Louis-Ferdinand Céline broke new literary ground with Journey to the End of the Night, his exuberantly nasty bill of particulars against existence masquerading as a picaresque adventure. He was, less happily, the author of equally exuberant and equally nasty anti-Semitic diatribes in the years before World War II, and a Vichy collaborator during the war. The latter activities left an enduring stain on his reputation, an asterisk sure to pop up whenever his remarkable early novels are mentioned. The Flying Machine tackles the ticklish Céline question head-on in its new one-man adaptation of Journey, interspersing scenes from the novel with glimpses of the elderly author reminiscing over the trouble he has caused himself and others.
Jason Lindner’s adaptation offers various explanations for the anti-Semitic pamphlets. Above all, the play suggests, they represent Céline’s most extreme attempt to secede from humanity. The larger problem for the play, though, is that the tangled question of Céline’s motives resists dramatization almost completely. As the novelist, actor Richard Crawford veers into comic-opera territory as he chortles to the audience over his sins. The tedium of the Céline plot is all the more regrettable given the verve with which Crawford performs the excerpts from the book. With little more than a hat and Anjeanette Stokes’s subtle lighting, he summons up
Journey’s antihero Bardamu, the mysterious Robinson, and the faithless Madelon, among others, in locations from Flanders to Cameroon. While the play may thus provide a lively introduction for those unfamiliar with Céline’s work, it hardly begins to sound this writer’s depths.