Living ‘Dangereuses’: Playwright Christopher Hampton on Reviving ‘Les Liaisons’

The delightfully nasty tale of the callously privileged resonates now more than ever

Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton.
Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton.

Christopher Hampton has the singular distinction of being the only person who ever lost a Best Play Tony and, then, won a Best Screenplay Oscar—for the same property.

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This property was his particular masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (or, as it’s still known among the movie masses, Dangerous Liaisons), and there’s a kind of poetic justice embedded in his feat. If you consider how many self-effacing literary bases he covers (adaptor, translator, opera librettist), it’s comforting to know that a writer’s original creation can occasionally, no matter how circuitously, finish first.

When he adapts other people’s classics (Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House or Chekhov’s The Seagull), the name of Christopher Hampton barely emerges from the shadows of the masters. As a translator, he happily basks in the reflected glory of Yasmina Reza’s best-play wins for Art and God of Carnage. “Technically, they’re her Tonys,” The Invisible Man shrugs with sincere indifference. “That’s all just syntax.”

Then, there are times he writes his own nearly Tony stuff (The Philanthropist, which has had two Broadway spins, and Liaisons, which begins its third October 30).

Technically, Hampton had help on Les Liaisons Dangereuses via Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ naughty and highly epistolary 1782 novel. It came to him as a series of kiss-and-tell-tell-tell letters between two flickering former flames—the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, gleefully spilling their sexual exploits to each other until true love upsets their apple cart. He took all that and translated it into a reasonable facsimile of a cynical, sensual, quite serious three-ring circus (c. 1782).

Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman headed the original RSC launch in December of 1985 and reprised their roles over here two years later—to Tony-nominated effect. In 2008 Roundabout ran through some Liaisons with Laura Linney and Ben Daniels. What’s being installed at the Booth this month is the Donmar Warehouse’s 30th anniversary Liaisons, helmed by artistic director Josie Rourke and headlining Janet McTeer. The Broadway Valmont is Liev Schreiber, replacing London’s Dominic West.

“I was very, very happy with the Donmar production, and I’m glad that’s the one that is being remounted for Broadway,” Hampton says. “It’s a lucid account of the play.”

With female forces like Rourke and McTeer (a Tony winner for A Doll’s House) at the wheel, might their version play a bit like a feminist pamphlet? Hampton thinks not.

“The interesting thing about this play is that it tends to reflect whatever era it shows up in. In the ‘80s when I wrote it, everyone assumed it was about the Me Generation and Thatcherism and Reaganism. Now, it seems more like it’s about the 1 percent.

“Besides,” he adds like an afterthought, “paradoxically or unexpectedly, de Laclos was a real feminist. Apart from this novel, everything he wrote was a treatise on the fact that women were not being properly educated in France in the 18th century.”

Hampton first encountered Les Liaisons Dangereuses at an impressionable age (16) as a student at Oxford studying French and German. “My tutor did a clever thing,” he remembers. “He said, ‘You must pick a period of literature you’d like to specialize in, for exam purposes. People are often not well informed enough to make that choice,’ so he gave us a representative text from each century, starting with the 14th. He said, ‘Read these books. They’ll give you an idea of how to choose.’ His choice for an 18th century novel was Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

All the above is not to say Hampton is entirely Tonyless. He has two, for talents not yet itemized—and he only got those by turning down Broadway’s longest runner.

“Andrew,” he says, meaning Lord Lloyd-Webber, “was kind enough to invite me to write Phantom of the Opera, but I told him it really wasn’t in my area of interest. As a desperate alternative, I counter-proposed Sunset Boulevard, and he liked the idea.”

Hampton assumed this meant that he would be writing the lyrics as well (which was really what he was angling for), so he was sorely crushed to learn that Don Black would be doing those. “I said to Andrew, ‘Well, then, I don’t know if I really want to do this,’ but he suggested I at least have lunch with Don, which I did. We hit it off immediately. It was Don who proposed that we work on the lyrics together, and that’s just what we did. We did it in the room together, so it was pretty 50/50. There are certain songs where I can see Don’s hand is predominate—the power ballads like ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’—he knows really well how to do those kinds of songs—and there are other songs, like Sunset Boulevard, that are mostly mine.”

A revival of Sunset Boulevard with Tony-winning Glenn Close is on its way from London to Broadway, he promises. “I don’t know if it has been 100 percent confirmed, but it’s supposed to be in New York in the early part of this year. We had kind of a five-week revival at the English National Opera between seasons—a kind of semi-staged version—and it was a big, and very pleasant, surprise for us. Glenn came back for us and turned out to be—to the astonishment of us all—even better than she was 20 years ago. She nailed it. I’ve seldom been in a theater where people got so excited.”

The notion of musicalizing Sunset Boulevard had occurred to Hampton before he mentioned it to Andrew Lloyd Webber. “I’d already started seeing people about it. Funnily enough, I went in to see the English National Opera to suggest they do it as an opera, but Paramount wouldn’t give them the rights for that. I wrote Billy Wilder about the matter, and he wrote back, ‘You understand I have no say at all in this.’ ”

Happily, Paramount had no qualms about turning Sunset Boulevard into a stage musical. A decade after they achieved this, its three Tony-winning creators went into a second collaboration. This time Black and Hampton split credit for lyrics and book on a Lloyd Webber musical based on London’s big political scandal of 1963. This was titled Stephen Ward, after the forgotten man and martyr of the Profumo affair—the society osteopath who introduced politician John Profumo to showgirl Christine Keeler—but the show folded in a fast four months at London’s Aldwych.

It hasn’t stayed folded, however. “We’ve been revising it, workshopping it, putting in a fair about of work on it all summer,” declares Hampton. “Last month we presented it again to backers, so we’ll see. Oh! And there is a title change in the pipeline.”

Resurrecting Stephen Ward rekindled Hampton’s severely underdeveloped desire to do musicals—so much so that he and Black now have another one on the grill. This time the music will be by George Fenton, a composer who scored movies like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Gandhi and Groundhog Day. Their first team-effort will be based on Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film about postwar Vienna’s black market, The Third Man. “We hope to have it ready to open in the fall of 2018,” Hampton brightly adds. To the obvious question—“Are you going to use a zither?”—he says, “Once.”

Tinkering—“the Tennessee Williams malady”—is an occupational hazard for all playwrights. Even one as prodigiously prolific as Hampton is not impervious to it.

In his view, “My plays fall into two categories: There are those that I’m constantly tinkering with and those that I leave well enough alone. Liaisons was one of those plays that came out very well the first time. I just can’t do anything else to it at all.”

Janet McTeer and and Liev Scheiber in Les Liaison Dangereuses.
Janet McTeer and and Liev Scheiber in Les Liaison Dangereuses.

As a creative prospector perpetually on the prowl, Hampton has hit more than his fair share of “dusters”—20 unproduced screenplays, for stoppers—but this doesn’t keep him from constantly rising to the bait. “At the top of this year,” he recalls, “I wrote more or less on spec a screenplay about asylum seekers in Britain. It seemed to be an urgent topic, and I came across this unpublished novel by a young writer I know. I said, ‘Well, can I pick your brain and use this material?’—he had worked a lot in a charity that looked after asylum seekers—so I did sort of a free screenplay version of his novel, and now we’re in the process of trying to raise the money.”

He took up directing his own screenplays out of stark-raving necessity. “Mike Newell had directed a film which he felt was doomed to terrible failure, called Four Weddings and a Funeral. He lost his nerve and did a runner, and I had to take over.”

The result, which nabbed a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film, was Carrington, about the platonic relationship between artist Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey. Emma Thompson, who was Carrington to Jonathan Pryce’s Strachey, also starred in Hampton’s third and most recent flick, Imagining Argentina, with Antonio Banderas. In between was The Secret Agent, the Joseph Conrad novel he adapted and directed for Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette and Gerard Depardieu.

This last film began his association with composer Philip Glass, for whom he has now written three opera librettos. “The latest is Appomattox,” Hampton says, “and it has a slightly complicated history. It began life as an opera about the Civil War, and then I expanded it into a play where the first half was about the Civil War and the second half took place precisely 100 years later and was about the Civil Rights Movement. Philip came to see the play at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and liked it so much we did a whole new opera. It opened at the Kennedy Center last November.”

Hampton’s most fruitful French-into-English collaboration of late has been with Florian Zeller, whom he just helped to a Best Play Tony nomination for The Father. Frank Langella won every acting award that wasn’t nailed down in the title role, an imperious patriarch befogged by Alzheimer’s. “Before the end of the year, Florian and I will sit down and do a film treatment of The Father. We have a producer.”

Would Langella reprise the role on screen as he did with Frost/Nixon? “That’s entirely Florian’s department because he wants to direct it as well. Yeah, I think Frank’d be great. We met when he did Liaisons at the Ahmanson, and I’ve known him off and on ever since. It was very exciting to work with him on The Father.”

Hoping that’ll happen again, Hampton left Langella a script of his Embers. It brought Jeremy Irons back to the London stage after 17 years but has never been seen in this country. “I thought he might be interested in it. It’s a monster part to learn, with a 20-minutes speech in it—that’s what frightens the actors away. It’s a bit daunting.”

The Father comes with a flip side: The Mother—and Hampton did that translation as well. “It’s a slightly earlier play, so I think it’s not as accomplished, but he uses the same technique. The subject is a woman having a nervous breakdown because her son has left home and her husband may be having an affair or not. She’s lonely and taking drugs, and again the audience doesn’t quite know exactly what’s going on.

“There are no plans for that particular play to come over, but there is a third play of Florian’s called The Truth. that I suspect will. It’s very unexpected because it’s straight comedy. It’s a very funny play about adultery—a quintessential French subject—and just finished a successful run in the West End, so we’re in talks now.”

The Truth comes with a companion piece: The Lie. “I haven’t translated that yet, but I will. It’s also funny. In the meantime, there’s Before It Flies Away, another play of his opening soon that I did. It’s more in the genre of The Father and The Mother.”

In his “spare time,” the 70-year-old Hampton plans to address a trio of TV projects circling over (or in) his head. “The point is what I most enjoy is doing something I haven’t done before,” he offers by way of explaining his raging workaholic drive.

“The funny thing is that it’s increased rather than decreased. When I look back on my 20s now, I was rather sort of idle. I’d work on one thing at a time and then take lots of trips abroad and holidays. Now, I seem to be working on several things at once and working all the time, which is fine, actually. I’m perfectly happy with that.” 

Living ‘Dangereuses’: Playwright Christopher Hampton on Reviving ‘Les Liaisons’