Home > 1960, 20th Century, French Literature, Gary, Romain, Highly Recommended, Made into a play, Novel, Theatre > Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

  1. March 29, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Glad you shared a picture from that play. I couldn’t imagine what approach the director would take given that the book packs so many angle possibilities with scenes from Gary’s childhood, university years, war, etc… I wonder if the play managed to capture some of those intelligent reflections that Gary would let slip amidst the humor and the storytelling. I’m particularly referring to a man”s chase of the complete masterpiece which is never attainable. He compares it to the additional ball the juggler struggles to add to his act. Gary makes reference to this lost chase of the perfect work of art, which presents itself to him either at war, in his early novels, his adult years, etc…
    Le livre de ma mère is a book I wasn’t too keen on reading; I was skeptical about autobiographical works of mother-son relationships before you recommended I read Gary’s (I believe I bought this with you!, btw). Probably next year for Cohen’s.


    • March 29, 2020 at 2:55 pm

      Freiss could have used pictures of Nice at the time, pictures of Gary on a screen behind him but I think his choice was better: the audience wasn’t distracted by images and listened to the text.
      There aren’t any thoughts on the human condition and other reflections that make the salt of Gary’s writing. In 1h10, Freiss focused on scenes between Gary and his mother, his retelling of his childhood and youth, until WWII.

      Watching this play can’t compare to reading the book but it can whet once’s appetite. Although I suspect that a lot of people in the public had already read the book.

      Le livre de ma mère is a short book and I found it moving too. I’m a bit skeptical about this kind of books, to be honest. (I disliked La gloire de mon père) Cohen and Gary are funny and don’t hide their shortcomings and their mother’s tyranical and overflowing love.


  2. March 29, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Sounds an interesting production. I had lots of theatre plans coming up but they’ve all been stopped, understandably. I’m glad you had a chance to see this before the theatres closed. Some UK theatres are releasing their filmed content for free – are French theatres doing something similar?


    • March 29, 2020 at 2:59 pm

      Luckily this year, most of the plays in my subscription were before March and the next one is on May 13th. Hopefully we’ll be allowed to go out by then.

      Interesting intitiatives from these UK theatres. I haven’t heard about anything like that here but who knows?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. March 29, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    How great that you got to see it before the shutdown. A friend lent me this book, shocked I hadn’t read it, it’s still on the shelf, mainly because of it’s length being in French, but thank you for reawakening the desire to read it.


    • March 29, 2020 at 3:01 pm

      I can see why a French would lend you this, it’s part of our literary inheritance. Now maybe the right time to start reading it slowly?

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 29, 2020 at 3:30 pm

        Yes perhaps, though I’m avoiding reading anything that provokes the word ‘should’ in my thinking. I’m going with the books that promise me a bit of excitement, or are part of a reading thread, so I’m currently recently Colette’s The Shackle, which is mentioned in Vivian Gornick’s Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader: Unfinished Business, I know Colette always perks me up!


        • March 29, 2020 at 9:49 pm

          To paraphrase Daniel Pennac: Le verbe lire ne supporte pas l’impératif. I totally understand your reaction to the “you should read this”.

          That said, I should read Colette. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. March 29, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    I’m glad you got to see this before the lockdown came in. It sound like an interesting production of an excellent memoir. I loved the portrayal of the relationship between the author and his mother in the book, so it must have been fascinating to see how the creative team interpreted it on the stage.


    • March 29, 2020 at 9:56 pm

      This book is so poignant and deep. Gary always mixes his stories with thoughts about life and humanity.

      He has a wicked sense of humour and always manages to look at things with a odd angle, not the obivious one. Like when he says: we’re going to get together and change the world. But if we get together, we won’t have to change the world, it’ll already be totally different.


  5. March 30, 2020 at 6:19 am

    What a treat to see this – especially given the worldwide cancellation of all theater! Holy cow. Well, it will be back.

    I can see how a memoir allows more flexibility than a novel. We all know the story can be told in different ways. Not that anyone will improve on Gary’s version.


    • March 31, 2020 at 9:37 pm

      I hope our theatres will not suffer too much from this terrible crisis.

      I was really lucky to be able to see this play before everything went down. Freiss did well, he has a great voice and Gary’s words resonated with all of us. It was a great success.


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