotional devastation.
One of these charity events is a masked ball at which both the Captain and the young German woman (his lover by this time) are present. This is one of the two focal scenes of the play. It is not clear whether the masked ball was planned as such, or whether some of the famous personages just decide to put the masks on -- out of clumsy sympathy, as a bad joke, out of cruelty, or for sheer kicks (this should be left moot). Anyway, the outcome is a juxtaposition of these expensive, bizzare masks with the bandaged faces -- a macabre grotesquerie of the highest order (à la Goya), incredibly sad and poignant, but with some black humor also. The "celebrities" are supposedly trying to collect money for the "gueules cassées", but they are also making jokes and snide remarks among themselves about these bandaged ghosts. One sees few of the restraints allegedly present in our times about the humane treatment of the handicapped, the disabled Vietnam veterans, the maimed, the AIDS sufferers (legally imposed restraints on us "normals" in our world, but verbal and physical brutality lurking just below the surface?). The "gueules cassées" are quite openly treated as lepers, as pariahs. And they are literally being likened to lepers in part because the masked socialites wonder aloud if the bandages conceal actual battle scars or the ravages caused by a disease; rumors also darkly hint that the disease may be contagious. The masked ball scene is crucial also because it is a baptism by fire for the young German girl: She only then fully realizes the horror of the Captain's situation. She falls in love with him even deeper as a function of that evening.
Eventually these two people get married, but he is undergoing further operations with little improvement and is more and more depressed, desperate. To help his depression, as a show of defiance to the way people treat him in the street, and as a sign of loyalty and love -- at some point she also begins to wear bandages on her face, even though it is completely intact. She wants to be like him... she wants to be mistreated, despised, and felt sorry for just as he is. She feels that this brings her closer to him. At first he resists this sacrifice, this almost pathetic offering of sympathy, sorrow, and love. But she persists and he grudgingly accepts it, then admires it; finally, in fact, he somehow begins to think of her as being his scarred and disfigured "twin". But their joint appearance actually gives malicious wags additional material for the idea that there is something contagious about the facial disfigurement and further isolates the couple. Eventually, after 4-5 years of terrible suffering, he cannot handle it any more, and despite having her and her saintly, loyal help, he commits suicide. (We learn this somehow in the course of the play.)
She is devastated, but her defiant resolve to be like her husband is actually strengthened, fueled by the anger about how the "gueules cassées" continue to be treated. Therefore, she continues to wear the bandages in Paris and even after she returns to Germany in the late 1920s: they have become a part of her identity, a palpable sign of her devotion to her husband, of her hate of war, of her protest against the casual cruelty of the average "man/woman in the street". And there is a hint of using the bandages as a defense against any possibility of sexual interest in her.
She takes the bandages off only before sleep, but never looks in the mirror when they are off. This could be shown easily in a poignant, dark, getting-ready-for-bed scene, where she covers a full-length mirror before taking the bandages off (but without the audience seeing her face as she moves about the room with the bandages off), in effect, what is being conveyed is that the heroine not only wears the bandages, but does not know any more what she looks like (this is a part of the deal she makes with herself when she decides to wear the bandages in the first place).
This entire process develops in such a way that the audience is -- or becomes -- confused about whether or not her face is actually scarred (especially given the contagion rumors). This is crucial for the final scene of the play to be truly effective.
The next aspect of the drama takes place in Israel. It is 1948 and Israel has just won a war against the Arabs that followed its declaration of Statehood. The heroine had actually arrived in Israel in 1946, from Germany and with bandages still on her face. She comes in order to help build this new country -- even before it was founded -- to expiate feelings of guilt (much more intense this time than after the First War), but this whole issue must be handled very gently in both the script and direction. (Incidentally, the existence of such Germans in Israel is, I believe, historically accurate.) (And, by the way, while I am dictating this I am driving at a speed of 210 km/hour on an autobahn with 3 lanes traveling north towards Nürnberg.) To illustrate her long-evolving anti-Nazi, anti-war feelings, there could earlier be some scenes (by means of montage, film clips, quick mob arrangements on the stage, etc.) of the Hitler rallies in the early 1930s: for example, a scene where everybody in a crowd raises their arms in a Heil-Hitler salute and roars approval, but she stands silent, motionless, bandaged, alone in an empty circle surrounded by the hateful, jeering, yet somehow puzzled mob. A mob that is afraid to hit her for she is otherworldly, a leprous ghost.
In Israel, she works in a small hospital near a kibbutz. Among her patients is a Polish-born Israeli man -- a concentration-camp survivor -- well on the way to recovery (he is ambulatory, etc.) from bullet wounds to the chest incurred in the 1948 war. The man is about the same age as the heroine and has uncommon depth and sensitivity. They are falling profoundly in love, she for the first time since her husband's death, he for the first time since he lost his family in Treblinka. They are both in awe of this new tremendous feeling, given their respective difficult pasts, her bandages, and the hardships of those early days of Israel's existence.
Technically, he is the patient and she the nurse, but in fact she has a an obsessive-compulsive neurotic problem which consists of having bouts of endlessly, ritualistically repeating certain bodily gestures, foot-tapping, touching of surfaces, and so on, with these various gestures always adding up to the same number. This can be quite dramatic on stage where she would be shown alone wandering about a room and performing these endless touching, scratching, tapping, etc. rituals which are carried out in patterns (adding up, say, to 14 or whatever). The gestures are meaningless, almost debilitating, but highly stylized and precise; she is aware of their futility, angry with herself, desperate to stop, but literally unable to snap out of a bout. (Such neurotic symptoms really exist and are, in fact, quite common.) She is able to conceal this behavior from other people, but because they are becoming close, he catches her on a few occasions. He does not confront her, though, they do not discuss it, she does not attempt to explain.
His wanting to help her about this problem is, however, quite secondary to his growing desire to see her face. He believes that it is disfigured, maimed, scarred, but he is convinced that it would not be horrible to him, for he loves her so deeply. And he wants to know all of her. The process during which he convinces her to show him her face is drawn-out, tender -- but the almost anti-climactic clincher is that he solves the riddle of the number (say, 14) around which her compulsive rituals revolve (say, the total of the numbers of her date of marriage, or her husband's death). (The play could work without the whole obsessive-compulsive theme and I am not really committed to it at this point.)
Finally, she concedes to take the bandages off for him and this is the key, and final, scene of the play. The appearance of her face will be new for everybody: For the audience who half expects it to be disfigured; for the Israeli man, who is certain that it is disfigured in one way or another; and for her, who vaguely knows that it is not disfigured (although she has almost forgotten this fact), but who has not seen her own face in almost 10 years.
The face that is revealed must be strikingly beautiful, infinitely calm, good, at-peace-with-itself -- a mature, but wrinkle-free face of a Madonna at age 48. Perhaps in the early scenes, when the audience sees her face as a 19-year-old in Paris, it can be shown as attractive and kind, but heavily made-up, circles under the eyes, rouge on the cheeks, lipstick, trying to look older and sophisticated, etc., so that it is so much more beautiful, purer, now.
(Dictated on October 15, 1990.) This final scene must be astounding. One has this tremendously moving situation, this woman deliberately, but ever-so-slowly, unwrapping the bandages. When her face finally emerges, she is simply there: He is speechless, she is speechless, they make no movement toward each other, and the amount and kind of eye-contact has to be directed with utmost sensitivity and care. The play ends in a freeze and total silence, something extraordinary should have just been revealed.
A possible English translation of "gueules cassées" ("bashed-in faces") is too cruel, so the working title of "The woman with no face" seems preferable. The story in which I first saw the "gueules cassées" phenomenon described was written in Russian by Olga Forsh in 1928. In English it was rendered as the "Dolls of Paris", translated by Ira Goetz, and appeared in a collection called "Great Soviet Short Stories" editted by F.D. Reeve and published in 1962 by Del Publishing in New York City as a paperback. Except for the "gueules cassées" phenomenon, there is absolutely no connection between the "Dolls of Paris" and "The woman with no face".