Jonathan Lynn’s The Patriotic Traitor has recently come to the end of its run at the Park Theatre in London. It tells the story of the personal relationship between Charles de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and Philippe Pétain (Tom Conti) from their first meeting before the Great War to their showdown as leaders of two competing Frances during the Second World War – de Gaulle’s Free France and Pétain’s Vichy France. The play has received largely positive reviews but is probably most well-known for Fox’s dressing down of a heckler at the end of one of the performances. I went to see the play on 18 March and thought I share my opinion of it and some concerns I have about its version of history.
The staging of the play was very effective. A large map of France was displayed behind the actors, showing the locations mentioned during the play such as Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (de Gaulle’s home) and Verdun (scene of the Marshal’s famous victory in 1916). The demarcation line (France’s wartime internal border) is also traced along the centre of the map reminding the audience of the temporal setting. At various points throughout the play flags drop down over the map – the tricolour when de Gaulle is speaking to French refugees in England in 1940, and the flag of Nazi Germany after Pétain signs the armistice in the same year.
The play is staged largely as a series of reminiscences as Marshal Pétain sits in his prison cell awaiting trial at the end of the war. Both in conversation with the prison chaplain and sitting alone in his cell, Pétain’s mind wanders to his relationship with Charles de Gaulle, whom he appears to have considered a surrogate son. In a series of flashbacks, we see this relationship develop from their first meeting to their final encounter after Pétain has been sentenced for treason. There are fleeting scenes when de Gaulle speaks to the audience in the form of an inner monologue yet the majority of the play focuses on Pétain either in conversation with himself or in scenes depicting his memories.
The overall merit of the play is in educating the audience in a subject with which they are likely to be unfamiliar. In fact, I overheard a conversation near to me in which someone stated that they had not known that France had been divided into a northern and a southern zone, and that the Vichy zone was ‘free’ from German control. If the play encourages the audience to go away and learn more about the subject then that can only be a good thing.
Some of the scenes in the play are very effective. We are shown Pétain’s struggles with the army high command during the Great War as he strove to end the murderous bloodshed at Verdun. A year later, the Marshal speaks to mutineers in the French army – and then orders the ringleaders to be shot (in a rare moment of cold brutality from the character). Later in the play, we see de Gaulle speaking to the French from London in 1940, urging his compatriots to resist. These scenes were particularly well recreated and the latter was quite affecting.
As for the characters, De Gaulle is portrayed as an arrogant and bookish know-it-all, believing absolutely, even before 1914, of his importance to the destiny of France. In one scene, we see him coming to terms with the birth of his daughter Anne (who had Down’s syndrome) while at the same time experiencing frustration with his apparently stalled military career. He attributes both to some sort of punishment from God for which he has been specially selected. By the end of the play, de Gaulle has come to speak about himself in the third person. He is thoroughly convinced that he embodies France itself.
We see glimpses, too, of de Gaulle’s personality – or lack thereof. He is awkward in social situations; painfully so upon the first meeting with his future wife Yvonne. Yet even with his peers his lack of sense of humour leads him to take everything with deadly seriousness, leading him to ask on several occasions, ‘is that a joke?’ By the end of the play he has developed a sense of humour, but a bad one, and I found myself cringing in my seat at his attempts to be funny.
The general feeling we have for Pétain is sympathy. To some extent, this sympathy stems from the narrative device used throughout the play. We are seeing Pétain’s own memories and hearing his point of view. He speaks to himself and the audience in a conversation in which he justifies his own actions. From my point of view, Pétain came across as a kindly old man, carried along by events out of his control (such as when he is called upon to save France in 1916, having planned to retire). In contrast with de Gaulle, he is the one with a personality and a sympathetic one at that. When de Gaulle is in the throes of anguish over his daughter and his career, it is Pétain who urges him to think first of Yvonne.
We see all too little of Pétain at Vichy, trying to reshape France and the French in the image of the National Revolution. If anything, the audience is encouraged to take Pétain’s side in his dealings with the slimy presence of Laval (de Gaulle in fact refers to him as a ‘slug’, a point of view with which Pétain agrees). In one of the later scenes in the play, we see Laval and Pétain discussing the former’s decision to make his infamous statement in support of a German victory in Europe (in the play this discussion seems to take place in July 1942 when in reality Laval made the statement in June). Pétain is palpably more reluctant than Laval to move closer to Germany. While this is not necessarily untrue, the audience gets the impression that Laval is the evil presence at Vichy, sympathetic with Nazi ideology, while Pétain is more or less forced to react to events.
To the play’s credit, there is a scene in which Pétain is notified of the infamous Vél d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942 and informed of the terrible conditions in which Jewish families are being held. He is seen to approve of the round up, arguing that he is not discriminating solely against Jews but against other groups too. Yet this is a fleeting moment in the production and does not undermine greatly the overall sympathetic light in which Pétain is cast. The play thus falls into the trap of propagating the ‘two Vichies’ interpretation – the evil Vichy of Laval and the benevolent Vichy of the Marshal – a view of the history of the Dark Years that historians moved away from long ago.
I was left with mixed feelings after watching the performance. On the one hand, if plays such as The Patriotic Traitor bring this period of French history to a wider audience while (hopefully) encouraging further research, then so much the better. However, I was not satisfied with the portrayal of Pétain. The ‘Patriotic Traitor’ of the title of course refers to the Marshal – but given the sympathetic light in which he is cast, I did think that the character of de Gaulle himself could fit this moniker, too – having betrayed the father-like Pétain for his own vision of France.