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Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary: from book to play

November 27, 2011 22 comments

La promesse de l’aube by Romain Gary. 1960. English title: Promise at Dawn.

Not a regular reader of this blog ignores that I worship Romain Gary the way an American teenager kisses Robert Pattison’s feet. Not very mature from me, I know, but when it comes to him I’m fifteen again. (Feels good sometimes too, I dare say) So, when I discovered – by chance, thanks to my attentive husband – that Promise at Dawn had been made into a play, I had to see it. Lucky me, my professional schedule allowed the trip to Paris and I could watch the play.

Romain Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was a diplomat in Los Angeles and the opening scene is on the Big Sur beach. It is the story of his mother, Nina Borisovskaia and of his childhood. May we call it “auto-fiction”? For me, it is not a memoir or an autobiography. Some of the anecdotes aren’t true; some elements are purposely missing; Gary used his past to create a novel, a tribute to his mother.

And what a mother!! She was a Jewish Russian actress and she did everything she could for her son. She dreamt of one country for his son: France. She wanted him to be an artist; she imagined him ambassador of France, the new Victor Hugo, a hero. She made her way from Vilnius to Varsovie to Nice for him. Her ambition and her trust in him were unlimited and did not include respecting propriety if propriety got in the way of what she wanted for him. Any job was respectable if it brought the money she needed for him. In a way, her eccentric view of his future – I’m a mother too and I don’t expect my son to be the next Tolstoy or President one day – saved his life. The family that stayed behind in Vilnius died in concentration camps.

She was a divorced mother and she loved him in an excessive way, bringing hot chocolate in school, riding miles in a taxi to say good-bye when he was in the army. She infused courage in him, faith in his capacities. She was a loving tyrant, expecting a lot from him, from heroic behaviour to being a womaniser. Her love was also really demonstrative and he was sometimes ashamed of her, and feeling guilty to be ashamed of such a gift.

How can you ever repay such a love? By following the program she designed? How can a woman ever measure up with such a mother, every man’s first love? People who knew Gary say she stayed with him all his life, that he was imagining what she would say before making a decision.

In addition to the mother-son relationship, Promise at Dawn also drops thoughts about being Jewish in pre-WWII France, about the war itself, the RAF, the comradeship, about being poor, all this with a serious sense of humour.

Bruno Abraham-Kremer and Corinne Juresco adapted the novel for the theatre in a marvellous way. Gary loved theatre and it’s great to see one of his novel made into a play. The whole text is made of Gary’s sentences from Promise at Dawn. Abraham-Kremer has a common past with Romain Gary. He’s Jewish; his family comes from Vilnius too and he says they both had the same kind of education. Gary’s choice for literature reflects his own choice for theatre. Romain Gary is a special writer to him; he helped him; they have an invisible connection. He was the one playing Gary and Nina on stage; changing his voice let us hear mother and son. She rolls her “Rs” like a Russian speaking French, swears in Polish, Russian and probably Yiddish. She wants her son to become a “Mensch”, something Gary thought incredibly hard to achieve. The play brings her to life. Abraham-Kremer wears clothes that look like the ones Gary wears on photos and in a way, he manages to look like him. I’ve heard Gary’s voice in radio programs and sometimes I forgot the actor and heard the real man talking.

An exquisite moment, a great adaptation, I’m so happy I could make it.  Thanks, M. Abraham-Kremer.

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